For Whom Do We Write?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

In my post yesterday, "Boy among Girls," I riffed a bit on a conversation I'd recently had with my always dashing, never boring ballroom dance instructor, Jean Paulovich. He'd made a claim a week ago that turned on this fortissimo: men and women are two separate species; hence, the stories women tell about men have always and will forever devolve into a frustrated yelp of incomprehensibility.

I should say here about Jean that he is a purebred Belarussian and yet, since coming to this country less than ten years ago, he has become fluent in English, knowing more about root terms and grammar than most native speakers. He reads widely and deeply, is astonishingly quick witted, and he's an amateur psychologist to boot, a skill that, it seems, any ballroom dance instructor with aspirations for success must acquire and daily hone.

So that his comment caused me to step back and think, and now Kelly, aka September Mom, has thoughtified me (shall we say?) once more, with her comment/question: Beth, when you write, do you prefer writing to a primarily female audience? Does it change how you approach a story? I love the question so much that I yield this blog to it, and hope, of course, for your thoughts on the matter.

For me, the answer is this: I write the truest story I can find (be that memoir, poetry, fable, history, fiction) with the most-right language I can muster. I am by nature and by turns contemplative, ornery, outspoken, muted, at peace, distressed, entirely set on establishing a rhythm, then full of schemes to shatter the lyric's spell. I don't write for women, per se, nor for men, but for any who are willing to enter into the worlds I create. Much of the time, it is true, the willing are women, though I have heard from male readers of all my books, and I have treasured their responses to, say, Into the Tangle of Friendship, my memoir about friendship, and Still Love in Strange Places, my memoir about marriage, and Ghosts in the Garden, my memoir about growing up and older at Chanticleer, and House of Dance, a novel whose narrator is a 15-year-old girl. Flow, my autobiography of the Schuylkill river, was written in a woman's voice, and yet so many of its readers were men—men with whom I have had long conversations about time and love and hope and survival.

I have four brand new books on my desk to read. Two are by men, two are by women (more on these soon). I need, in my world, both men and women. I need their thoughts, I need their stories, I need their friendship.


septembermom said...

Thank you for featuring my question in your blog today. As usual, your response is thoughtful and genuine. I am glad that I'm one of those that "enter the world that you create". I feel that your novels open all the doors wide with welcoming arms for every willing reader who wants to join your story's journey. Last night, I had another question pop into my head as I tried to sleep last night. When I write, I don't write specifically for women, but I do notice that my finished piece has a distinct woman's "voice". I think my identity and perspective as a woman cannot be extracted from what I create. I wonder if my writing will communicate to women with more resonance because women do so often connect in a personal way through language, written or verbal. I hope some of these morning ramblings make sense:) Once again, I'm so honored that you take the time to discuss these questions with me.

Holly said...


Lilian Nattel said...

I'm with you Beth. I write the story as truly as I can. My novels tend to centre around family and work because that's my experience. Though I'm guessing that the majority of my readers are women (given that more women read novels), I've had strong positive responses from male readers as well. Half the major characters in The River Midnight were men. And although all the major characters in The Singing Fire were women, the experience and perspectives of men in their life also shaped them. My life includes men as well as women, and my life includes people of varying ages and backgrounds. That ends up being reflected in what I write, so that, for example, I write about the sexuality of the old, and about gay as well as straight characters. They are a part of my novels' world as they are of the outside world that I inhabit. What I search for in life is what I search for in writing: redemption, hope, comfort for the suffering, meaning. Those are neither male nor female.

Sherrie Petersen said...

Your experience definitely influences how you write. And men and women experience things differently so it makes sense that they approach their stories differently as well.

Em said...

It is interesting, isn't it, the idea that we could write for one gender or another. I often feel like books develop a he or she voice. And sometimes it's a male writer whose book sounds so female or vice versa.

I was presenting books to a bookclub last week, books that I had read and was recommending for discussion. A gentleman in the group complained about the prevalence of female protagonists. Sure enough, most of the books I'd selected had a girl as the main character, though the ratio of male to female authors was about even. Makes me I naturally drawn to female protagonists? Probably so.

Amy said...

Well said and beautifully stated as always!

Lorie Ann Grover said...

Oh, you have me thinking, Beth!

I think I write for me. How egocentric is that? In my head, I am my only audience. Hmmm.

Priya said...

This is a wonderful post, Beth. Completely agree with Cuileann.

Beth Kephart said...

Your notes here have been so intriguing, bending my mind this way and that. Thank you. Lorie Ann, yes, in the end, I write for me, too. That's a glory, isn't it?

And Cuileann. If you want thoughtified very very very much, you can have it!

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