Creating as a woman

The other day, a friend and I were discussing the movie The Fifth Element. My S.O. loves that movie. It is ironically one of the only science fiction movies that he enjoys. I chalk this up to nostalgia – not that I don’t enjoy the movie, the opposite, but it’s not really his kind of science fiction. His speed is more Interstellar or something else vastly cerebral.

Anyway, so my friend and I were discussing this and she mentioned that The Fifth Element would have been vastly better with some gender-flipping. The trope of the woman as sacred object, the naive woman who needed a man to save her and help her navigate the world, was tiring for her. Make Bruce Willis be Leeloo, and have Milla Jovovich be the tough cab driver with a mysterious past. I suggested going one further – keep Jovovich as the mystical Leeloo, and cast some hard-bitten older woman in Bruce Willis’ role. Her name could be Kora, or Ervin. You already have several speaking male side characters, including the very prominent role of the antagonist. Why not?

In a separate conversation on one of the social media sites I subscribe to, I found this post which talked about the role of female heroes in writing. I want to talk about how it made me feel in light of the above and in light of my identity as a writer. I swear it connects to the above.

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Writing as a woman is hard, because you’re covered in sticky cobwebs of male gaze and you don’t even know it. The post above mentions male writers, but male writers, as male directors, are only part of the problem. They are a huge part of the problem, sure. But the other part of the problem is that we as female creators often perpetuate their tropes.

Unfortunately, even once you awaken to the tropes in question, it can be hard to shake them, mostly because there aren’t any mainstream models of the kind of story you do want to tell. You end up making it up as you go along. I was lucky. I found authors like Martha Wells and Laurie J. Marks early. I knew I loved what they were writing, but I didn’t really understand why. It took me years, four of them spent at an all women’s undergraduate college, to really recognize what it was that was so fulfilling about these stories for me. It was because those stories were written for me. They weren’t written for the male gaze, but for mine. The characters in them, both male and female, were not indefinably crippled by the assumptions that so often come up in our stories: the woman must be saved, the woman must be beautiful, the woman must be perfect, the woman must have volition, but not too much. She must not overshadow the male protagonist. She must be good.

Nowadays I have added a plethora of authors to my list who are writing the kinds of stories I want to write, and to read. Seanan McGuire, Catherynne Valente, Kameron Hurley, N.K. Jemisin – they are all doing amazing things, testing the boundaries of their genres, and generally rocking out. They are telling the kinds of stories that I want to tell

But it is still hard, despite that, to shake the tropes that have so often reoccurred in mainstream fiction and genre fiction. I still read through a story or a paragraph and realize, oh, I have done the thing that I did not want to do. I have reduced my character to her attractiveness, to her goodness, and not let any of the dark survive to give her flavor. Writing as a woman is a balancing act between being true to your heart and being pulled in by the assumptions you never realized that you were taught to make. You can guarantee that if you are true to your heart, someone will accuse you of being an SJW, of distracting from the story, of advancing an agenda. And if you get pulled the other way, if you give up – well, you have even more left to lose. It is hard.

But the best things in life are rarely easy. So chin up, buttercup. Write your heart.

(P.S. if someone wants to write that Fifth Element AU I will totally read it. Totally.)

Profligacy

Something that I remind myself of periodically is that even successful writers often only get about one book out a year. I know this because so many of the authors I love keep to about that timeline.

Kameron Hurley, for example, works full-time like me and still manages to have cranked out six books since 2010, along with a startling array of novellas and short fiction. Her book a year reminds me that I, too, can do it if I put my mind to the accomplishment. On the other hand, of course, you have forces of nature like Seanan McGuire, who, since her break-out novel in 2009 has published an astonishing 27 books. That averages to about 3 and a half every year. These women inspire me to do better, to write more, to strike a hard balance.

I am conscious that I, also, am an inspiration to someone. This is comforting on days when I feel that I cannot accomplish anything because so many things want my attention.

I published my first book, since taken down for editing, in 2013. I had been working on that book since 2009. It wasn’t ready to go up, but it taught me a great deal. I have since written thousands of words, including Mother of Creation and two unpublished novellas as well as editing an unpublished novel something like a thousand times, which I pitch to traditional publishers as time permits. I have a trunk of short stories, some of which have received good reviews from editors, though none have yet found a home. I am about two thirds of the way through Daughter of Madness. I have done all of these things while attending graduate school, job hunting, and finally holding down a full-time job. I am, by these counts, a writer.

Recently, I don’t just say I’m a writer. I feel like one. Making time for writing, while it puts additional pressure on me, reminds me that this is a part of who I am. It’s not something I can just stop being.

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Instead of being anxious and upset that I’m not writing, I remind myself that I will be writing tomorrow. That I will sit down in my cafe and put on my headphones and dip into another world, shaping it and creating it. That has done wonders for my stress levels and my productivity.

There are still so many things that try to pull me away from this part of my life. The job. My family and friends. The chores needed to make a house run. Volunteering. Planning a wedding. The internet. Even hobbies like reading and watching shows. They’re all things I need. They’re all things that make me who I am and it’s not a contest. For me to be me, I must do all of it. I must bring it all into balance, and really, isn’t that what we are all striving for? Balance?

Balance, to me, is probably the hardest skill and also the easiest. Once you find balance, life becomes easier, but finding and holding onto balance in a changing world is massively difficult. My competing wants can pull one another down as easily as they push one another up. And yet, when I strike that balance, however briefly, I am happier. My writing is better, my mood is better, I am a better lover and friend. It’s worth striving for, however elusive. It’s worth remembering that producing words takes something out of us, and that the well isn’t endless. Our profligacy is directly dependent on our ability to feed it.

The next time that you are down and out about something you want to accomplish, remember that no one does it easily. We are all balancing our own plates, overburdened with bounty as they sometimes are. The task is to walk in balance. That seems easy to say, and harder to do. It is both of those things. No one can tell you what balance will work for you, but find one that does. Compare yourself to others for inspiration, if it helps.

If it doesn’t, throw those comparisons out the window. Your writing, your act of creation, your passions – they don’t belong to anyone else. They belong to you.

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