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Portraying the Other Gender

What We Might Get Wrong About the Gender We’re Not

I was raised to be male. There’s no getting around that. There will be some things about women’s experience I might never understand fully.

My brain is homosexual. There’s no getting around that. There will also be some things about straight guys’ and bi guys’ experience I might never fully comprehend.

My brain is also cys. I was raised Protestant Christian, ended up Taoist. I was raised in the Upper Midwest with fairly pale skin and blue eyes. I’m currently in my 50s. If I only wrote characters who were just like me, it would be pretty boring.

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I was probably not alone in starting out as a young writer in portraying characters who weren’t like me as if they were like me. I had really ambitious, athletic, unemotional women, and everyone was able and strong and smart, even if occasionally a bit too selfish.

As I matured as a writer, I went back to my acting training more and tried to imagine a back story and circumstances for each character. I certainly bucked a few stereotypes here and there, and I challenged myself to put myself into the minds of the most different types I could, including robots, aliens, Bhutanese teen boys, young Muslim women, transgendered spaceship captains, and, most recently, a blind, bisexual, wheelchair-bound telepathic interrogator.

So what do I assume about females? I try to imagine being judged more superficially from a young age. I imagine the confusion and frustration of bleeding on a monthly basis. I imagine the social pressure to smile when I wasn’t happy and to defer to men when I had a valid point to raise. I put myself in the fear of frequent verbal abuse, blatant from my enemies and subtle from my friends. I imagine the greater burden for birth control, the conflict of children versus job, the insistence of a fertility deadline, the economic injustice of being a female employee, and my mystification at what men I meet are thinking.

What do I notice female writers getting wrong about men? Men are generally (not totally) more physical than verbal, so we are less likely to engage in debate for long, more willing to intervene with some form of touching. We are to greater and lesser degrees aware of the early trauma of having one of the most sensitive parts of our bodies cut away in circumcisions. We are often taught that showing emotions is weakness, so we may have trouble expressing them. Through sports, academics, and games, we are taught to be competitive and to win–in extreme cases, ruthlessly. Men get frustrated by their role to be the hunter and the breadwinner, because it takes a lot of effort, and sometimes we would love someone else to take that responsibility. Many times we are less prepared to take care of ourselves when we move out on our own.

When I write, however, I try to include female antagonists and scientists. I write some butch and some femme gays and lesbians, and men who aren’t sure what they want. I find the idea of wise children of any gender both believable and satisfying. I include conservatives and liberals (though the conservative mind is a lot harder for me), and that may or may not affect their gender roles. And I am even trying to get inside the head of a totally nonbinary person.

And as hard as I work to make my female characters believable and compelling, I’m sure I’m still falling short, and it’s okay to let me know that when you see it.

 

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The Try-Fail Cycle

Believable Success and Resolution Must Follow Failures

I used to go on months-long lecture tours around the U.S. talking about practical Western application of Taoist principles. I learned a lot in my travels, and I met a lot of ardent seekers. They had already hit some sort of bottom and decided that their life needed to change. They wondered if the ancient Chinese philosophy I promised to talk about would offer any previously hidden path to a more balanced life.

homer

I particularly remember a woman in St. Paul, Minnesota, who worked at a shelter for battered and abused children. When I talked about the neutrality of events, and that it is our interpretation of them that evokes emotional responses, she wanted me to tell her how in the world was she supposed to stop hating the perpetrators (usually a parent) of child sexual or physical abuse. She was occasionally required to interface with them and couldn’t dredge up any compassion for them.

That tour ended on the East Coast, and I started making my way back to my home in Los Angeles at the time. Close to a year later, I heard from the woman in St. Paul again. She had tried talking to an abusive parent at her job after several months of mulling over my proposition, and she discovered that abuse is a learned behavior and most abusers have themselves been abused earlier in life. (You can read a bit more about this strategy in my post “Was It Something I Said?” from a month ago.)

In fiction, as in life, we need to recognize that change rarely happens smoothly. New skills take time to master. We have a tendency to project backward on our successes and omit the failures that we suffered in the process. We shake our heads at younger or less experienced people in our lives and remind ourselves that everyone seems to need the confirmation of failing before they follow someone else’s advice.

If we omit the struggle in fiction, readers pick up on it immediately. Characters who easily solve problems on the first try are boring, because they create no tension or anticipation the reader needs to drive them forward in the story. Fiction writers in all genres recognize the importance of the try-fail cycle. (For more detail on how to construct them check out Karen Woodward and

Conventional wisdom suggests a character must fail 2-3 times before succeeding, but that is an overly simple mnemonic. Your character can fail just once before succeeding, but you can build tension by making the success create a new problem, or by making it only a partial success. You especially don’t want to set up a rhythm to your plot complications. Keep the reader guessing by making some things surprisingly easy and some incredibly hard. The reader learns more about your character by seeing how he or she deals with conflict and adversity, and the more they learn, the more they will like your character.

And when you’re out there dealing with real people in the world, be patient with other people’s failures. Perfection is boring!

 

 

 

Calmly Freaking Out?

subway monsterNot Every Drama Needs a Drama Queen

I recently had a medical condition I’d never heard of, which especially scared me because I have been a health writer, and I work as a medical editor. When it became obvious I had no clue what was happening to me, I started crying for almost an hour at the prospect that I was permanently broken. The next morning I calmly went about the day and eventually visited an urgent care clinic.

It ended up not being as serious as I feared, but I found the experience instructive about my writing. I have too frequently received feedback that my characters were too calm in traumatic situations. I usually say in my defense that I was raised by scientists, and our first response to surprising events is more likely to quickly settle into wonder.

So in my novel The Walking Trees of Bauble when the landing party wakes and finds their camp engulfed with crowds of nonchalant blue aliens walking past, they are agog. They are dumbstruck. They are not screaming and carrying on like crazy people.

In the first chapter of my novel Cursed and Blessed, the principal character, Griselda Becker, encounters an Irish fairy called the Grogoch. She is perplexed by seeing an odd-looking old woman with pointed ears, but she remains cordial. She does not freak out.

In my novel The Lever, the four main characters find themselves trapped inside a shuttle under someone else’s control that is blasting off from Mars. They are anxious. They are worried. But they quickly push away the fear that they could die soon and realize there is nothing they can do to change their immediate fate, so they start exploring the shuttle.

I’m sure sometimes readers feel something is wrong with the writing if characters do not react the way they would. I have been advised to include a more high-strung or at least more ignorant character in my casts to serve as a proxy for the reader, and occasionally I will do that. But I wonder if I need to always include the total range of emotional responses in every story. Isn’t it acceptable to model calmer responses for my readers?

I suspect it comes down to not wanting to be the odd one out. It’s hard to stay engaged in a story when you would be the only one freaking out, and you imagine it warranted in the circumstances you’ve encountered reading. We are tempted to make our own response right, and the characters wrong. But I am, of course, less likely to point the finger at my characters’ committed placidity.

We are, especially with comedies, surrounded by characters overreacting:

Oh my God! I spilled my wine glass . . . on you!

We start to become accustomed to seeing characters’ lives depart from bliss and perfection and reacting with embarrassment or shock. We have been trained by media for the lowest common denominator to become more emotionally fragile.

And when I plot character arcs, I try to sustain a character’s composure through disappointments and surprises so that when the really big stress comes, it has more emotional impact. If you spend emotional capital too early, you have nowhere to go when things get much worse.

I will try, however, to at least indicate some of the mental gymnastics that go on when someone is quietly freaking out. Perhaps something more along the lines of:

Oh my God! I’m gonna’ die! Well, maybe not, but it’s going to be very unpleasant. Okay, it’s fine. I can handle it.

And with any luck, I will slowly nudge the world toward being less of a drama queen.

I hope you have an exciting, but not too overtaxing New Year!

The Roots of Inspiration

What Led to the Writing of That Novel?

My boyfriend and I took a side trip to the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn this morning to enjoy the early 19th century ambience and superb menu at the Clover Club. We talked about the Mary Poppins sequel we had seen the night before, which had inspired him to introduce some innovations to the TV show he directs and produces. I also caught him staring at the end of the subway car, and I was surprised to find he was suddenly intrigued by the view of the subway car behind us through the window of our car’s rear door. He often shot subway scenes, and it opened his mind to new angles for approaching those scenes.

SONY DSC

Those are the more obvious precursors to creative inspiration. You see or hear something that offers a solution to a long-pondered problem, and you incorporate it into your art. As a writer, I am often asked about the inspiration or origin of my various stories. There is always an easy answer:

When I was planning Cursed and Blessed, I was evaluating my lot in life and recognizing that I had experienced both good and bad luck in my life.

But I was recently reminded how the vicissitudes of fate had become a major theme throughout my entire life, not just in that moment. I mentioned that my birthday was on Christmas Day to a coworker, and he remarked how that seemed “a blessing and a curse.” Yes, I’m often around my extended family when my birthday is celebrated, and, at least as an adult, I get a whole bunch of gifts at the same time. But it was sometimes an excuse to shortchange me in my youth, I can count the number of birthday parties held in my honor on one hand, and it is often a tense and depressing wait on Christmas morning for someone to remember it’s also my birthday.

santa birthday cake

Those trials might suffice for someone writing ordinary literary fiction, but in writing speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror), I believe my audience wants me to make my points more dramatically. I can’t just report on someone whose birthday falls on December 25. I have to give the character a blessing twisted by a curse he must cope with the entire year, knowing that the next year could bring something better or worse.

As I approach 60 way too rapidly, I find that my character in Cursed and Blessed was likewise saddled with a frequent reminder of his limited mortality. In his case, he has reason to believe he might not make it past 50. My growing thanatophobia couldn’t let him get away with a long happy life. He also gets sent to federal prison. His body becomes crushed and disabled.

Part of the family curse the main character struggles with is that he can never get married. That is such a strong theme in the novel; it is even part of the ultimate plot resolution. The New York Assembly passed the Marriage Equality Act only seven years ago, and the Supreme Court recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry only three years ago. Imagine a public ritual as important to human culture as marriage being denied to you for the first fifty or more years of your life. Then suddenly you open yourself to the bridal showers, the church ceremonies, the wedding registries, and the public recognition of your commitment to the person you love. I have vowed to put the exercise of that right on my bucket list. It is no wonder the curse blocks my fictional character from getting married through most of his life.

I’m sure readers who know me personally will see even more correspondences between my life and that of Rupert Rocket, the gay ballet dancer, arts administrator, model, actor, and international spy in Cursed and Blessed.

leap male dancer

And now my answer to what inspired that novel becomes a bit more complex than the conscious decision I made earlier this year when I started writing it:

Cursed and Blessed reflects all the challenges I’ve had to face in my life as a white American gay male in his fifties: my fear of dying too soon, my belief in the remote possibility of marriage, and my certainty that luck is neither good nor bad–it is ever an opportunity for using what life brings to our best advantage.

The latter is the concept of wuwei in Taoism. Look it up.

And Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa, and Awe-inspiring Mawlid al-Nabi to everyone celebrating in this time of year!

puppy eating

 

No More Happily Ever After

Infidelity Still Seems Taboo in Fiction

I read all of the original Mortal Instruments novels by Cassandra Clare, but as I binge watch the TV series (Shadowhunters on Free Form), I’m finding a renewed appreciation for the number of serious social issues she touches on with sensitivity and complexity: racism, homophobia, child abuse, incest, corruption, and more. But one issue that studies estimate affects at least a third of all couples–infidelity–becomes a monochromatic, irredeemable sin. Two principal characters’ father has sex with another woman, and the whole family is ready to write him off forever.

This is not to say that authors never question the assumption of fidelity. There are a few who deal with both the betrayal of a marriage vow and reconciliation afterward, but even those stories portray infidelity as a moral weakness that needs to be overcome. Like overcoming an addiction.

I myself have been guilty of sidestepping this issue. I am happy to give my characters any number of medical conditions and tics to make them more distinctive and relatable. But when it comes to my characters’ relationships, I only go as far as emotional infidelity, because I don’t want to saddle them with an issue that could sidetrack my plot and pull even more of readers’ sympathy away from characters already thrashing about in moral grayness.

But if as many as two-thirds of us will be in a relationship where at least one person betrays a stated expectation of fidelity, why should I be so worried that my characters’ sexual exploits will not resonate with my audience?

Because infidelity isn’t about sexuality outside a primary relationship. It’s about breaking a promise. And that means that the person left holding the short end of the stick, if really feeling betrayed, leaves the relationship. If there is reconciliation to be had, it is the regaining of trust.

And the near-necessity of readers trusting a narrator especially, means that a reader could be thrown out of rapport with the story, or even throw the book down in disgust. It is because their innocently offered trust was stomped on. How can I trust characters if they have shown themselves to be duplicitous in their relationships?

The solution is a good one not just for our fictional narratives, but for our lives in the real world as well: Do not expect fidelity. If it is as common a circumstance as we have found, we need to enter our relationships prepared for one or two instances of sex with others. Without the weight of a vow of fidelity, outside sex partners can become just a blip in an otherwise happy, enriching life together.

This is something that has been much easier for gay people to consider, since we’ve been sexual outsiders without marriage rights for so long. We recognize that sexual drives are rarely in sync with our mutual free time, and occasionally they will be more in sync with someone else’s. This has led to a higher percentage of open relationships among queer people than among straights. This has led to a higher percentage of poly relationships than among straights.

Especially if we are writing future-oriented science fiction or alternate-reality fantasy, we should be able to shine a light on this evolution in human relationships too, right?

Let’s retire the fairy tale of “living happily ever after.” Let’s just enjoy the rest of the ride!

Novelty and Comfort

Avoiding the Cookie-cutter AND Being Too Weird

When you create art, you must make a decision about how far from the center of the crowd you feel comfortable standing. Too close to the mainstream, and you may get only a few critics who laud your minor variation on a previous story or trope. Too close to the fringe, and only a small handful of critics recognize your daring genius. Where is that middle ground between novelty and familiarity?

Humans are functionally herd animals. Our tribal social structure has more to do with wolf packs and herds of cattle than solitary spiders and raptors. We band together so that the sick and weak are protected. We work together to gather what food we can for the good of our tribe. And in community, we pass along knowledge to multiply our experiential knowledge.

One way we transmit tribal knowledge is through art. The earliest cave paintings and written languages allowed humans to transmit values and knowledge beyond the living members of their tribe. Early art and literature shows evidence of slowly making a transition from recounting perceived truth (journalism, accounting) to a creative expression of something hoped for. At first, that was just a religious/magical invocation of a future we wanted to see: a successful hunt, a bountiful harvest, a big family.

Eventually, story became a way that we transmitted values. Parables and fairy tales taught the young social custom, morality, and ethics. For example, the fairy tale of Snow White includes the big message that a pure and kind heart will always win out over selfishness and evil, but it also cautions the innocent about being too trusting; someone may give you a poison apple.

As art drifted further from morality plays and fairy tales, the artistic impulse melded with the scientific explosion. The same impetus that gave us penicillin gave us Madame Bovary. A desire to give audiences a new experience, to broaden their experience and challenge them, became the goal of art.

And then it got a bit weird. Some artists got so far out there, they were difficult to appreciate. I know there are some ardent fans of abstract expressionism and the avant-garde, but I am not one of them. I remember as a child in the 1970s going to a band camp in Madison, Wisconsin, and being asked to improvise based on a sheet of paper filled with circles of various sizes. That seemed too silly to me.

At the same time, I have watched, especially in digital entertainments, how one ill-advised sequel births yet another. In my humble opinion, the Die Hard franchise could have stopped back in 1988 after one film, and the world might have become a better place for that mercy. Even one of the most august defenders of originality, the opera, has fallen prey to the onslaught of too many entertainment choices and offered to stage “The Shining” (from the novel, but after a film and a miniseries) and “The Exterminating Angel” (from the film).

I see this reliance on the comforting repetition in the book publishing industry as well. Books are still sold in decreasing frequency to book stores, and in that process, the poor salesperson calling a book buyer has to convince him or her to take more than one test copy of a book that has no track record to boast. So they make comparisons:

This is the new Girl with the Dragon Tattoo!

This is a mashup of Twilight and Avatar!

Comps, as literary agents have shortened these deplorable tags to, are increasingly the standard by which they judge a new story’s marketability. The assumption is that if you can’t tie it to what’s come before, you are too far out for any publisher to sign you.

Too many professionals in publishing who rely on comps don’t seem to realize how they are killing creativity. If I know when I start a new novel that I’m going to need to boil it down to one or two predecessors, I will unconsciously start to limit my creative choices.

When I write (or when I compose for that matter), I am naturally going to draw on what has come before. Each art form and genre within them has expectations as basic as what parts of a canvas you paint on to how early in a murder mystery novel you need to produce a corpse. But do I really need to end a musical phrase on the tonic? Do I really need to limit myself to one point-of-view character at a time?

I long ago discarded any notion that I needed to fit in. I found that learning new things, experiencing new things made me feel the most alive. So when you see a gathering of published authors in the future, you will probably see me on the fringe. Not in another room or crammed into a corner, but I want to be able to look out from the crowd and see the world, not just the other artists around me.

I urge you, in your life in general, but most definitely in your art, to step out a bit from the crowd. Dare to be rejected or criticized. And when you join us on the edge, doing weird stuff with your art, you will find comrades.

And it will be glorious!

Was It Something I Said?

What to Do When You Hate an Author

 

I looked through a Reddit discussion recently on authors readers hated. I was pleasantly surprised that most of the objections came down to the author’s style. People like Stephen King played higgledy-piggledy with his characters early in his stories. J.R.R. Tolkien reads like a boring travelogue to some readers. I myself have sworn off reading Neal Stephenson and Dexter Palmer, because of their style of writing.

And there are a lot of books in which we have to push through some bad elements to appreciate the good. I slavishly read most of James S. A. Corey’s Expanse series of sci-fi novels. I love their use of description (it’s a pseudonym for a pair of writers), their complex characters, and their interesting takes on politics, religion, and technology. But I chafe at their tendency to use too many different point-of-view characters and wait far too long to bring their storylines together. And often to complete a scene, you have to wait too long to come back to a character that was there to finish it.

But the discussion of hated authors often gets personal, especially in this new social media age, where their opinions are often clearly displayed online. Marion Zimmer Bradley, who gave the world The Mists of Avalon and dozens of other fantasy and science fiction books and founded the Society for Creative Anachronism, which now sponsors so many Renaissance Fairs around the world–she is also reviled by many. Her children came forward after her death and reported being sexually abused as children. Even though the abuse was principally enacted by her husband, she is criticized for letting it continue. Does that make her stories less enjoyable?

Unfortunately for many now, it does. I remember reading Orson Scott Card‘s stories, including Ender’s Game and its many sequels in my teens and early 20s. I was not out or newly out during most of that time, and I don’t recall any of the author’s socially conservative beliefs invading the narrative.

At least not overtly. Even in situations where he puts his characters in sexually segregated situations, they are all chaste. There is a noticeable lack of homosexuality in his books that tracks with his previously stated beliefs that homosexual marriages are inherently lesser than heterosexual ones, because homosexuality in his view is a deviant, chosen lifestyle similar to pedophilia and bestiality.

I was certainly one of the ones who turned against him when he started actively speaking about my inferiority and working to keep me from getting equal treatment under the law. I stopped reading his stories, and when I started writing stories, I avoided sending them to Intergalactic Medicine Show. The genre magazine Card started seemed to endure, and I was told that Card himself rarely takes part in the editorial decisions at IGMS.

I am still distrustful, but I have begun to selectively send his publication stories. All of the ones I send have gay main characters. So far they haven’t accepted any of them.

But how did we get to a place where what authors say and do in their private life so tarnishes their creative output? As I suggested in my last blog post, agreeing to read someone’s novel is like agreeing to be hypnotized. You have to trust that you will be treated well to make that agreement. Certainly part of my hesitance about reading Mr. Card’s works is fear that he will subtly demean me, even if through omission. Critics of the late Ms. Bradley would probably also worry about an insidious belief in the sexual availability of children creeping into her writing. We don’t undergo that sort of a contract without trust.

Greater sensitivity to being “triggered” (especially on college campuses now) shifts responsibility for self-care onto makers of entertainments to protect or at least notify audiences of topics that may or may not negatively trigger them. At the same time, the #MeToo movement has gone beyond making everyone aware of the prevalence of sexual abuse. Too many accused abusers now face dramatic consequences before the validity of the charges is ever weighed. The mere appearance of an accusation seems to make someone irredeemable.

Can we forgive Ms. Bradley for not protecting her children better? I hope so. The dynamics of abuse also affect bystanders, and it is hard to allow the idea that someone you love is hurting your children.

Should I forgive Mr. Card? Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to allow same-sex marriage, he has dropped his opposition to it. He has retired from organizations fighting it. Shouldn’t I have more compassion for someone raised in a borderline-abusive religion like Mormonism and give him some time to overcome that?

I’m working on it. I certainly hope those who have accused me of being short-sighted or enabling oppression will work on it too. Authors are people on journeys too. We learn. We make mistakes. We try to use our influence for good. I’ve met so many authors who are extremely generous with their time and knowledge. They are often champions of volunteerism.

In a time of increasing tribalism that authoritarian regimes have been fomenting, it is a useful exercise to see what value we can find in the words of someone from an opposing side. Behind so many Bible-thumping Right-to-Lifers I have found women reeling from miscarriages and infertility. Behind so many rabid Republicans, I have found subscribers to the American Dream who are losing faith they will ever achieve it.

Every time we open a new book, we wonder where it will take us. You can always put it down, if you end up hating it, but I personally believe the solution is to read the rest of the book before passing judgment on it–or the author.