Same Story; Different AuthorCategory: General   Nov 25th 2015  09:33PM   0

I read and write primarily nonfiction. Reason being, I find true stories far more interesting than even the most imaginative fiction. I also think it takes more insight, awareness, and intellect to identify a narrative arc and isolate applicable themes from actual, real life events and relationships, than to pluck a them out of thin air and weave a made-up story around it. 

A few years ago, a new client gave me the short story collection Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins. It's a great read, as far as fiction goes, but this (linked) essay is my favorite piece from Watkins yet. In it, she  mentions meeting talented author/memoirist and grating misogynist Stephen Eliot. I met Stephen years ago in a writers workshop. I disliked him immediately, which is rare for me, although I doubt it's rare for him if his behavior that day is any indication.

In the workshop he was full of attitude, arrogant, and purposely (almost gleefully) obtuse in response to a timid young attendee. This young, female newbie writer had broached a very common dilemma in her question to Eliot, regarding the delicate matter of writing about one's family and/or an abusive, painful childhood. The workshop was casual, a circle of chairs around Eliot to whom questions were initially addressed before a group discussion would emerge. It was quite clear the girl was flummoxed by Eliot's dismissive non-reply. She feared having said something wrong or "stupid" and she was starting to shut down. 

New writers are vulnerable and insecure, as a rule. Dismissive-ness, especially from a mentor figure, can shut down or close down a new writer permanently. It can be traumatic (to any artistic or creative type) and I simply can't abide that, so I answered her question for him. I happen to have some experience in that regard (writing about family), and since Stephen was shirking his duty as the head of our workshop, I stepped up. She appreciated it (the whole workshop did). I don't suffer fools and I will shove any sexist ass out of the way to assist a fellow writer in need. I've attended enough workshops and conferences to have seen this before; it's not uncommon at all. I've stepped in before and I've seen others do the same. Eliot should've expected, and quite frankly, appreciated it.

Instead he shot daggers at me for the next 30 minutes. It was ridiculous and childish, but whatever ... I ignored him. Later that evening, at a party, he came to my table and chatted for a bit, still aloof, but less so and actually somewhat engaging. We had a decent conversation about other writing related topics and I discovered he's probably done more good for newbie writers than bad. In the end I concluded he's just as human as anyone. A work in progress, but one with some sexist tendencies that need to be called out. 

Years earlier, at a screenwriters conference, I received praise for a character I'd written in my contest entry: that of a Las Vegas stripper/escort. Hers was the lead role, although her (male) romantic interest came a close 2nd in regard to screen time. The notes I received from male film producers, agents, and managers, were uniformly high in praise for the complex and fleshed out escort character. "She's so unapologetic and real!" "I love her balls!" "This is the kind of role actresses love to play!"

Then, "Just cut it by 50% and enlarge the boyfriend's role. You need a male lead to sell this."

"Why?" 

"Because that's Hollywood. If you want to sell this switch the lead role ... it must be male." 

Every female producer, agent, or manager to whom I relayed this story was utterly unsurprised by these sexist notes. They'd smirk, sigh, or roll their eyes, then shrug and nod. "Yeah, it sucks but that's Hollywood."

It's also publishing, journalism, media, etc. Watkins is sick of it. I'm sick of it. All women are sick of it. In her essay, Watkins advises us to "Punch up." To notice misogyny and fight against it. Say something, name the unfairness. Call the offenders out by their names (*cough* Stephen Eliot *cough*).

It's a start. We can pen essays, memoirs, articles, blogs, etc. and call this shit out. Every day, every time. Spread each other's links around and punch this shit up.

That said, there is something else. Something even more important.

Real change begins with action, not essays. Change begins when you either call the offender out to his face or bypass him entirely and address the situation yourself. Watkins may've had that chance in Eliot's company and not realized it. Often times, women don't see the reality until they've had some distance from it. Be aware, and speak up quickly. Then write about it so you'll make others aware. Make others aware even if you have to push a misogynist out of the way to do it. Even if he's leading a workshop or is a mentor in your field. Essays are great but there is no better feeling than reaching past some asshat to help a sister or fellow creative in need.

SHOW men you mean business, don't TELL them. If there is one theme in my life, this is it. Show, don't tell. That's how you write well. That's how you live right.


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