Behind the Words: Alan Shaw

Posted by on Oct 31, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Sex for the Recently Divorced- Shaw, Alan

Alan Shaw was published in the first issue of Spry Literary Journal. His creative nonfiction essay, Sex for the Recently Divorced, is the post with the most incoming search traffic here at Spry Literary Journal. Can you guess why? We love the story, and are grateful he took time to talk with us.

Justin Townsend: Tell me first about the origination of this piece. What made you write about this heavy, common theme in our modern society? Where did the muse come from? Was it a personal story, or a friend’s, or just something you wanted to write about?

Alan Shaw: Well, the piece comes from being recently divorced. I wrote it the summer following my divorce, fresh off a year of grad studies, and wondering what could happen between me and the woman I’d recently met. So that’s the context.

The impetus was the heaving scrum of anxieties and all the questions it provoked in me and concerning that divorce and what it meant for this new woman. That opening list of questions was the direct embodiment of all the questions come to life. If there was a muse, it was feverish and monstrous thing.

And as for how I could write it or why, I don’t see any reason not to. I’ve read stuff by other writers in which they talk about risk in writing, and that kind of line always seemed fishy to me. I don’t think there’s any real risk in writing, and what I wrote in that article was proof. What did I risk for having wrote it? Nothing at all. Shame for being divorced, scorn for talking about my sex life, horror from others for my having talked about my anatomy? Well, the last would be justified, but the rest, and the questions I’ve gotten about this and other pieces of similar content, heavy stuff, I can’t see any way not to write about it, and the risk in it is what the writer chooses to put there. Really, if a writer doesn’t tackle heavy stuff in a forthright and vulnerable way (and I say this in full recognition that I hide behind humor all the time) then they’re not really telling the whole truth. The truth isn’t pretty; it’s wrinkled and ugly, like something I talked about in my essay.

Secondly, It’s lewd in some regard, brave in others, and raw, but also whimsical and darn fun to read. How did you carry this balance, or plan it out, despite being a heavy subject? Did you have trouble creating this? Were you hesitant at all, or careful with its construction and verbiage?

I wrote the essay, excepting some revisions for public readings, in one sitting and in about half an hour. This is how I usually write, one hard thrust of the mind shot on to the page…Eww.

But seriously, Heavy stuff needs, at times, light and low humor, so the balance takes care of itself, assuming the writer has a sense for comedy. I don’t know if I do, but I know when I’m forcing something, most of the time. My style, if I can ever pin it down or show my face in public for saying I have one, is writing that intends to be read for a crowd. I write like I’m playing to the back of the room. High art and low humor. I write essays like I would have told them as stories, which isn’t to say they’re just transcribed bar stories, but that the word choice, structure, the long thrumming feel of each line’s construction, all that is written with the vocal performance in mind, if only hiding at the back of my mind.

The best stories are told off the cuff, and this one had a similar origination. I had the feel of the first line, most of the words, and once I had that I started writing. If the writing felt soft while I was typing the words, if it felt like I wasn’t saying the idea hard enough, I knew I was hiding something, hiding from something, and so I’d write the next line, tested it for punch, and cut or reshaped it if needed. 

When you read this to an audience, what is the general reaction? What do you cut and reshape in the essay?

The reaction goes like this: they’re a quiet, sedate crowd, and then I drop the first dick joke or curse word. Two or three nervous giggles take flight like scared birds. And then I drop the next and a third, and somewhere after the second para, everyone learns that they can laugh, that what I’ve written for them is meant to be laughed at, and the rest of the essay from there is smooth and fun. No one has ever spoken to me after a reading and said they were scandalized by what I’d read.

As for shaping, I did read an essay last year and in the audience were the father of a girl I was seeing then, and my mother. I cut a few of the more vulgar words, but nothing else. I said to my mom that I was sorry for what she’d be hearing about my sex life, and she only returned a stunned look.

You spoke about the first line – ‘Does my dick look weird?’ – and that you had the feel for it. There are plenty of ways to start this essay off, this possibly being the best, when and how did you came up with it? Did this essay start as that line and manifest into the entire essay, or was the essay idea there and you came up with that line to get you started? It sets up the tone perfectly, and, to use your words, gives ‘one hard thrust.

Oh, I had that line from the beginning. I can’t remember if I said this before, but essays always start, for me, with the first line, the feel of it, and the title. If I know those two, then I know the rest of the essay. The rest of the words follow the arrival of the first sentence. The idea that birthed that line was the very real and very neurotic train of thought I felt when I realized I’d be sleeping with the woman the essay is mostly about. I’d say most men ask questions about their anatomy, weird or adequate, when faced with the inevitability of sex, and those who deny it are clearly lying or confident as serial killers. The prospect of exposing your downtown bonanza to someone else, and certainly a person you’re interested in getting to know in a biblical way, should provoke such ponderings, for its only then that all the bravado and cheek of masculine social identity is laid bare, peeled back and revealed. The great priapic ego most men inflict on the world is all a smooth candy shell hiding a very real, very tender, and very often considered gooey nougat center. We’re John Rambo at the bar and a character played by Mike White at the edge of the bed, no slight to either. 

Plus, dropping a line like that on a crowd really knocks them on their back foot, and you need to do that early, I feel, in a reading. You have, maybe, ten seconds in a reading to get the attention of the room, maybe, and if you waste them with pretty fluff, or worse bland noise, thinking that your piece builds to a some big and beautiful crescendo five minutes later, that’s an audience you lost. I say the first line, or the first para in the aggregate, needs to be a solid, sharp jab to the temple, in the manner of word choice, or what the reader has isn’t fit for a public reading; it’s something that needed to stay on the page and appreciated in silence. It’s no worse than my dick jokey stuffy, but simply at home in a different environment.


This is a general question, but something that interests me: What is on your reading list? What interests you and shapes you as a writer?

The stuff on that list scarcely informs my writing. Sure, there’s a book or two that would show someone peering over my shoulder, maybe, where I get my ideas and inspiration, but on the whole it’s all easy genre pap that I read to turn off my brain with. What is on my list is all the stuff of other media types that annoys me. Nothing makes me want to write more or write better than a story that makes me angry, either because it was so good or because it was so lazy. I read something, hear something, or see something and it’s so damn good I wish I had written it, that’s the stuff that sends me to the computer to hammer out some lines. The roommate has been watching the HBO series Deadwood recently, and I can’t watch it with him anymore because it keeps upsetting me for how good the writing, the dialog, and the characters are.

And then the same roomie rented the latest Wolverine comic book movie and it was so badly constructed, so lazily thought up, just so damn predictable I have to hammer out some more lines just to show the movie who’s boss. It’s petty, but we all have our pecadillos.

So, since you kind of have alluded to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing, I’m curious, what do you consider good writing? Do you consider your own writing ‘good’ or a work in progress? What could you improve upon, versus what do you do really well?

Good writing is writing that intends to be appreciated. I once heard an interview with this TV cartoon creator, and he talked about his father, a fine artist, and the work his father made as compared to the work that he made. He said his art was craft art, art that needs to be seen and appreciated to be successful. I really liked that. Art, the silly stuff we write or paint or dance, it should be made to be appreciated by everyone. We should make are to make people feel something, learn a lesson, or simply disappear into, but we should always make it with the intent of being appreciated, experiences, seen.

Craft art, which I think is good art, and is certainly what I think mine is, is an opposition to high art. It’s a rebuke. It’s an unwillingness to make something only for other artists. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to push back the expectations, boundaries, or rules of your medium, but an insistence that you do that while also telling a good yarn that your reader will appreciate. This rule applies best to genre art and less serious stuff, which is how I can only think of what I do, and I think that by following it, writers can elevate what they do while still serving the audience’s needs. I think we should shoot for the middle, to be enjoyed by as many people as possible, but work our damndest to surprise and delight experienced readers, smart readers, or other artists. I think you can do both and I think you have to do both. I think there is such a thing as an unexpectedly smart dick joke, and that we writers should always strive to find it.”

Lastly, Spry has informed me of the amount of visitors their site gets looking for advice on how to find people to have sex with after divorce. It’s a lot. Can you help Spry with answering this much sought after tip?

Are you saying that you’re getting link traffic off of the title from the essay I wrote? Have I become some unintended/unwitting sex advice writer? Oh, that’s so damn funny.

You know, it’s something I never got to, but there’s a lot of shame, stigma, and catharsis associated with this issue. It’s like herpes. If you meet enough people, canoodle enough people, you’re going to get something like them, and divorce is no different. On a long enough timeline all marriages can, and maybe should, end in divorce, and just like the Big H, maybe we need to recognize this as a group. Just hold a meeting of Everyone with the only item on the agenda being that we grow the hell up, stop seeing divorce as something bad, marriage as something sacred or precious, and realize that it’s OK. 

As for the sex part, wow, it’s better after you’re divorced. For serious. 

Consider this, you’re divorced, which means you were previously married, which means you, hopefully, you’ve had some sex. Probably, you know how to have sex, not just have experience with it, but actual practice in it, which you learned from. And so the marriage runs its course, but now you have this skill, a very difficult to develop one. If you paid attention, then you’re good at sex, or in the least better than you were at 18. Who doesn’t want to have sex with you? 

I mean, I’m genuinely ashamed of my sexual encounters from my youth. I may have looked better, been more firm or thin in some places, but wow, I should write letters of apology to all the women who had sex with me. I was bad, timid, and fumbling. I was like the worst bumbling stooge to the worst funny supervillain ever.

Now, an adult and a divorced one, I’m not the best at sex, but I think I know what I’m doing, and I think that I could only be able to say that because I was once married, and I can only realize that about myself now that I’m divorced.

So, who can your readers find to have sex with their divorced asses? No idea, but it should be easier to have confidence in themselves once they are having sex for having realized this about themselves.

Justin Townsend is an English Teacher in Massachusetts, as well as a cross country/track coach and freelance journalist. On the side, he writes fiction for personal gratification in the hopes of eventually making public gratification. An English graduate of Rhode Island College, Justin became managing editor of the school’s newspaper The Anchor. Post-collegiate writing credentials include The Herald News, The Standard-Times, and Patch-Woonsocket.  

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