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Women Writing Men

As I’ve started circulating my novel to agents, I’ve received the question – always from women – “Why is your protagonist a man?”

I then say, “Why do you ask?”

They reply, “I just wondered.”

Obviously there’s a subtext to the question that they’re not sharing. I’ve wondered if they feel a woman can’t write from a man’s point of view, that she isn’t allowed to imagine any perspective not her own. Or if my writing from a man’s point of view is some betrayal of my sex – something like going to the other side. Maybe the women who ask just aren’t interested in reading stories about men. There are certainly plenty out there, written by men about men for men. You know, masculinity as the universal point of view. Feminism 101.

I’ve also wondered why my recent writing has focused on male characters. I admit that some of my writing is cathartic. I’ve reached an age at which I fully understand the strange repression that accompanies femininity. I now see the doors that were closed to me in my younger years, or opened to the wrong corridors for the wrong reasons. If I was invited to the table it wasn’t for my brains but my entertainment value. Youth and its beauty are entertaining. The clarity of this truth is jarring.

So now I explore the masculine side in my writing. I wonder what made those men tick: the employer who diminished me with the compliment, “I think smart women are sexy.” Or the mentor who was a fumbling mass of arms and lips as I sought advice. There was the college chemistry teacher who gave me a B when I deserved a C. I realized later that he hoped to date me. Then there was the Shakespeare professor who gave me a B when I deserved an A – this after I declined his offer for extra-curricular tutoring.

Later there were the colleagues who advised me that my scholarly work wasn’t ready for publication – this simultaneous with it being accepted by an academic press. And then there were all the blundering efforts at communication and the endless mansplaining. I thought if I listened long enough I’d have a chance to be heard. That never happened.

I mistook interest for respect. Then I aged and it were as if I gradually became invisible. From this ledge I have a better view. What I observe is unaware that I’m watching.

I know the woman’s point of view. I now want to make sense of a perspective that sometimes makes no sense to me at all. I want to distinguish what is simply human from that which is masculine. That’s why I write male characters.

Over dinner with a few writers the conversation evolved to a discussion of agents. Two present had met agents through local writers conferences. Both were invited to submit writing samples. Neither heard from the agents. It’s not the first time I’ve heard the story.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned about the matchmaking business that occurs at writers conferences. Organizers know they can draw more registrants if they’re enticed with the opportunity to meet literary agents. Everyone has dreams.

Literary agents are like entertainment agents. The writers conference is akin to an open casting call. Anyone can audition. Aspiring writers queue up for their brief moment in the spotlight. They might join a group pitch — something like auditioning for the chorus. The most promising are pulled aside. That doesn’t mean they’re hired. They’re only winnowing a broad field. Think American Idol.

The agents are invited guests at these conferences. They know it would be ungracious to sit through one, two, three days of pitches without inviting a few writers to send their work. They have to justify their travel. At that open call a few writers will be asked to send a sample of their work.

When an agent says “Send me sixty pages,” he or she is just inviting a performer to come to the next round of auditions. It’s no commitment. Not even an expression of real interest.

This isn’t intended to dash hopes. Literary agents are inundated with queries. The world is full of writers hoping to publish their work.

Agents are looking for the next big star. If they see someone promising, they may send them back to work on revisions. That’s akin to being told, “Get your teeth fixed” or “Get boob implants.” Then we’ll see if Louis B. Mayer is interested.

You can invest in those improvements. Revise. Rewrite. Recast the story from the third- to the first-person. Then you go trotting back with your dazzling new teeth and oversized bosom and hope they won’t say, “Sorry honey. That was last year. The new look is natural.”

Maybe I sound a little snarky because I heard one of those lines a few months back. I’m still waiting for the call.

Perilous Ground

It usually starts like this. “I’d really like to read your work.”

This comes from a casual acquaintance, someone who wants to read what I write. Me in particular. I don’t know why. They know me from the office or the gym. They aren’t people with whom I feel a deep spiritual kinship. They’re casual friends. Acquaintances.

I’ve struggled with those requests. I feel suspicious. Maybe it’s because I know that reading a manuscript is work. Depending on how well it’s written, it can be a lot of work. If I offer to read a manuscript I know what I’m in for. I’ll read it earnestly. I think carefully about my response. I separate my tastes from my critical analysis.

Given the labor of reading, I wonder, What exactly do they hope to get out of reading my work in progress?

I’m cautious in selecting readers. I won’t send my draft novel to a friend who says she doesn’t like reading novels. I wonder, If you don’t like reading novels, why would you want to read mine? Do you regard my work as a form of refrigerator art? An artifact to display with your daughter’s water colors?

I’m wary of those who want to know me better or understand me. You know those types. They’re the smarmy men who seem to peek inside your blouse when you bend over, or the prying women friends who are a little too earnest when they inquire about your tense relationship with an ex-husband. They hope to indulge in literary voyeurism, that they’ll glean from my written words the things I would never tell them.

These readers are akin to the vampire readers in workshops. Those are students who opt for writing over therapy. They act out issues with their mothers, daughters, or sons through the manuscripts they read. They commence their critiques with praise over some insignificant aspect of the work. Wonderful use of imagery. Or, they just love the way your character slices onions. Then they move to the constructive criticism, which is usually directed at the viscera, intended less to help as to disable. It’s criticism intended to knock you flat as a writer. The better the writer, the sharper the knife.

So when someone offers to read my writing, I think about it.

Maybe I’m just in a mood today. Clouds have moved in from the west. Maybe we’ll have a thunderstorm tonight. Consider this as a riff, a thought that rolled through my brain, now over.

Connecting?

A friend recently suggested that I look at Evan Williams’ new enterprise, Medium. He’s the guy who started Blogger, which was absorbed into Google, after which he moved on to create Twitter. I took a quick look at Medium and decided to pass. It requires that participants sign in through a third party, e.g., Twitter. I thought, oh yeah, here’s another way to track everything I do.

It’s a pretty dense site: you can’t begin to figure out how it works without first submitting to connecting. This message appears on the home page:

“We see you have Do Not Track enabled, or are browsing privately. By signing in to Medium, you are agreeing to allow us to override that setting to personalize your experience. For more info, please see our Privacy Policy.

I still don’t get this medium. More than a few friends (real friends) admit that they don’t either. All this data tracking is apparently meaningful to someone. I’m inclined to resist simply because I resent the effort to follow everything I do, however mundane it is. If cookies were guys in cars, I’d be calling the police. There’s something creepy about tracking.

At the heart, what’s it all about? Advertising and selling.

Maybe I’m atypical, but I ignore ads. In magazines, on television, and on the internet. I click them closed when they obstruct my screen. On Facebook, I now close all boxes related to advertising. They aren’t relevant to me. And that’s what this is all about, just as television was and is. It’s all about advertising. A medium for selling products. These free platforms. We shouldn’t mistake that they’re about free speech. They’re not.

When Evan Williams offers to personalize my experience, I understand what he aims to do. He wants to identify the neural pathways that will create that zing of interest, the one that goes straight to the unconscious part of the brain, the part that motivates us to buy without thinking, to acquire without reasoning, to participate without reflection.

Anyone else out there a little bit weary with literary fiction written in the first person? I’ve wondered if I were the only one tired of the “me” voice. My search on the terms “first person overdone” yielded a thoughtful piece by Alexander Steele, President of the Gotham Writers Workshop. Here’s what he said in “Stop Using the First Person!”

 Next time you start writing a work of fiction, stop (or at least pause) before you type out that fateful word “I.” Why? The first person narrator in contemporary fiction is seriously overused.

….While compiling an anthology of short stories, I made a startling discovery—the vast majority of contemporary fiction is being written in the first person, so much so that we seem to be suffering an overpopulation of first person narrators. It got to the point where I cringed every time I began a story and ran into that ubiquitous “I.” (Count me among the guilty as I’m using it even for this article.)

Why are there so many Is out there now? Perhaps it has something to do with the current popularity of the memoir or perhaps it’s just that it seems easier to write a story in the first person. Whatever the cause, the first person point of view has clearly become the default choice for most fiction writers, and though it’s not a bad choice, it’s not the only choice.

Steele suggests that first-person narrative is easier to manage as a writer – a perspective I’ve heard from other writers. He goes on to explore the technical challenges of writing in other voices.

Does the prevalence of the first-person narrator result from several decades of writing training that relies heavily on self-reflective free-writing as a skill-building technique? Do all those writers now lack an ability to enter a topic except through the portal of personal experience? Or does this speak to an editorial preference for the first-person narrator?

A couple months ago I attended the Portland Roadster Show. Yeah. I’m only just now posting this. The show was held at the Expo Center, which on that day was conveniently hosting a Gun and Knife Show. We limited our visit to the cars.

I’ve never understood why people attend these events. The Expo Center specializes in shows devoted to selling. Home shows. Bridal shows. Boat shows. The Roadster show is a variant of these. It features lots of flashy hot rods. But every hot rod is on display through the sponsorship of an auto body, paint, auto upholstery, or specialty auto parts business.

So why, I wonder, do attendees pay to be admitted? Especially when everyone who is there to sell something has also paid to be there? Sounds like a gimic to me.

Auto shows are special, however, because they feature beauty queens. In the lobby two women in high heels and jeans handed out programs. Both also were wearing little crowns on their heads. I didn’t pause to ask why. Inside I discovered a booth at which four Miss America State Pageant Queens were seated. They looked bored. I spoke to two: Miss Montana and Miss Oregon. Miss Montana was snacking on something from a bag.

I asked, “How do you keep your crowns on your heads?”

Miss Oregon, who was quite friendly, bent her head forward to reveal an anchor of hair pins and straps.

I said, “I expect you wouldn’t want to be photographed from above.”

She replied, “You’re right, but given that I’m six feet tall it’s not much of a problem.

I moved on, watching the people and the cars. At one point I came to a booth featuring two cars from the film American Graffiti. One was the yellow coupe and the other was the black BelAir.

I appreciated that two actresses from the film — Candy Clark and Cindy Williams — were there signing autographs, presumably for a fee. They both looked to have aged quite a bit, as one would expect given that the film was made forty years ago. Miss Williams wore a hat whose brim was hiding her face. I wondered if she were embarrassed or hoped that no one would recognize her. Miss Clark was more visible and seemed to be enjoying herself. She was wearing lots of rhinestones. Spangled jewelry. Spangled jacket. Spangled jeans.

I observed a lot of people drinking beer before noon. Kinda weird. Pay nine dollars to be admitted, then pay for beer, pay for autographs, pay for souvenirs. No surcharge for looking. Isn’t it great?

This past weekend I was at the Oregon Coast for a small workshop sponsored by Oregon Writers Colony. I had the pleasure of meeting Laura Stanfill, the publisher of Forest Avenue Press, a Portland-based small press focusing on literary and “quiet” fiction. This was my introduction to the challenges and opportunities facing small presses.

The challenge publishers face isn’t in just selling books, it’s in reaching the readers, and connecting the books to the readers. I came home inspired to identify ways to support small publishers. Yes, buying books is a good start.

More is needed, specifically a far greater awareness that the mega-publishers and distributors that dominate mainstream publishing are also the gatekeepers to what we read. When we limit our reading to books purchased on behemoth on-line websites, we’re working against those like Laura who seek to publish regional writers – this while working on a shoestring budget. I came away with tremendous admiration for Laura’s vigor and vision.

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