On Women Writing, and Writing Women

My MFA program was hit or miss in terms of instructors, but I got stuck with a hard miss on several occasions. This one professor taught all but one of my playwriting workshops, and had a field day throughout my two years there teasing me about only writing female characters. He'd rib me about only wanting to torture men onstage, rib me about writing yet another script that had mostly if not entirely female casts. "You know what I want you to do next quarter?" he said to me once. "I want you to write a good, kind, likable male protagonist." 

Yes, he really said that. Yes, my eyes about rolled out my damn head. Yes, I was livid inside. Yes, all I said outwardly was, "I think enough of those have been written already." 

On another occasion, he said to me, "I don't know what's going on here, but I know there's something going on." By then I knew this professor well enough to assume he wouldn't get it. Once, in lieu of notes on a script, he told me my writing reminded him of the early plays of a famous male playwright. "I struggled with those, too," he said. "I suppose you should take that as a huge compliment, though."

I suppose I should have taken it as a huge compliment, but his phrasing certainly didn't seem like he intended it as one.

I spent my whole MFA politely disagreeing with this professor in class, righting his wrongs, doing everything within my quiet power not to let him tragically mislead other writers with his notes--notes that were bad, primarily, because he could not conceive of what another writer was attempting to do, could only approach work from his own position, his own preference. He couldn't make sense of my work because I wasn't writing for him, and I wasn't writing what he would write. Not only that, he couldn't give me notes because he knew I wouldn't take them, and because he knew my writing was good, even if it seemed untouchable by him. 

Another man, another occasion. "They all have so much strength," he said to me. "I just don't know how that's going to work out." He was referring to three of my female characters. We continued talking, his opinion became clearer: he simultaneously found these characters' objectives 1) unclear and 2) too strong for there to be true conflict.

These, in themselves, are conflicting pieces of criticism. Good writers are taught that the best conflict is characters with strong but opposing objectives: two people who want two different things with the same desperation. A child wants to go out and have fun with her friends; a mother wants her daughter to be safe. Two people, two strong objectives, instant conflict. I didn't know how to make sense of the criticism that my characters were simultaneously too strong and not clear.

But how can you reason with a man when he knows nothing of the strength and the opacity it takes to be a woman? Simultaneously too strong and not clear enough--ain't that what I feel every damn day as a woman in this world? So in this sense, I'm succeeding. I became a writer because I couldn't find many women to identify with in the entire dramatic canon written entirely by men. I became a writer to write women like me--too strong and yet somehow still not clear enough, not to herself, and not to others. If that professor doesn't get it, I'll count it a success: he doesn't want to get it, and I and a world full of women couldn't make him try.

There's a hackneyed idea that women's stories meander more than men's; that when a woman tells a story, she includes a lot of seemingly meaningless details or tangents that some (re: men) consider fluff that doesn't add anything to the story. Our collective artistic consciousness is so fucked by being told the same stories over and over again: we don't know what it looks like to see life through another's lens. Well, some of us do--every day I judge myself by the standards of a lifetime of male-driven stories, and every day people of color are forced to navigate what a lifetime of white stories have taught them. Some of us have only ever seen life through another's lens, and we suffer for it over and over again.

Sometimes I don't even know how to talk about what life is like as a woman. I don't have the words for it until I carve them out, craft them, build them up out of nothing--and then, they usually seem to fall short. How can I explain what it feels like, to write characters you love only to hear that someone doesn't get them, or that they're too strong? How can I explain the strength it takes to let some man critique your inner world, the strength it takes to hear "she's too strong" which is effectively "you're too strong," and how utterly weak I feel for a moment every time some man doesn't get what I'm talking about?

A lot of the time I'm not clear--on myself, on my characters, on our objectives. Something is going on here, you're right about that--and you don't know what it is, and sometimes I feel too weak to try to explain over and over again.

I'm not perfect, and I still have a lot to learn in this life--but I'm a damn good dramaturg, and you want me to read your scripts if you want helpful feedback. Why? Because I push myself to understand where the writer is coming from, and I spend my mental energy figuring out how to help them communicate the thing they're already trying to communicate. I don't act like every piece of dramatic writing is intended for me: I act like there are billions of people out there, and if I want to learn from them I better intend to try to see them, hear them, appreciate them.