Sunday, February 01, 2009

Questionnaire



An interesting fact: approximately 50% of the people on my creative writing course are young women. Sitting in lectures and seminars, the fact has occasionally struck me, and I wonder why I find it odd, on the one hand, and why I've never really noticed it. In the case of the former, it is, of course, the strangeness of seeing an unfair percentage finally even out: further education has, in the past, been notoriously little-accessible to women (along with decent wages, equitable interpersonal treatment, and participation in democracy). The latter, no doubt, is due to my apparent acclimitisation to Warwick - I've simply become used to it.

Still, there's something about that percentage. We've recently been reading the first section of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's pioneering work of feminist criticism The Madwoman In The Attic, and one particular from it struck me: that because of the portrayal of women in literature and society - as "nullities, vacancies" for the "generative power" of the male pen(is) to inscribe and fill - they are intimidated from the act and profession of writing. The literary woman, say Gilbert and Gubar, has often been a figure of ridicule in male-authored texts: "Not only is 'a woman that attempts the pen' an intrusive and 'presumptuous Creature,' she is absolutely unredeemable: no virtue can outweigh the 'fault' of her presumption because she has grotesquely crossed boundaries dictated by Nature". This nonsense became a structural shaper of the identity of women, scaring many from the pen, and scarring those who did take it up - they cite the likes of Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, Charlotte Bronte and Emily Dickinson inserting apologias for the act in the middle of their writing. We could, of course, say that times have changed, that women should have no trouble becoming involved with the literary act, that the sexes are now on an equal footing, literarily. Of course, I would be saying this as a man. It's fairly easy for me to declare such things, seeing as I am, relatively speaking, in a privileged position with regards to this. Women actually have something at stake.

So, given that percentage, I'm wondering: is this the case? I'm sure I'm correct in assuming there are at least some people who read this blog who are a) women and b) writers, so I ask them: does the literary still intimidate? Do you find it more difficult to find the correct 'voice', dissociated from the male 'voices' of literature? How do you engage with women on the page? Do you feel the process of writing differs for you? (I realise of course that women probably don't know what writing is like for men, (although male writers' autobiographies (especially Jean-Paul Sartre's Words) can often give an interesting view of the act), so no-one need answer that question.) Is that struggle to engage with the process on your own terms still a part of the process? Do you feel like there is something at stake for you? And whilst I'm pretty sure no-one from my course reads this blog (I can't say I don't try), but if anyone is, I'd love to hear from you, in the comments box or otherwise.

So, uh, answers on a postcard, please!

11 Comments:

Blogger Jane Holland said...

I'm not sure if those are the rght questions, or even the most interesting questions. But then, perhaps I'm always more concerned with taking up a position and defending it than with getting at the truth. If the truth is quantifiable or definable in the case of how women's writing differs from that of men, or whether we still feel intimidated.

I'm sure many women do though, and don't even know it. Their intimidation may show in their choices of topic or voice - often the safest choices for women, looking to familial, domestic, romantic topics, dealing with nature and relationships rather than, say, politics, war or crime - and in the way their careers pan out or are still forced to stall or meander for a few years - reflecting the birth of children, for instance, necessitating time out or a slow-down in productivity.

My own career path shows those peaks and troughs - more of the latter than the former, given five kids and several spells of depression - so I speak from experience there. And my choices of topic have often been a source of discontent for me ... I enjoy reading a certain kind of hard-edged political poetry, yet rarely write it myself.

I write as myself, as a woman and a mother and a writer, yet whole swathes of who I am beyond gender concerns remain untouched by my writing.

Why is that? Lack of ability, lack of interest, or lack of nerve?

February 6, 2009 at 4:04 AM  
OpenID amphisbaina said...

(See? People from your course DO read your blog!)

To start from the (relative) beginning: why should writing be intimidating for women, especally nowadadays? I mean, yes, of course it's intimidating, but only inas musch as it's intimdating for any human person attempting the pen. I can agree that, say, in the nineteenth century and before it was difficult for women to write, indeed, to express themselves artistically (as you might have noticed, all or most of the known and studied painters, too, are men), but this happened because women were, generally, suppressed. So the problem, back then, wasn't just the issue of writing, but the issue of their being able to express their opinion and get their message through to men - be it through the pen, or through simple speech. Nowadays, however, the issue is totally different and the voices of women-writers differ as do their personalities. To answer your questions:
- the literary intimidates me only inasmuch as I am afraid of being unoriginal, shallow, superficial; but isn't this a general issue for writers? don't we all have moments of uncertainty? don't we all cross out certain lines, certain sentences, because we're afraid that they sound silly?
- and voice - well, to be quite honest, I don't really know how to answer your question about voice. Like Jane said, I'm afraid that - at least this one - is the wrong question. How do I engage with voices? Why, as best I can, of course. The 'correct voice'? Which one is that? Is there such a thing? I don't believe in 'correct voices'. Just as I don't believe in women having taken in the 'lore' and 'ancestry' that men have designed for them.
- how do I engage with women on the page? well, to be fair, my latest female character is a bitch who's trying to make her lover kill himself. You could, of course, argue that this is where I contradict myself - that I have, after all, assumed the 'male literary tradition'. No, that's just a character. I can assure you, my male figures are equally crazy and tormented. I just have a taste for dramatic, hesitating figures who try to figure out their own pathetic lives. Might sound boring to you, but that's what literature is all about, isn't it? Trying to make sense.
- and yes, the procees of writing does differ for me, but not just as a woman; it differs for me as a person with a certain personality, a certain experience, certain values and ideas. The process of writing cannot be quite the same for anyone, and I'm sure you know it.
- everyone struggles to engage with the process on their own terms - isn't this merely the question of originality, of uniqueness and novelty?
- I feel that there is something at stake for everybody and anybody who wants to become a writer. What kind of a question is that, anyway? Yes, there is something very important at stake: my reputation as a writer, and not as a female writer, but as a writer, in general. Presumably, all the people on our course want to be 'good' writers, right?

So, I might not make much sense, I might not even have looked at your questions from the right point of view, but here they are, my answers. Hope they satisfy you, at least to a certain extent. ^_^

Maria

February 7, 2009 at 6:37 AM  
OpenID amphisbaina said...

P.S.: Sorry, I didn't mean to post it twice! xD (obviously :P)

February 7, 2009 at 6:39 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

So there was essentially no point in my asking. OK.

February 7, 2009 at 1:23 PM  
OpenID amphisbaina said...

Yes, that's it, basically. :P

No, of course there was a point in your asking. You needed some answers, right? You got them. :P

February 7, 2009 at 3:02 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

So far the answers I've gotten consist of: 'the questions don't concern us.' We can extrapolate from this: 'there is no difference in the writing process between men and women nowadays.' Which is an answer, I guess...

February 8, 2009 at 2:21 AM  
Anonymous Jesus Fever said...

First, a confession: speaking as a (quite literally) aspiring writer, by which I mean someone so intimidated by the process of writing and the "presumption" it entails that I rarely even do the darned thing, I can't exactly answer your questions with much authority...
My initial reaction was, I must admit, one of indignation perhaps akin to amphisbaina's. We're past, I hope, the era of The Slits' typical girls who "don't create, don't rebel". The gender-fixated narrative a lot of male feminists seem to take gets a little tiresome when you're actually living it and simply trying to get your shit done.
However, there must be something behind the fact that I only feel justified in writing when there is a specific purpose behind it, a "permission" that occurs rarely since leaving formal education, and possibly the reason my correspondence with friends is so long-winded and flowery (so essentially, Dan, it's your fault I inundate your inbox with waffle!)
For some, the act of writing for its own sake implies a certain audacity, bordering on arrogance (which I appreciate is not the case with most writers - but the fear of being seen this way is enough to put off wallflowers such as myself). Hell, I'm even looking over my shoulder as I write this, lest my partner (who is male) see my ramblings and condemn my presumptiousness. Though gender may not be explicit in this intimidation, it is a wider patriarchy from which we seek this approval - the legacy of an elite that until relatively recently was almost entirely male.

February 8, 2009 at 2:26 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Oh sod it, I tried to comment and Blogger fucked me over. I'm going to bed.

February 17, 2009 at 4:26 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Some thoughts: evidently, then, we can conclude that t'ings are decidedly no longer as straightforward (or bleak) as in Gilbert and Gubar's account - women (as is readily apparent from the facts) have won not only objective space but psychological space within the world of writing, to "write as themselves", if you like. It would appear then that the kind of account given by G&G seems now too essentialist - it doesn't work to say "OMGZ, yr genitals are diff., so yr writing must be!!!1!!one" There is, of course, still the question of the objective space available in the publishing industry - the sexism still encountered even in, say, the poetry world - but that's for another time perhaps...

February 18, 2009 at 1:39 AM  
Anonymous cities forsaken said...

Also for another time: we are all, I assume (?), speaking from, and with regard to, the 'developed' world where females have relatively equal access to education, where the age of having a first child is increasing, etc.

February 23, 2009 at 12:06 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Yes indeedy.

February 25, 2009 at 5:25 PM  

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