The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, June 02, 2008

Is it really different for girls?

By Tamara Lee

Forgive me while I bounce around a bit in an attempt to connect some dots from the past week’s musings.

Early in the week, I met up with some writer friends, mostly women, but there were a couple fellas. We all range in age and experience. The discussion eventually turned to writers’ bravado and I noted how it seems to me fellas, regardless of their talent, are a lot more courageous about putting their work out there than women. Women seem to be the ones taking the writing classes, joining groups, buying yet another how-to book, and otherwise looking for validation or acceptance as writers in one form or another, while the fellas just head up onto the stage at open mic readings, send out their work on a regular basis and otherwise risk the sucker-punches more willingly.

Before you get miffed by this gross generalization, you should know that each woman at that table, regardless of her age and successes as a writer, understood what I meant. We’d all experienced the hesitancy, the extreme self-doubt, the yet-another-writer’s-class-just-to-be-sure approach to our craft. Of course, many men go through this and I do not believe this is specifically a gender issue.

But could Joe Jackson be a little bit right: is it somehow different for girls? Hasn’t this sort of doubt revealed its tiresome bulk in some way since the beginning of literate time? Women’s roles and societal expectations, and all that bushwhack; it’s the classic Whitman versus Dickinson argument. One swaggered and sang his body electric; the other experimented with eroticism and punctuation in solitude (as Kamilla Denman writes, "Dickinson's transition from a dominant use of the exclamation mark to a preference for the dash accompanied her shift from ejaculatory poems...").

But there’s another interesting thread I’ve noticed in the argument-that-never-ceases: this certain women writers’ fearfulness, or need to feel justified pursuing a certain creative path, seems especially true within the literary arts. I haven’t put my theory to the test but from what I’ve witnessed amongst my creative friends and acquaintances—painters, actors, filmmakers, photographers—creative-validation is most overbearing among the female writers. Perhaps the other creatives suffer in silence, while women at least have their monthly groups to turn to for support.

One of the gals at the table that night, a talented young slam poet, noted that she finds she has to be somehow tougher in order to be out there with her contemporaries, who are mostly guys. I've heard this sort of thing before, women who feel a kind of pressure to write more 'male'. I know female vocalists who have the same angst. Do women painters feel a similar pressure? Do female dancers feel pressure to dance more 'male' (or, vice-versa)?

I have a number of male writer friends who, before they were thirty, had at least one book out. Most of my female writer friends found their successes much later in life, after having children, going through several career shifts, taking another writing degree. The fellas were doing; the gals were planning.

Obviously, this week's musings resulted in very few satisfying answers. So I now turn it over to you. To what degree is all this purely anecdotal? What’s been your experience?


Blogger Darby said...

There's probably some truth in there somewhere. I never thought to hesitate about sending stuff out there, although reading something onstage may be a completely different thing than just submitting work somewhere. I never thought to hesitate to send stuff when I was starting out because I weighed the entire pursuit against everything else I'd accomplished in life, ie. military veteran, degree in engineering, getting married, other things that actually matter and that already provided me with personal vindication, and so writing fiction just became the more selfish pursuit, the thing I was just doing for fun. If writing fiction is the only important thing you think you're doing with your life, then timidity is more likely because there's more at stake. Do women have more at stake than men? Emotionally, perhaps. If a woman is reading poetry onstage and another woman in the crowd shouts, I hate you, how would she react? This is probably like a nightmare scenario. I think a guy might be more likely to just say, well fuck you buddy and keep reading, unphased.

Mon Jun 02, 05:10:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Anne C. said...

This issue comes up a lot when the big magazines have to explain why a majority of their contributors are male: that's who submits!

Mon Jun 02, 06:54:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I think you are bang on. However, if we take a look at who's reading and who's best-selling, women should take heart and fire off those submissions. Your readers feel as you do and they want your writing so they can have those feelings articulated. Thanks Tamara for this!

Mon Jun 02, 01:44:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Darby, you raise some more good points on the subject. "If writing fiction is the only important thing you think you're doing with your life, then timidity is more likely because there's more at stake" is well-said, and very true for many, men or women.

And we could all benefit from a little voice inside saying 'Fuck you' to the hecklers-in-waiting.

Mon Jun 02, 02:13:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

I agree, Anne. A friend of mine recently noted how her ex, someone whose writing is good enough but not any more accomplished than her own, for example, has been everywhere lately. But she went into marketing and got out of 'the game', as it were. He sends his work out. Law of averages, methinks.

Mon Jun 02, 02:19:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Andrew, do you believe it's really a case of, were more women sending out their manuscripts, more would be published?

There are some who believe the market is so used to 'the male voice', pubhouses swing that way, (in spite the number of women editors).

Sometimes, though, I feel like I've been having this conversation for 20 years.

Mon Jun 02, 02:26:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I remember that conversation, Tamara! A good, thoughtful one. Darby's comments are interesting, too. If I had started writing when I was younger, I wonder if I would have been more or less timid about sending my work out. Like Darby, I had a lifetime on which to derive my sense of self-worth and writing served as "just" another way to challenge myself -- a nothing ventured, nothing gained sort of thing.

Thu Jun 05, 02:34:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Tricia, you know, I think you and Darby are right about that difference between wanting and needing.

Now I'm going to have to pool friends in other art streams and see what their take is on this.

Sat Jun 07, 11:46:00 am GMT-4  

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