Writing, Fear, and Gender

If we had to say what writing is,
we would define it essentially as an act of courage.
–Cynthia Ozick*

Every woman artist has to kill her own grandmother.
She perches on our shoulder whispering,
“Don’t embarass the family.”
–Erica Jong**

I’m thinking about Greg’s recent blog post on writing the novel, specifically as it relates to fear. I wonder if, for women, this dynamic is somehow heightened by our childhood gender socialization.***

After all, from our earliest days, we’ve been told to please and to be careful about drawing too much attention to ourselves. Each of these influences is a landmine. Together, they’re a formidable opponent. I suspect they are among the strongest roots of our fear.

Consider the pressure to please, to be “a good girl.”

I’m a Gen Xer. When I was a child, I remember outgoing girls being scolded to be “ladies,” while outgoing boys were praised as “high spirited.” The message to both genders was that doing what other people wanted–pleasing them–would result in approval.

Of course impulse control and behaving respectfully are desirable and necessary child-rearing goals, but because those standards are applied unevenly, we have traditionally raised and praised girls and women for behaving in a meeker manner. Peel back a generation or two, and this dynamic was even more pronounced.

Problem is, the moment we start making decisions about where our story is headed, we’re already alienating some potential readers. Perhaps even those in our all-important immediate circle. We’re failing to please everyone.

Maybe we try anyway, and the result is a bland mush of a story. It might even sell well, but will it ever really sing?

Remember… Not every book is or should be for every reader. If we have to please someone, let it be the young readers inside ourselves. No one will live with the book longer or more intimately.

On another front, I can’t tell you how many new female authors have said to me, “I don’t want to promote or to have any attention.” Or “I’m not one of those people who always needs attention.” In seven years, I’ve heard only one man say anything of the kind.

A couple of related considerations, both with the same solution.

First, this isn’t our third grade reading class. It’s not only an arts community. It’s also a business. If only the boys raise their hands, only the boys will get credit, achieve success. To an extent, that already happens too much in our adult publishing world.

Second, it’s not just a business. It’s also an arts community. It’s about our book, our body of work, about all children’s/YA titles, about children and teen readers, about children’s and teen literacy, and about all the other people (teachers, librarians, parents, caregivers) who make our world spin. Art by its nature is meant to be shared. A community is a place where sharing happens.

We have something to say. Let’s raise our pens (or laptops) and say it.

Related Resources

Art and Fear: Observations On The Perils (And Rewards) Of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland (Image Continuum, 1993). As relevant for writers as musicians as painters as photographers as dancers, this economical slim paperback is a godsend for anyone who’s a human being and trying to create art.

The Courage To Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes (Holt, 1996).

Take Joy: A Book For Writers by Jane Yolen (The Writer Books, 2003). A celebration of writing, a reminder that it is such a wonderous experience and to enjoy it. Plus, a lot of very true and helpful how-to thoughts. Good for beginners and the well published. Worth the price for p. 49 alone, though the quote on p. 51 is particularly insightful, too. Read a review from BookLoons.

Walking On Alligators: A Book Of Meditations For Writers by Susan Shaughnessy (HarperCollins, 1993). A quote, a consideration, a call to action. This gem of a paperback is a must-have for the writer’s peace of mind and piece of soul.

Writing Past Park: Envy, Fear, Distraction And Other Dilemmas In A Writer’s Life by Bonnie Friedman (Harper, 1993). Worth twice the cost for the chapter on envy and the “anorexia of language” alone.

*the Jung quote came from In Their Own Words: Eminent Writers On The Craft of Writing: Knowledge Cards by Dona Budd.

**the Ozick quote came from A Creative Writer’s Kit: A Spiritual Companion & Lively Muse For The Writing Life by Judy Reeves, author of A Writer’s Book Of Days; see also her Notes On Writing.

***yes, I realize that guy artists feel fear, too. I just suspect its root structure varies. That said, big hugs, guys!

Cynsational News

Mark Mitchell is teaching a workshop on “Writing A Non-Fiction Book” from 1 to 4 p.m. April 16 through the Writers’ League of Texas. Mark’s third nonfiction book, Raising La Belle told the story about the great French explorer Robert Ca velier, Sieur de la Salle, and how archeologists recovered his ship, the Belle from the bottom of Matagorda Bay in 1997. The book won the Western Writers of America Spur Award for best juvenile nonfiction – 2003 and the United States Maritime Literature Award – 2003. The fee is $45 for WLT members/$90 nonmembers. For more details, visit or call 499-8914.

Cynsational Links

Mary E. Pearson’s journal features a March 12 entry on why she writes for, or rather about, teenagers.

Marlene Perez’s journal talks on March 9 about how a recent Entertainment Weekly article misrepresents the status of sexual themes in YA lit and muses over related gender bias within the publishing arena.

2 thoughts on “Writing, Fear, and Gender

  1. Excellent motivation. Now I need someone to tell me it's ok to ignore the housework and write all day because I'm breaking out of my stereotypical maternal norms!

  2. Of course it's okay.

    Think of it as a day job. You're not allowed to take ironing breaks if you leave home to work.

    Also, people used to have kids in large part to plow the field.

    Perhaps one could help with the dishes? It's far less strenuous than field plowing. (Is that helping any?)

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