Cross-gender writing is nothing new. When Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel, Jane Eyre, (1847) was published under Bronte’s non-gendered pen name, Currer Bell, huge arguments broke out in Victorian England as to whether or not the author was male or female. One heavy-hitting critic voted male because the novel reflected a “manly” prose. I like to think that some hundred seventy years later, we’ve come a long way.
All of this is to say that I, a male, don’t feel too uncomfortable writing a novel with a female protagonist. For point of view, I’m using third person limited. The protagonist is a public-school biology teacher. She’s twenty-five, moderately good-looking, intelligent, and single.
I realize that creating a protagonist whose gender is opposite of one’s own can be tricky business. A huge mistake any writer can make is to think: “Hey, this is easier than I thought.” At that point, one may well be dancing blindly on the rim of a volcano. Complacency is the writer’s greatest enemy.
I’m stuck in my own hetero-sexual male culture, but not so deep that I’m unable to contemplate the infinite intricacies of the feminine heart. Isn’t that a brave thing to say? Here’s a quick story, a true story, to explain…or confuse.
From the time I entered the first grade up to at least the fourth grade, my older sister, Mary, always combed my hair before school. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it myself, but it was one of those unquestioned school-morning rituals. She did this in what we called the “big” bathroom, a capacious well-lit room situated midway in a hallway that connected two large bedrooms. The “little” bathroom, on the other hand, was a tiny space crunched in a corner next to the kitchen.
In the “big” bathroom, a large wall mirror loomed over the lengthy linoleum counter, a veritable runway loaded with feminine paraphernalia: perfume, lotions, lipstick, salves, creams, powders, tissues, jewelry, brushes, combs, clasps of all sorts and colors. Half-opened drawers with soft silky scarves poofed over the edge, colorful ribbons, and golden boxes of glittering things.
Centered before the mirror, I sat on a cushioned stool. I think I was eight or nine years old. My slim, pretty sister stood behind me and combed my hair. One morning just as she finished, she gazed at my reflected image and said, “You would have been a pretty girl.”
Now one may think I would have been shocked at such a pronouncement, but I wasn’t. My “boy-ness” wasn’t being questioned. She simply made an impromptu remark that probably came as much from my quiet nature, as opposed to my resistant-to-grooming younger sister, Rosalea, (pronounced: Rosa-lee.) Also, it wasn’t so much what she had said, but that it was a girl, my sister, who said it. Had another boy said that to me, it would have been an instant fight. But it was a girl, my sister—someone I respected and in my little brotherly way: loved. The point being: I never forgot that moment.
Growing up in the heavily patriarchal 50s, my sister’s observation was an epiphany. I was a nice enough looking young boy, with a boy’s penchant for getting dirty, getting into scrapes, and not tying my shoe laces properly, a fact that drove my mother up the wall, but suddenly I was handed this rare gem: a comment that invited me towards that vague and strange place—the feminine spirit. I believe this was a seminal moment in the formation of my writerly-self. I did not for an instance think I was a girl, but in the deep recesses of shadowy, synaptic thought, my sister had ignited an inquisitive spark that would fuel a lifetime fascination and abiding respect for the world of the female.
We writers are a curious bunch…that may be one of the reasons we tend not to be so great in school. Curiosity demands a great deal of freedom, of looseness, of imagination. None of these are promoted in the left-brained classroom. And, it is a phenomenon that is quite often satisfied by informally listening to others.
I spent many pleasurable moments as Chair of an English Department, sitting behind the office desk, listening to students, often females, talking about their plans, their hopes, their fears. Most of our majors were young African-American women. Talking with them was always interesting—and for me, it was a continuous learning process. I still remember the one young lady who after talking about her latest boyfriend, turned and gazed out the window and said in a matter-of-fact voice, “If I were a man, I’d treat myself a lot better than I do as a woman.” I still ponder that remark.
Not so long ago, my wife and I were sitting outside having a glass of wine. We had just come back from Japan and were talking about our trip. She recounted how much her Japanese friends liked me. She finally said, “You know, it would be great if you could be Japanese, but you can’t—no more than I can be American.” It’s true.
It’s also true that even though I “may have been a pretty girl,” I can’t be a girl, no more than I can be Japanese. All of us writers, push boundaries, but we can only go so far.
Writing a novel with a female protagonist is not easy. I still struggle with particulars, but memory and experience serve me well, and of course there’s all of my incredible female blogging friends!
But allow me this one question for all blogging men and women. What issues do you face when writing across gender lines? Does writing about males and/or females in YA novels, adult novels, or non-fiction give you pause? Do you wonder if you’re off track somehow? How do you research? Let me know. I look forward to your ideas and remarks.