Feminist Writing Principles

I will confess that one of the main reasons I have a blog is that like many other writers who have blogs, I am working on longer works that I hope to get published.  Blogging may not make you famous or anything, but I have been to at least one book signing in which the author said his blog got him a publisher. 

One of my works has the working title Cities of Refuge.  It is a novel about atonement.  It is the story of an Alaskan Bush pilot who is going blind, reflecting on the tragedy that led him to give up being a minister and lose his faith in God and move to Alaska.  I lived in Alaska for six years and it’s the sort of place a lot of people move to when they’re running from something and want a fresh start.  There is another portion of the story told from the perspective of his daughter as she finds out about her father’s tragedy from another point of view.  Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead would probably be the best analogy for inspiration in that it’s an older man reflecting on his life and his regrets.  It’s also full of Biblical symbolism.

The other of my works is a coming of age science fiction series about time and space travel…and also atonement.  But then atonement is a popular theme of literature.  The idea for this work began by a question posed at a re-reading Harry Potter book club meeting: What if Harry Potter had been a girl?  Well yes, why can’t the girl be the one who discovers she has superpowers and a destiny and all of that?  And because I relate to science fiction more than fantasy, it’s obvious that my story would be a science fiction story.  The number one challenge I have with characters in that book is that I have two teenage girls and a teenage boy as the clever, smart, play it by the rules Hermione like character.  I also made him African American.  I realize just how much sexism is written into us because, when coming to scenes, it’s just easier to imagine the boy always taking charge, especially since he’s not the dangerous, bad boy type who needs a girl to tame him.  

Both of these works have been on my mind for a couple of years now.  And even though they are different genres, I don’t really see myself as a “genre” writer.  My goal is to produce literature: as in works that address the human condition.  I think literature transcends genre and there are certainly plenty of times when science fiction and fantasy are great means to address the human condition.  And when I say literature, I mean stuff that deals with heavy philosophical and deep existential questions, not simply a light read to be had on the beach.  It is possible that my writing could fail to achieve this because it is a lofty goal.  But nonetheless, that is what I want.  I want to write something that I think could be worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, even if no one else ever thinks so. 

When I write, I try to keep two principles in mind.  The first is the Bechdel test.  If you cannot have a conversation between two women in the book that is not about a man and also significant and plot advancing, then it doesn’t pass this test.  That means that having a conversation in the mall about clothes does not count – not plot advancing, at least not in a story that aims to be about the human condition.  Unless of course, the conversation is about how the clothes were made in a sweat shop and that conversation then leads the protagonist on a transformational journey.  Really, if the book has a female protagonist this should not be hard, but a surprising amount of entertainment fails.  Real women think about ideas and issues that are not centered on men.  Even though most of the recorded thinkers in history have been men, I will leave the caveat that there is a difference in talking about David Hume as a person and in discussing the merits of David Hume’s philosophy and how they apply to our society today. 

The second principle is the Hero’s Journey.  This would be that thing that Luke Skywalker (inspired because George Lucas read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Harry Potter go on.  You know the story where they have a call and have to go on a great journey and encounter a wise guru who guides them into accepting their destiny and then have to face the problem on their own.  They change.  They are not passive receptacles that just let stuff happen to them.  Maybe they start out that way, but then things keep pushing on them to accept their destiny.  Feminism is essentially about girls being the heroes of our own lives rather than passively waiting for someone (who usually happens to be male) to come and rescue us.  I can’t help but think of the heterosexist cliché that women get married to a man hoping that he will change and he doesn’t and men get married to a woman hoping she won’t change and he does.  Literary men change and become what women want; literary women are perfect and ideal and passively wait for the men to change.  

If you’re a writer, change that.  Considering that writers shape culture, our job is not to just regurgitate the same stuff we’ve seen over and over.  Our job is to imagine what life could be and write that story so that through stories, everyone can imagine a better world with us.


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