The Romantics

I was at a party at a writer’s conference a few years ago talking to an author who wrote erotic romance, which is romance fiction with a lot of sex. Romance readers have specific itches that want

scratching: they all want a love story, but some want one with a lot of sex, some want a little sex, and some want no sex at all; some want vampires, some want dukes and duchesses. The successful romance writer understands their specific itch and how best to scratch it. This particular author had definitely learned how to satisfy her readers.

“I can write them fast enough,” she said. “It’s like crack for these people.”

She was the first author of any kind I’d heard describe her work this way. I was curious if she had a formula, which many genre writers I knew did. I mentioned I’d talked to another romance writer who’d told me, to my surprise, that the man is always the most important character in the romance. He had to be a believable object of desire for the reader.

“Sort of,” she said. “That’s part of it. The main thing, though, is how the man feels about the woman. He has to want her. Like, really want her. Like . . .” She glanced around and lowered her voice. “Basically, he can’t get it up for anyone but her.”

“Really? That’s the dream?”

She nodded and smiled. “That’s it. That’s always it.”

I drifted away from her, thinking about women and men and desire. I felt just a little contemptuous of these women who dreamed of men wanting them in this way. It seemed pathetic, but then I remembered my various fantasies of women and success and wealth and how they were always meant to satisfy what felt unmet in my own life. I glanced around at the crowded room, filled with writers and agents and editors. The unpublished writers were hoping to get the agents’ and editors’ attention, and the agents and editors were doing their level best not to make eye contact with anyone they didn’t recognize.

It was like a weird meat market, and I wanted out of there. I finished my wine and headed up to my hotel room. I loved being at writer’s conferences, loved teaching and talking to other writers, but I hated when that old craving got stirred up in me. It doesn’t matter if it’s sex or success, the craving is always for something outside of me, something I don’t just have. I used to think it was romantic–the yearning, the desire, Gatsby standing on his dock reaching for the green light. As a young man I saw myself as a romantic, someone who believed in more than the dry, dull, grinding struggle to survive. That yearning kept me interested, reminded me that life was about something you could not touch but knew just the same.

I was married now, and happily so. I’d had some success as well, and yet the craving would still come over me just the same. I’d grown to distrust it. Where once it kept me interested, now it felt like an addiction. I flipped on the TV but couldn’t find anything to watch. I thought of the class I’d taught that day. I don’t usually teach my students how to write; I just remind them that they can write. It’s easy to forget.

I thought of how much I loved the students, all of whom that afternoon had been women. I loved their writer’s vulnerability, their questions about themselves and their work and their voice and their value that they’d brought to the conference and the class. I loved them for what they feared they didn’t have. It was so beautiful, like someone holding a bright candle and asking, “Is this really burning? Can you see it too?” I got to be the one to say, “Yes, I can see it clear as I see you.”

I turned off the TV and climbed out of bed to switch off the bathroom light. Easier to see that light it in others than in yourself, I knew. When I saw it in others, I felt it in myself, and there was no doubting it at that moment. The value of love, of life, of just being here on the planet was as real as what you could touch. But to know love standing still, alone, in the dark, with no reason for it other than itself, that ended off all the craving and the beginning of all creation.

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