Monday, July 2, 2012

Prom Dresses and Menstrual Cycles

All We Know of Heaven, A Wordle by
We've all been there. You're taking on your first novel on your own since graduating from an MFA program where professional writers served as mentors helping you complete two novels. So what do you do? Run for the comfort a a familiar voice or style of character. No, you get a sex change.

In writing the first draft for my latest novel "All We Know of Heaven," which I completed in a record fifteen days, I chose to write from the point-of-view of a female protagonist, a seventeen year-old girl named Tia. My former students know this isn't much of a stretch for me. I mean, as the adviser of a high school newspaper and yearbook, there's no demographic I've spent more time with in the past two years than teenage girls.

Why, you ask, did I attempt to narrate from a female's perspective? Well, simply put, that's the story that came to me. I wasn't trying to stretch my horizons or anything like that. It wasn't an experiment in narrative technique or breaking out of my past habits. I simply became obsessed with the story of a girl and her struggles, so I wrote it.

I may be wrong, but I think Tia sounds like a girl. In fact, she probably sounds more like a girl than some of my past characters sounded like boys. Actually, some of my old characters have been criticized as whiny or overly sensitive. Now, with Tia, I don't think that criticism will come. Which says more about gender stereotypes than it does my narration. Perhaps I've always been writing like a girl.

Which brings up an interesting question. What's the difference? The only time I felt uncomfortable and actually consulted a real, live teenage girl (thanks Taylor!) was navigating the equally complex world of prom dresses and menstrual cycles.

When I really think about it, there's one thing I've learned about teenage girls--they are all supremely insecure...and they all find completely different ways to try and compensate for it.

But isn't that the same about teenage boys? And when you get down to it, that's pretty much true about adults, too. What became the essence of capturing a teenage girl was really pinpointing Tia's insecurities and developing how she compensates for them. When you're really afraid of losing those close to you, how do you best prevent being crippled by that fear? If you're insecure about your own sanity, how do make sure everyone knows you're sane?

I think this is the psychological drama at the heart of every great piece of writing. What are our characters' hangups that they let screw up their entire lives, and how do they come to terms with them to live relatively normal lives in the end? With that as the basic question, there doesn't seem to be much difference between a male protagonist and a female one. We're all whack.

Besides proms and periods, there doesn't seem to be much difference.

Grow a pair!


  1. I have to agree, not much difference at all. There are nuances, mannerisms, and hygienic details to consider, but humans are humans. A story I've been writing on and off for the past year, with some drafts passing through the OMG workshop, is about a disturbed thirty-two year old woman. From all the feedback I've relieve so far, it seems I have captured her essence spot on, and her creepiness. It's a psycho thriller, if you're wondering. Point is, if you put your head into the character, all of your real world experiences and observations will coalesce into a "real" being.

    1. That's a good point. I mean, we all live in this culture, see how both woman and men act, see them portrayed on TV, read books narrated by both males and females. We should just be able to do it with our intuition and imagination, right? But I bet any book written from a female point-of-view by a man will get some critics saying "how could you know what it's like." I remember a while back reading a blog thread somewhere with a HEATED debate about whether a white man could narrate as a black character.