October 7, 2013

On women, and empathy, and con games

Let’s skip back in time to 2004.

I was 20 years old, and I was thinking that, given my recent survey of graduate school, it sure would be more fun to be a shitty, impoverished, drunken genre writer rather than a shitty, impoverished, drunken graduate student. So I was writing my first attempt at a novel, unaware that it would be, in its final form, a good 470,000 words, a massive, ridiculous, terrible, blimp of a story whose length and density would make the Simarillion blush and cause the monocle to fall from the Bible’s eye and into its tea.

I was writing in the library at my college campus, and I knew exactly what I was doing with the story. I must have been doing it right, of course, because I was just slathering on words left and right, as disciplined and thoughtful with my prose as a six year old is with icing. But then I got to one point in the story – a really big, really important part – and the words just… stopped.

Completely stopped.

The entire book – by then a hefty 130,000 words, probably – froze cold.

Was this writer’s block? No. I knew what was supposed to happen next. I knew how the book was supposed to end. I knew what would happen to all the characters. And I thought I knew who all the characters were.

The problem was that, in this Big, Really Important Part, the protagonist encountered a character unlike any other in the book so far, a foreign, alien, incomprehensible being that I suddenly discovered I had no idea how to write.

Was it some fantastical entity? A Lovecraftian horror? Some tortuous, unfathomable monster?

No. It was a woman.

*             *             *

Let’s go ahead and walk this back a bit.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that I didn’t make the most of my college career. I’m not talking about grades (those I did pretty good on) and I’m not talking about partying (I remember about 15% of weekends post-junior year), I’m talking about socializing and figuring out how to be a real human being, cross-pollinating with the vast menagerie that is human existence, gaining perspective and learning how to communicate with – and be responsible to – other people in your life.

That stuff I wasn’t so hot at, and I didn’t take advantage of my time in school to get any better at it.

So this isn’t to say that I just sucked at understanding girls. I was bad at a lot of things. But that was definitely one of them. I had some valid reasons (I had a speech impediment I was working to get out from under) and some that weren’t valid at all (I was a solipsist little idiot), but the fact of the matter remains that, in my head, I had been chugging along quite merrily for what, if I’m lucky, was about a quarter of my life thinking of 50% of my own species to be Other.

I didn’t realize it at the time, of course. That moment when I was writing, when I suddenly found the excessive gush of words dwindling to a sputtering drip, that was likely the first inkling I had that I was hurtling through life sporting a massive blindspot. I didn’t really understand what I was experiencing, but I think that, in some unspoken, anxious way, I knew something was wrong.

Sometimes I think I might be an anomaly. This isn’t normal, right? This was just a unique set of circumstances, right?

Then I take a look at other male writers whose writing is pilloried for having ridiculous female characters, and I think – Naaaaah.

I’m the perfect example. I was every one of these dudes.

*             *             *

How did this happen? Well. There were probably countless ways my experience of the world was carefully walled off from females, some of them my own doing, some of them not.

Except for my mom, we were an all-boys house. On my mom’s side of the family, everyone had boys, about 15 of them total. I recall very, very few girls to play with when I was little, but for a long time we lived out in the country. When I was 10 we moved to my first large city, and I recall being flummoxed by this overwhelming presence of girls in domestic scenarios: they were just living across the street from us, right over there!

Despite this, I remember a distinct feeling of inaccessibility, as if there were invisible dividers between me and them. I was an avid TV watcher, and I watched hours of Friends and other female-friendly shows with an almost scientific eye, trying to discern exactly what the hell was going on in there, what made these social interactions so natural – how were they just, y’know, talking? That never happened to me. I never just, like, talked to them. How did this occur, and why? I never figured it out.

But I did good in school. I did all right, really.

How weird it is that I was able to sail through high school and even college without genuinely befriending a single female. How strange it feels that I could be successful at anything without needing to socialize with them in any genuine manner, without making them a part of my life, social or professional or what have you.

I was never asked, I feel like, to consider them an equal, a peer. It certainly never occurred to me to do so.

I wonder, now, if this is nature or environment – does society sort us into separate groups, and encourage us to do Girl Things and Boy Things? I ask because I watch my son, now two and a half, innately gravitate toward superheroes and trucks and smashing and bashing and yelling and roaring and jumping from high places, all very Boy things, without any real encouragement from me. I don’t tell him to love Superman for his smashing and crushing abilities (he has still not gleaned any of Superman’s sanguine pacifism), yet he does.

Are we hardwired for this? Are we programmed to be different, and does this difference mean we will not understand other humans in the most fundamental of ways?

What a depressing thought.

*             *             *

The real issue is, there are a lot of professions and manners of living in contemporary society where this is completely functional and sustainable. There are just tons and tons and tons of ways for me to live in this world without engaging women in any manner, without giving six hot wet shits about them, without understanding them or even trying to.

Because, let’s face it, I’m a guy, and in any professional environment, odds are that I’m going to walk through the door and on the other side is gonna be another guy. And because we’re both guys, that fundamentally shapes the nature of our exchange: it dictates what we say and how we do work and how we relate to one another. An all-male environment, even if it’s in groups of twos and threes and fours, is its own environment with its own laws and rules and mannerisms. And women have nothing to do with it, except in the most perfunctory and peripheral of ways, IE, Something For Guys To Talk About.

So there are many careers where I could just keep going and live like this and be probably pretty successful.

Writing isn’t one of them, though.

Hence why 20-year-old-me, to his utter bafflement, found his novel grinding to a halt. And I was really, really surprised by it.

*             *             *

Why? Well, because I’d been told I was a good writer.

It’s true, I’m not bragging. I’d been told in a variety of places that I could string a word or two together in a pleasing fashion. My teachers told me. And online, when I wrote for forums or commented on things, a lot of people said I was really good at it.

So I couldn’t be the problem. I already knew that I was good! I’d been put through the Focus Group of the Internet, and come out with a thumbs up! And the Focus Group of the Internet is an objective and impartial judge, right?


Well. No.

The internet, for the SFF-inclined, is like a certain political party that found itself totally flummoxed to understand why its candidate had been defeated despite having heard for about six months that a victory would be certain: it’s an echo chamber. It’s being told that you’re absolutely right by people who believe and do the same things you do. It’s white dudes who like video games reading stuff written by white dudes who like video games for white dudes who like video games*.

The problem with writing is that, if you’re doing it right – if you’re trying to use writing to understand yourself and more and more of the world – eventually you have to understand that your version of The Whole World is actually probably about .0000000000076% of the actual real world.

That’s something to remember: you’re always in the minority, to some degree. Even if you feel like you’re the majority, in reality, you’re almost certainly not. There is no plurality in the world, there is no Everyperson, there is no Default Mode to being alive: the second you draw breath you are, in some manner, cordoned off into a very specific method of existence, and odds are you will spend your life struggling to understand all the others.

And that’s what writers do. Or, at least, they’re supposed to. I sure as hell didn’t, in my first shitty book.

I struggle, now, to list the various crimes my first novel committed:

It did not fail the Bechdel Test so much as fall to its knees before the test and clumsily commit seppuku.

It had one female character.

She was, in a metaphysical way, kept in a box.

The drive of her character was that she really liked and wished to support the protagonist, a man. He was actually probably the only character she interacted with in the whole of the story.

And she died in the end, sacrificing herself for him, and he found himself healed by her sacrifice, finally whole while she was utterly destroyed.

Charming stuff.

*             *             *

What prompts this piece, this weirdo and probably significantly pathetic confessional, is a post from John Hodgman’s tumblr, where he quotes Junot Diaz in a speech about how hard it is to teach boys to write girls.

I’ve seen some skeptical reactions to it – Surely this is an exaggeration! – but I look back on 20 year old RJB and I can confirm that, nope, this is no exaggeration. Boys today can blossom and progress and learn to put together prose in a pretty satisfactory manner without ever understanding what the everliving hell is going on in the minds of half the population.

The lesson some take away from Junot Diaz’s speech is, “Dudes suck,” and this inspires a lot of defensive caterwauling, a mass venting of bruised egos. Many assume Junot Diaz is a woman (he isn’t) or assume he’s some shitty, unknown writer (he won the Pulitzer Prize), or they assume that he is actively blaming them, telling them they are Bad, that they are Bad People and they should feel bad**.

He isn’t. He’s saying that you live in a place and a time where, if you’re a guy, your ignorance can run wild and no one will call you on it.

And if you’re a guy, hearing that should anger you.

Because he’s saying that you have had walls built around you, that you have bricked yourself off from the world and been told that it’s okay, that you have been denied knowledge of what so many other people think and feel and do. You have a huge advantage in this world, being a guy, but because of this advantage, there is so much you are blind to, so much you’re actively encouraged not to know or understand. You’re allowed to stagnate and decay and just rot.

And even moreso, you’ve been trained to actually fight being allowed to pull down the very walls you build around yourself! You’ve been taught not just to drink your poison, but to love it! You’ve been programmed, in some ways, not only to harm yourself, but to hate anyone who tries to stop you!

What a con game, right? We’ve been cheated and we didn’t even know it. Sure, we get the privilege, but the cost is one hell of a lot of ignorance, ignorance to the extent that you’re hardly even aware that you’re privileged.

What a con game. And so often we’re the ones conning ourselves, or allowing ourselves to be conned.

*             *             *

Here’s what this all boils down to:

You use a lot of muscles when you write, and learning to write means training all those muscles to be responsive, strong, sensitive, and coordinated.

One of the biggest muscles in there, in that vast network of fibers and tendons that make up the Writing System, is Empathy – the ability to understand other people who are, arguably, not like you at all.

This muscle is quite hard to develop. It’s not like plot, which in some ways is a bicep – elementary to develop, and showy – it’s more like one of the weirdo muscles in your back, like the trapezius, one of the interstitial pieces of muscle that you forget is there but basically dictates whether or not your whole arm works.

If your empathy muscle isn’t strong, you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of writing a good character, because you won’t understand how all humans – men, women, homo sapiens in general – work.

The empathy muscle of a dude isn’t inherently weak. It’s allowed to be weak. It’s encouraged to atrophy. It’s like abs in baseball – how many home run kings have kind of saggy guts? Do they need to have a washboard stomach to pound out home runs? No. In this same manner, guys are encouraged not to waste time on empathy: it is not integral to the game they’re assumed to be playing.

But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be strengthened. It just takes work, and humility, and a lot of patience.

*             *             *

That story of my first shitty book took place about 10 years ago. I’ve written 10 books since, 4 of which have been published, 1 of which is about to be published, all of which, I feel, are very different. I’ve also gotten married and had a kid and gotten a job in a profession in which the male gender is in the minority. So things have changed a lot, and I sometimes wish to categorize my adolescent inability to write women as a newbie writing mistake, much like splitting infinitives or copying Star Wars.

I’d do that if I thought that this newbie writing mistake didn’t articulate a larger issue. I’d do that if I didn’t think tons of other young male authors out there may likely do the same thing I did – and might get that mistake published, and might even get acclaim, in certain circles, while finding condemnation from others.

I’d say this was just an ol’ fashioned writing problem if I didn’t think this was perpetuating some bigass problems going on today. But unfortunately, that’s exactly what I think.

I’m not sure if I’m good at writing women. I’ve talked about it before, and to be frank I’m not comfortable saying I’m good at writing any “type” of person at all, because in essence that’s a claim that I understand people, and I’m not sure I do.

Really, I’m not sure if anything I do is successful – to me, writing is like operating an animatronic show from a small room with a lot of gears and levers and no screens: I can hear the oohs and aahs from the audience occasionally, but I have no idea what the performance looks like.

But I appreciate that writing has taught me where I’m weak. I appreciate that it’s taught me where I’m blind and ignorant. And at the end of the day, I’m happy I picked this profession to toil at, even if it’s for that reason alone.


*I wonder if the issue is just a symptom of “you write what you read.” You regurgitate the narrative elements you consume. And I look back on the books, TV shows, and movies I watched as a kid, and I wonder – were any of the female characters interesting? Maybe I didn’t know how to write a good female character because I’d read so few of them.

**Some also believe he is saying that women are better by default. I disagree. I believe he’s saying women are better because they’re forced to condition themselves to be better. That doesn’t make them all good, however – there are plenty of awful women writers out there who can’t write a character to save their lives. It’s just the odds are that women will be better at writing many more different types of character than men will be.