writing while female

Writing While Female Part IV – What Can We Do?

Part I

Part II

Part III

So what do we do?  How can we help?  We know it’s a problem to write while female.  We understand the institutionalization that has happened, that leads people to define ‘good story’ so narrowly.  That lets people say they aren’t discriminating, they are just choosing ‘good stories’ and those happen to be written by men, not women.

Here are some ideas:

Educators:  Teach outside your comfort zone.  Teach that others exist.  That their voices exist.  That they matter.  Express your confusion and be honest with your students.  Ask your students what they think of a story that is from a tradition outside your own and then do it again and again.  The first time will be tough.  The first time you won’t like it.  But if you do it more often things become familiar, and if they become familiar you’ll like it more.  You have to make other voices familiar.  You have to make the truth that there are other voices, other types of writers, familiar.

The reading lists I got in school were Huck Finn, Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men and our radical teacher had us read Canticle for Leibowitz.  It wasn’t until grad school that I finally read Beloved for a class.  Until a professor told me about James Tiptree, Jr.   Camus, Dickens, Steinbeck, Barth, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Kesey, Vonnegut, etc.  Those names had been the ones that mattered in academia.  And in my grad school, outside of the one class on magical realism, women writers weren’t there either.

We can’t do this to our next generation.  We cannot limit their minds so much.  We cannot limit their world.  There are anthologies to pour through, sites out there to help.  Find them.  Research them.  Show your students the process and the importance of the process.  Ask for help from others.  Ask your students what they read.  Ask others what they teach.

Learn and share that learning.  Expand your world and the world of your students.

Editors:  Read everything.  Search out new things to read and read more.  Don’t give up after one story from a group you’re not used to reading.  I’ll use the metaphor of a friend the first time she ate a samosa.  At the first bite she scrunched her face.  I asked if it was because she didn’t like it or didn’t understand it.  She thought and said didn’t understand.  It was a different taste spectrum than hamburgers and. . . ham.  So she took a second bite.  Then a third to try and understand what those sensations were.

I have now had discussions with many editors, online and at AWP and other conferences, about the lack of representation.  The conversation often starts the same, “I don’t discriminate, I just know what a good story is.”  When I press how they know they talk about the same schooling I received, the admitted limit of their not knowledge and familiarity with and understanding of different stories.  Sometimes there was a dawning awareness about their definition of ‘good’ and that hidden bias lurking there.  Because the bias isn’t even that female stories=bad, but that female stories should involve specific things because men have been writing female for years.

You need to read everything.  You need to search out things and read them.  You need to search out people who aren’t you and ask them what you should read.  You need to become familiar and see there is more than one story and more than one way to write it.  Stop the self-imposed tunnel vision.  Heck, why not with each submission you ask the writer to include their favorite story and start researching from their – an eager audience.  Or their favorite story by a female writer.  Or something to start the conversation and include those voices.

Oh, and my friend?  On the third bite she realized the samosa was way to spicy and she spit it out.  And it’s okay to hate stories written by people that aren’t your check box on an application.  It’s not okay to hate them out of that implicit bias, though. Learn to know the many ways one can write a good story, so you can know the ways in which they can’t.  It will help us all.

Writers:  Write.  Don’t be afraid.  Put it on the page.  Stand up and write and love yourself and understand it hurts and it’s hard and it’s defiance.

Recognize, too, that there is more than one story and read.  Read everything, like I said to editors above.  Read it all and experiment and try and help each other try and read and write and expand your own ‘who influenced you as a writer’ lists.

Readers:  Read.  Like the above read everything.  Discuss.  Ask questions.  Ask so many questions about what you are reading and what you aren’t reading.  This is the opposite of Where’s Waldo here.  We aren’t asking you to find the man but to look at a bookshelf and see what isn’t there and seek that out among the pages and pages of Waldo’s.  Be voracious in your searching and your reading.

Community:  All of the above and support.  We need to support each other.  We need to open discussions and swap names and stories and ask so much of each other.  We need to hold each other to this.  We need to stop the tunnel vision and the anger and the fear of the unknown that walks around each day.  That is in our homes and our schools and our work.  Because women are hear, even if at times we aren’t seen or heard.  And our ideas just might work.




On Writing While Female (Part II)

For Part I please go here:  Part I 

I started writing women.  Strictly women. If there was a romance needed, they were both women.  Or, in one case the lead was a woman and she turned to a Real Doll. And (even though I said I wasn’t going to muddy with race, here I go) I wrote non-white.  I mean, I had lived in NYC a long time before I went to grad school.  I don’t think I had a single white friend those 14 years, not a close one at any rate.  So why was I writing all white characters?

The response was not good.  In fact, I got comments about how I was weird.  Asking why I wasn’t writing about white people, etc.  And these were the written comments. (one poignantly asked, “What’s with all the Asians?  She also asked why my lead wasn’t a waitress because she did live in NYC after all, sigh.”)  I was veering from the contract I had signed by going to an MFA – to propagate dominant culture.  To be part of that ivory tower system of sameness.  This anger toward me meant I was going in the right direction.  But I was being alienated even more.

As part of our graduation we had to stand in front of an audience at a scheduled reading and be the ‘opening act’ for a published writer, friends of the faculty usually.  I read a piece that not only was modular, but the star was a non-straight half-Filipina woman.  This piece has since been published and then reprinted twice (Dreaming of the Mananangaal).  While for my peers, those I had gone through 3 years with, I had attended their readings, given some bottles of wine at their readings, congratulated them, etc. I got one text congratulating me and a lot of faces that turned away.  NOT ONE of my professors attended my reading.  Not even my thesis advisor.

However, the rest of the community was amazingly supportive.  A professor who had been pushed out (and is now the head of a wonderful community based writing program) said it was probably the best student reading in five years.  Undergrads were energized and coming up to me saying how much I had inspired them.  One of the poets in the program told me how beautiful the piece was, and how he thought it was poems at first and then it morphed into a story.

And I finally realized that I was on the path to my voice.

Back to Horror

When I’m asked why I write horror I say that I don’t, that I just write about being a woman and since most editors are male, they read it and go ‘shit, this is scary’ and suddenly there I am on the TOC with the menfolk.

I wish that statement was more joke than it is.  The story in Cemetery Dance is based off real events not just for me, but for many women.  When a woman says something, it isn’t always believed.  In fact, there’s a general institutional doubt of women speaking the truth, or their voices being valid.  If I go back to my MFA class, so many times a female would make a comment and the professor would nod, then a guy would make the same comment and the professor would smile, validate, and leap the conversation off of it.  This happens A LOT.  It’s like I’m standing in a room with a hand over my mouth (not my own hand) when I speak.

My story, “Anti-Theft,” deals with a woman who is having things replaced in her home and the cop who doesn’t believe her.  And I’ve had that happen too- only even more dire.  I got a death threat from a person from my past after they saw my name in an antho.  The threat was in writing.  Part of it said the phrase used in every Criminal Minds episode, “I love you too much and you are hurting me by staying away.  It’s a nine hour drive to where you live.  If you don’t reply in your own handwriting I will drive over there and purge you from my life.”

No shit, right?  Clear as day?  I mean – I hadn’t contacted them for ten years, I was in a different state and this shows up certified mail having never given out my address.  No brainer.

The male cop said, “They just love you and miss you,” and no amount of WTF read the letter, look at this, understand they’ve killed my pets in the past would convince him that I was anything more than overreacting to a missive of love and longing.

This happens every time I go to the doctors, too.  I’ve had very harrowing experiences when the male doctor has just told me I have anxiety, or as a woman I do certain things, think certain things, that I’m not really sick even though I am (one led to a rough exam I should have reported, but I was convinced it wouldn’t do any good).  They ignore what I am saying and focus on the gender, and the devaluing occurs.  (This is also part of why I now work in with doctors even though I don’t go to them as often as I should- my pat answer to what I do is ‘teach them to not be dicks’ which is way hard to do).  Women doctors do the same thing.  Medicine is a patriarchal institution and just as my first story that got me ‘into the establishment’ was about a man because that’s the story I learned was important, so do women doctors learn to distrust female patients.

(to be continued. . . .)

On Writing While Female (Part I)

Hi.  My name is Victorya Chase.  I identify as female and I’m a writer.

*Swipes brow*  Whew, now that that’s out of the way. . .

I say that because it is still an issue, will be an issue for a while.  The establishment is changing but it takes generations for real change to occur, because we have to change foundational thinking about people, about gender and race and that doesn’t happen over night.  What happens first are the discussions and the token few.

To some degree, I feel there are some great discussions about inclusion happening and there is is definitely some tokenism going on and that’s the point we’re at in publishing.  There are the designated women (I’ll try not to muddy the waters by keeping it to women and not race, realizing issues of race representation is entwined) who are allowed in the big horror anthologies.  There are the names over and over again- and sometimes the only female name on the cover, in the TOC, announced by editors who say ‘hey, we published a woman!  Look!  Here’s “Only Female!”

And I’ve been that only female.  Yeah me!  I’m being allowed to play and be a representative of my gender in this field.

Two of my own examples that come to mind are:

Cemetery Dance.  I was in issue #72 and just over the moon.  This is THE mag for a horror writer to be in.  Stephen King, Poppy Z Brite, Clive Barker – they’ve graced the pages.  Then little ol’ me got in.  And the Table of Contents of my issue had names I knew and had read:  Stephen King (omg!) and Norman Partridge to name a couple.  And at the bottom of the list of male names for those authoring stories in the issue (two Stephens, a Norman, Tim, and Richard to be exact – what wonderfully upstanding male names!)  Was mine, Victorya Chase.

Lamplight:  Volume 3 Issue 4.  I had been rejected from Lamplight twice so was just in shock when asked to be the featured artist.  That’s perseverance and all those Horatio Alger American Dream stories for you!  Seriously, the editor had been working on the e-book version of another anthology I was in and dug my incredibly bleak story and we started a conversation.  We actually talked a lot as the issue came together because he was upset that I ended up being the only female there with a story (There was another in the issue, Kelli Owens, a continuation of her serial novella).  I am heartened that this initial discussion has turned into continued ones about race and gender representation in our art.  And this time my name was first (yeah!) and the male names were cool (Davian, Kealen, T. Fox and John)

Now for Some Background on Me

When I started writing in earnest, like every good writer I wrote what I knew emulating what I had been taught.  I got into my dream MFA program while still in my twenties – Alabama. It was a top 25 MFA program.  And the story that I wrote was about a man who lost his son in a school shooting and his relationship with a woman with Alzheimers living alone and who had lost her son.  She sees this guy and believes him to be her son, and he plays along as he’s too overcome with grief to face his own loss.

It was a good story.  I mean, I was offered a place in a good program and 14K a year to go there and free tuition.  A lot for a story.

I didn’t accept the offer.  Something was wrong.  My voice wasn’t strong enough.  I wasn’t ready to make the commitment yet.  Plus, I didn’t have the money to actually GET to Alabama at the time.

I decided to write in earnest after that and apply to other programs in two years.  I saved my money, got my first acceptance (for an anthology that screwed over all its contributors, oh Devil’s Food, what a learning experience) and was blogging every day about my PTSD as a means to find my self.

When I had more than lunch money in my savings account, enough to actually move, I applied to MFA programs again.  I got into a couple, wait listed at a couple, didn’t reapply to Alabama because I felt bad at turning them down last time and like they’d hold a grudge.  I had no reason to feel this way, but did all the same.  This time the story was about a brother and a sister living in NYC.  It was very Mamet in that ‘fuck’ was every third or fourth word.  It was angry, like I was at the time.  And raw, like I also was at the time.  And still relied heavily on a main character being male because that’s what I read.  That was what was published, stories about men.  They mattered.  And it not only got me in to programs, but one paid to fly me out.  It gave me an extra fellowship of 1K to help me move.  Score.  That one story got me 15.6K a year plus the 1K and the flight.  Not bad.

But when in that program I began to notice something.  ALL the stories were about white men.  Here was a room that was half women, half men and EVERY SINGLE STORY being written starred a white man.  Or, if they weren’t the main character, they were the focal point of the attention of the female character.

I had gone to Barnard in undergrad, the birth place of feminism (per the brochures), but it was in that first semester that what I had learned then hit me.

What. The.  Everloving. Fuck.

I had been writing myself out of not just my history, but my future.  I had been focusing on the wrong experiences in my writing.  I was a parrot.  I was part of the problem, not a solution.  I mean, I grew up a non-white poor kid in Arizona.  My family teamed up with a Mexican family and we dumpster dove for food.  After Barnard I was seen as a white upscale person because of those four years and light skin, but white upscale was not my experience.  Where was mine on the page?  Why was I writing to begin with?