NOTE: This is Part Three of a series of blog posts about gender and writing. It started as an examination of male writers and female characters, but it has opened up from there to enfold linked concerns, such as writing outside one’s “unmarked state” or inherent demographic to begin with. As such, much of what has been said up ’til now can apply to other situations. To get caught up, read Part One here and Part Two here.
I don’t imagine this issue of gender and writing, and beyond that writing about any kind of “other” will go away for me, now that I’m wrapping up my writing about it. I don’t think it should go away for any writer, at least on a subconscious level. Like I said before, we as writers should be concerned with creating vivid, multi-dimensional characters that function as individuals while exhibiting characteristics that identify them as people, for better or worse. That concern doesn’t go away if you’re a man writing women, or a woman writing men, or an able-bodied person writing a disabled/handicapped person, etc. Those situations of difference do call more attention to themselves, mostly because we call attention to situations of difference in the first place. We create labels and names specifically so we can identify these situations of difference.
Labels and names by themselves aren’t bad things. They’re words. They’re symbols, arbitrary groupings of syllables that we attach to things so we can classify them in our heads and make thinking about them/writing about them easier. We create terms like masculine and feminine so we can use them to describe things that remind us of those terms. The problem arises when we use those words as terms of judgment without realizing the judgment we’re passing forward. And, to be honest, the way we define and create these terms plays a huge role in the problems that arise with gender and writing.
So, it’s time for another story from the Workshop Diaries (any takers on that book yet?). This time, the story at the center is mine.
This story goes way back, to my sophomore year of college. I was 20 at the time, and enrolled in my college’s intermediate level fiction writing workshop. At the time, I was starting to explore what I wanted to do with my writing more. The year before, I wrote that gigantic psych horror freakout I wrote about in this earlier post. I had only just learned that I didn’t have to imitate Stephen King to tell the kinds of stories I wanted to read more often. Big moment for me, basically.
My workshop instructor – I’ll call her Mrs. Burgess – outlawed “genre writing” from the onset of the class. She wanted us to learn how to write literary fiction, and in her view of that term it excluded science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, historical fiction, etc. Our class textbook was the edition of Best American Short Stories edited by Lorrie Moore. A fine book, filled with great stories (my favorite of the bunch was “Tooth and Claw” by T.C. Boyle), but nonetheless a staunch indicator of what she wanted from us: mainstream realistic fiction with an intimate, often domestic focus on its characters.
I was perplexed; I didn’t know what to write. I was (and still am) fully capable of reading and enjoying realistic fiction, but when it came to my imagination I had trouble conceiving stories without breaking into nonrealistic forms. When I asked Mrs. Burgess what I should do, she gave me that old workshop chestnut: “Write what you know.” So, I wrote a story based on a real incident from my life, from the summer before my sophomore year in fact.
In the story, the narrator is a 19-year old male helping his father build a house for his ailing grandfather. The narrator is taking part in this project primarily because he knows that his grandfather’s health is fading, and this might be his best chance to make sure he lives the rest of his days in comfort. A storm breaks in the middle of a July day, complete with heavy rain. The roof is not finished yet, and in one of the exposed trusses a bluebird has built her nest. The rain and wind wash the nest out of the truss and it lands on the concrete below, destroying the nest. Mother bluebirds do not return to their nests if they’re destroyed; they assume the chicks are dead.
In this case, the baby bluebirds survive the fall. The narrator and his father find them wriggling in the middle of the front porch, pale and featherless. They can’t even open their eyes. The narrator is overwhelmed with fear and pity for the birds, working out every possible way to save the birds, but the father says they can’t save the birds. Even if they brought them home and put them in a box or cage, they likely wouldn’t be capable of taking care of them around the clock, since they’re building a house. Furthermore, there aren’t any local shelters that take wild baby birds, and they aren’t endangered enough to warrant the attention of conservation agents.
The only choice remaining for the narrator and his father is a horrible one: mercy kill the baby bluebirds so they don’t die from starvation and chill. The narrator refuses to do it, but he knows his father is right, that if they don’t do this, their likely death at the hands of nature will be far worse and more painful. The father opts for the act of snapping their necks so death is instantaneous. The narrator, however, is overwhelmed and can’t make his hands mimic his father’s. He knows this is the only choice for them, but he still can’t get over how horrible a choice it is. There’s also the juxtaposition of killing a baby bird on the front step of the house he’s building for his ailing grandfather, which creates a massive amount of emotional dissonance. Because he can’t make his hands take the necessary action, he drops his baby bird in a deep puddle so the water will kill it, rather than him. Right after this, the narrator breaks down and runs inside. He and his father have a nice little chat about death and suffering, and the narrator absolves himself of his sin by building a birdhouse. The End.
It was a really hard moment for me, so I thought it would make a good story. I wrote it and added the bit about the birdhouse on the end in an attempt to find closure for the story (I didn’t actually build the birdhouse in real life, but I did finish building Grandpa’s house that summer).
The workshop savaged it. To be honest, as a work of fiction, the story needed savaging. It wasn’t a bad story, but it was not up to a level of quality I should have been writing at the time. It was an eight-page story, but it took three pages to get to where it should have started: the discovery of the baby birds. I described things in a really pretty way, but I didn’t devote much time to any of the characters aside from the narrator – Robin, I called him (yes, I thought I was being clever) – who the reader got to know as he told his story. As one smart-ass in class put it (and said multiple times, to make sure everyone heard him), “I wrote on my critique: ‘Too much about the damn house, and not enough about the people in it’.” I agreed with him, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to punch him in the face.
That’s not really what people focused on, though. The most vocal people in class centered their criticism around Robin’s manliness and realism as a character. One of the primary criticisms was that the narrator was simply unbelievable as both a male character and a real person, period. (That’s actually what someone said, out loud: “I simply do not believe in this character as a person. I don’t believe he can be real.”) They didn’t believe a college-age boy would be so willing to work on a house for his grandfather, or that a college-age boy would object to killing a baby animal in such a violently emotional manner. Too soft, too weepy. Too feminine, they said. They even mocked the character for having a gender-ambiguous name (which was something I didn’t even think about at the time of writing the story). So, the character was an utter failure as a male character and as a person who could exist in real life.
I’m not a big fan of the “It really happened!” workshop defense; it tends to stop sometimes useful dialogue in its tracks and it causes writers to think that just because something happens a certain way in real life, it should happen that way in real life too. That said, I had to try really hard to suppress my fury when I told them that the narrator was, in fact, me, and yes, I do actually exist in real life.
When I started writing about gender and writing, I thought of this story again, seven years after the fact. Robin was dismissed as a masculine character. Why? He worried about his grandfather’s health and wept upon killing some baby birds, to the point that he was nearly inconsolable. So showing concern for family members and being moved to tears upon mercy killing a baby animal are supposed to be feminine traits, then? Does this mean only women and female characters are allowed to be sensitive and caring? It didn’t make sense to me at the time, and it still doesn’t now.
This ties back to the argument from the previous post, the one with Stacy: we shouldn’t judge male or female characters based on our ideals of what men and women should be. We should, at most, compare and contrast them to what they are in the real world, possibly with the purpose of thinking about what they could be.
I want to go a step further, though: why and how do we create these ideals in the first place? Moreover, what if they’re false, faulty ideals? If being masculine or macho means being an uncaring, insensitive stone of a man, then I don’t want to be macho. I live around a lot of guys that think being masculine means driving pimped-out pickup trucks, wearing sleeveless shirts, spitting tobacco everywhere, tipping waitresses horribly, and treating their girlfriends like trash while bumming money off them. I don’t want to live in a world with men like this; I can hardly do it already.
So I write characters, male and female alike, in order to present my own ideals of masculinity and femininity, and even then only when I want to. I don’t see things like being caring or empathetic toward other living beings as feminine traits. I see them as desirable human traits, period. My perception of my masculinity is primarily determined by my body and my imagination of it. I’m comfortable with my anatomy as a man. I wear clothes that reinforce my perception of myself as a man. I’m currently growing a beard, a big, bushy one. My driver’s license says “male.” That’s all.
I know how to change the oil on my car and fix things around the house. I drive a Camaro. I watch football. I am skilled with firearms, primarily because I have a father who likes hunting and trained me from a young age to be proficient with the weapons around the house so I wouldn’t accidentally hurt myself. When I’m finally lucky enough to have a wife and kids, I plan on working my hardest, possibly even making hard sacrifices, to provide for them. Do any of these things make me masculine or a man? Maybe. But that depends on your ideal for masculinity. I don’t choose these characteristics because I’m worried about being macho or masculine. I choose them because I want to, for their intrinsic value to me as a person.
I do the same for my characters. I’m not worried about making my male characters masculine, or my female characters feminine, partly because my definitions for those terms are flexible and partly because I think it’s impossible to come up with absolute definitions for those terms anyway. I’m worried about depicting them as the people they are or choose to be. My characters have their own values anyway; that’s what makes them people. Readers don’t have to have the same values as the characters they read. That’s their right; they’re their own people too. As a writer, however, I want readers to understand that the criteria they choose for judging characters can, and often does, say more about them than what they read. The next question then, after realizing what their ideals are in the first place, is why.