Exploring a Different Point of View: When My Character Isn’t Like Me

I’ve written before about feeling limited in my writing because I’m an only child.

Later it struck me that any writer is limited. We’re bound by our own bodies, these combinations of organs and colors that shape so much of our lives. I have experienced, am experiencing, and will experience life as a white female. But I don’t want to write only about white females. Through my writing, I try to step into someone else’s place and experience his fictional life. I’m trying to do this now.

One of my point of view characters is a late twenty-something African-American man. Obviously, though we share a few similarities in our backgrounds, our different skin colors and our different genitalia have resulted in different life experiences. Even things as simple as “going to a private Christian school” and “being a good student” are experienced differently.

I’ve tried to observe behaviors and reactions at my daughters’ private school, note all those little things that might help develop this character. I’ve cast my mind back to high school (earlier, I didn’t have any African-American students in my school) and tried to replay what I saw without realizing the significance of it.

(For example, after O.J. Simpson was acquitted, the only black boy in my senior class almost came to blows with another boy in art class. I don’t know what the white kid said—probably something racist or immature—but it upset the young black man. Another boy intervened, told the white kid to lay off or something, and the fight didn’t happen. I shrugged it off. Now I wonder how hard it must’ve been to be the only black male in our class, dealing with a structure that reinforced white privilege in ways both known and unknown to us.)

But I stumble when I try to write from this character’s point of view. Two issues:

One. I want his voice to be distinct from the others in the novel, but I don’t want it to be a stereotype of “generic young black man” (as if there is such a thing!) or clichéd. That’s a craft issue; every writer fights her impulse to reach for what is easy and obvious. It’s not easily solved but hard work and deep characterization helps.

Two. This time, it’s not an outer craft issue but an inner one.

In writing from a perspective of a person of a different race, am I appropriating his voice, molding it into a shape that suits my view of race? Am I trying to speak “for” black males, as if they cannot speak for themselves?

It wouldn’t be my intention. But I don’t always know all of my own intentions.

After weighing the options, I’ve decided to write from his view anyway. It scares me a little, but my better writing tends to scare me as it is, so there’s nothing to be gained and a lot to lose by avoiding it.

Still, I had difficulties transitioning from one view to another. I remembered a writer saying that he had always admired John Gardner’s writing, so he began copying one of Gardner’s novels by hand until he understood his voice and rhythm and reasoning.

Hmm, I thought. I went to my bookcase and hauled out everything written by an African-American, picked Earnest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying (his narrator’s education level and family dynamics seem most similar to my character’s), and started copying his opening page in longhand.

I hadn’t remembered just how powerful this novel is. I don’t think I had properly appreciated what Gaines accomplishes in the first chapter—the first page—the first paragraph—heck, the first sentence.

Maybe it’s being a writer and knowing the difficulty of writing a gripping opening for a novel. Maybe it’s age, maturity, and a growing awareness of the world. Maybe it’s the process of slowing down, writing each and every word and punctuation mark that Gaines wrote first, and taking the time to see what he didn’t write.

Whatever it was, by the end of the first paragraph, my hand ached, my heart ached more, and I sensed, in Gaines’ blunt words, the ache of being helpless against an unjust system. I was ready to write in my character’s voice.

Skipped a few lines.

Started writing.

Started understanding how he views the world and what conflicts he is dealing with. Dealing with as a specific individual, that is, not as a stereotyped version of a person. I came up with several possible  subplots, too.

I still have a long way to go. I don’t delude myself and think that this writing is a substitute for experience. I’m trying to let the character drive the plot, not my views on race and racism forcing the character into a mold. (My characters never behave for me, anyway.)

But it’s a start.

And like any start, it’s scary.

But if I learn anything from this process, then all the fear is worth it.

Categories: books/reading, race, writing | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

You Never Know

Laura Droege:

This is a thought-provoking story, one that I’m sure will stay with me a long time. It definitely makes me look at those strangers around me in a different light: you never know what they might be going through.

Originally posted on Nutsrok:

Battered shoes

Many years ago, I was on an hospital elevator with a minister I knew.  A somber man got on with us.  He looked straight ahead, deep in thought. Attempting to make conversation, the minister said, “Smile, it can’t be that bad.”

The man’s expression never changed.  In a low voice he remarked, “My son just died.”

The minister and I were both shocked.  As he stammered an apology, all three of us burst in to tears.  We hugged the man, offered shocked condolences, and offered to make phone calls for him.  The minister got off and went with him.

I’ve never forgotten, and suspect neither of them has either.  You just never know what a person is dealing with.

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The Marketing Genius (a short story)

I’m excited to have my short story “The Marketing Genius” published on Stigmama.com. It came out on the 21st, but for various reasons (including a lapse in my email checking for over 24 hours, how shocking!), I’m just now announcing it to you.

If you’re familiar with Stigmama.com, you know that it is the brainchild of Dr. Walker Karraa, a mama who has a passion for stopping the stigma of mental illness. (You might also guess that this story has zip to do with marketing as we normally think of it!) I’m honored to have my story on her site, and I hope you’ll check it out. If you do, try to guess which novel most influenced my characterization of the protagonist.

“The Marketing Genius”

Despite what all those other marketing gurus say, influencing people doesn’t have to involve complicated plans, social media campaigns, or photo shoots with bikini models plumped up with saline and hairspray and athletes pumped up with steroids and fame. No, it’s really far easier than that. Anyone could do it, but I’m the best. Want the secret? Here it is:

Read the rest on stigmama.com

Categories: fiction, mental illness | Tags: , | 3 Comments

Manipulated by Christian Grey (by Me, a Fifty Shades Avoider)

Ruth Perry over at The Beautiful Kingdom Warriors posted a huge list of links about the response to Fifty—oh, never mind, you know what book it is. I read a few. One that I found especially intriguing was from a woman who had survived an abusive relationship: “Fifty Abusive Moments in Fifty Shades of Grey.” I’ll be writing about numbers 48 and 50.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not read the book, have no plans to read the book, and absolutely no intention of wasting time and money on a movie based on the aforesaid book. Normally, I think people should read a book/watch a movie if they’re going to critique it; I’ve made an exception here.

Second full disclosure: I’ve never been in a physically abusive relationship, though my first relationship falls into the “emotionally abusive” category. I wasn’t certain that this was true until now.

According to this blogger, here’s what happens in Fifty Shades:

Soooo….  In chapter 14, Christian goes into a “catatonic state.”  He is terrified that Ana is going to leave him, because she’s angry that he spent time alone with Leila and has decided to go back to her own apartment for some space.  So he goes into submission mode.  He falls to his knees, breathing heavily and refusing to speak to Ana, or look her in the eye.  Ana spends ages, begging him to talk to her, telling him she loves him, how much he means to her, how she can’t stand the idea of anyone else being with him…  And then she gets to the nitty gritty and starts saying she’s not good enough for him and she’s sorry and she just doesn’t know what he could possibly see in her.  And bingo.  Christian’s back, everyone!

This got to me.

It’s a long story, but here it goes:

At the Christian college, I had an older guy pursue me. He asked me to go with him to the Junior-Senior banquet (as friends).

I turned him down; my roommate had a crush on him and he had had a brief flirtation with her. She’d been devastated when he broke it off.

Then he confessed that he had a crush on me.

I’d never been pursued before, and for various reasons, I said he could call me. And he did call me.

Every night. For hours. With my roommate in the room.

He was on the phone downstairs, just outside my dorm, and I was upstairs in my room, refusing to come downstairs to him. (At the beginning of the school year, he’d had serious flirtations with three of my friends, and I was scared to go for a walk with him.)

Every so often, someone would walk by him and ask,

“Who are you talking to?”

“Nobody,”  he’d reply.  

My friends hated his guts; each time they saw me on the phone with him, they’d tell me to hang up. It was good advice, but being nice, polite, and pleasing other people was ingrained in me, and I didn’t do it.

He followed me, taking every opportunity to talk to me. I tried to make certain my friends were always with me.

He cornered me in the cafeteria. I avoided mealtime.

Can you possibly see a few red flags here? 

The stress of the situation was one reason I developed bulimia. My already depressed mood deteriorated.

Within two weeks of asking me out, he told me that he loved me. (Fast worker, just like Mr. Grey in Fifty Shades.) And he had to tell me, over and over and over, on the phone, “I love you.” I swear, the guy was a CD player set on repeat.

More red flags.

My mood swings burst out in full force. I started developing feelings for him, a guy I found physically revolting, and one Monday night, as I swung into a hypomanic episode, I told him I loved him, too.

Bliss! Happiness! Dancing on the bed in ecstasy! Hypomania. It lasted less than twenty-four hours before I started to spiral down and rethink this entire love business. Wasn’t this happening a little quickly? I didn’t really have to marry the guy, did I?

I told him I needed space.

And he turned into a Christian form of Christian Grey. Total silence. Wouldn’t respond to my words. Wouldn’t look at me. Breathed heavily. Left campus, head hanging.

The next day, he didn’t show up for classes. His friends started asking my friends if I knew where he was. “He’s skipped Russian history twice this week,” one said. Once, to hold hands with me-in-bliss-of-hypomania-state. Second, to manipulate me. He’d told me that he’d wanted to kill himself before; now, I wondered if he’d committed suicide and the school just didn’t know yet. It would be my fault because I didn’t love him enough.

When he finally did appear, he didn’t talk to me. My moods were still swinging and now I was in a mixed phase: all the negativity of depression and all the energy of mania. I emailed him, demanding to talk, and ripped into him. (At least I didn’t act like Ana in this case!)

“You gave me the silent treatment. You shut down! You wouldn’t talk to me.”

“You do that, too,” he replied.

Suddenly, I felt responsible, guilty and implicated and confused. Was this all my fault? Was I behaving just like him? I hit bottom with a depressive phase. Within hours, I was unable to speak. Friends begged me to talk. I couldn’t. I’m not capable of love, I thought, and I don’t deserve his love.

All of this had happened in less than one week’s time.

Fast forward to when I read the post’s description of the characters’ behavior. I saw my ex-boyfriend’s behavior in Christian’s “catatonic state.” I saw my response in Ana’s. I felt indignant and angry at how easily I had been manipulated.

But then I remembered how I’d fallen into that silent state of depression. Wasn’t that just like his behavior? Was I any better than he was? Maybe I shouldn’t point a finger at him because I was guilty, too. Wasn’t I just as manipulative as he was? Judge not, lest you be judged, and all that.

Didn’t I see myself in Christian Grey?

Then my thoughts waved a big red flag. This time, I paid attention.

Isn’t this exactly how an abuser controls a victim?

Christian forces Ana to identify with him; while he says that they are both to blame for the mess in their relationship, the underlying message is that it’s really her fault. He uses silence as a tool for manipulation, remaining silent until she feels guilty, blames herself, and feels unworthy of his love.

It’s not love. It’s emotional abuse.

What struck me as bizarre is my reaction to this incident in the novel, as reported by someone else. I’m not reading the book and immersed in the plot; I have no emotional investment in these characters; I’m a mature woman in a stable and loving marriage with a man who respects me. Plus, I’m a Christian, a feminist, and trained in literary analysis, so I should be aware of sexist undercurrents, right?

Yet I’ve almost been manipulated into believing that the whole strange mood-swing-induced romance-gone-bust was my fault and that I’m just like Christian Grey.  

That’s how powerful emotional abuse is.

 

 

Categories: relationships | Tags: , , | 8 Comments

Writing what I know

I’m an only child.

A real only child, too: no half-siblings, step-siblings, live-in relatives of roughly the same age, siblings who were extremely older or younger than I, or secret siblings lurking in closets somewhere, ready to tumble out and reveal a share parentage. Nothing like that.

We had a family of three, my father and mother and I, and while I wanted an older sister during my teen years, my parents never performed that particular miracle. (In college, I wanted an older brother, someone who would tell me which men were okay to date and which weren’t. My parents never obliged me there, either.)

It had its benefits. It also had its drawbacks. Too much parental attention, for one, and paradoxically, a high degree of loneliness. I spent a lot of time reading and writing and storytelling to fill the long hours on weekends and summers. (We didn’t have kids in my neighborhood who were close to my age.)

I’m envious of people with siblings. I hear conversations between close sisters and marvel at how they talk about their shared upbringing. I can’t fathom what that must be like to have someone who had shared my life for that long and in that way. Growing up, I had friends whom I considered to be as close as a sister. I also knew that if that girl had to choose between me and her real sister for some reason, she’d choose her sister; blood trumps water.

I’m reconciled or resigned to this fact.

Now what I feel most acutely is how this only-child status has limited my writing. It’s difficult to write about sibling relationships when I’ve never experienced them. I have at least three only children in The Cruelest Month (my first novel) and if two other major characters have siblings, they don’t appear in the manuscript.

My second novel, the nameless-shapeless mess, revolved around the relationship between two sisters after one sleeps with the other’s husband and becomes pregnant. Besides being entirely too melodramatic, the novel had a huge fatal flaw: I couldn’t figure out the sisters’ relationship after the betrayal.

I knew the guilty one felt horrible and remorseful and wanted her sister to forgive her.

I knew the victim felt angry as hell at both her sister and (the equally remorseful) husband, and her hurt is compounded by her love for her sister and husband.

But I couldn’t figure out the emotional landscape beyond that. How do sisters forgive each other? How do they treat each other when they’re hurt? How did they interact before the adultery? I asked questions of various sisters I knew; their feedback was helpful. But it wasn’t a substitute for experience.

So one walked around yelling at everyone in every chapter, and the other cried and begged for forgiveness in every chapter. Stories thrive on conflict, but this wasn’t productive conflict, the type that changes people and moves a plot forward. This was stagnant and pointless. When the characters “changed,” the changes felt improbable. Silly, even.

Eventually I dumped the novel and admitted to myself that my only child status had limited my imagination. A Certain Slant of Light, my third novel, had a protagonist who is—you guessed it—an only child.

I hate this particular limitation.

I hate being limited in my writing at all.

Aspiring novelists are always told to “write what you know,” but I’ve never thought this meant “write only about only children who are white, straight, bipolar evangelical Christian females living in the South who majored in English and married young and have two kids.”

I want to write about people different from me and I want their narrative voices to ring true. Men, minorities, people outside the mainstream: I want to put myself in their shoes and write their stories. And yes, that includes people with siblings. So why have I been told to “write what I know”?

I’ve read various interpretations of this writing adage. Write what you want to know. Write what you can imagine. Write what you have experienced emotionally, not just physically.

This last rings true to me. Emotions don’t necessarily reflect the truth of physical reality (look at my emotion-driven thoughts during a wild mood swing!) but they do shape my view of my life.

What I’ve experienced emotionally is vital to conveying the truth in the lie of fiction. I’ve experienced feelings of alienation from my own body . . . despair at my helplessness. . . confusion, when I couldn’t trust my own mind . . . paralyzing fear . . . desire for the unattainable . . . rage against systems and people and ideas . . .and utter aloneness, both contented and terrifying. I know positive emotions, too: elation, joy, peace.

Right now, I have a point of view character who isn’t of my race or gender. We have totally different upbringings; I haven’t experienced life from within his skin and I never will.

But maybe, just maybe, I have experienced certain of his emotions in different contexts. Maybe I can crawl into his shoes for a while.

It’s uncomfortable.

Frightening.

Confusing sometimes, and paradoxical, this interpretation of the world that is so different yet so similar to mine.

I don’t know where this will lead. But I hope that these emotional experiences in my writing give me a greater depth of understanding for other people.

 

 

Categories: relationships, writing | Tags: , , | 10 Comments

Why sexism hurts women and men

I can’t possibly cover every way that sexist rhetoric hurts both genders, so I’m narrowing it down to one sliver of the issue: holding one gender to a higher standard of behavior than the other. To narrow it down even further: women judging other women more harshly than men.  

Several years ago, while my family was still at our old church, someone in our Sunday school class mentioned that our age group had experienced “a lot of divorces” recently. I knew of two couples who had divorced, but I was worried that there were others. So after class, I asked the speaker about it. She rattled off three couples (including the two I already knew about), paused for breath, and then leaned closer.

“And in each case, it was the woman who wanted the divorce.”

Her tone was incredulous, shocked. Clearly, for this woman, it was somehow worse that the wife had left the husband and children than if her husband had done the same.

That unspoken message bothered me. Why was infidelity considered worse if committed by a woman? Was it somehow less wrong for a man to leave? If the woman had cheated with a man, then other people should be coming down equally hard on both the woman and the man, right? Was it somehow “unnatural” for a woman to want to leave her husband and kids, and somehow more “natural” for the man to leave? What was natural about staying (or not) married anyway?

All these questions, of course, are ridiculous. Infidelity is wrong, period, no matter the gender of the unfaithful person. I can say that wrong is wrong, but I can also express grace toward the wrongdoers; depending on my relationship to the person, I may be able to confront and correct, but I’m not in a position to condemn. And the entire question of what is natural and unnatural gender behavior is absurd, except if one is discussing biological differences in male/female bodies.

But it was that attitude of outrage against the straying wife that stayed with me.

I’ve noticed a striking double standard: when a woman accidentally leaves her infant in a hot car or when a woman abandons her family or when a woman cheats or when a woman deliberately kills a child, then outsiders (a.k.a., neighbors, friends, family members, Internet trolls, random people who hear what happened) judge her harshly. What kind of mother forgets her own child? Nasty slut—she cheated on her husband! Etc.

When it’s a man, he’s judged, too, but the reaction is more muted.

Well, he was only the dad, so maybe it’s understandable that he forgot the baby in the backseat.

Or, well, yeah, he left his family but . . .

Or, well, but guys have really high sex drives so when the wife (lets herself go/is too tired for sex/looks dog ugly/ won’t wear thongs because they’re uncomfortable), then he’s got to get his needs met somewhere, right?

Or, well, he’s a man and men are visual and of course he’s going to look at porn, he just can’t help it.

It’s not just the big news stories, either. I see it in churches, particularly with sexual issues. It’s somehow perceived as worse for a female to be sexually active outside marriage, look at porn, do sexting, or seek out sexually inappropriate materials (as do all the women reading or viewing Fifty Shades of Grey, as Michele Phoenix points out).

This rhetoric is damaging to women and men.

It holds the women to a higher standard of behavior than men.

It lowers expectations for men’s behavior.

It sees the gender of the actor as more important than the actual action.

This is not to say that women should be “let off the hook” for wrongdoing or that men should be damned for every tiny infraction.

But it is to say that the gender matters far less than that person’s ability to accept responsibility for their own actions. Those looking at the wrongdoing need to be slow to judge the situation and not assume that one gender should be held in higher regard than the other. True gender equality demands this.

But it’s incredibly easy to fall into this trap. Many times, I find that I judge other women more harshly than I judge men. Other people may blame the opposite gender more than their own. Even being aware of the problem, though a decent start, isn’t enough to eradicate it. So what is?

I’m not sure. (I hate admitting that I don’t know something. It’s pride-wounding, which means it’s also good for me.)

I’ll leave you with these two questions:

1) Have you noticed yourself holding one gender to a higher standard of behavior than the other?

2) What can you (I, we) do to stop this type of gender inequality? Share your ideas in the comments.

Categories: attitude, relationships | Tags: , | 12 Comments

Chivalry is Dead? That’s Some of the Best News I’ve Heard

I’m very pleased to have Tim Fall writing for my blog today. He always has unusual and thought-provoking posts, and he has the unique ability to take anything–even a dead mouse, as you’ll see–and turn it into a profound illustration. Enjoy!

Chivalry is Dead? That’s Some of the Best News I’ve Heard

I’ve taken it on the chin more than once when I’ve opined that chivalry is bunk. Some people respond that they like chivalry because it’s a reminder of good manners, some say it’s good for “gentlemen” to treat “ladies” well, and others insist that chivalry is biblical.

I call bunk on all three.

To caution against chivalry is not the same as tossing good manners aside. I hold the door for people – women and men – at almost every opportunity, and the times I don’t are usually when they’re holding the door for me. That’s good manners right there, so there’s no need to play the chivalry card.

For those who are into the ladies-and-gentlemen motif, the truth is that there’s no need to treat women like “ladies”. There is, on the other hand, every reason to treat one another with love in the name of Jesus. So let’s not cloud the issue by deciding what’s gentlemanly and what’s ladylike. Let’s instead focus on Jesus and what it means to be women and men who belong to him.

And for those who say that chivalry is a system based on Scripture, I have news. No it’s not. It’s based on customs in feudal palaces which included knights trying to get women to choose them over their fellows by coming up with the best love poetry and bashing other knights in feats of strength. (I simplify, but you get the picture.) The Catholic Church coopted the chivalric customs to include piety and chastity, but those were not the main aims at the beginning.

Calling Out Chivalry

One of the best of P.G. Wodehouse’s characters is Joan Valentine. In Something Fresh she and Ashe Marson finds themselves rivals in trying to recover an inadvertently purloined artifact – an Egyptian scarab of the Fourth Dynasty. The rightful owner has offered a princely sum for its return and Joan and Ashe are two people who need the cash desperately. It’s that desperation that drives them onward in the face of an opponent intent on keeping the scarab safe from any counter-purloiners.

So Joan and Ashe decide to work in partnership. Ashe’s idea of the partnership, though, is that he will take on the risk-filled recovery duties while Joan doesn’t. Joan has news for Ashe.

It won’t do, Mr. Marson. You remind me of an old cat I once had. Whenever he killed a mouse, he would bring it into the drawing-room and lay it affectionately at my fee. I would reject the corpse with horror and turn him out, but back he would come with his loathsome gift. I simply couldn’t make him understand that he was not doing me a kindness. He thought highly of his mouse, and it was beyond him to realize that I did not want it. You are just the same with your chivalry. It’s very kind of you to keep offering me your dead mouse, but, honestly, I have no use for it. I won’t take favors just because I happen to be a female. If we are going to form this partnership, I insist on doing my fair share of the work, and running my fair share of the risks.

As Joan Valentine pointed out, chivalry is a corpse, a dead mouse laid at the feet of someone who not only doesn’t want it but doesn’t need it.

I also see chivalry as a dead and empty set of rules that get in the way of doing what Jesus told us is important. But to understand how chivalry gets in the way we first need to understand that rules and codes of conduct are not at all godly:

These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:22-23.)

Regulations of conduct may appear wise, but as Paul said “they lack any value.”

The other problem with chivalry is it puts men and women into different categories that the Bible tells us just don’t exist. Chivalry as thought of in modern times – and as noted in that Wodehouse scene above – is based on the notion that women and men are fundamentally different. This is a dangerous way for us to act, because when we order our lives around this in a worldly sense it can interfere with proper conduct in alignment with the much more important spiritual reality.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28.)

Men and women are apparently not fundamentally different in any sense that matters in eternity. And this brings us to the basic problem with acting according to wrongheaded notions of chivalry.

It gets in the way of how Jesus told us to treat one another:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12.)

and,

Love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:31.)

It’s not about men always holding the door for a woman, or holding her chair, or carrying her packages, or picking up the dinner tab rather than suffer the supposed shame of a woman paying for your meal, or whatever notions of what it means to be chivalrous one might have.

It’s about treating people well, with love and consideration for what they need. And it’s about people, not about men stepping in to do things for women as if there were rules we had to follow. No, it’s about women and men doing things for each other out of a loving response to what Jesus taught us.

You want to hold the door for someone? Go right ahead. But don’t tell me it’s because you’re a man and she’s a woman. Do it because you are a child of God and you care for the people – men and women both – that he puts in your life each day.

That’s better than a dead mouse any day.

Tim Fall

Tim Fall

[Tim is a California native who changed his major three times, colleges four times, and took six years to get a Bachelor’s degree in a subject he’s never been called on to use professionally. Married for over 27 years with two kids (both graduated – woohoo!) his family is constant evidence of God’s abundant blessings in his life. He and his wife live in Northern California. He blogs, and is on Twitter and Facebook too.]

Categories: Christianity, guest posts, relationships | Tags: , , | 14 Comments

Personal comfort and radical change rarely coexist

In The Brutal Telling, Myrna, a former counselor, is talking to Inspector Gamache about a new family in the small village of Three Pines. She mulls that most people consider “outsiders” to be threats, and that as a black woman, she had firsthand experience with this.

“She’d been on the outside all her life, until she’d moved here. Now she was on the inside (. . .)

But it wasn’t as comfortable as she’d always imagined the ‘inside’ to be.

–Louise Penny, The Brutal Telling, page 161

Recently, I’ve been thinking about gender relationships: power dynamics, language, equality inside and outside the church. If I consider the men (specifically, the leaders) to be “inside” and women to be “outside,” then I wonder how to bring women inside, or better yet, dissolve the barriers entirely and grant full equality.

(To be clear, equality is not synonymous with sameness. I’m not saying that all differences between the genders don’t exist. See the Junia Project’s post on this topic.)

In re-reading Myrna’s thoughts, I considered, for the first time, that being inside might not be comfortable. Many women might balk at full equality, just as some men might. There were women who were against women having the right to vote, for example.

But why?

In the YA novel The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, young Frankie lives at an exclusive prep school. (Spoiler alert!) She is miffed that her boyfriend, a super hunky senior, is part of a secret society called The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds; he won’t even admit that the society exists. It’s the same society her father was in, so she knows it exists.

Furious at being excluded, she decides to crash this all-boys society. By taking advantage of one boy’s absence, she uses email to orchestrate a series of pranks. The boys, believing the pranks to be the brainchildren of the absent leader, carry out the tasks, which she plans in great detail, right down to where and who should buy each item needed. Even when the leader returns, she isn’t caught: the leader plays along, even though he has no idea who is behind this.

But the inside isn’t comfortable, particularly because she isn’t acknowledged as being inside. And no one in the group seems to notice her socio-political statements in the pranks; the boys just think they’re funny. Then the administration busts the leader. He confesses. But he doesn’t admit that the pranks weren’t his ideas.

Frankie, now ticked off at her boyfriend for not guessing her involvement, tells him that she’s the mastermind.

But instead of admitting her to the “inside”, he breaks up with her. And—worse, to her—still fails to notice any socio-political statements in the pranks. So being “inside” costs her a boyfriend, wounds her pride, and almost gets another the society’s leader expelled (which would’ve cost him, too: He’s been admitted early entrance to an Ivy League school.) It does get her suspended after she confesses to the administration.

At some point, she wonders if she should’ve crashed the all-boys society.

In the end, though, she finds it worthwhile. She’s grown as a person: learned that she’s a leader, developed her management skills, and discovered her voice. And that she doesn’t need a boyfriend, either.

So why is it more comfortable to stay outside than to come inside?

Outside, there’s no responsibility.

You can be passive and defer difficult decisions to someone else. If the choices he makes are wrong, you can blame him; you bear no personal responsibility for the fallout of his bad choice. It was his choice, not yours. It’s a nice and comfy position, in some ways.

Frankie made an error in judgment when she chose to remain anonymous with the group’s leader. Between that and his pride, it could’ve ruined his future college career. That’s the risk she takes, though, in choosing to infiltrate the secret society. In the end, she takes responsibility for that choice, accepting suspension and saving the leader from expulsion.

Comfortable? Not really.

But she becomes a stronger person in the process.

Change and comfort rarely coexist.

It may be much more comfortable for a woman who’s always been in the subordinate, submissive role to stay there. She may complain about it, chafe under the restraints, or say that she wants change.

But if she suddenly is thrust into the inside, it may be more difficult than she’s anticipated. She may wish she were back on the outside.

But if I truly want change, I have to set my own personal comfort aside. I have to be willing to be responsible for my own decisions. I have to be prepared for whatever may happen. Like Queen Esther, if I’m put in a position of influence, I must accept that it may be for a “time such as this.”

And that time may involve risk, discomfort, and heartache. There is no way to accurately foresee what the results of a change will be, only what it might be. But that’s the risk we all take when we work for change.

And it is worth it.

 

 

Categories: attitude, books/reading | Tags: , , , , | 9 Comments

What’s in a name? (Hint: a lot more than you might expect)

What something or someone is called matters.

I ruminated a bit on this after reading Sharon Bially’s post on Writer Unboxed, “Simple Promo Tip: Call Your Book By Its Name.” Revolutionary, I know. But I’ve been guilty of this nameless reference making.

Worse, I refer to them by number, as if anyone really cares about the order I wrote them.

I’ve called these works The Cruelest Month and A Certain Slant of Light. (The current work in progress has a working title of Green-Eyed, but I’m hoping to change that.) Both are literary allusions—Eliot/ Chaucer and Dickinson—which may give an indication of their tone, if not their content.

Imagine the difference if I’d titled these books Braindead or Sex Slave. Face it, Juliet was wrong: Romeo wouldn’t be the same dude if he’d been named Bob Smith or Mortimer Jones; it matters that he’s Romeo. (For starters, he wouldn’t have been a Montague, and he and Julie wouldn’t have been star-crossed at all, just hormonal.)

A book’s title is important. It gives the work, even in the shapeless first draft mess, an identity.

My second novel never had a working title. It didn’t have a working anything, really, which is why I abandoned it after a year. Now it languishes on my laptop, a folder titled Novel 2, containing documents called Draft 1, Draft 2, and Draft 3. Perhaps I should retitle the folder Learning Experience because that’s all I got from that year of work.

Changing the name alters that identity, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. I’m certain that an editor would want me to change my chosen titles; the first is the title of a Louise Penny novel (I didn’t know that at the time) and the second is the title of a YA paranormal book (I didn’t know that, either.) From a marketing perspective, changing the titles would seem to be wise.

But how would the books change? Or would it be my perspective of the books that would change?

Our titles reflect our philosophy, and that extends beyond the art of novel-naming. They show our perspective on things as diverse as theology and business, gender and sexuality. (See Elizabeth Mallory’s post on defining bisexuality and queerness, and her response to my question about why the term homosexual might not be acceptable. Informative.)

In my particular area of the country, I’ve noticed a curious thing in conservative churches. Women might be the leader of a particular ministry, but she will be called the “director” of that ministry. In contrast, a man in the same position, performing the same duties, but he might be called the “minister” rather than the “director.”

In part, it’s a matter of education. In the churches where I’ve observed this, the men in those positions have been to seminary and ordained, and the women typically hadn’t. That’s a legitimate difference. But it doesn’t always apply: sometimes, the women graduated from seminary; rarely, they’re ordained in a different denomination.

In the latter cases, I’ve wondered if the alteration from minister to director is as much about pacifying the male-leaders-only crowd as about education and ordination.

If that’s true, here’s a question (or four):

  • What view of gender does this show?
  • What does this communicate to the other women and men within the congregation, including the children?
  • What does it communicate to others outside the church?
  • Does it hold true to scripture on spiritual gifts, leadership, relationships between the genders, and God’s view of people? (That should be my first question!)

These are questions Christians should consider. They’re big and controversial and contentious. Sometimes compromise is necessary. Discussion and active listening is definitely necessary.

But I will add this caution:

What isn’t necessary is for Christians on each end of the spectrum to arm themselves with Bible verses and sling them at those on the other end, as if they are David fighting Goliath. Only our fellow church members aren’t Goliath; usually they’re people trying to be faithful to God’s word, sometimes knowing that they may not have everything totally right, and sometimes a little overconfident in their exegesis. Referring to the “opposition” in belittling terms doesn’t bring about peace or understanding, either.

Imagine if I signed a book contract, my editor wanted to change the book title, and I started throwing lines from Chaucer, Eliot, and Dickinson at her.

Imagine how ridiculous it would be for me to insist that I knew what was best on Every Single Thing, even if I had no experience in those areas.

Imagine me becoming “that author”: the prima donna, the one with the reputation for being difficult, the one that my agent and editor groaned about each time I called.

Ridiculous, right?

But sometimes, when faced with difficult issues (and not just gender role ones), church members behave this way. 

So when I talk about gender in church, I want to be careful that, in referencing those who don’t agree with my position, I don’t communicate or promote an attitude of arrogance: I know better than they do, Women are better than men, aren’t they stupid not to see this, etc. 

I’ll try to behave better than that, and I hope that we can learn to discuss difficult topics with respect and love toward other people.

 

 

 

Categories: Christianity, relationships, writing | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

On Being a Woman and A Bible Major

This post fit nicely with my post today, and I had to reblog it. What does it take to be a woman in seminary? I’d been wondering why so few female theologians are quoted in sermons (or ever) and why there are so few female theologians. We’re talking scholars, not pastors, so who could possibly object to that? This post partially answers my question.

Here’s one quote that resonates with my personal experiences:

“After all of this, I had to wonder: How much does a girl have to endure before she starts to internalize the idea that her voice matters less simply because she is female?” –Julie Dykes

via On Being a Woman and A Bible Major.

Categories: Christianity, relationships | 2 Comments

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