I Am a Writer

A few weeks ago I attended a “Winter Salon” at Hedgebrook, a literary nonprofit that supports women writers. I went up for the day, took classes, listened and learned.

I keep trying to describe the day to people and keep falling short. It seems no matter what I say, I can’t accurately describe the feeling there. So I’m going to try again and start small. Very small: pomegranate arils.

Hedgebrook practices what they call radical hospitality: “everything you need to nurture your soul and your creativity.” When we arrived for lunch after our morning classes, shaking our heads dry from the driving rain, we found long tables laid out with real silverware and cloth napkins. Each place setting had a winter salad dotted with pomegranate arils. It can’t just be me — there’s something decadent about those little red jewels. Pomegranates are only in season a short while, and their round, lumpy exteriors always seem such a hurtle to getting the fruit inside. But here they were laid out before us, waiting to burst between our teeth. The rest of lunch was a hearty, comforting affair — chicken soup and tomato soup and squash soup and buttery galette and brownies and gingerbread — but when I picture it in my mind’s eye, those arils are the things I see. Their presence said, “You are welcome.”

After lunch, the teachers talked about women writers supporting women writers — how elevating one elevates all. As the conversation unfolded, I looked around the room. There were writers there, like me, scrambling to figure out a path in this weird, wordy world. There were writers who’ve been published many times over. There were white-haired writers who didn’t care an ounce for the career portion of things — they were there for the love of writing.

The feeling you get at Hedgebrook is one of validation. Here is a place that says, “What you do is important, and we are here to support it.”

I’m lucky — so lucky – to have people in my life who take my writing seriously. My husband helps me carve out time and space to write. My parents always ask how the book’s going (usually with a kick-in-the-pants from my dad). My best friend encouraged me to start this blog.

Sometimes I’m not sure I take it seriously. Don’t get me wrong — I work hard. I get up early and write and I participate in writing group and I spend time (and money) to attend workshops. But when people ask me about my work — I stutter. I stammer. I mutter something innocuous and turn the conversation. I don’t feel like a “real” writer because I’ve never had my name in print. It doesn’t pay the bills. It feels like a hobby, something done in secret.

My afternoon class at Hedgebrook was with a writer named Ijeoma Oluo. Something she said has been rolling around my head for the past week and a half:

“It takes a lot for people to call themselves writers. You just can.”

So I’m trying to embrace that.

I am a writer.

To that end–I’m changing the name of this blog, to my name. I’m not hiding behind a nom de plume anymore. You can find it now at ldoxford.com.

I am a writer. These are my stories.


Lady Laureates

So in case you’ve been under a rock the past week (OR maybe blissed out on some tropical island without wi-fi, that sounds better), there’s big nerdy literary news: Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Let’s all say it together: CONGRATS, ALICE! In my head, she and fellow Canadian writer Margaret Atwood celebrated with some wine and poutine.

Munro’s win made me curious about the other women writers who’ve won a Nobel… and, well, the list is depressingly short. 13, out of the 110 prizes awarded since 1901. And please don’t anyone say, “Well, that’s because women didn’t used to write back in the day” because that’s just not true. What is true is that many people didn’t think women wrote “serious” literature — a charming little misogynistic misconception that still exists to this day.

Now, I admit, I am part of the problem; I haven’t read most of the women Nobel laureates. But I’d like to remedy that (Toni Morrison has been added to my reading list) — and I’d also like to recommend books from the women laureates I have read.

Alice Munro – Runaway

The new kid on the block! And yeah, she’s earned it in my book, based 100% on the power of one short story. “Silence” (one of the shorts in Runaway) tells the story of a mother whose young-adult daughter suddenly cuts contact with her. And never explains why. If that sounds simple… well, I guess it is, in a way. But it’s also incredibly powerful. The pain and confusion and conflicting emotions in this story are so, so real. It’s haunted me for years — and any writer who can create a story with that much impact is a-ok by me.

Doris Lessing – The Fifth Child

I will warn you, if you ever plan on having children, don’t read this book. This is an absolutely horrifying tale of a woman whose fifth child is… well, no one’s really sure. Is he demonic? Is he some weird missing link? Is he truly human? One thing’s for sure: Ben’s parents can’t truly love him — but since he’s their child, they can’t truly abandon him either. The book asks some really tough questions and doesn’t leave you with any comfortable answers.

Um, PS? If you need another reason to read Lessing’s work? This, right here:

Nadine GordimerMy Son’s Story

Gordimer is a white South African, and in My Son’s Story she pulls off a pretty tough feat: writing from the perspective of a black South African boy during apartheid. Near the start of the book, the boy discovers his father is having an affair with a white activist — cue conflict. Interestingly though, the father never came across as the bad guy — at least to me. There’s more than one secret life being led in this book. At its core, it’s about deception, and all the different ways it can manifest. I thought Gordimer did a fantastic job handling such a delicate subject (and would be interested to hear what others think, if y’all have read this one).

Ok guys, time to pay it forward — if you’ve read some of the other lady laureates, let me know where to start!

Writing Across the Gender Divide

Earlier this week I stumbled upon an article in Publishers Weekly by Adelle Waldman: “8 Authors Who Crossed the Gender Line.” Waldman’s debut novel (woo hoo, congrats!), The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., features a male protagonist. Seems straightforward enough. But… apparently not?

The first question I’m usually asked about my novel, “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.,” is whether it was difficult for me, as a woman, to write from the male point of view.

That’s just… an odd question. I mean, maybe it’s a fair enough question to start an interview with — get the ball rolling. But I guess I just don’t understand why.

Why should it be difficult, as a woman, to write from the male point of view? And vice versa — why should it be difficult, as a man, to write from the female point of view? Two of my previous “books” (I use that term loosely, as they’re still in draft form) feature male protagonists. And let me tell you, my current female protagonist is NO easier to write than those two gents were. It never occurred to me when writing those guys that it should be difficult — they’re what the story called for. They’re characters. They’re human. I guess I just assume as a fellow human I can get into their brains.

As Waldman points out — a LOT of authors “cross the gender line.” Off the top of my head, I can think of Chuck Wendig, Cherie Priest, Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham. That’s barely scratching the tip of the iceberg — so many authors write from the opposite gender’s point of view. So why is this even brought up as an interview question?

Now, to play devil’s advocate with myself — I suppose it is possible that authors write from the opposite gender’s POV, and it is STILL a difficult thing to do. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But speaking for myself… I dunno. I just don’t see it. Every character is different, which means every character has his or her own set of challenges. I don’t think it has much to do with gender, though — the challenges come from personality, history, situation, environment. Not all men think like other men; not all women think like other women. The same is true of their character counterparts. We’re each our own little unique snowflake, or however you want to look at it.

Fellow writers, do you tend to stick to a particular gender when you’re writing? Do you ever “switch over”? Am I wrong in thinking it’s not really an issue? Let’s pile up the anecdotal evidence.

Writing Strong Female Characters

Earlier this week I wrote about women writers — today, let’s look at the yin to that yang. Let’s talk female characters.

You’ll thank me later — go read the brilliant article on A Dribble of Ink called “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative“. It’s a fascinating, wide-reaching post that tackles how women are treated in fiction — how they often just serve as the catalyst or motive for male characters. The author, Kameron Hurley, writes:

I actually watched a TV show recently that was supposedly about this traumatic experience a young girl went through, but was, in fact, simply tossed in so that the two male characters in the show could fight over it, and argue about which of them was at fault  …. She’s literally in the room with them while they fight about it, revealing all these character things about them while she sort of fades into the background.

In the end, Hurley challenges authors to… well, do better. To go beyond the stereotypes and clichés and write well-rounded female characters who don’t exist solely as foils to the men around them.

And you know? I’d like to think I do a decent job at this. But Hurley’s article made me think long and hard about a female character I’m currently writing, and whether the romantic liaison I have planned for her is necessary. Maybe it is — maybe it furthers the story. But I’m trying to take a step back and really think about it.

Of course, there are a lot of authors out there who do a great job writing female characters. They deserve praise — not only for a job well done, but to encourage other authors to do so as well. And so, I give you 3 women who stand out in my mind as particularly well-written characters — and hope you’ll share yours.

Hermione Granger, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Unabashedly nerdy, logical, proud of her intelligence — what’s not up love? I’ve always thought Hermione Granger was an amazing role model for young readers, and a beautifully written character. And the reason she’s so beautifully written is that — well, at the end of the day, Hermione is still a young girl growing up. She makes mistakes. She gets angry at stupid things. She even, at times, toys with boys’ emotions to get back at other boys. In short, she seems like a real human being, which is why it’s so easy to relate to her.

Miriam Black, Blackbirds and Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig
Miriam is… well, the opposite of Hermione. The protagonist of her own series, Miriam is brash and crude and drinks way too much cheap whisky for her own good. So why am I so intrigued by her? Because she’s no one’s foil. She doesn’t take any shit from any man — or any woman, for that matter. Her motivations are 100% her own, and if you don’t like them? Miriam doesn’t care. She’s gonna do her own thing.

Mary Stassos, Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham
This was a book I read recently, and although it follows many character arcs, Mary Stassos stood out. She marries young, has three children, divorces her philandering husband… and then, almost against her own accord, starts doing things that surprise her. She quietly but firmly embraces her gay son. She forms a friendship with a New York drag queen. She cares for her wild daughter’s illegitimate son. She is constantly pushed outside her comfort zone — and for the most part, becomes a better person for it. She’s not a loud character, Mary Stassos, but she’s a very real one.

Who are your favorite female characters? Which authors do you think do a particularly good job of writing “real” women?

Women Writers: What’s In a Name?

I want to start off by saying — this is nothing new. What I’m writing about has been goin’ on FOR-EV-ER. BUT. It’s recently been gaining momentum in the news. Which means people are talking about it — and by “it”, I mean women. Specifically, women writers. More specifically, women writers and society’s preconceptions about women writers.

So what are these news tidbits? First up — we have “My So-Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters” by Deborah Copaken Kogan, talking about her experiences as a woman in the publishing industry. She titled her first book Shuttergirl — the publisher insisted on Shutterbabe, a title that (duh) negatively impacted how many saw the book.

There’s, of course, Wikipedia’s now infamous decision to create an American Women Novelists sub-category. Rather than, you know, just putting them with the rest of the (male) American Novelists.

And last but not least, there is the fascinating “Coverflip” by Maureen Johnson, challenging people to swap the “gender” of book covers:

I asked people to take a well-known book, then to imagine the author of that book was of the opposite gender, or was genderqueer, and imagine what that cover might look like. Because we have these expectations in our heads already.

Coverflip made painfully clear that we DO judge a book by its cover. Some covers look more “manly” (or at least gender neutral), while others look decidedly “girly”. And women writers — no matter the actual content of their books — often get stuck with a “girly” cover (or in the case of Deborah Copaken Kogan, a sexy title). And those girly covers turn off a lot of readers — aka, men. And hell, some women, too; I admit to being put off by pink covers with cursive titles.

But another thing about Coverflip caught my attention. Many of the redesigned covers don’t just feature different artwork and fonts — they have different names. Stephen King becomes “S. King”. Sarah J. Maas transforms into “S.J. Maas”. Which indicates that many readers aren’t only put off by cover artwork — they’re put off by the name on that cover.

This all, to me, brings up a very big question. I hope to publish a book someday, and when I do — should I publish under my real name? Or use an androgynous pseudonym, a la J.K. Rowling? Rowling’s publisher suggested she use a pseudonym, as a woman writer might be off-putting to boys. Which — ARGH, right? But those are the facts of the matter. That’s the world we’re operating in. If you’re a woman writer, there’s a high chance that your potential readership is going to drastically drop just because, to quote Margaret Atwood, you’re part of the “Writers Who Are Also Women” group.

So do you play the system to your advantage? Write under a pseudonym, knowing you’re likely to fare better, and then shock all the haters when it turns out that *gasp* you have boobs? Or do you write under your own name to “fight the good fight”? Prove that, yes, in fact, women CAN write.

I don’t have any answers to this. It’s a complicated issue and something I ponder. A lot. But I’m always curious to hear others’ take on the matter, particularly other women writers.

So tell me — if you’re a woman. Who happens to be a writer. What do you do? And guys, we don’t want to exclude you — do you tend to ignore books with “girly” covers?

(Edited to add — you may also want to check out the yin to this post’s  yang: Strong Female Characters.)