Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Writing What Women Know

"Write what you know."

I heard these words often as a child. And Little Women, one of the most popular novels for girls, offers me the same moral. Jo writes sensational and imaginative tales, but the Professor, whom she comes to respect and love, doesn't think such stories are worthy of her. He essentially counsels her to write what she knows, and subsequently, she publishes a successful novel about her family.

One summer, when I was a playwright-in-residence at a regional theatre, a fellow female playwright wrote a script about a man sent to prison for committing heinous crimes, and frequently, I overheard other residents express disgust that she would pick such a "disgusting" subject. (Which begs the question: would Silence of the Lambs be disgusting if a woman wrote it?)

In a college writing class, I wrote highly romantic stories which my teacher held in contempt. He wanted me to write "reality." Thus, in order to raise my grade, I crafted a silly story about a man and woman chain-smoking and breaking-up in a café. My teacher loved it. I was writing what he thought I should know.

Are women encouraged too strongly to write solely within the realm of our experience?

In a recent post, MysticGypsy writes passionately against a notion that Emily Bronte couldn't have written Wuthering Heights if she hadn't experienced romantic love. And some scholars suggest that Frankenstein was written or heavily aided by Mary Shelley's husband, as if a woman could not possibly write such a "monstrous" story alone.

Do we link a woman's personal life too intimately with her writing?

Without a doubt, Harry Potter is a smash-hit, but statistically, male writers dominate science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction, and ever since longing for a "friendly female monster" in a previous post, I have begun to wonder...

Is this at all probable if women are directed to write what we know? And by the way, do men generally receive this same memo?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Writing: On the Bench or in the Game?


I've sat on both sides of the literary desk, reading and selecting as well as writing and submitting manuscripts. Both chairs offer excitement and joy as well as "compromise" at every angle. Artists as well as producers/publishers must constantly decide when to stand firm and when to bend; when to walk away and when to play. Sometimes, I see myself as a champion. Other times, I'm merely Don Quixote.

Writing for the Teen or the Team?

When I was younger, an editor from a major publishing house invited me to her office to discuss my unwieldy first draft of a young adult novel. Regrettably, what I remember most about our two hour meeting was how unbearably parched my mouth was and how absurdly tiny the pointy-bottomed, water-cooler cups were.

Where does one set down such a cup, anyway? And surely, such a renown publisher can afford to offer anxious writers a tad more refreshment so that our lips do not stick together as we face the authoritative opinions of a strong-minded editor.

After she analyzed my draft in crushing detail (I think she may have felt obliged to offer at least one criticism per page), she sat back comfortably, smiled at me broadly, and gave me an unexpected compliment: "You take criticism so well! That's unusual in a young writer."

If I could have spoken, I might have told her that my seemingly compliant nature was due to dire thirst. I suspect I nodded frequently during our "discussion" because words necessitated moisture.

Since I had essentially forgone speech, I made an effort to listen attentively, but listening can be a challenge in this sort of a situation. It's tempting to survey new surroundings, and consider the Editor herself and her life and how she got there and what she went home to, or just let your mind float back again to water.

My uneven and unpolished novel was about a teen girl who drifts from person to person in an outwardly aimless fashion until she finds a moment of meaning and connection. At one point, this Editor leaned forward, whispering with a wink of confidentially, "Sports is all the rave now. She ought to play a sport." And the Editor went on to name an author who was very successful at writing sporty teens.

Had I been lucky (or unlucky) enough to be drinking water at this moment, I might have choked or spit. She liked my prose well-enough, but she wanted action - well, sports - not a wayward teen lost in thought and the world; not my novel. She told me to cut my manuscript in half and call her when I finished the next draft.

I soon left the large building behind me, stepping along the streets of NYC, and walked all way uptown to the apartment of my boyfriend. Naturally, he inquired about the meeting, but between gulps of water and spurts of tears, all I could utter was: "Sports, Sports!"

I was youthful; defiant. I didn't call her back.

Later, I would wonder - If I had played sports as a girl, would I have been more of a team player?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Can FrankenGirl Exist?

After Sven wrote a generous post relating to my pseudonym, I have reflected back on why I chose “FrankenGirl.”

I know that larger tragedies loom in this world, but I believe I'm duty-bound, as FrankenGirl, to remind us that we suffer dreadfully from a dearth of friendly female monsters.

For empathetic male "monstrosities," we need look no further than Frankenstein's unnamed monster, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Elephant Man, Cyrano de Bergerac, Beauty's Beast, among others.

These creatures are off-putting, but evoke our sympathies, and ultimately, move us with their stories. We learn that truth and beauty hide beneath their surface.

But if a young girl longs to be simultaneously Repugnant and Appealing, whom should she emulate? If she turns to Fairy tales, she may conclude that her ugliness is most likely a sign of inner evil, and she should do whatever it takes to stay away from herself.

I've witnessed a few failed attempts at creating an iconic "ugly" heroine. Sleeping Ugly, a well-intentioned story by Jane Yolen, left me disappointed: the pictured girl is far from hideous. The film, The Truth about Cats & Dogs, is a female take on the Cyrano story, but since Janeane Garofalo is cast as "Cyrano" and Uma Thurman as her friend, this story could be called: "The Tragedy of Being Attractive, but Not as Glamorous as Uma Thurman."

The real life Lucy Grealy, who suffered from cancer of the face, did stir hearts in her memoir, Autobiography of a Face, but later, when she underwent surgery after surgery to look less like an oddity, many found her growing addiction to surgery (and pain-killers) less seemly than her face. She was criticized (upon her death) for failing to give us hope that beauty didn't matter, because clearly, in her life (and world), beauty did matter.

If we turn to a few high-profile female politicians: Eleanor Roosevelt; Madeleine Albright; Janet Reno, such women are frequently mocked for their very "lack of beauty." However, at the same time, they have wielded significant power. Beautiful girls were distracted by boys—a successful woman once noted—we ugly girls had plenty of time for study.

Yet, our literature, film and media seem to continuously omit any advantages of "ugliness" in women, and we are given no renown female "monsters" with whom we may identify.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Brang & Our Wild World of Words


This entry is inspired by a comment on a previous post from MysticGypsy, who reflected on how many of us automatically assume our words are understood in the light we intended.

Words are universal, but at the same time, we individualize them. Through experience, our words take on specific associations and special significance to us. At some point in our lives, most of us have made up words as well as altered words, creating our own unique definitions, code words, secret languages among friends (imaginary or real!). Thus, a harsh word to one might sound hilarious to another, or vice versa. And all the while, we must use these words to describe our basic daily needs as well as our innermost feelings, and hope that we are understood.

Brang is a Word: It Better Be!

I brang the book home yesterday. Hey, what’s wrong with that? It sounds perfectly reasonable to me. I rang the bell and sang the song yesterday, didn’t I?

In third grade, I got in a quarrel with my teacher, Mrs. Shepherd. She held me after class and informed me that “brang” isn’t a word, but I refused to be deceived. I knew better, you see. I knew what she couldn’t possible know. My mother always used the word “brang.”

Mrs. Shepherd explained calmly at first, but I wouldn’t cave so easily. Don’t mess with my vocabulary. No, that wasn’t what I meant, was it? Don’t mess with my loyalty.

I stuck stubbornly to my side, hardening myself against all arguments, and eventually, Mrs. Shepherd lost patience with me.

Your mom is wrong.

I despised Mrs. Shepherd for a while, but I stopped saying “brang.” And I started to suspect Mom whenever she spoke at the dinner table. I wondered what other misbegotten words might be falling from her mouth. I could no longer trust her sentence structure, her clauses, her connotations, even as they whirled about me, catching me inside their net.

You don’t want to be Mom. You want to be Right.

Mrs. Shepherd wasn’t the only one who knew better than Mom. In contrast to Mom’s lower-class background of urban poverty, Dad had been raised on a middle-class farm and enjoyed an Ivy League education. Not only did my parents represent different sexes, but also disparate classes, and when I considered my options, I wanted to be Dad.

Eventually, Mom listened to vocabulary tapes and left her Brang-days behind her, but it would be years before I realized that she had some very valuable words to teach me.

For you, Mom, I brang myself home.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bitch or Witch?

As a result of censorship, men called women "witches" instead of "bitches" in the song: It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp* at the 78th Academy Awards on Sunday.

This begs the question: Is it better to be called a Witch or a Bitch by a man? So, prompted by a comment from Panacea on a previous post, I looked up a few definitions.

Bitch [noun]
1: a lewd or immoral woman
2: a malicious, spiteful, or domineering woman - sometimes used as a generalized term of abuse

Witch [noun]
1: one that is credited with usually malignant supernatural powers … often with the aid of a devil
2: an ugly old woman : hag
3: a seductive, alluring, bewitching woman

Pimp [noun]
1: a man who solicits clients for a prostitute

Wow! The definition of "pimp" sounds so banal and bland. It even suggests that the pimp is working as a subordinate for the prostitute - with absolutely no mention that he is engaged in an unlawful, immoral and destructive practice. (Whereas a prostitute is described far less favorably, as debasing herself for money.)

As for Bitch vs. Witch, at least "Bitch" is less ambiguous. I pretty much know where I stand. Isn't it interesting that "Witch" can indicate both an ugly old hag - as well as - an alluring seductress? Clearly, if anyone calls me a "witch," I will have to request clarification!

“Excuse me, Sir, but do you find me utterly irresistible or extremely unseemly? Or am I really a spawn of the devil? Please clarify.”


* Winner of the Oscar for best original song (2006).

(The definitions above have been collected/combined from the American Heritage Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

It's Hard Out Here for a Feminist

It's Hard Out Here For A Fem'nist *

You know it's hard out here for a fem'nist (you ain't knowin)
When she tryin to get some respect from the men (you ain't knowin)
For the energy and work hours spent
Because a whole of lot of misog'nists talk shit

In my eyes I done seen some crazy thangs in this world
Done seen women raped, done seen women beat
Done seen women live in poverty on the street
It's fucked up where I live, but that's just how it is

It might be new to you, but it's been like this for years
It's blood sweat and tears when it come down to this shit
I’m tryin to get justice ‘fore I leave up out this life
I’m tryin to get thangs right but it’s hard fo’ a fem'nist
But I'm prayin and I'm hopin to God I don't give up the fight

~ FrankenGirl

"Eighty percent of the women were sexually assaulted by pimps via sadistic sex; 71% of pimps use drugs to control the women; and 34% of the women received death threats from pimps personally or to their family." - from “Sex Trafficking In the United States, Coalition Against Trafficking of Women Study,” Raymond, Hughes, Gomez (3/01)

"You know what? I think it just got a little easier out here for a pimp." - Jon Stewart, Host of the 78th Academy Awards (3/06)

* It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp (Lyrics)
Oscar Winner - Best
Original Song - 78th Academy Awards (3/06)

You know it's hard out here for a pimp (you ain't knowin)
When he tryin to get this money for the rent (you ain't knowin)
For the Cadillacs and gas money spent (you ain't knowin)
[1] Because a whole lot of bitches talkin shit (you ain't knowin)
[2] Will have a whole lot of bitches talkin shit (you ain't knowin)

In my eyes I done seen some crazy thangs in the streets
Gotta couple hoes workin on the changes for me
But I gotta keep my game tight like Kobe on game night
Like takin from a ho don't know no better, I know that ain't right
Done seen people killed, done seen people deal
Done seen people live in poverty with no meals
It's fucked up where I live, but that's just how it is
It might be new to you, but it's been like this for years
It's blood sweat and tears when it come down to this shit
I'm tryin to get rich 'fore I leave up out this bitch
I'm tryin to have thangs but it's hard fo' a pimp
But I'm prayin and I'm hopin to God I don't slip, yeah


Man it seems like I'm duckin dodgin bullets everyday
Niggaz hatin on me cause I got, hoes on the tray
But I gotta stay paid, gotta stay above water
Couldn't keep up with my hoes, that's when shit got harder
North Memphis where I'm from, I'm 7th Street bound
Where niggaz all the time end up lost and never found
Man these girls think we prove thangs, leave a big head
They come hopin every night, they don't end up bein dead
Wait I got a snow bunny, and a black girl too
You pay the right price and they'll both do you
That's the way the game goes, gotta keep it strictly pimpin
Gotta have my hustle tight, makin change off these women, yeah