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?

52 repartee:

Blogger Cristina wrote...

Anne Shirley also gets the same advice, so there's plenty of that.

I'm not a fan of sci-fi or totally unreal stories - with a few exceptions. In general I tend to read more by women, though lately I have been expanding my limits.

I don't know why it is that women write more about the everyday stuff. But I think that is slowly changing - both ways.

(I know I haven't said anything at all, but this is certainly food for thought. And I'm not qualified to come here and tell you the meaning of life so to speak. But I enjoyed your post tremendously, and felt like giving something back - though it turned out poorly.)

3/28/2006 12:56 PM  
Blogger Charlie wrote...

Writing what we know, or what we are expected to know, is like writing a research paper. It disallows the great gift we have called "imagination". If Flaubert had stuck to what he knew, we wouldn't have Emma Bovary.

In short, I believe one should write what one wants to write, and hang others' expectations and gender biases.

I think that the notions of women writing about "disgusting" subjects and "friendly" female monsters are related. It has to do with the male perception of the female.

Men, as a whole, want women to be both trashy in bed and virginal in behavior; the latter being the mom-thing. A female monster, no matter how friendly or appealing, would shock the collective He and therefore be rejected. Monstrosities, too, seem to be the purview of males; a woman writing Hannibal, I think, would have been rejected too.

Men are generally afraid of women to begin with; female intelligence alone scares them to death. Imagine, then, what a monster, possibly called FrankenGirl, would do to their fragile egos and sensitivities.

3/28/2006 1:54 PM  
Anonymous Holly wrote...

Rich, interesting questions, Frankengirl, with plenty of thinking to be done in answering them.

One issue is whether you're talking about beginning writers or more accomplished writers. As someone who teaches in an undergraduate creative writing program, I would say that the biggest problem with beginning writers is that they typically write what they know from watching mediocre movies, not that they write about what they know of real life.

I should also point out that I'm primarily interested in nonfiction, and that's a genre where you write about what you know--and if you don't know a topic, you research it until you do. That goes for men and women both.

I realize I'll probably sound like a fuddy-duddy here, but in the intro-level general education creative writing course I teach at least once a year, I have extremely strict rules regarding what students can and can't write about when we focus on fiction. I insist that students try to write character-driven, contemporary, realistic, literary fiction; no genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, historical, juvenile, romance, crime, etc) is allowed.

This often really upsets students, but I enforce the rule quite rigidly anyway. If I don't, I get all these stories ripped off from the most recent action movie they've seen--big cliche-laden plots that are dispensed with in six pages and nary a bit of character development.

I also have a long list of topics they can't write about even in a story that might qualify as "realist", and this list includes but is not limited to murder, assassination, suicide, combat carnage, train wrecks, car crashes and planes dropping out of the sky. Necrophilia, rape, incest, prostitution, long comas, and child abuse are likewise verboten. Similarly, terminal or mental illness may not be the main plot elements of any short story they write–-a character might have lost a loved one to cancer or a have a distant relative in a mental hospital, but the story should not focus on a character dying of some horrible disease or the daily problems of dealing with insanity.

I then tell them specifically that

"The prohibition against writing about death and the dark side of life is not because these are unworthy topics. Anyone who reads much will know that death and suffering are the subject of some of the greatest works of literature in the world. (Several of the works we will read also deal with these topics.) But producing good writing about death and extreme situations requires considerable experience and maturity, which beginning writers frequently lack. It is easy to make a story immediately dramatic by writing about something where the stakes are very high, like suicide or murder, but the fact that there is a lot at stake in a story doesn't mean the story is believable, authentic, thoughtful or compelling, or that it contains a single insight into the extreme, dramatic situation it has as its subject matter. This question of being believable is important, and is one reason that beginning fiction writers are often advised to write about what you know. [There it is! I give the advice to both men and women equally.] Gain some experience writing about life before you try writing about death. If you have personal experience with some of the topics forbidden as subject matter for fiction, you are welcome to write about them when we move to exploring literary nonfiction. But until then, you will be well-served as a writer by exercising the imagination and creativity required to make the mundane elements of life dramatic and interesting.

I would, of course, be thrilled if any of my students had the imagination to write, say, magical realism (of which I am a big fan), or the maturity to write meaningfully about death--and every so often, someone will come to me and say, "I really want to write a story about one of the topics you've forbidden; if I write a draft, will you tell me if it's OK to develop it after all?" And frequently I say yes, because the person has both the talent and the maturity to handle a topic like that.

That's certainly not the last word, but this is an extremely long comment already, so I'll post it and see what others have to add.

3/28/2006 2:47 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Dear Cristina –

I read women more, too. So, regardless of why women write what we do, I certainly cannot say I don’t appreciate and enjoy the subject matter of women writers.

Some believe women are naturally drawn to the “everyday stuff” you mention, because it often surrounds women so intimately. I don’t argue with this, but surely, these same women (while folding laundry, etc.) have fantasies and imaginations that take them elsewhere? But now your comment has led me to wonder if women’s fantasies get relegated to children’s literature instead of adult lit? Oh, dear, you see how sidetracked I get!

btw, I enjoyed your comment tremendously and I, too, am not qualified to tell anyone the meaning of life! - :)

3/28/2006 2:51 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Admiral – I applaud your comment!!! What a pleasure to have such a feminist among us - :D

“If Flaubert had stuck to what he knew, we wouldn't have Emma Bovary.”

Yes!!! This is the very heart of my question! For centuries men have written central female protagonists without being accused of writing outside their realm. Why this double-standard? Why is nothing beyond a man’s domain?

Ah, but you give us an answer (and far better you than me, hehe!):

Men, as a whole, want women to be both trashy in bed and virginal in behavior; the latter being the mom-thing. A female monster, no matter how friendly or appealing, would shock the collective He and therefore be rejected.”

I often joke that if you play a Nun or a Prostitute in Hollywood, you increase your chances of receiving an academy award. At the start of sexual identity, girls seem to be divided into two categories: the slut or the nerd. Then, when a woman reaches a certain age, she often becomes the asexual mother...

Ah, but your comment is so well-written that I have so little to add (without starting an entirely new and juicy side-topic!) Thanks!

3/28/2006 3:29 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, Holly!

I'm so glad to have your point of view here!

Yes, understandably, non-fiction is another realm entirely. We cannot write King Kong if we are writing non-fiction, unless we are… er, suffering from very serious delusions and/or hallucinations. So I’m in total agreement with you there.

As for beginning writers and academia… I completely understand the desire to teach students the power of observation; the ability to look deeper at themselves and the varied lives right around them. It’s often said that we least know those we live with, because our closest relatives/friends become such an ingrained aspect of our scenery that we forget to look hard at them and notice all the changes occurring right before our eyes.

On the other hand, from my own personal experience, I’m quite against what I consider an overall academic snobbery toward romanticism, magical realism, fantasy, etc. I had a professor who was forced to hide from her peers the fact that she wrote fantasy novels. It was looked down upon. I also think it’s a fallacy that youth cannot write about “dark” topics. Then again, I’m not forced to read student papers, as you are, and I might feel quite differently then!!!

I truly appreciate the importance of learning to find the drama inside small moments, but I also believe it’s important to learn how to find the small moments (tiny details) in high drama or fantasy. Yes, many students may be tempted to use “high drama” as a crutch, but if more students learned how to find truthful moments in soap-opera-like situations, maybe television would offer better dialogue? Unfortunately, life is more soap-opera than we expect, and the ability to write this “high drama” in a straight-forward, realistic and entertaining manner is a much-needed talent (IMHO).

But to argue your side again… When I was reading submitted scripts, I laughed whenever I got the dreaded elevator play! Every young playwright seemed to want to stick two people in an elevator, jam the elevator, and force these two people to contend with each other. Maybe one was an African American and the other a racist white. Or one was ultra conservative and the other ultra liberal. The elevator was a contrivance to force dialogue between two people who might not otherwise speak to each other. Yes, I confess, I got really get sick of elevators!

So, granted, you know better than I do what students are writing in regards to short stories and what might compel them to write fresh, meaningful, original material. And subsequently embark on a literary career.

As you wrote, there's so much to say here, that... I really must stop!

3/28/2006 4:15 PM  
Blogger actonbell wrote...

What an interesting question. I'm ashamed that I've never really thought about this before--I thought the "write what you know" advice was probably extended to everyone, but of course, it isn't. We have been treated differently. It makes no sense whatsoever to assume that women have inferior imaginations. I believe that the Bronte women, and Mary Shelley had fascinating inner-environments, perhaps because they had to. Life for women, back then, was so boring that a good imagination was a boon.

3/28/2006 5:14 PM  
Blogger actonbell wrote...

..I meant internal environments.
It's so important, what we do with it:)

3/28/2006 5:15 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

actonbell – Hello! Yes, I certainly hope the drudgery of daily life didn’t destroy the imagination for some.

“It makes no sense whatsoever to assume that women have inferior imaginations.”

Agreed!!! - :)

3/28/2006 9:12 PM  
Blogger mysticgypsy wrote...

Actonbell wrote: "Life for women, back then, was so boring that a good imagination was a boon."

Imagination is also a curse. The Bronte sisters (as well as their brother) suffered from "overheated" imaginations that made it hard for them to cope with the world around them. Charlotte consistently left teaching positions, Emily retreated to the "hearth of home" and Anne underwent a religious "crisis" and a consequent depression of spirits. Branwell,under pressure to make use of his imagination by means of a literary or artistic career, drove himself to ruin. All of them lived in their fantasy worlds even as adults. Though Imagination enabled them to write, it also tortured them.

3/28/2006 10:39 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Dear MysticGypsy!

Is the Curse our Imagination or our Society’s lack of appreciation, nurturing and outlet for Imagination?

I wonder, would the Brontes have been more “content” without such imaginations? Or would life have seemed dreary, dull, empty - even so?

So many biographies seem to describe them as tortured souls, but when I think of all the games they played and creativity they shared together, I wonder if we too quickly dismiss the joys and happiness in their lives? (Or am I just a wishful thinker?)

For me, you raise the important issue of striking a balance between our soaring imaginations and the down-to-earth tasks necessary for daily living.

And your comment also brings to mind the book Touched with Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison. She explores the question on whether psychological suffering is an essential component of artistic creativity.

3/28/2006 11:22 PM  
Blogger mysticgypsy wrote...

Hi Frankengirl
You are right. The Brontes did indeed share creativity together and had jolly times as well. However, most of this took place in childhood and early adulthood. However,things took an increasingly sombre turn when they had to make livings for themselves. As children they had no choice but to remain cloistered in Haworth (and be happy and provided for) but when they sought it as adults, this was no longer as desirable unless it came with a ready supply of money and use of talents. The world outside was the world of work but they were hesitant to move there. I believe their conflict was between imagination at home and work in the world.

3/29/2006 8:45 AM  
Blogger UltimateWriter wrote...

You should write what you want to write, whether it has to do with your personal life or not. Isn't that the whole point of researching a topic?

3/29/2006 9:21 AM  
Anonymous Holly wrote...

APS wrote, “If Flaubert had stuck to what he knew, we wouldn't have Emma Bovary.”

and FG responded, "Yes!!! This is the very heart of my question! For centuries men have written central female protagonists without being accused of writing outside their realm. Why this double-standard? Why is nothing beyond a man’s domain?"

I can't agree with either of these statements.

Flaubert might not have experienced himself life is a bourgeois housewife, but he experienced life as a bourgeois. He experienced envy, boredom, anxiety and rage.

I wrote all about how I required students to write realist fiction about what they know, but the first exercise I give them in helping them arrive at this piece of realist fiction about what they know is to write a character sketch about someone who is unlike them in some significant way: vastly different age, different sex, different race.

Asking "what would I feel like if this thing someone else is experiencing happened to me?" is at the root of compassion, and asking "What would it feel like if someone not at all like me experienced this thing I felt?" might or might not be at the root of strong, believable characters, but it's a good start. But of course, to pose and answer either of those questions meaningfully, you have to have a pretty thorough knowledge of yourself, and plenty of people don't.

3/29/2006 9:37 AM  
Anonymous Holly wrote...

FG wrote, "I’m quite against what I consider an overall academic snobbery toward romanticism, magical realism, fantasy, etc. I had a professor who was forced to hide from her peers the fact that she wrote fantasy novels. It was looked down upon."

Yeah, the snobbery in academia is annoying, and weird, because it's OK to STUDY sci-fi, romance, fantasy, comic books etc, but not OK to write them. At larger universities, you can find courses on all those topics taught by people who write books ABOUT them, the result of all this work to challenge and expand the canon. However, I would put magical realism in a different category, because Borges, Calvino and Garcia Marquez are firmly in the canon. Same goes for Alice in Wonderland, a staple in many courses on Victorian and children's lit.

What's interesting is that there are so few writers of magical realism in English. Alice Hoffman and Aimee Bender are about the only two I can think of.... anyone know any more?

re: men but not women writing beyond their domain.... I agree with the direction of your general point, Frankengirl, but let's not forget that it's not a hard and fast rule. George Eliot came up with Daniel Deronda, Harriet Beecher Stowe came up with Uncle Tom and Annie Proulx with Jack and Ennis. GE wasn't a Jewish man, HBS wasn't a black male slave and AP isn't a gay man.

Let's also not forget Mrs. Radcliffe, one of the most popular writers of the late 18th-early 19th century. She certainly wrote things beyond her experience.

FG also wrote, "I also think it’s a fallacy that youth cannot write about 'dark' topics. Then again, I’m not forced to read student papers, as you are, and I might feel quite differently then!!!"

Oh, 18-year-olds can write about that stuff all right--it's just that few of them can write about it well in fiction. Ask them to write about it in terms of their own experience, however, and something amazing happens: many who write crappy stories write amazing essays--about rape, child abuse, abortion, miscarriage, abandonment, heartbreak, suicide attempts, incarceration, substance abuse, etc.

Which just goes to support my point in a previous comment: it helps to know yourself before you try to imagine life through someone else's experience.

3/29/2006 9:56 AM  
Blogger mysticgypsy wrote...

Holly wrote: "many who write crappy stories write amazing essays--about rape, child abuse, abortion, miscarriage, abandonment, heartbreak, suicide attempts, incarceration, substance abuse, etc."

Holly, I was wondering what your opinion was regarding the writing of stories verses the writing of essays. Would you prefer one over the other? Are you of the view that the two tasks require different skills or that being good at one can assist the writer in the other?

I find that the writing seems to be valued more than the ideas the paper proposes. One could get away with a very good grade in class without challenging themselves too much with the topic just because their writing (of formal essays) is much more polished. I would much rather foster the growth of ideas because it easier to have the writing edited and assisted rather than the task of thinking involved in the ideas.
Then again, this my opinion regarding formal essays. Creative writing is very different from this I believe.

my 2 cents.

3/29/2006 10:24 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, Holly – I quite agree to disagree!

My post is not meant to question the validity of learning how to “write what you know.” I believe (in writing and in life) we need to learn all of the rules, then learn how to break them one by one. When learning to draw or paint, we start with shapes and cubes and gradually take on more complex subjects, and I imagine teaching literary fiction follows a similar path, and many students absolutely require the clarity, structure, guidance and challenge your sound rules offer.

However, my real interest here is exploring a potential gender bias in this instruction of “write what you know” - if teachers, publishers, readers, etc. have a prejudiced and/or stereotypical notion of what women know or are supposed to know.

Many accuse Charlotte Bronte’s Edward Rochester as being an unrealistic characterization of a man. And scholars are searching for a lover for Emily Bronte to explain the passion in Wuthering Heights. Perhaps the same accusations and investigations are levied at male writers portraying women, but I am certainly not aware of it.

Unless we are speaking of gay men. Noel Coward who was gay was criticized for writing about married couples, as if this should have been totally outside his domain.

So, for me, the real dilemma is how we may be prejudiced in considering what is within a woman’s writing domain – what she knows. When we tell a woman to write what she knows, I think we must be careful not to tell her what she knows. And I think imagination is also a part of what we know.

In my writing class scenario, I had a small fan club who ate up my stories of romance and heightened realism, and these stories were far closer to “what I knew” than the trendy and cynical café story that I was “supposed” to know. Hey, I just wasn’t trendy! I had my head in the clouds! Sometimes the “truth” of what we know is best drawn in allegory than realism.

I do hope you’ll pardon my “snobbish” remark about academia. I should have couched it within my own limited experience instead of making it an overall generalization. I went to a “snobbish school” and when it came time to plan my Honors thesis, my advisor was horrified when I told him that a friend and I were going to put together and run a playwriting festival instead. I think he felt he had completely failed me, poor man. - ;)

3/29/2006 10:30 AM  
Blogger mysticgypsy wrote...

Frankengirl wrote: "I believe (in writing and in life) we need to learn all of the rules, then learn how to break them one by one."

Well said Frankengirl! I couldn't agree more. Breaking the rules is the key! But one must know what to break first.

"When we tell a woman to write what she knows, I think we must be careful not to tell her what she knows. And I think imagination is also a part of what we know."

YES! YES! YES!

Unless someone equates knowing with mere "tangible" (earthly)experience, there is no limit to what one can and will know.

3/29/2006 10:52 AM  
Blogger Charlie wrote...

Boy, I hate these tiny comment windows!

I stick by my contention that women, both past and present, are "expected" to write about what they know. Anything else is a threat to male testosteronity. Especially in academia.

Holly cites valid exceptions—Eliot and Stowe—but these are indeed the exceptions and merely a speck on the total of female fiction.

Holly also states, twice, that to write realistically the writer must know him or herself pretty well. I suggest that no one knows him or herself well, and perhaps just barely, and maybe not at all.

We do feel our own feelings, and an eighteen-year-old can write an essay about his or her feelings, but the genius is the ability to project those feelings across genders and genres. Therefore, Flaubert was as much a genius as Stowe.

3/29/2006 11:22 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi again, Holly!

“re: men but not women writing beyond their domain.... I agree with the direction of your general point, Frankengirl, but let's not forget that it's not a hard and fast rule. George Eliot came up with Daniel Deronda, Harriet Beecher Stowe came up with Uncle Tom and Annie Proulx with Jack and Ennis. GE wasn't a Jewish man, HBS wasn't a black male slave and AP isn't a gay man…Let's also not forget Mrs. Radcliffe, one of the most popular writers of the late 18th-early 19th century. She certainly wrote things beyond her experience.”

Agreed! This is all very true and sound! However, my issue here is that I consider this the “exception-to-the-rule argument.” And this argument if often used to try to prove sexism/racism doesn’t exist. Many will say: “Look at Condoleezz Rice! How can you possibly complain about sexism and racism in America politics?!” Argh!

Still, I understand your point - and I truly, truly hope you are closer to the truth here than me.

“Oh, 18-year-olds can write about that stuff all right--it's just that few of them can write about it well in fiction. Ask them to write about it in terms of their own experience, however, and something amazing happens: many who write crappy stories write amazing essays--about rape, child abuse, abortion, miscarriage, abandonment, heartbreak, suicide attempts, incarceration, substance abuse, etc.”

Alright, I think I agree with you!!! Yippee! - :) But of course, I must give you an exception, hehe! S.E. Hinton!

Also, I confess that my comments are colored by the fact that I read scripts, not stories. So your experience and expertise in writing/teaching literary fiction is quite beyond me.

When it comes to playwriting; when literary narrative is removed; when it’s simply dialogue and scene-by-scene drama – youth can write raw, realistic and fascinating drama. Yes, it’s often unstructured and unpolished, but like the essays you mention, it can have a vitality and naked truth to it (that adult writers might mask).

I love your comments; I love your debate. You are challenging us to think more deeply and illustrate our points more thoroughly. THANK YOU.

3/29/2006 11:25 AM  
Anonymous Holly wrote...

Mysticgypsy asked me, "Holly, I was wondering what your opinion was regarding the writing of stories verses the writing of essays. Would you prefer one over the other? Are you of the view that the two tasks require different skills or that being good at one can assist the writer in the other?"

I prefer good literature to bad literature, no matter what genre it's in. But my area of specialty is contemporary American literary nonfiction, and I chose that specialty because it's of particular interest to me. I teach "introduction to creative writing," a course in which I have to have students write poetry, fiction and nonfiction, but as far as courses devoted to only ONE genre, I usually teach literary nonfiction, occasionally teach poetry and have never taught fiction. I'm just more interested in how people make sense of what has really happened to them.

APS writes, "Holly also states, twice, that to write realistically the writer must know him or herself pretty well. I suggest that no one knows him or herself well, and perhaps just barely, and maybe not at all."

I don't consider that an entirely accurate paraphrase of my statements. I didn't mention the word "realistic" in either of the passages where I mention knowing oneself, although I do mention "believable characters,"--but of course one can write "believable" characters who exist in "unrealistic" situations--fantasy and sci-fi are good examples.

Even if APS is right that no one knows oneself well, I don't think that absolves us of the necessity to TRY to get to know ourselves as thoroughly as we possibly can. I am bored by people who dismiss the endeavor as impossible and therefore not worth focusing on, and I hope that's not what you're doing, APS. I see the obligation as both intellectual AND ethical, which is why I stress the relation of self-knowledge to compassion. Most of the truly compassionate people I know possess a remarkable degree of self-knowledge, both of which make them valuable to me as friends and mentors.

FG--you're right, George Eliot is something of an exception. But don't forget that when the novel was first invented, it was quickly seized upon by women because it was open territory and soon was seen as this silly "unserious" genre that could involve the daily lives and thoughts of ordinary people instead of epic battles, and both the fact that the novel could deal with the quotidien and the fact that women wrote them were reasons why "cool" people didn't read them. Then more and more men started writing novels and it became this legitimate form of "high" art.

I would argue that something similar has happened recently with nonfiction: it was just a bunch of silly women writing about their meaningless lives; then a bunch of men start writing things like Angela's Ashes and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and all of the sudden it's this "hot" genre...until an asshole like James Frey throws a spanner in the works. We'll see how the genre develops from here.

3/29/2006 11:55 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

MysticGypsy - Thanks for the YES, YES, YES! Back at you - :)

“Breaking the rules is the key! But one must know what to break first.

Yes, and I just want to add that this definitely supports Holly offering such carefully delineated rules to her students. Giving boundaries first – to break through later.

3/29/2006 12:29 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Admiral –

"Boy, I hate these tiny comment windows!”

Well, for you, I’m trying out the no-pop-up option! For today, at least - ;)

“I suggest that no one knows him or herself well, and perhaps just barely, and maybe not at all.”

I think this is a fascinating suggestion! And I believe a very true one.

And this suggestion inspires me to wonder: are youth more likely to “think” they know themselves whilst adults are more likely to grasp that they have absolutely no clue! Or is this an individual thing?

And as an addendum to the above, I must add that our teenage friends, The Poodle’s Friend and Panacea seem to have a clarity about self that I just don’t recall having at that age.

”I stick by my contention that women, both past and present, are "expected" to write about what they know. Anything else is a threat to male testosteronity.”

Okay, it seems absolutely redundant to write that I agree, but just in case I’m completely incomprehensible in my own comments, I’ll add a big whopping, “YES!”

3/29/2006 12:34 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Dear Holly – Yes! You make an important point here – how a women’s domain in writing (the novel, the memoir) is belittled until men enter the territory. And to me, this accentuates the prejudice against “the content” of women’s writing.

Just for the record, I do not interpret APS’s suggestion about knowing oneself (or not) to mean that one should not struggle to study, analyze, and question the mystery and development of oneself. In fact, it may encourage the opposite - reminding us not to assume, but continually reflect upon our actions, thoughts, behaviors...

For me, on a personal level, his suggestion stirs the idea that we are ever-evolving, and may be different “selves” at different points in our lives. Thus, the teen story is the teen’s story. Perhaps, incomprehensible to the adult, but valuable nonetheless.

As for Frey, he could have used a few of your rules, hehe!!! Clearly, he couldn’t decide if he was writing fiction or nonfiction!

3/29/2006 1:16 PM  
Blogger Panacea wrote...

I feel rather intellectually challenged while commenting on this post, but I hope you don't mind me involving myself in this discussion.

My English Literature course in school is a highly intensive course which covers about 15 books in detail in a period of 2 years and your post got me thinking about all the books we have studied. I was really surprised to find that we had only one female writer among all the books. Then I thought about it further and realized that even though we had only one female writer in our course, almost all the books and plays we have studied are almost invariably focused on women and that is why I had not noticed the genders of the authors or playwrights. Right now we've just finished studying A Streetcar Named Desire and even though the play was written by a homosexual man, the female lead, Blanche is the most complex, ambiguous and focal character in it.

Mr Poop said that an eighteen-year-old can write an essay about his or her feelings, but the genius is the ability to project those feelings across genders and genres. and however clichéd this is going to sound, I completely agree with him. According to me, what defines the complexity of skilled writers is their ability to portray emotion on paper. Its not very hard to have feelings, but to make other people understand and feel those emotions through words is true brilliance. Gender, according to me has got nothing to do with it. With my experience, both men and women have successfully managed to create these emotions in minds through their writing.

But then again, this is just my personal opinion because I don't notice the genders of the writers who have written the book but focus more on the writing itself. Actually, I really should pay more attention to the genders of the authors I read.

3/29/2006 2:08 PM  
Anonymous Holly wrote...

Hi Frankengirl--

Re: SE Hinton and other young writers who show remarkable maturity and insight in their writing, whether it's fact or fiction--

of course there are exceptions to the rule that many young writers lack the maturity to write meaningfully about certain topics, and when one such exception shows up in one of my classes, my reaction borders on giddy delight. Not only do I have some sense that the person will understand what I'm trying to A) help them learn and B) why I'm trying to help them learn it, but I'll also get to read some good writing!

I don't think there's any teacher worth studying with who wouldn't be absolutely thrilled at the chance to work with the best and brightest, no matter how old they are.

But the general curriculum in American higher education is not geared for the best and brightest. I'm not saying US schools are designed for dummies, but in lower level creative writing classes, you can't assume that many people have A) read much or B) written much--even the really talented ones. You devise assignments and offer advice that will benefit people with some talent but not lots of experience, because that's what many of your students tend to be.

And I would also argue that the admiral's definition of genius--that it is "the ability to project those feelings across genders and genres" is merely one possible manifestation of genius. Emily Dickinson wrote only in poetry and personal letters, and the "I" in a Dickinson poem is a persona identifiable and consistent in terms of sensibility and voice. Nonetheless, Dickinson is widely regarded as a literary genius and a virtuoso of language. I feel there is good reason for that.

3/29/2006 3:19 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, Panacea! I’m so glad you got involved!

“I feel rather intellectually challenged while commenting on this post”

Yeah, me, too! - ;) I can’t keep up with all the brain-power behind these comments!

I find it rather astonishing that there is only one female writer in your intensive English Literature course, and I can’t help but laugh at what some might say if the opposite were true: you had only one male author to study!

“According to me, what defines the complexity of skilled writers is their ability to portray emotion on paper. Its not very hard to have feelings, but to make other people understand and feel those emotions through words is true brilliance. Gender, according to me has got nothing to do with it.”

What a lovely way to put it!

And to be highly repetitive, I’m truly amazed that (despite all the strong female authors) young women, such as yourself, are still studying female protagonists written mainly by men. I would like to see the reverse as well.

My 2 cents.

Thanks again! Since we keep talking about youth, it's really nice to have the voice of youth here!!!

3/29/2006 3:43 PM  
Blogger simmi wrote...

Steve Biko wrote a book titled 'I WILL WRITE WHAT I LIKE'. I find it very poignant that he choose this tittle, becouse he was fighting against the European/Western construction of an African. I believe that the issues Frankengirl brings up are exactly the same.

In terms of race and gender, people of colour and women are percieved as 'others', and by recieving the advice 'write what you know', within a superior patriarchal ideology, it is imperitive to question what 'he' thinks you know, and what 'he' thinks that you dont know...

I believe that there is an essential truth in writing what you know, the problem here is not about what you know, but about the preconcieved ideas, assumtions and stereotypical notions projected upon race and gender.

This is about the pragmatic experience of identity in a sexist/racist world...well, that is as far as I can comprehend the issues at hand...

3/29/2006 4:27 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, Holly - :)

Ah, the more you describe your classes, the more I want to sign up! I love that you mention your giddy delight and I see how you fine-tune your teaching to meet the needs of the students who come before you. Yes, it’s easy for us outside education to have lofty ideas, but you face and shape the reality for us each day.

I absolutely agree with you about the genius of Emily Dickinson! However, this question of “genius” reminds me of my wild world of words post. I don’t think one definition disqualifies another. I suspect we may all consider various writers geniuses in specific areas, and we may all define “genius” in our own particular way, based on our experience, our personal enjoyment, as well as what society tells us is “genius.”

May I just state randomly that I don’t like Chaucer. Yes, sure, I know, he’s a “genius,” but I don’t like him. Yeah, it’s Personal. He reminds me of the torturous time I had in “his” class. And the guy’s a perv, okay! At least, that’s all I got out of it, hehe!

So... my point is that “genius” to one is not necessarily “genius” to another.

Okay, I really need to find some cliff notes before I can respond anymore here! :P

3/29/2006 4:29 PM  
Anonymous holly wrote...

Re: Chaucer--I'm not crazy about Chaucer, either. And having read every single word of The Canterbury Tales (in middle English, no less!), I feel I have fulfilled my Chaucer obligation and am freed from the responsibility to read another word by him ever again, for the entire rest of my life.

In "Saving the Life That Is Your Own," Alice Walker mentions an anecdote in which Toni Morrison is asked why she writes the kind of stories she does, and her reply is that she writes those kinds of stories because they are the kind of stories she wants to read.

I certainly believe we should write about what interests us--otherwise, we won't care about the final product. But I also believe that we learn and grow as writers by setting challenges for ourselves--in terms of imagining events we haven't experienced, in terms of devising possible explanations for why a particular real event did happen, in terms of using inventive and apt and musically satisfying language, in terms of plumbing the emotional resonance of an experience, fictional or actual, in terms of trying to comprehend someone else's point of view. But all of those things are hard, and they require talent, skill and practice. My responses have all been shaped by the original post, which asked why writers might be given the advice to "write what you know." I still think that for many young writers, male or female, it's advice worth heeding.

3/29/2006 5:37 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Simmi -

Hi! Welcome back! It’s good to have you join us again.

“I believe that there is an essential truth in writing what you know, the problem here is not about what you know, but about the preconceived ideas, assumptions and stereotypical notions projected upon race and gender.”

That’s wonderful, thanks.

Your comment so perfectly captures a central issue here that I feel I have so little to add to it!!!

I love Steve Biko’s title: “I WILL WRITE WHAT I LIKE.”

Yes, I second that! - :)

3/29/2006 6:01 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Holly!!!

”My responses have all been shaped by the original post, which asked why writers might be given the advice to "write what you know."

I think this is may be where we got off track. My original post asks why and if women writers are instructed more often than men to write “what we know” (via Little Women, societal expectations, etc.). I confess it may not be clear, but I never intended to insist that this advice is not worth heeding – only that it may be limiting for many, many reasons...

First of all, what is that women know? Who decides this for us? What if the “unknown” becomes the “known” through writing about it?

As Simmi says far more eloquently – the known (and/or unknown) may be a stereotypical, preconceived notion by someone who doesn’t know us at all.

But, alas, I leave you with Emily Dickinson herself:

Chartless

I NEVER saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet now I know how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in Heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.

3/29/2006 6:17 PM  
Blogger actonbell wrote...

...love that poem.
And what an interesting discussion it was:)

3/29/2006 7:06 PM  
Blogger Golgotha_Tramp wrote...

I think that the ability that one possesses as a writer can be likened to that of an actor. An actor must have the ability to search their emotions and understand the role they play just as the writer must search their emotions to understand what they are writing. An actor may not have been a prostitute or a drug addict yet we do not mock them or force them to do so in order to play the part, the same should be true for the writer as both are arts, gifts that have been bestowed on the fortunate and although the skill can be fine tuned and cultivated it is impossible to "learn."

p.s. Excuse the my tardiness. I am, as always, late for the debate.

3/30/2006 4:39 AM  
Anonymous Holly wrote...

FG reminds us, "My original post asks why and if women writers are instructed more often than men to write 'what we know.'"

I guess this is one of those instances where people might be talking at cross purposes--she wanted to remind me that her question is shaped primarily by gender concerns, and I'm still thinking of it primarily in terms of the WRITER part. I pointed out in my first comment that "I give the advice to both men and women equally."

At the risk of running off-topic again, I'm going to invoke the final sentence of her post, "And by the way, do men generally receive this same memo?" and focus on that for a minute. I'd say that there are problems when young men write what they don't know personally but think they should know, in that they produce stories about international drug rings, gangsters, rogue agents escaping from the CIA. And it is because of men who write ONLY about what they know very well that I have had to add something in my syllabus about how it is not OK to make death threats--however humorously intended--in their work, and requesting that they please limit the frequency and intensity with which they write about the joys of substance abuse--I don't say the topic is off-limits, but I just got tired of reading pieces about NOTHING but excessive beer consumption from a couple of male students.

In her most recent comment, FG poses more excellent questions: "First of all, what is that women know? Who decides this for us? What if the 'unknown' becomes the 'known' through writing about it?" As for the final question, I think the "unknown" often becomes "known" through writing--and through research, which is often the first step in writing, which I and others have pointed out.

As for the first question, well, I guess that's just one of those questions I don't want to answer because I don't want to be the one who decides this for anyone but myself; I don't want to limit the possible answers. Women know STUFF, and the female--and male--writers who interest me most are those who know something profound about--and here I get grand again--the human condition and what it means to try to KNOW ONESELF.

If we use the Emily Dickinson poem as evidence, we can assume that she knows A) her own ignorance and B) the writings of people who know more than she does about certain physical objects and phenomena, and C) how to engage in lateral thinking and D) what she thinks about the whole combination and E) what assumptions she feels safe in drawing from that combination. Which to me means she knows a heck of a lot about her own mind.

I find it a sophisticated epistemological statement and more evidence that Emily Dickinson's primary subject matter is herself, even in its errors, weaknesses and contradictions.

And that emphasis on self-knowledge appeals to me a lot, and is one reason I'd rather read Austen than the Brontes: Austen's novels are about acquiring self-knowledge, while something like Wuthering Heights champions passion over anything like a reasoned inventory of one's motives, faults and weaknesses, and their effect on other people. Ick.

3/30/2006 8:53 AM  
Anonymous Holly wrote...

P.S. I hope I don't sound too argumentative and disagreeable in my last comment. I realize this discussion may have moved far afield of what you're trying to get at, and I'm sorry if I've helped move it.

3/30/2006 9:01 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

ActonBell - Aww, thanks for your cheery words! Yes, indeed, this has been a most interesting discussion - :)

Ultimate Writer – I’d like to sneak in a Thank You to you, too, for contributing to this lively conversation!

3/30/2006 9:05 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Golgotha – Hi!

It’s never too late to debate - ;)

“An actor may not have been a prostitute or a drug addict yet we do not mock them or force them to do so in order to play the part, the same should be true for the writer…”

Well, since I’m in theatre, I absolutely adore your comparison!!! And if I’m interpreting correctly, I agree that what we “know” can be what we imagine and/or learn to know.

As a side note, I’ll add that I know many gay actors who don’t want casting directors to know their sexual orientation for fear they’ll be type-cast and/or outright dismissed as a candidate for the role of romantic lead (straight-man hero). So theatre is full of its own prejudices in this manner. I also know many black actors who don’t necessarily want to play the “black character role,” but wish to be break the barrier to play the everyman or everywoman role.

“Excuse my tardiness.”

Ah, you’ve just been too happy! But never fear, here we are, ready to change all that, hehe!

Thanks for jumping in!

3/30/2006 9:06 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Dearest Contributors:

I'd like to take a moment to note that when I comment on comments, I'm often multi-tasking. I mention this because I imagine many of you are in the same position, and I don't expect anyone's comments to be a perfectly written, well-documented thesis, or a solution to all of the world's problems!

Also, may I just express my delight over the incredible diversity here. Our contributors to this particular post include: high school students, undergrads, graduate students, professors, autobiographers, non-fiction writers, poets, novelists, playwrights, visual artists, avid readers, hardworking professionals, self-named "warehouse rats," several Brontë scholars and enthusiasts, etc. These same contributors come from England, South Africa, Spain, Italy (and India), Northeast America, Southwest America...

WOW.

P.S. Holly, I just noted your comment and will read as soon as possible!

3/30/2006 10:00 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

P.S. When I wrote: "I don't expect anyone's comments to be a perfectly written, well-documented thesis..." I meant to add that I hope all will share this attitude in responding to each other. Yeah, I know, I'm preaching to the choir here!!! - ;)

3/30/2006 10:17 AM  
Blogger The Poodle's Friend wrote...

Ok, by the time it's taken me to read all these comments, i've already forgotten half of them, so please forgive me if I repeat what someone else has already said.

I agree with Holly's opinion that sometimes it's very valid to tell people to write what they know. However, I emphasize the 'sometimes'. I think Holly's looking at it from a very academic perspective where she gets beer-slugging male students who can't really write. In that case, it's certainly essential to tell them to write what they know; can you imagine what they would come up with if you gave them free reign? Probably alien invasions and women in skimpy outfits... So basically, telling them to stick to what they've experienced is some form of damage control.

However, when the author is no longer an illiterate dolt but an able, competent being, then the 'write what you know' becomes limiting. As frankengirl said in one of the earlier comments (I can't find it, there's just too many!) it is essential to make the grand world of fantasy flights into something personal, as well as do the opposite. This makes me think of War and Peace where you have individuals, human beings, rocked by the developments of the world around them. Basic human experience is transcended, but it remains the focus of attention.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that even the most absurd scenarios, plotlines that the author cannot have experienced, should not be dismissed in any way because even the way an author writes about something they've never experienced can be very interesting. At the very least, it's a different perspective. Besides, human experience is so easy to represent allegorically that I really think there is no need to have experienced something to write about it.

Relating all this to frankengirl's post: telling women to write what they know is WRONG. =)

And frankengirl, the only reason that I have any 'clarity of self' is because I'm not a normal teenager. Seriously, I completely missed out on the whole adolescent angst and struggle for the definition of the self and yadda yadda yadda... I was born middle-aged. =) (And Pan is just weird!)

3/30/2006 10:24 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Dear Holly:

I must refer you to the comment by TPF. I cannot respond any better than she has. For me, TPF has brought to light why (despite the fact that I believe you and I agree that self-examination is GOOD) we find ourselves repeating our central points in vain here - ;)

As TPF notes, we may be making opposing assumptions about the writers themselves: “good” writers vs. “bad” writers. (Please pardon my use of “good” and “bad” here, as I’m only trying to make a quick point.) Again, to echo TPF, while you are dealing with “damage control,” I am pondering over the many gifted women writers in our world who have never tried their hand at creating a “friendly female monster,” or why a female playwright comrade was criticized for taking on the topic of a man imprisoned for heinous crimes (while her writing itself was indisputably solid).

So, here’s what I think it comes down to… I believe we’re may be making different points but not necessarily conflicting points.

I do not envy you having to read such stories as you mention and I understand why you set specific guidelines. (And once again, I’m relieved I attended an all women’s college!!!)

“I hope I don't sound too argumentative and disagreeable in my last comment.”

I certainly hope no one takes it that way. Your debate has helped me to shape my own understanding of these issues. When I write posts, I don’t have “answers” in mind. I like questions so much better! - :)

P.S. What a brave soul you are to speak of passion in such a manner! Please be warned you may incite the passion and wrath of Heathcliff (as well as our Bronte enthusiasts here)!

3/30/2006 11:14 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Dear TPF:

Thank you for your literate and illuminating comment. You have made my life so much easier! And please refer to my response to Holly in which I basically say ditto, ditto, ditto to all you have said. - :)

"I guess what I'm trying to say is that even the most absurd scenarios, plotlines that the author cannot have experienced, should not be dismissed in any way because even the way an author writes about something they've never experienced can be very interesting."

I particularly like how you note this.

“alien invasions and women in skimpy outfits”

Lol!

"I was born middle-aged."

Perhaps when you’re middle-aged, you’ll hit your adolescence?!

Thanks for giving us the gift of your words.

3/30/2006 11:43 AM  
Blogger Sven wrote...

Help!!! I can't keep up.

I also feel unqualified to talk intelligently about literature, writing, and the female voice. But I will say that the discussion taking place would be much the same if we were talking about popular music rather than literature. Especially rock music.

The roles and expectations for women in the music industry mirror the roles and expectations you all have described for writers. Much the same way we have had trouble identifying a sympathetic female monster, it is nearly impossible to name a female "Guitar God". That is not to say there aren't a lot of REALLY GREAT female guitar players, but none have been anointed with the same deity-like status as Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen, or Steve Vai. It is an unfortunate reality that women are typecast in music as well.

Thanks for indulging the tangent. You may go back on topic now.

3/30/2006 1:56 PM  
Blogger mysticgypsy wrote...

Holly wrote: "something like Wuthering Heights champions passion over anything like a reasoned inventory of one's motives, faults and weaknesses, and their effect on other people. Ick.
"

What I want to say applies not only to Wuthering Heights but any work of literature.
One can interpret Wuthering Heights in many different ways. Reading it as the triumph/downfall of passion is just one way. Some other possible ways are reading it under the lenses of: social class, power and control, art and the artist, and connections to biography and history. If anything, it might stand out because of its literary defects (then one would question their preconceived notions of what a "defect" is in a work of art).

A book, as Charlotte pointed out, can stand apart from the writer. Imagination can have a mind of its own. It does not mean it applies to every writer or that I mean to sympathize with Emily necessarily. I am only stating that such a possibility exists. Even visual artists tend to face this issue. In this sense, we can question the moral in the work of art itself removed from the artist who produced it.

Wuthering Heights is indeed a "reasoned inventory of one's own motives, faults, weaknesses and their effects on other people." Passion will cannot exist in the absence of Reason, just as virtue cannot exist without vice. Taming an emotion is not enough to make it truth.

And the word passion can have several definitions. The same passion that drives one to do evil (abuse as in Heathcliff's case)also causes intense love. Is love wrong? How does one distinguish between the "right" kind of love and the "wrong" kind of love? Passion dictates religion as well. If one was free to choose a religion, why is it wrong if they chose love as their religion? Just as every religion can have benefits as well as faults within it, so can the religion of love. If love is equated with Passion, so can passion. We need Reason to realize the meaning of Love and Passion.

I agree with Milton 's argument in "Areopagitica" which states that one is not truly virtous unless they have faced vice, comprehended it, and judged for themselves. We cannot be truly good if we don't know what it means to be truly evil and vice versa. Satan (in Paradise Lost)was once an angel. Though Paradise Lost is a religious epic, are we to dismiss Milton for his portrayal of Satan? Are we to condemn Emily for her portrayal of Heathcliff without seeing the other "virtues" in her story? If evil is blantantly obvious in Wuthering Heights, there must have been a lot of virtue in order to make the evil stand out.

PS. Dear Readers, please don't take any of this personally.

3/30/2006 2:06 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Sven! The Third Man (oh, and I like that film, too.)

“Help!!! I can't keep up.”

You are not alone, my friend.

“The roles and expectations for women in the music industry mirror the roles and expectations you all have described for writers.”

What an interesting comparison! And since I’m musically-challenged, I can’t add much here, but of course, I will - ;)

For me, this highlights the issue of whether women chose a certain path or whether we feel directed toward a path (because it’s the path that “women know”).

“That is not to say there aren't a lot of REALLY GREAT female guitar players, but none have been anointed with the same deity-like status as Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen, or Steve Vai.”

I like how you use the word “anointed” and “deity-like status.” I wonder if we must take responsibility here. I expect it is not only the mysterious “man behind the curtain,” but also we (the masses) who create icons in our society...

Great comment! And not a tangent at all (or if it is, I love tangents, anyway!). Thank you - :)

3/30/2006 2:55 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

MysticGypsy - Hello Again!

I want to briefly respond to your previous comment:

“The Brontes did indeed share creativity together and had jolly times as well....However, things took an increasingly sombre turn when they had to make livings for themselves…The world outside was the world of work but they were hesitant to move there. I believe their conflict was between imagination at home and work in the world.”

I want to thank you for expanding on this for me and to add that I find artists often feel a conflict between “imagination at home” and “work in the world.” Thus, I believe many of us can identify with this dilemma. Though - hopefully - not to the same degree as the Brontes!

I look forward to reading your commentary on “passion” … - :D

3/30/2006 3:09 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

MysticGypsy!

As you know, I’m a supporter of “passion.” However, if Heathcliff were to ask you to marry him, I must counsel (as FrankenGirl), please reconsider! The guy digs up graves (and he’s not a vampire) or a gravedigger by trade!

Okay, please forgive my silliness above! Here's a bit of "my mulling" for you... You may have come across this article already, but I want to include these words here:

“Forget Jane Eyre and Rochester, or Heathcliff and Cathy - the emotionally-correct coupling today is Harry Met Sally, only more self-aware. Which is fine when it comes to amicable discussions about work-life balance or avoiding inheritance tax, but quite a few steps removed from the passions that make us human.” (article: Are we addicted to love?)

So, yes, there are others (besides you and me) who ponder "passion" and agree that passions are an essential part of what make us human.

“And the word passion can have several definitions. The same passion that drives one to do evil (abuse as in Heathcliff's case) also causes intense love.”

Yes, I think you make a strong case - not only for Wuthering Heights - but also for the importance of exploring both the positive and negative aspects of “passion.” I also really like the questions you raise about what constitutes “defects” in art.

“Passion cannot exist in the absence of Reason, just as virtue cannot exist without vice…We cannot be truly good if we don't know what it means to be truly evil and vice versa.”

Yes! And to dumb this down entirely, I’ll note that I wrote a story once about a girl who finds a version of Little Red Riding Hood without the Wolf. And she asks everyone (in this crazy fantasy world): Where’s the Story? LRRH goes into the wood and reaches grandma’s house. The End. Without the Wolf, there is no story.

“Are we to condemn Emily for her portrayal of Heathcliff without seeing the other "virtues" in her story?”

No! And now, in a wayward attempt to relate this back to women and writing, I’ll note that “passion” is often a trait attributed to women and women’s writing. Passionate. Emotional. Subjective. Etc. As if “passion” alone is a vice in itself. So, once again, we must reflect upon the word, the way it is used, and what it truly means to us and the world outside us.

Thank you - :)

3/30/2006 4:19 PM  
Anonymous human wrote...

I don't know if it was someone who told me to "write what I knew" or if I only read it in a lot of places. But that was the reason I stopped writing fiction, when I was in the 7th grade. At least it was the reason I told myself. I suppose the real, underlying reason was that I was terrified I wasn't any good at it and I no longer had the confidence to share what I'd written with anyone, which made it a pointless exercise. It's a shame because I was always (told I was) a good writer up to that point.

I can write non-fiction alright, now. But if I ever try to write fiction it sounds like, well, a 7th-grader wrote it.

4/07/2006 3:35 PM  
Anonymous Edith wrote...

I just read this in the latest carnival of feminists and I just wanted to say something, quickly, to Holly.

Holly, I sympathize with your position. However, perhaps you don't see some of the elitism I see in your comments.

I go to a working class college where half the student body is over 30. We also have a largely diverse population as far as race and socioeconomic background goes.

I'm taking a creative writing class right now, and my teacher is also enforcing similar rules to yours, on the grounds that we are inexperienced writers and need these rules.

I agree. The problem is, however, that the teacher is about twenty-five and white. Most of my classmates are people of color and middle-aged.

As one of three students of "traditional" age in this class, I get to bear the brunt of elitism from all sides -- from my teacher, who is fresh out of grad school and used to dealing with more typical college demographics, and from my fellow students, who are all older than me and have much more life experience than I do.

Our teacher is likely to relax the rules a bit for the older students, but not for the younger. The problem is that we're ALL beginning writing students, and we're ALL trying to get a BA. Personally, I find it amusing seeing my teacher have to deal with the problems of having older, working class, non-white students, who she seems to have been totally unprepared for teaching. But I also find it frustrating that she would dare create such rules about our "lack of life experience" when she's so much younger than these older students, and then switch it to "writing experience" when faced with this problem. Is that not ageism?

I know that most of the younger students, unfortunately, have a real edge on the older students. We've been in school continuously and we've benefited from a more consistent education. Generally, our writing style tends to reflect that. If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, the young students do -- but we're treated as the lowest of the low, as we have no life experience and go to such a poor college. Older adults are applauded for "returning" to school, but we younger students must simply be dumb or unmotivated to attend such a school. As a consequence, we're not just seen as your average college kid without experience. We're seen as unintelligent and completely ignorant.

These problems extend beyond the writing classes, obviously! But I guess I thought that in a writing class, for the first time I'd be taking a class where we were all taken to be on the same level and our assumed lack of education wouldn't be such an issue. Instead, our teacher keeps assigning the same readings that most of us read for the first time in ninth grade. "Have you heard of Hemingway?" she asks. Yes, thanks. It's just really disappointing.

4/08/2006 6:18 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Dear Human –

I feel your pain!

We constantly told to study fiction, but not to write it ourselves. And yet, good writing takes practice. So if we aren’t allowed to practice at fiction, fantasy or wherever our imagination soars, how are we supposed to improve and perfect this art?

A successful playwright/screenwriter tells me he has to write 500 pages of crap before he gets to the good pages.

So I think we all need to allow ourselves (and be allowed) to write a bit of crap so we can get to our own good pages.

Thanks for sharing your story - :)

4/09/2006 8:57 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Dear Edith:

Thank you so much for your comment. I’m sorry I can’t do it any real justice here…

You raise so many interesting and important questions.

Why do we make so many (false) assumptions based on age? What is "lack of life experience"? Only a newborn has that, I think.

From your description of your class, it sounds like there are so many biases being flung about in every direction. What a mess! Overcompensating on one hand and going-through-the-motions on the other.

I do hope you get something out of the class, and if you can find likeminded students, perhaps you can create a “cluster” of your own – sharing your work among yourselves and providing each other with feedback.

Fellow students can often be an excellent source of much-needed encouragement as well as appreciation and constructive criticism of our work.

Good luck! - :)

4/09/2006 9:02 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home