Academic journal article Women and Language

Notes of a Non-Gendered 'Ecological' Writer

Academic journal article Women and Language

Notes of a Non-Gendered 'Ecological' Writer

Article excerpt

I've been told I write like a man. This pisses the hell out of me. Ever since I published my first book, a travel memoir, or what would now be called a work of creative non-fiction, Waterway Journey: The Voyage of Nora's Ark (Funk & Wagnall's 1968), I have been consciously experimenting with the relationship between form, or style, and content. The results have been uneven, and by no means would I say I have developed -- or even worked at developing -- a consistent "voice."

Raymond Carver suggested that developing a style or voice was almost more important than exploring specific themes. I respect this aspect of Carver's work and his project, but I can't say I entirely agree. Carver has been referred to as a quintessentially "masculine" writer, developing a "masculine" voice in the tradition of Hemingway and the American male realists of the pre-thirties era. Most recently, he has been included in a cross-sexual heap of "working-class" writers, or as some call them "K-Mart realists," that includes Bobbie Ann Mason, Elizabeth Tallent, Jane Smiley, Thom Jones, and even the brothers Barthelme. Even when the constituency of this school includes important new feminine writers, the style, lean, anti-sensual, is still often characterized as "masculine."

Quite frankly, I am tired of seeing gender labels applied to styles of writing -- especially to my own. Admittedly, an important influence on my work was that Joseph Heller served as the mentor for my creative writing master's degree thesis, a collection of autobiographical stories, entitled Comrades and Friends, and I also had the good fortune to work with such postmodernist writers as Donald Barthelme and Frederick Tuten. I had been pushed and poked by other writing teachers -- including, importantly, Francine du Plessix Grey (from whom I learned alternative techniques useful for when I wanted to write sensuously). James Joyce had been invoked; Virginia Woolf -- all as if style bore no relationship to content and it didn't matter what you said, only how you said it.

As it happens, the main thing I learned from my years as a writing student at CCNY was how to express modern existential angst without wallowing in self-pity. I suppose this does count as the modernist, or postmodernist mode. I started, as perhaps one should, with autobiographical material. I had been rather a neglected child of a movement of radical activists (American Trotskyists) who were bent on making the revolution in their lifetime, and paid very little attention to the needs or lives of what few children had come into the movement with them. As one friend of my parents recently put it, "We were aware there were a few kids running around, but none of us paid them much attention."

It was this same friend, who, with the benefits of e-mail, I have adopted as my own friend -- call him Frank -- who made me stop and think about the gendering of my writing in particular, and of writing in general. (Academic writing, which I've been mostly engaged in lately, doesn't count, since, with the exception of the new autobiographical criticism, it mostly follows a fairly set, seemingly neutral format.) I had sent Frank the latest version of my autobiographical stories.

After several aborted attempts to write sensually about my autobiographical material that only wound up as self-pitying jeremiads, I decided to give this material one more shot. I embarked on a new style. I was looking for the impossible -- something that would be marketable and would also honestly reflect my own concerns and themes -- not necessarily tell the story of the American radical left. It came to me in a flash. I started with a character, Phyllis Emerson, a temporary typist in management relations and publishing outfits, who is too smart for her work. A teen-aged son-figure wrestling with the drug scene is involved; there is a sort of feeling-out love interest. The main thing is the tone, the style, the voice. …

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