A phone conversation with my Irish mother-in-law is like reciting the Nicene Creed during Mass, only with not as much feeling. No matter what I’ve been up to since last we spoke – bringing about world peace, finding a cure for HIV, successfully hiding several bodies under the floor boards – the only question she really wants me to answer is how my cooking’s coming along.
I don’t cook, as you may remember, but that’s not the point. I’m the wifey. And it’s not just mothers-in-law who come armed with paring knives and Vaseline to fill those round holes in life. As a writer, you will be gendered and genre-ed. Which actually seems contra-indicated since the most important thing about a writer is her voice.
Follow me briefly down another of my Appalachian side roads. A boreen, as my mother-in-law might call it. A few weeks ago, I’d been meant to write here about the audience collaborating with the performance of my play, Cats in a Pipe. Unfortunately, I developed a new super power and made the entire audience disappear while the actors performed. There was a Q&A afterwards though, for which I was fully present. And THE question was raised.
Why would a woman write . . . Yes, considering the odds against us, that’s a good question but in this case, why would a woman write only male military characters? One young female actor got the question so firmly in her feminist teeth that the director intervened. My son mentioned afterwards that though his current work is about war, no one has ever asked him why, nor has anyone blinked when he writes something with a female protagonist.
We’re used to men speaking for all of us and still aren’t sure we want women to have a voice. I read recently that J.K. Rowling was advised to use her initials with her first Harry Potter books. It boggles that within the last fifteen years, a major literary talent had to disguise her gender in order for her work to be published. She wasn’t a major literary talent, then, though, was she? Nope. She was a woman. If she wasn’t writing chick lit, then she should be at home with her children. And cooking. Definitely cooking.
If you take your craft seriously, whether you’re a woman, a person of colour or a member of the hegemony, being gendered and genre-ed stops you from stretching your skills. It’s a fact of life, however, that the world at large wants to categorise you. Recently, a prolific male author complimented my narrative skill but said, although I wrote convincing male protagonists, I should write women’s fiction. Oh, and my dialogue is too American. (Yes, American readers, ‘American’ isn’t a nationality but a negative adjective.)
There’s a contradictory message when someone tells me not to step outside my gender but to get rid of my native linguistic rhythms. I’m meant to be me but not be me. In other words, get into the damned round hole. So how do we cope?
Well, you could rail at the unfairness of it and hope to change the system. Or you can stick to your guns, be an activist by acting. In other words, write what you want to write and use your own voice to do it. That’s not an easy thing to do. There is an art to not cooking. In my case, that art is supported by people who care about me; I highly recommend having people around you who want you to be the way that you are. But it takes more than outside support to counteract the twice-daily tide against using your unique voice.
So, know yourself. If you don’t like the exercises I’ve suggested in other posts, look for other ways to know yourself. Think about who you are, where on the map you’ve come from, what your life experiences are, what makes you curious, what angers you, what sexual fantasies you’ll never enact in the flesh. Peer inside dark places where you keep the things you never want to write about. Listen to people whose religious or political views make you see red, then create an empathetic character who also holds those views. Take a different route for your big nosed dog’s walk and stop several times to look at the world around you without comment; just let the world be itself and perceive it. And for every ‘don’t write’ or ‘why’ that comes your way, duck.
Most of all, write. In your voice. With your linguistic rhythms. About whatever the hell you want to write about. Write.