Tag Archives: sexism

On women writing well

Suzanne Paola, writing guru, offers some thoughts on how male vs. female writing, and offers some tips for warming up.

Suzanne Antonetta Paola

I conceived of Stolen Moments after several things happened: one, I read several interviews with V.S. Naipaul, who dismissed all of women’s writing—including Jane Austen’s—as “sentimental” and nowhere equal to his own books, and those of other men. Two, I did in fact buy a pocketbook at a consignment store, as does my character, that still had two lipsticks in a zippered compartment that resembled mine so much that I used them. It was, at first, a challenge to myself: could I create a world out of two accidentally found lipsticks? What if even such a subtle change to one’s outward self could change how we fundamentally think of ourselves and therefore, act?

I just returned home from Hong Kong, where I heard several writers—male—argue that fiction should be political to matter, by which they meant, should include as a major plot point the actions of governments or those who act on behalf of governments. This approach of course can result in terrific fiction. But I think women may be more instinctively aware that life is a series of small moments, every one of which burns outward, into the world: whether I hug my child tonight, and help create a child who is secure, or not; whether I take time to be with a distraught student, or not.  Those who repeat small tasks every day, perhaps, learn to look for the soul in them.

The word sentiment in its Latin root simply means to hold feeling. Human feelings underlie everything in this world, including wars.

One thing I love about the women in my world is that, unlike someone like Naipaul, who dismisses women utterly but pursues numerous and noisy feuds with the occasional male writer as well, the women writers I know are remarkably generous people. This is true of Laura Fraser, editorial director and cofounder of Shebooks.  In the spirit of Shebooks and its generosity, I offer a few writing prompts for you out there. Feel free to contact me at susantonetta@gmail.com to continue the dialogue.

Prompt one: Think about a very small change that made an enormous difference in the way you felt about yourself. Imagine a character who makes a similarly small change, and imagine, in the end, the circumstances of her life change drastically as a result.

Prompt two: Actually make a large change in yourself—clothing, appearance—for one day. Take notes on how you behave differently. Think about how much of self is defined through these sorts of daily decisions on how we present ourselves, and write about it.

 

Jennifer Finney Boylan: “I write for an alternate version of myself. A woman just like me, only thinner.” | Q&A

A conversation with best-selling transgender author and GLAAD cochair Jennifer Finney Boylan about her new Shebook I’ll Give You Something to Cry About.

 

What prompted you to write I’ll Give You Something to Cry About?

My sons had both gone on what they call the “Heritage Tour” in Maine, a rite of passage for middle schoolers, who travel around the East Coast seeing things like the Gettysburg Battlefield and the Statue of Liberty. I thought a road trip of a troubled but loving family, bound together by stops at those “sites of American Freedom,” as they’re called, would be interesting. And of course lead to complete bedlam.

Are there any themes that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?

I’m known for writing about gender—men and women, and the choices of transgender people in particular. There’s a trans teenage girl in this family, formerly their son, whose journey I think provides a good measure of where we are, as a country, on acceptance of gender-variant young people.

That said, Alex is not me—she is much more courageous, sarcastic, and adventurous than I was, or would have been, had I been in her shoes when I was 16. Which gives me the opportunity to paraphrase Atticus Finch: “You never really know a man until you walk around in his heels.”

How do you think your transgender identity has influenced your writing?

Well, gender informs all of my writing. When I was a man, I wrote fiction. As a woman, I write mostly nonfiction. I am hopeful that some grad student is already at work analyzing the mind-numbing profundity of that.

Have you ever experienced sexism as a trans woman writer? How so?

I’ve certainly faced lots of struggle as a trans writer. There’s a particular skepticism some critics bring to trans writers’ lives and work; we have to defend and explain our gender a lot of the time. I think this is changing, but it’s been hard. I wonder sometimes if people will ever read my work for the story, rather than for the fact that a trans woman wrote it. But then, if I wanted that, I could try to keep my mouth shut for once. Like that’s going to happen.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

It was a very early dream. As early as fifth grade I remember amazing and disgusting my peers with the story of a car race through my teacher’s body; these were really tiny, almost microscopic cars, of course. The race began in my teacher’s mouth. You can imagine where we came out. Her name was Mrs. Fineli. She was not an early fan of my oeuvre.

Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?

Like a lot of writers, I write for an alternate version of myself. A woman just like me, only thinner.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?

Well, writing about changing genders was almost as scary as doing it. I can say, however, that nothing taught me so much about a woman’s life as writing. It’s through telling our stories that our lives begin to make sense.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Write every day, including Christmas and New Year’s. When you’re just starting, quantity is a lot more important than quality. Then go back and revise. What’s that Hemingway advice—“Fail. Then fail better.”

Have you ever written anything personal that upset people who were close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?

As a memoirist, upsetting people is what Tiggers do best. I don’t like to upset people, of course, but I’m pretty fearless in terms of what I write about—as a trans woman I have to be. I think it was Annie Lamott who said something like, “I’m sorry if you didn’t like what I wrote, but maybe you should have been nicer to me.” I’ll write about anything, if there’s a good story in it. I think writers have to be fearless. The story is what matters.

How did you dream up the setting for this story? Is it based on a real place? A composite of real places?

These are all real places—the Liberty Bell Pavilion; the Gettysburg Battlefield; Ford’s Theatre. If you live on the East Coast and have middle-school-age children or teenagers, you’ve probably been there. And wished you were elsewhere.

Do you worry about not having the authority to write about situations that you don’t know firsthand?

If you know your characters, you have to follow them where they take you. And if they take you to a place you don’t know, you do the research—you go there and take notes. When you get home, you throw the notes away and just make the whole thing up.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

Starting this summer, I leave my job as professor of English at Colby College, where I’ve been for 25 years, and take up a new position as Anna Quindlen writer in residence at Barnard College of Columbia University in Manhattan.

When I was young, I worked in a bookstore in New York City. I sat at a desk beneath a sign that said, ASK ME ANYTHING. People would ask me all sorts of things. Usually I didn’t know the answer, so I’d make something up. Good training for a fiction writer. One time someone walked up to me and just asked, apropos of nothing, “Excuse me, where are all the Santa Claus suits?”

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?

I play the autoharp, Appalachian style. I’m pretty damned great at it. I also know a whole lot about the Gemini Project, which was the one before the Apollo program.

What is your favorite word right now?

Muslin. Just saying it gives me shivers. Flibbertigibbet is a very useful word also. I use it to describe my three most defining characteristics as a writer: a flibbertigibbet, a will-o’-the-wisp, a clown.

What or who inspires you most?

I always loved the work of James Thurber. If you want to go back further, I’m haunted by the poems of John Keats. Whose heart ached, and a drowsy numbness pained his sense.

Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?

Yes, I have an iPad, on which I use both the iBooks function as well as the Kindle app. I just finished Charles Baxter’s The Soul Thief. I read on my device after dinner each night, for several hours before bed. It’s the best time to read, when you are already halfway into the realm of the unconscious.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’ve started a new novel, I have a new nonfiction book about the differences between men and women, and for young adults I’m working on Falcon Quinn three.

Aside from writing, do you have any other secret talents?

I play piano in a crappy rock ’n’ roll band. We are called the Stragglers, and the name is accurate. All of us have been thrown out of other bands. The fundamental rule about the Stragglers is that you can’t be thrown out of it. This should give you some sense of our talent.

Do you have a quote, mantra, or thought that you’d like to end with?

From Huck Finn: “Blamed if she wasn’t the horriblest looking outrage I ever see. Then the duke took and wrote out on a shingle so: ‘Sick Arab. But harmless when not out of her head.’”

I'll Give You Something to Cry About

Teresa Wiltz: “I was in elementary school and my playmates kept asking, ‘What’s are you?’” | Q&A

Journalist Teresa Wiltz, author of The Real America, chats with Shebooks about the challenges she’s faced as a woman of color in the newsroom and beyond.

What prompted you to write The Real America?

I’ve been obsessed with the topic ever since I was in elementary school and my playmates kept asking me, “What’s your nationality?”

How do you think your gender/racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?

They’re inseparable. How I’m perceived in the world as a woman of color impacts the way I am treated and, as a result, the experiences that I’ve had.

Have you ever experienced sexism as a woman writer? How so?

Certainly in the newsroom. There seems to be this unconscious thinking that men are there to think (and write about) deep thoughts, while women are there to do the lighter stuff. It’s not everyone, and it’s often unconscious, but it’s there.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

When I was in the sixth grade and we had to write weekly compositions for English class. My baby sister was a toddler then and she was quite the handful. So I started writing fiction about her—short stories where I would send her to the moon for NASA. I got A+++s.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?

Writing about myself, rather than reporting about the lives of other people. That’s terrifying.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Read everything. Write all the time. (Old school newspaper training is invaluable for that.) Learn the rules of grammar and style. Know them cold before you start getting all experimental with the written word.

Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?

Yes. But I’m working on that.

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Want to get real about race? Read Teresa Wiltz’s journalistic memoir, The Real America, only at Shebooks!

Suzanne Antonetta Paola: “Happiness is a muscle, and it needs regular toning.”

Suzanna Antonetta Paola, award-winning poet and author of the Shebook novelette Stolen Moments, made it a personal challenge to write a profound, multilayered story centered around items that seem ordinary and girlish: high heels and a tube of lipstick.

What prompted you to write Stolen Moments?

I actually did buy a purse at a consignment shop and found that I accidentally used some lipsticks left inside of it, as my character did. Around the same time, I left a pair of shoes behind in a hotel room. They were perfectly nice shoes but cost me only five dollars—I do buy most of my clothes used, like another of my characters, though in my case it’s less frugality than trying to avoid supporting sweatshop labor—and I couldn’t fit them into my suitcase. So I began to think about how it might affect someone to use a lipstick left behind in a bag, or to find someone’s abandoned shoes. How interesting it would be if these small things changed someone’s life! The stories kind of flooded me after that idea.

How do you think your racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?

I think I have always felt so betwixt and between in terms of all these questions that I have allowed my writing to move fluidly as well. I am technically partly a Creole, like my grandfather, who came to the U.S. from the island of Barbados—Creole meaning someone of mixed heritage, though mostly European. Religion-wise, I mostly call myself a Catholic, though my mother was a Christian Scientist. My son, who is adopted, is Korean-American. On my father’s side, I’m Southern Italian, descended from people, who are very poor, in a tiny town about 60 miles outside of Naples. We visited them once—they’re sharecroppers living in this town that was destroyed decades ago by earthquakes, and most of the damage still hasn’t been repaired. The government barely acknowledges they’re there, let alone provides aid. Like my character Ef, many of the women in my family cleaned for a living.

Have you ever experienced sexism as a woman writer? How so?

Yes, it’s kind of all down the line, like teachers who told me when I was a kid to forget about writing as a career while they encouraged it in boys, to the first creative writing professor I ever had, who was downright abusive, particularly to women students. In graduate school, I had one tiresome prof who called everything from women a “woman’s poem”—whatever that means—though he eagerly embraced everything from guys in the class, even one bizarre poem that had a character putting a woman’s head in a Crock-Pot. Presumably that’s of universal interest! I hope that my age—late 50s—suggests it’s gotten better for younger women than it was for me. Then again, VIDA’s [organization for women in literary arts] publication numbers are pretty dismal—fewer women get published and reviewed, though more women write, and that’s a fact.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

I teach now, both in Washington State, where I live, and in Hong Kong—I travel there once or twice a year. I have had many strange jobs, starting with a job when I was about 14 sweeping the front of a small deli-type store in New Jersey that was actually a mob front. It never had anything to sell, and therefore that job was easy! During graduate school, my husband and I both had a job writing entries for an Encyclopedia of Disasters—bridge collapses, fires, floods like the Galveston Flood, you name it. Most of the disasters were in the past, so my husband and I would get kind of competitive about our disasters, which was weird! We were so immersed in it, we’d shout body counts across the room. Come to think of it, that job explains a lot—but I won’t say what!

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?

Though I’ve written about it, most people don’t know I’m a high school dropout. I dropped out in my sophomore year and later got a GED and attended community college, then college, then graduate school, over time.

Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?

I have an inexpensive tablet. I love reading on it. I travel fairly often, so I read on it constantly when I’m traveling, and at home I read on it right before bed. I have it loaded up now with Shebooks and Dickens, which is the perfect juxtaposition of book lengths. I just finished Ona Gritz’s On the Whole—great book—and am about halfway through Martin Chuzzlewit. Also a great book.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just published a new book with Norton, Make Me a Mother: A Memoir. It tells the story of adopting and raising my son, and includes a lot of history of family fluidity and blended family across ages and cultures. It also looks at adoption as a concept that governs our fluid culture. I’m mostly promoting that book right now, though I’m looking forward to getting back to fiction.

Aside from writing, do you have any secret talents?

I have an amazing garden, though I’m not especially gifted with that—it’s just work! I’m also a really, really good cook, mostly for the same reason. I love making food and do a lot from scratch, even making my own breads and cheeses and such from time to time. I grow a lot of fruits and vegetables and play around a lot—I make all our jams and do flavors like rosewater-ginger-rhubarb and so on. My husband and I just did our own Peking duck, which is a dish we fell in love with in China.

Do you have a quote, mantra, or thought that you’d like to end with?

Do something you love every day, even if you are in a bad place and think it can’t help. And eat one thing that’s delicious. Happiness is a muscle, and it needs regular toning! Surround yourself with good people and with animals. You know what Emily Dickinson said about dogs: “They are better than beings, for they know but do not tell.”

Stolen Moments

Check out Stolen Moments by Suzanne Antonetta Paola, only on Shebooks!

Interview With An Anonymous Lady

An interview with the anonymous author of A Good Egg about “mother fudgers,” best friends and the vulnerability of writing in the Internet era.

Anonymous-Woman

What prompted you to write A Good Egg?

I wanted to write about what it’s like to use an egg donor for a few reasons. First of all, it was an amazing experience once I learned how to get out of my own way and stop trying to control every part of the process. I couldn’t be more in love with my daughter, and having her has changed my view on what it means to have a child. I’ve come to realize the mother-child love knows no bounds, and that includes genetics. Beyond love, however, I’m a little infuriated. Nowadays we often fudge the truth about how we had our babies after those prime fertility years. These mother fudgers include both women I know and celebrities I read about. I completely understand the need to protect the privacy of your child, but I believe that not telling other women what it is to use an egg donor—and inflating other’s hopes that they can easily get pregnant with IVF at, say, 42, 43 and beyond—gives many women false expectations. Thus they are going back for repeated fertility treatments when their chances of conceiving for each cycle have dropped under five percent. I wanted to do my small part to alleviate this waste of money and emotional and physical energy by telling my story, whether it leads to others using an egg donor or adopting. I want other women who are in a lot of pain to know that there are other options beyond IVF and that everything is going to be okay.

Have you ever experienced sexism as a woman writer? How so?

Good god, yes! I’m a working screenwriter, and I’ve had men sexually degrade me in the room. One repeatedly asked me if I could work some sexual terms into a pitch I was doing in front of half a dozen people– I’m not sure if it was to titillate him or humiliate me. Others have told me they love my more action-oriented writing but then question whether I can write more of the same because I’m a woman. I realize that makes absolutely no sense but it happens all the time. And of course for my entire writing career – be it magazines, books, or films — I’ve been paid less than my male counterparts.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

I went for a job interview at Details magazine when they had their offices in Soho. I walked in, felt the energy, and thought, I have to have this.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Write. You’d be amazed how many people ask me how they can become a writer, but don’t actually write anything. Writers block doesn’t exist. Writers write. They work. It’s a job. Treat it like one and you can cross the number one thing you need to do off your list.

Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?

I do, it’s my best friend, and she’s a great writer in her own right. I know the piece is working if she calls me and tells me she got chills. If she doesn’t call, well, it’s time to rewrite.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?

Because this piece involves how I conceived my baby I admit I’m a little scared about what people might say in the comments section. I’ve found those to be brutal but I guess it goes with the job. In other words, in the Internet age everything we writers write feels like a tremendous risk.

Is there anything that you consider *too* personal include in your work?

Usually if I’m a little uncomfortable, I know the piece is worth writing. That means I have something to say that isn’t conventional experience.

Do you have an e-reader? When do you like to read on a device?

I have an iPad. I love holding a book, but I love that I can read a sample more. I made a promise to myself a long time ago that I wouldn’t read books I don’t like – there are just too many great things to read. This way, I don’t pay for novels I’ll realize aren’t my thing after thirty or so pages.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m beginning a novel, rewriting a script and writing a television pilot. In other words, I’m losing my mind.

A Good Egg cover