Allow me to plant a bare foot firmly on a third rail of modern society: gender differences. This post is inspired by a column my friend and Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA classmate Laura Warrell shared with me. Published in Salon by Lorraine Berry, it’s titled “Dear female students: Stop writing about men.” Ms. Berry has found that the female students in her creative-writing class often write about the men they’ve loved and lost. The male students don’t.
I don’t claim to have the answers on differences, if any, between male and female creative writers. I do know, however, that since returning to an art-committed life and engaging in a community of creative writers, I have found myself a minority. I have taken three creative-writing courses at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. I was the only male in one class and one of two in the others. I have been in two 12-student workshops at my MFA residencies, and in both I was one of two male students.
Now the courses and workshops focused on creative nonfiction, with writers working on personal essays and memoir. I’m sure there’s a blog post on why more women than men write memoir, if that is in fact true. But I think that trend I’ve noticed fits into the larger point I’m exploring here, that perhaps women are more inclined to explore their own emotional interiors on the page.
I believe this trend may be true in fiction as well as nonfiction. Last year I read a fantastic memoir in which the author shares when she was a young writer living with an unemployed boyfriend who belittled her and stole from her. Then I read a great novel by the same author about a young writer living with an unemployed husband who belittled her and stole from her. There was little doubt where the inspiration for the heroine came from, but that knowledge didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book.
Here are some of the questions I’m pondering:
- Is it even true that women write differently than men? Any sociologist will tell you that data outliers exist. The male poets of the Romantic Era certainly wrote about women and love, and Patricia Cornwell doesn’t write romance novels. The question is if those examples are outliers or instead are representative of the fact that there’s no trend to be drawn from the data.
If true, is this a bad thing? Ms. Berry seems to think so, but I think her bigger concern is that the young women in her class lack perspective. She wants them to know that broken hearts heal, are broken again, and yet the person grows and survives. But isn’t that really an issue of age, not gender?
- If true, is it in part a reflection of the audience? We hear about “chick flicks,” which feature tender stories of love and loss, and “guy flicks,” with crazy sex and action. Clearly Hollywood thinks there are gender differences in their audience. And I suspect you’d find more women than men read romance novels, and more men than women (although I suspect a smaller differential) read suspense. It also seems true that more women than men are published romance writers, and more men than women are published suspense authors. So which comes first, the writer’s inclination or the reader’s expectation?
- If true, are men simply not as introspective? A primary goal in my MFA is to learn how to put myself on the page. I’ve written about that struggle here on The Artist’s Road, and the very act of sharing that with all of you has been difficult. I’ve wondered if part of the reason I seem poorer at sharing than many of my classmates is that men simply don’t reflect as much on their own lives, experiences and emotions as women.
- If #4 is true, is that a result of societal conditioning? It’s safe to say that men are not encouraged, as a rule, to share their emotions, although frustrated girlfriends and wives may often wish they would share more. I believe society is more supportive now of men displaying their sensitive side (I’m seeing a lot of male politicians crying), but from an early age, girls tend to receive more support and less derision when they share their feelings.
I’d love to know what your thoughts are on this subject, if I’ve raised any good questions, if you have answers for them, or if this subject is even worth discussing. Join me on the third rail. It’s electrifying!