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Art People: Paula Kamen finds sex is hard work



Paula Kamen turned in the final manuscript for her book Her Way last November, but signs of the project still dominate her small apartment. Research alone on the forthcoming book, which documents young women's attitudes about sex, took two years, and Kamen's mantel is stacked with cardboard boxes full of notebooks and tapes from interviews with over 200 women. The living room walls are lined with file cabinets, and two brimming floor-to-ceiling shelves hold the books referenced in the text.

"At first I thought it would be fun to write about sex all day," says Kamen. "I thought I'd just be lounging on the chaise longue drinking margaritas and reading Anais Nin. But it wasn't like that. I spent a whole summer writing about morality and a whole fall writing about economic and education trends. I researched and wrote a lot on religion. All these facts influence women's sex lives to such an extent that there's very little about sex in the book."

Kamen's first book, Feminist Fatale, was also a meticulously researched overview of a knotty subject: young women's attitudes toward feminism. But in that case Kamen finished the research and the writing in only five and a half months. "It took me five years to complete the same process I completed in six months for the first book. Now I'm realizing that five years is a normal time for a project like this. When I was writing Her Way, I had to take time out and earn money and just be more balanced."

To support herself Kamen ran a tape-transcription business and lectured on feminism at colleges. But as she began her research, the drug she was taking for migraines--the headaches had started after the publication of her first book in 1991--suddenly stopped working. After taking a year off, she began writing in 1996 without having found a successful treatment. At the same time she started working on a play, a comedy. The result, Seven Dates With Seven Writers, focuses on a young woman who is looking for love, literary fulfillment, and an independent identity.

"As I was writing about all these sex issues, other things came out in fiction," Kamen says. "When I couldn't really work on the book, when I had headaches, when I wasn't feeling well, I could work on the play. It was such comic relief. Ironically, I think the 40-page play in a lot of ways expresses more of my opinions about sex and gender issues than the 475-page book does, with all its statistics."

Kamen, who's 31, began writing humor in high school but later moved on to serious topics. Her script about the underground abortion service Jane was almost produced in 1993; Kamen had production on the play stopped when she and the director had an argument over authorship, a dispute covered in the Reader.

This time she's having a more positive experience. When Kamen decided to produce Seven Dates With Seven Writers herself, she received encouragement from writer Adam Langer, who's currently producing one of his own plays, The Critics. The two are renting a venue together and offering half-price tickets if you see both shows. And through the Women's Theatre Alliance, Kamen met director Janel Winter, who's now producing Girl Gone, a "feminist stripper drama," at Stage Left.

"Janel liked that I said I was interested in 'un-PC feminist comedy,'" Kamen says. "So often when people use the word un-PC it means antifeminist. To me, un-PC is the best of what feminism is. Feminism in its most powerful and provocative state is about questioning things, thinking independently and critically. People's sex lives can't be explained by Catherine MacKinnon. Seven Dates With Seven Writers doesn't prescribe one rigid theory of feminist sexuality; it describes the contradictions inherent in feminist heterosexuality."

Kamen intends to avoid serious nonfiction in favor of humor, at least for now. "The next book I want to write will be a black comedy about my misadventures in finding a treatment, called 'How To Cure an American Headache,'" she says.

"When I got into feminism, a lot of people were shocked, as if it and comedy were mutually exclusive. The best comedy is social criticism, exposing a lot of pretension and pain, and feminism does that too. They can go together."

Seven Dates With Seven Writers previews at 10 this Friday and opens at 8 on Saturday at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago; it runs at 10 Fridays and at 8 Saturdays and Sundays through September 13. Tickets are $10, $7 for the preview, but they're half price during the regular run for writers who bring a real rejection notice. Call 312-409-5156 for reservations. --Zoe Zolbrod

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by J.B. Spector.

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