interior banner image

Navigating Porn Shoots and Therapy: A Week in the Life of Writer Amy Gall

Navigating Porn Shoots and Therapy: A Week in the Life of Writer Amy Gall

Author: William Johnson

April 5, 2016

“My therapist reminds me, ‘If it can’t be fixed, death can heal it.’ Meaning, endings are not inherently or only traumatic. Some things are just a letting go, or a putting down of a burden that isn’t working…”

The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBT writer, or LGBT person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.

This month’s “Banal and Profane” column comes to us from writer Amy Gall.

Amy Gall is a fiction writer, cultural reporter and interviewer. Her work has appeared in Vice, Guernica, PANK, and Joyland, among others. She can be followed @thegreatgall.

Sunday

Today, I get to watch beautiful people fuck, all day long. It is ten thousand Christmases.

I’m writing an article about the only Mormon-themed porn sites in the world and it has taken me to a giant mansion outside of Portland, Oregon with wall to wall white carpet. Even though everyone on set knows that I’m a writer, they made me the unofficial sound person, so I can be at the shoots and be as unobtrusive as possible. I sit in a chair and wear headphones and I’m supposed to tell the director if I hear any sounds that might ruin the scenes. I am monumentally terrible at my job. I am too caught up in the bodies in front of me, their sounds, their balletic movements. Everything is red and open.

At some point, one of the directors says, “Is there a phone ringing? I can hear a phone ringing.” Everyone checks their pockets, the sound and photo guys run upstairs to quiet other people and ask them to find the phone and then, of course, it is my phone.

There is a giant cock in front of me. It is thick and shiny, like a baguette with a serious egg wash. I’ve been watching way too much of The Great British Baking Show.

I have no idea what my face is doing while I watch the shoots. I’m concentrating on being respectful, but during a break, Mark, one of the performers says to me, “It’s great having you on set because I’ll just be fucking and in my own world and then I’ll look over and there you are, this smiling little elf in the corner.”

I wish I could write more about this here, but I have to save it for later, so to speak.

At night everyone hangs out and waits for the lasagna to come out of the oven. Mark tells me the moon is almost full and if I go down to the golf course behind the house I can get a great vantage point. The grass is soaked from days of rain, but I squash down the hill. I miss this in NYC, just walking out into dirt and mud and cold, clean air. And quiet. I reach the concrete path and follow it. I find a moss covered tree and, like a big lesbian, I put my hands on it, and thank it and thank the land for holding me and I dig my hands into the moss until I get down to the hard, bark body and push against that and jump up and down and listen to the squish of mud and remind myself that I am twenty-nine and I am also five and hey five-year-old look what we get to do together.

After dinner, I play Boggle with Brooke and Hunter, two of the directors. Despite the incredible stress and long shooting hours, this is the only time Brooke and Hunter lose their cool. We are all lovers of language and our egos are on the line. I feel a physical sense of failure when Brooke wins seven points and I only get three.

I advocate hard for the word: “Mutey.”

“That has never been a word,” Brooke says.

“Go fuck yourself,” I say.

When I score a heroic 18 points in a round, Brooke says, “I want to throw you down a flight of stairs and then pick you up and throw you back down again.”

“Oh, you want to do that like, 18 times?” I say.

She demands a rematch. I stay until midnight.

Monday

I start the day with eight million intentions as per usual. I will work on my story, pitch some places for the porn article, borrow Sophie’s car and go on a three-hour hike, go on a Tinder date, go back to the porn house and party and hopefully have sex with no less than three people. The reality: I write some emails, go down the street to eat something called a bacon explosion, read the first few chapters of Dia Felix’s excellent novel Nochita, cancel everything else and spend the rest of the day in bed sleeping and watching 30 Rock and a show where a Mid-Western vet castrates bulls and horses.

And here’s the thing: this should be okay. It is okay. I’m working on this being okay. I need rest. If I don’t rest, if I don’t essentially re-womb myself, I can’t do all the other things that require energy and bravery and calm. I want to get to a point where I am just as proud of myself for sleeping as I am for flying across the country to spend three days watching strangers have sex and pitching magazines I’ve never pitched before, who I don’t have a relationship with, with no guarantee I will get published or make back the money I just spent. All while having a full time job that I also work my balls off for. Balls. See how I just brought that full circle?

Tuesday

Before I get on my return flight, I have a goodbye breakfast with my friend, Sophie. She’s been a bartender and restaurant manager for years and seems to know every person who’s ever made food in Portland. I ask her where we should get breakfast and she texted saying, “Spanish inspired small plates? Scandinavian and precious? Or Portland’s hippest breakfast joint?”

I feel calm and mothered when I’m with her. I’ve noticed more people who make me feel like that coming into my life. And I cherish them much more. I used to either be either embarrassed when people tried to take care of me, or ravenously needy, like I needed to instantly consume the care for fear that it would go away. I’m mellowing.

Sophie and I talk about our childhoods and while we eat, one of the waiters brought out some fried dough balls, with lemon curd and strawberry compote compliments of the house, which happens every time I go anywhere to eat with Sophie. Sophie smiles and touches everyone’s arms. I feel full of surrender.

I spend the rest of the day up in the air. Twelve hours. I write my speech for the PEN New Books/New Members party. I still feel like a fraud sometimes writing these things, more like a political supporter of the writing party sometimes than a writer myself. Even though everything is writing. Even though I write at least once a week and sometimes every day. There is so much self-judgement, about what is and isn’t writing, speeches aren’t writing, interviews aren’t writing, articles and listicles for magazines that aren’t publishing work about political upheaval or don’t have writers who are best selling authors or Pulitzer prize winners in it them isn’t writing, writing published in magazines that don’t have x amount of followers or has been around since the turn of the century isn’t writing, anything that isn’t published isn’t writing. I just immediately discount about 75% of everything I’ve produced. And we all do it. And I want to actively push against that. Because it doesn’t motivate me, at all. Self-flagellation doesn’t serve me or anyone else.

I think of Daniel Jose Older’s article, “Writing Begins With Forgiveness,” about granting ourselves the permission to not write every day,  in moments like this. I love articles that call for kindness and gentle expectations. Creation is a presence, no matter where that presence ultimately ends up. When I do get myself to the page I feel fuller, I feel part of something larger than myself, I feel heard and seen even if I’m just seen by myself.  And why is that any less valuable than being seen and heard? So, this right here, counts.

There is a baby next to me who keeps handing me an almond. I move my mouth towards the nut and make a chomping noise that is supposed to signify deliciousness. The baby smiles very slowly and but when she sees the nut is still there, she grunts and thrusts her fist at me like, “Okay, fun game, but you’re not fooling anyone. Eat the nut.”

Wednesday

I am back in NYC and it is raining. There is nothing quite so invasive as New York rain. Or New York anything. I look around for my umbrella. I can’t find it. I text my roommates: have you seen my umbrella? Then I remember that I left my umbrella at work before I went on my trip because I didn’t want to take my umbrella with me to the gym. Then I remember that I lost my wallet at the airport so I have no cash or credit cards to buy a replacement umbrella. Okay. I run to the subway.

After work, I go to the PEN New Members/ New Voices event.  I have a fantastic conversation with an author who is working on a memoir about her family that places them in the greater context of Chinese-American history. She’s been deep in research and finding it hard to not get upset by historical texts, even though not all the atrocities committed against Chinese-Americans happened to her family.

I tell her I feel similarly when I’m working on my novel, which draws from some of my family’s experience as well. My sister is adopted from South Korea and I’ve been researching the history of transnational adoption there, which dates back to the 1950s when white soldiers left behind the children they had with Korean women during the Korean War and American Christian organizations created child-placement agencies to bring these “mixed” babies to white, American homes. Much of what happened in Korea in the 1950s created a blueprint for how transnational adoption throughout the world functions today. The deeper I go into the economic, political and personal implications of this, the more complicated it gets, but at heart I am still thinking about my sister, and her experiences and our family history, and pain. I wonder too, what my responsibility as a writer is–what is the scope of this novel? How large of a lens do I place on this and for what purpose? And who do I speak to and what do I read to avoid oversimplifying it?

I get up on stage at powerHouse. I say my speech. People clap. I feel happy and tired. I talk more. I photo booth. I smile. I go home.

Thursday

I’m writing emails, all day. I’m deciding, right now, that work emails also count. There is an art to the work email, a specific voice, a character that must be slipped into, there is a narrative arc, there is, on occasion, some drama.  Each one is its own story. But the story always ends the same way: Please.

Friday

Today,  my coworker and I lead an all day workshop about our after school reading program for one of our partner organizations. We are showing the staff how the reading program works so that the people who put in all the work to make sure the program is funded, know what they’re putting their time and energy into.

We spread ten books out on the table and one of our instructors leads everyone in an exercise called “Judging a Book By Its Cover.” Basically, you pick up a book, and based on just looking at its cover, you decide whether you would read it and then you talk about why. The idea is, people get to explore honestly what their snap judgments are, and where their biases lie. What makes them say yes or no. Often, it’s personal and mundane, I don’t like that font, I’m afraid of bees and that book has a bee on the cover–but we also, of course, end up getting around to some larger issues, too. This book looks like it was for girls and when I was 13 I wouldn’t have wanted to seem like I liked things that were for girls. I would have read this book because it has a black boy on the cover and I really wanted and didn’t have narratives that were about growing up as a black boy.  And then we open the books and read the first page or two and see how the actual text of the book, rather than the marketed cover might change our minds.

This is usually the first exercise our instructors do with the kids when it’s time for them to choose their own books. It’s a great opportunity for our instructors, who are published authors, to talk about everything that goes into choosing a book’s cover at a publishing house, how authors generally don’t have final say or any say and it’s mostly up to the marketing department.

It’s also just great to talk to people who aren’t “in the literary community” about books and see how much reading matters to everyone in this very deep way. One of the women in the group emigrated from Eastern Europe during the height of communism and she said that as a child, reading was one of the few things that belonged to her, that she didn’t have to share with her family or her community.

After work, I get dinner with my friend Elea. We eat Thai food and talk about girls and my trip to Portland and make each other laugh by doing impressions of straight women.

Saturday

I go to Soulcycle.  Yes, I love Soulcycle. My teacher is a lesbian. She hasn’t said this, but if I’m wrong, me and my gaydar have some serious reckoning to do. She plays Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One” and at different points she turns down the volume and gets everyone to scream the lyrics back at her and then she tells us we are all “athletes.” Everyone who goes to Soulcycle seems so straight to me and but they know every word and sing heartily as we climb our hill. Afterwards the teacher and I have a prolonged high-five and I say, “That Melissa Etheridge song,” and we smiled at each other like, “We are the chosen people.”

I work on some pitches, ask a friend for a connections to magazines for an interview I want to do with my friend Katy Pyle, who is the creator of Ballez, the only lesbian and gender nonconforming ballet company in the country.

At night, I hang out with Katy and her partner, Sam at their house. They show me the paint job they’ve done in the kitchen and give me these ice cubes for my scotch that are tiny and remind me, for some reason, of kisses. We talk about what New York used to be like when they first moved here in the late 90s/ early 2000s. Sam says, “I remember dykes who still lived in their own giant lofts in the East Village.” Katy used to have a trampoline in her first apartment. I feel grateful for my apartment. It is big and still fairly cheap because I share it with two other people. I feel grateful for Katy and Sam. They make me feel like there is time.  I admire them, too, because they have both made big financial sacrifices to be artists and creators. No retirement, crappy insurance, no long term stability. And still they go on and build this nest of compassion and permissiveness around them. Makes me feel like I could do it. They also have lovely haircuts. And plants.

Sunday

I read “You Will Be Tokenized” an article on the state of diversity in publishing for Brooklyn Magazine. Such a depth and breadth of voices saying, “We do the work, we’ve been doing the work, and the solutions are obvious. Representation. Money. We have the stories, we are going to tell them.” Reading it is permissive and maddening.

I go to a coffee shop to get some writing done. I’m looking at my sister’s adoption papers. There is so much and so little here. The adoption papers were written in broken English that is business-like and voiceless, which only serves to highlight all the unknowns, the missing pieces. Whatever patterns of speech, personal idiosyncrasies the speaker originally had, if in fact this was not just a narrative created by the adoption agency, has been wiped clean. The only information about my sister’s birth parents that remains is that they were introduced to each other by the birth mother’s friend and “kept company with each other,” until “difference in character prompted them into separation at last.”

One phrase stands out to me, though. Under her reason for adoption, the papers say my sister’s birth mother was “worrying about baby’s future in agony.” “Agony.” It is the only word that conveys a powerful emotion. It seems almost as out of place as it does appropriate. Isn’t the socially acceptable response to giving up a child “agony”? Does it mean that she actually felt agony? What if she didn’t feel that way? What if she said she felt that way because she wanted to be appropriate? What if she didn’t say this, or anything at all and someone at the agency decided that agony was what she should feel? Does she still feel agony? Does she love my sister? Is she alive?

I order Alissa Oh’s To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption. This seems like a promising text.

I have therapy. Most of the session is about death and how frightening loss and the loss of control is. My therapist reminds me, “If it can’t be fixed, death can heal it.” Meaning, endings are not inherently or only traumatic. Some things are just a letting go, or a putting down of a burden that isn’t working. Death can be a tool and it can be something I acknowledge and honor. I’d like to get right with death. I make a death collage. I go to sleep.

William Johnson photo

About: William Johnson

William Johnson is the Deputy Director of Lambda Literary.

Subscribe to our newsletter