“She’s Got Some Nerve” by Janet Fitch
It takes some nerve to be a woman writer. In the Mae West film Night After Night, a coat check girl exclaims, “Goodness! What beautiful diamonds!” West quips, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” The same is always true with writing. Putting our thoughts on the page, making people see the world from our point of view, has nothing to do with being good, following the rules, kissing anybody’s derriere. Nipping it maybe, but not kissing it.
Many women play it safe in life, and I understand. Who wants to make a mess of her life? But this urge to safety can be so ingrained it continues on the page, producing something I call ‘lady writing.’ This isn’t women’s writing, women’s literature, it’s a particular pallid, toothless affair, the one with the soft-focus cover. Yes, I know, that’s the publisher’s choice, but the problem is the soft focus between the covers.
Sometimes the writing can be pretty accomplished, but what it is, always, is boring, superficial, and nice. Lady writing is about being safe, being acceptable, and waiting to get a gold star for it. It’s what the poet Wanda Coleman called “fitting a 300-pound woman into a size ten life.” As women, we spend so much of our lives trying to fit into that size ten—careful, fair, asking for other people’s opinions—that we’ve forgotten how to speak out, how to be authentic, to speak our own truths. To—as Breena Clark said earlier this week—represent.
In Greek mythology, there was an innkeeper, Procrustes, who boasted that his bed always fit the guest perfectly. It did because it stretched the guest who was too short, and if too tall, cut their legs off. Ladylikeness is a Procrustean bed that lops off what’s too personal, too disturbing, too challenging, too playful, too difficult, too angry, too hard, too passionate, too opinionated, too smart. Too strong.
We try so hard to be fair. To think of the other guy. Not to make judgments, not to upset people. We learn to doubt ourselves; we’re always asking what do you think? We want to be thought caring. We want to be thought good. We think it will protect us from criticism. Do what you like in life, but on the page, you need all your parts.
What we look for in writing is strength. Strong voices, strong opinions, strong work. We say work is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but it is only strong or weak. Evil on the page is what’s bland, predictable, pallid, and timid. It’s writing with no views, no take on life. What are we going to learn from a writer like that? Strong writing makes no apologies. There’s authority to the writing, someone who’s going to tell you what it is. There’s no timidity, there’s no hiding behind attributions. We cop to how we really think and open ourselves to what comes.
What does ‘lady writing’ look like on the page? First–no conflict. Nobody gets hurt in a lady book. Ladies pull their punches. Someone rides in and saves the day just before the brawl. Strong writing lets the blows land. Let us feel it, the unfairness, the cruelty of it all.
Second, ladies never stand alone. Lady writing always has characters running to someone else and hashing out problems. Strong writing has characters who think and react without advice. If they get advice, it’s usually wrong.
Most of all, ladies don’t own their own opinions. They don’t want to be held responsible for their ideas. They ask, what do you think and avoid making declarative statements.. So go ahead and make a bold statement. That’s what’s called authority. It’s the necessary quality of this thing called author. This is your world, it reflects your views. Your writing is where you get to have your own say.
My teacher Kate Braverman used to say, “You can have your character eat dinner and think about dinner, or eat dinner and think about God.” Lady writing goes to the market and thinks about canned goods. I suggest you try moving towards bigger issues in your work. Consider the implications of what you’ve already written and reach for a larger thought. Ladies rarely talk about Life, God, Justice, Mercy, and the nature of Evil. They leave that work to the real women.
Here’s an exercise. List 20 things you know for sure and 20 things you don’t know anything about. People turn to literature to understand what it means to be alive, to be human. So give us some insights. Nobody’s going to send you to your room.
Weak, lady writing can be detected in the sentences. The language has no power, it’s afraid to be strong, to be specific. If your verbs are “one size fits all’—was and look and see and went—if your nouns don’t declare themselves—if your sentences are riddled with seems and usually and maybe and sometimes—get in there and whip it.
My final point is about play. Lady writing is conventional. You never see those books playing with form. Play is dangerous. Nobody will give me a star on my chart if I try something really different. They’re going to punish me. I won’t be able to sell it. But writing isn’t about becoming Miss Perfect Posture, and play IS the creative spirit. You make up the game. You make up the rules. Nobody’s going to punish you. I promise you–in writing, the worst thing you can do is be boring.
So play. Make up rules and then follow them. Be a trickster—don’t always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Surprise us. If there’s an expected answer in a bit of dialogue, don’t give it! If we expect a character to react in a certain way, have them do something else. If we can already see the end of your book/chapter/scene when we’re only halfway in, that’s already a problem.
If I were your Mae West fairy godmother and could give you three gifts, I would give your writing the gifts of strength, meaning, and play—and the courage to use them.
And keep that lady out of the writing room!
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Janet Fitch Artist Statement:
Janet Fitch’s first novel, White Oleandar, a #1 bestseller and Oprah’s Book Club selection, has been translated into 24 languages and was made into a feature film. Her second novel, Paint it Black, hit bestseller lists across the country and has also been made into a film.
She lives in Los Angeles.
“Finding the true self, asking the fundamental questions, being at agency, is a noble venture, and worth the pain of growth.” Janet Fitch on her central project, beginning with White Oleander all the way to Marina M. and Chimes of a Lost Cathedral.