The Ins and Outs of Writing Your Sex Worker Story
SPECIAL FEATURE: David Henry Sterry is the co-editor for the brand new anthology Johns, Mark, Tricks and Chickenhawks. Learn more about the anthology and read other original HOOK Exclusive content here.
I was a manchild prostitute/rent boy/ho/industrial sex technician when I was 17 years old. I only did it for a school year, nine months, one human gestation period. I was so ashamed and embarrassed I never told a soul. From that point forward, my whole life was a lie. I was afraid if I admitted my sordid, soiled, filthy past, that people would hate me. So I kept my mouth shut, and the demons in my basement fed on me every day, getting bigger and nastier and more grotesque, as I engaged in more and more high risk behavior. Marathon drug and sex binges. Constant attraction to people who were completely incapable of giving me love.
It wasn’t until I went bankrupt, got dumped by yet another cold withholding lover who I didn’t even really like, and had my head cracked open by a disenfranchised crackhead that I hit the bottom of the bottom. My hypnotherapist (I was living in Venice Beach California at the time, where you pretty much have to have a hypnotherapist) suggested that since I was already making my living writing screenplays, that I should write my story.
So I did.
This eventually became my first memoir, Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent. It was very difficult and yet completely enjoyable to write. I found myself weeping and writing simultaneously many times. The first draft was so bad my agent thought she was going to have to cancel the contract. I ended up writing 40 draft of that book. Luckily, I had a great editor who worked with me over and over and over again. I can’t recommend this enough.
When my book came out, my family was so angry they didn’t speak to me for five years. It was amazing how little I missed talking to any of those people. But eventually my family came around, and while they don’t discuss my black sheep past, they do call me on my birthday and invite me to stuff. My memoir has now been translated into 10 languages. It’s being made into a Hollywood movie. It led to a new career for me, as a book writer.
I’ve now written 15 books in 10 years. So, I would advise anyone who has been, or currently is, in the sex business, to write their story. Whether you choose to share it, seek publication, or just write it for yourself, telling your story will improve your life. If you do want to get it published, here are some tips.
- Shape your story into a plot. Beginning, middle, and end. Climax. (Or, perhaps many climaxes.) Dénouement.
- Make a list of all the significant moments in your life, starting from your first memory and ending up to the present moment. It’s quite a good exercise to see what patterns emerge. But it will also really help you to make an outline for your book. This will really help, because you will be able to look at your book as a series of short stories. It’s hard to write a whole book. But it’s not so hard to write one scene with one guy in one hotel. Or whatever.
- When you’re not actually writing, fantasize about what the next scene you’re going to write. What does it look like? What does it smell like? What’s going on in your head, heart, body? What do you desperately want in the scene and what’s stopping you from getting it? What do the other people in the scene want and what’s stopping them from getting it?
- Experiment with starting scenes in the beginning, when there’s something exciting happening. As the story unfolds you can explain, slowly and surely, the back story we need to know.
- Show, Don’t Tell. This is a mistake that almost all writers make. I’ll give you an example. This is telling: “My father was an angry repressed man whose violent outbursts often put his family in danger.” This is showing: “When I was 15, my father and I were in the garage. I made some wise-ass remark, just to push his buttons and get his goat. He got so angry the rage vein in his forehead popped out and he grabbed a motorcycle helmet. He threw it as hard as he could at my head. The motorcycle helmet rushed toward me and I was sure that is how I would die, my brains exploding all over the sheet rock in our garage, killed by my father. I ducked at the last second and it slammed into the wall, leaving a motorcycle helmet shaped indentation. Every time I walked into that garage and I saw that dent, I thought about how my father tried to kill me.” See the difference?
- Show us the world you were living in. But also show us your internal world, what was going on inside of you.
- Have empathy and sympathy for the people in your story. Including yourself.
- Read memoirs. Tricks and Treats by Matt Bernstein Sycamore, How I Learned to Snap by Kirk Read, City of Night by John Rechy (technically a novel but based on his life as a hustler), The Happy Hooker by Xavier Hollander, Electroboy by Andy Berman, I Was a Teenage Dominatrix by Shawna Kenney, Strip City by Lily Brahma, The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll, Permanent Midnight by Jerry Stahl, Angeles Ashes by Frank McCourt, A Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff.
- Consider carefully whether you want this to be a novel (a work of fiction in which you can change any and all details) or memoir (which is a work of nonfiction were you can’t make up anything ((See James Frey’s “memoir” A Thousand Little Lies Pieces))). It’s probably harder to sell a novel than a memoir, but with a novel you can always say “I made it up”. But if you write a nonfiction memoir, you can’t make shit up. You can change names and physical characteristics. But you can’t make shit up.
- Don’t worry about getting sued. Just write the story you want to write. However, before you put it out into the world, have it legally vetted by a lawyer who specializes in this. If you work with a publisher, they will have a lawyer go over your work. But if you don’t, I have the name of a lawyer who’s great at this kind of stuff.
- People take things very seriously when they are written down. Spoken words are like the wind. They are here and then they are gone. Written words are there forever. You will get grief from people. You will get joy. Be prepared.
- Be honest. Don’t censor. Then go back and rewrite.
- If you decide to self publish, hire a GREAT cover artist. Luckily our own Hawk Kinkaid is just such a person.
- Hire a professional editor. Someone who is actually in the book business. It’s great to have friends, colleagues and admirers read your manuscript. It’s very valuable and important. But it’s different than having a professional editor work with you.
- Connect with other sex workers. They are great networkers. They have to be. They will help you by reading your manuscript, talking to you about what you’re doing, and spreading the word when your book comes out.
Writing my sex worker story changed my life. It helped me understand what I had done, why I had done it, who I was, and perhaps most importantly, who I wanted to be. When my book came out I found out who my real friends and who my fake friends were. For every person who hated on me, there were dozens who gave me love.