The Womanly Art of Writing Like a Man
When someone tells me I don’t have the right to do something, I pay attention. For example, the right to write gay male characters in my novels if I’m not gay or a man. At the heart of the objections to women writing gay male romance is that we “can’t know.”
I can only speak for myself. This is true even when I write a story from the perspective of a gay man. To do so with any hope of genuineness, I have to find the place in me that can relate.
“I don’t have a lot of patience for authors who say they’d be too scared to write a character outside their cultural experience. Because we do that all the time. It’s call using your imagination.”
– Lauren Beukes, “Writing the Other,” in Wonderbook, Jeff VanderMeer
A friend of mine who is Black attended Howard University. He told me that when he arrived on campus as a freshman, he marveled at “all the ways there were to be Black” — many more ways than he had assumed. He saw and met Black people from all over the world who embodied a vast range of traits, experiences, cultural upbringings, beliefs, and combinations of qualities.
The closer we’re willing to look, the more diversity we find within our diversity. The more diversity we accept, the more we acknowledge every person as unique and, at the same time, all people as the same in deserving to be heard and understood.
Reading and writing fiction allows us to touch the edges of what we know, using our imagination to explore the experience of “the other.” Fiction gives us a way to experiment inside the realm of not-knowing. What if I were different from who I am? What if someone sort of like me lived in a world that understood me? What if I loved and learned and suffered and won, but as a different gender?
All novelists write about things they don’t know directly. Otherwise, we’d call the genre autobiography.
Rather than fussing over where to draw a line to demark who has “the right” to write about a topic or a type of person, let’s trust readers’ abilities to discern a story that rings true at the core. You know the bell I refer to. Some writers — you have your favorites — write so close to the bone of truth you would read their shopping list to touch the genuine place they know how to illuminate.
Stack up all the labels we could muster about someone, and we would still fall short of an accurate description of them. If we could stack up all relevant descriptors, any one person’s list would differ from the list for anyone else, ever.
No label or combination of labels is the whole story, yet because of labels we are included when others are excluded, or we’re overlooked, or we receive the blank stare of judgment and feel the scar of dismissal by assumption.
I write the novels I write in order to learn about myself and the world and people, and not from a simplistic “What would it be like to be gay?” perspective. I write (and read) fiction to explore solutions to my deepest questions, to reach past myself. I write fiction to find out who I want to be, to leap gaps. I use the specifics of story as a bridge between my experiences and others’ experiences. I write to find wholeness.
In a romance story, we follow the enzymatic effect of one character on another. We witness a coming home to self for each of the main characters, which expands into genuine acceptance of the other. A rift mends.
The womanly art of writing like a man is not different from the manly art of writing like a woman. Or the extrovert art of writing like an introvert. Or the Earthing art of writing like a Venusian. The issue is not our labels and whether we write within our labels as justification that our voice is true. The issue is whether what we write includes a bridge between our differences. That bridge is the truth readers seek in fiction.
Yes, I write stories about people who are not me.
Let’s celebrate the place where diversity meets oneness. Every time we imagine what it’s like to be someone else, and do so with a willingness to recognize the humanity we share, we infuse “the other” with enough specifics to recognize ourselves.
We add diversity to our diversity and find the richness of humanity.
“If we pay attention to the particularity of the world around us, in all of its overlapping aspects, not only will we derive the joy of discovery, we will care. And caring is what really matters.”
– Robert Bateman, “Preface,” Islands in the Salish Sea, edited by Sheila Harrington and Judi Stevenson