A few days ago, I read Alexandra Petri’s October 13, 2015, Washington Post article, “Famous quotes, the way a woman would have to say them during a meeting.” Hysterically funny but, sadly − there’s a lot more truth than I’m comfortable with in what Petri writes. In part, the article addresses a meeting that Jennifer Lawrence attended in which a man who works for her overreacted to the direct way she spoke.
How dare JLaw be as blunt as a man! What was she thinking?
Then the article parodies great quotes from men and how women would have to say the same thing differently in order for her message to be “accepted.”
I recently had a similar experience.
I live in the DFW area and wanted to explore a few of the groups in our thriving writing community. One intriguing group that I found on a Meet Up site had a mission statement that suggested they were serious, up-and-coming writers who were there to support each other – so I contacted them. I was vetted before I was allowed to attend, and after filling out their online form and submitting it along with the name of my blog – so whoever was checking me out could get an idea of what I write – I was given the green light.
This group was comprised of a younger adult demographic – savvy, hip, organized and well-educated. In the handful of meetings that I participated, we would either start out with a prompt and write for 15 minutes or one of the leaders would provide a short lesson. Information about helpful websites, books and tools were discussed as well as news about upcoming events and contests. Lastly, those who brought personal projects had the opportunity to read and receive feedback. Everyone had a chance to offer critique. Members often had opposing opinions about what worked in a story and what didn’t, but the atmosphere remained respectful.
I found out that most of the core members wrote fiction − mainly post-apocalyptic sci-fi − but one person wrote nothing but poetry and at least one other member, older than most, was a memoir writer. I was thrilled to be included and looked forward to getting to know everyone better.
I waited several meetings before I read because I wanted to get a feel for the group before I opened my work up to criticism. I was glad I did, too, because it was around the third or fourth meeting when I found out that several members don’t like satire. A new-ish member read what I thought was a funny and provocative essay, which I told him during my critique. However, he received far more disapproving comments from others like “snarky,” “mean-spirited” and “in poor taste.” One woman told him that she preferred to write “in a more meaningful, literary style rather than going for the cheap laughs.” Yikes. The facade had cracked with those fighting words. In an instant, mighty pens were brandished and crossed over a metaphorical, yet flourished line that was laid down in this writers group sandbox, along with a call of “En garde.”
The drama that ensued was amusing at first, though unexpected, as I watched well out of harm’s way. I wanted the satirical underdog to win this battle, but his wit was no match for the blunt, verbal onslaught he endured that evening. Freedom of speech took a hard left hook to the chin that sent this poor bastard reeling — his satire thoroughly trounced out of him as he barely escaped the verbal lashings he received. It was made clear to one and all — he and his satire had no place in this group. I’m sure he’s plenty scarred from the experience. I haven’t seen him since, but my hope is that he survived to write another day.
I probably should have realized right then that this was not the group for me − but since humor isn’t all that I write and because I wanted to learn as much as I could from this younger generation – especially since several had majored in English Literature – I stuck it out.
No doubt, a few members were serious bordering on intense, okay, even pathological, but there were also members who, like me, were just wanting to soak up as much as they could about the ins and outs of writing. We were thrilled to be there even if academic snobbery cropped up. Split infinitives were reunited after one of the many grammar nazis in this group tagged a few during a critique. Dangling participles found subjects to modify – thereby guaranteeing safe ground on which to land. In another meeting, we’d discussed ad nauseum the pros and cons of the Oxford comma and whether or not it belonged on this side of the Atlantic. Even though I was no where close to writing on the same level as some of my more learned colleagues, I was still hoping to make a good overall impression – so I thought long and hard about what to debut from my oeuvre for a critique.
The essay I eventually decided upon, “In a Nutshell,” centered around a conversation I’d had with a teenage boy I knew who’d been experiencing the inevitable growing pains that go along with growing up. It was basically a think piece with a philosophical bent that called for a modicum of reflection. I’d read it to other groups and it had been well-received, so I thought I’d run it by this group as well. More than anything, I was wanting to showcase this story as a way to carve out my niche among these mid to late twenties and early thirties professionals.
After I finished reading my narrative, I looked at the eight judgmental stares before me. Uh oh. I felt like I’d told a joke that flew right over this collective’s head. I waited for someone to say something, but I only heard silence − and not the good, we’re-savoring-your-story kind of silence either. I felt my cheeks burn as that silence deepened and stretched. Too late, I realized I’d chosen the wrong material to read. No one seemed to know what to say and I got the feeling they were hoping someone would quickly extricate them from the dangerous unknown of my think piece and drop them safely back into their familiar world of post-apocalyptic, zombie/ vampire/ space alien/ science fiction.
Finally, a woman accused, “Your story sounds like it was written by a man. Did you write that or are you reading someone else’s work? You do know that we only read our own work in this group, right?”
Since I’m a woman and I’d written it − what does that even mean?!! I didn’t use enough all-inclusive pronouns? It wasn’t warm and fuzzy enough?
I answered, “Of course I wrote this. What do you mean ‘it sounds like a man wrote it?'”
She seemed unsure of how to explain exactly what she meant, but that didn’t stop the woman next to her from trying. Unfortunately, this second woman had the distracting habit of saying the word “maybe” too many times along with ending each of her statements with what I can only describe as an early 80’s, Valley Girl, questioning lilt. I believe it’s referred to as ‘upspeak.’ “Uhm, maybe it’s the tone of the story? Or possibly the content, maybe?” She looked at her friend for confirmation.
I got a little lost in the way this woman talked. My ears were expecting to hear her friend answer, “Like, totally!” Instead, I was almost startled to hear a normal, adult voice from the the first woman who re-emphasized with irritation, “It just doesn’t sound like something a woman would write. It doesn’t come across as a credible female voice.” She looked around the group hoping that others would back her. I watched heads nod in approval.
Questioning lilt added, “It seems kinda authoritative, maybe?”
“Authoritative? Do you mean authoritative or authoritarian?” I asked.
“Maybe? Like, it comes across as masculine?” Questioning lilt replied.
“Huh,” I said. “Okaaaay. Well, did either of you like it?”
“Uhm, I think maybe I didn’t understand it?” questioning lilt admitted. Her friend shrugged.
“Oh,” I said. “I’m not sure what to say.”
One of the guys in the group took issue with the relationship between the two main characters. “This doesn’t make any sense,” he told me. “Your character’s a young guy. A teen. Why would he listen to you, even if he’d known you all his life? I wouldn’t listen to you if I were him! The way you wrote this – this would never happen in real life,” he assured me. Another guy in the group agreed.
I asked, “When you were a teenager, there weren’t any women whose opinions you respected?”
“No. Why would I?” he spat out, as though I’d asked one of the stupidest questions he’d ever heard.
“Okay. That’s an interesting viewpoint that I hadn’t thought of,” I said. “I’ll try and clarify this relationship. Thanks. Good feedback.”
Someone whom I’m calling XY said, “You didn’t tell us what you meant at the end of your story. You’re making us figure out for ourselves what this life lesson is. That’s not acceptable in fiction. You need to tie up your story by explaining what the teenager and we, the reader, are supposed to get from it. What’s the point you’re trying to make?”
I explained, “Well, as I said before I started reading, this story’s not exactly fiction. While I changed the names and other identifying details, I wrote it pretty much as it occurred. Also, I suppose I could have spelled out what the life lesson was, but I think it’s easy enough to understand without having to bash people over the head with it. It’s been my experience that sometimes what makes a story isn’t only what you put in, but also what you leave out. For impact, I wanted to write this in a way that mimics for the reader what the young man experiences in the story.”
XY continued, “Well, you should tell us what that lesson is, so we can confirm that we got it right.”
I said, “Well, I could, but that’s not how I wanted to write this piece. It would defeat the purpose.”
“Well, if you don’t, then it’s incomplete,” XY insisted.
I bit my tongue. I wanted to say – so what you’re telling me is that you don’t understand what the life lesson is – but I didn’t want to be insulting. Instead, I said, “I’ll keep that in mind, but again, my intent isn’t to tell people what to think, it’s for people to draw their own conclusions − to let them figure it out for themselves.”
Someone else said, “Now you sound like a therapist. Is that what you do for a living?”
I said, “Not yet, but I’m going to school to become one.”
“Oh, no wonder your story sounds masculine,” one of the guys chuckled.
I didn’t reply to this last comment, but in my head I was thinking
WHAT THE FUCK!!!
Who says things like that?!!! What happened to that erudite and politically correct writing group I’d engaged with over the last several weeks?
The fact that I refused to explain the lesson in my story seemed to be a major sticking point. It occurred to me that much like the teenager in my story, perhaps these younger colleagues hadn’t experienced this life lesson either, so maybe they weren’t able to relate to what I’d written. Whatever their reasoning, until then, I hadn’t previously encountered the hardcore adversity I was now receiving. I don’t know what unnerved me more – their hostility or knowing that this group of adults didn’t recognize the value of selflessness, which was the life lesson I alluded to in my story. They didn’t seem to know firsthand the satisfaction and joy of giving to another human being with no expectation of getting anything in return – a reward unto itself! Sometimes giving of oneself is just the right thing to do. It transcends boundaries and connects us through our interdependence, our humanity.
Surprised and disappointed by the scant and bizarre feedback I was getting, I asked, “So, did anyone understand my story?”
More silence. No one answered me.
I finally said in shock, “Wow! That’s amazing because I’ve read this piece to two other writers groups and they got it. I’m surprised by the disparity between this group and the other groups. Huh. Well, thanks for your feedback anyway.”
That’s when several people gasped. Loudly.
Oh for God’s sake! They acted like I’d just threatened them or called them names or was about to get physically or verbally violent. It was a weird and melodramatic moment in an eye-rolling kind of way.
It occurred to me that had I been a man and said the same thing in the same way, no one would have blinked. But then again, if I listened to these people, what I’d written was also only credible if a man had authored it – and only if everything was spelled out for them! More than anything, I would have loved for just one other person in that group to have objected to the blatant stereotyping I’d just endured! That was okay, though. I’d already resolved not to go back to this group. They weren’t my audience. They weren’t my kind of people. It happens.
Before we adjourned, XY handed me a piece of paper with almost illegible notes scrawled across it. “My handwriting’s not the best, so if you have trouble reading this, just email me,” he said.
“Oh,” I said, “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Oh, I think I did,” he answered.
I wouldn’t even be writing about any of this except that a few days later, I received a letter from XY. For whatever reason, he took it upon himself to chastise me for being, “ungracious, setting a poor tone and making people feel demeaned.” I can’t imagine XY sending that same letter to a man. (If you want, you can read XY’s letter and my response in my post entitled, “Dear XY.”)
I know that XY’s letter has a lot of words in it all jumbled together to suggest that he’s knowledgeable and selflessly doing me some kind of favor (oh, the irony!) – but it’s mostly BULLSHIT. Besides the fact that he completely misunderstood what the life lesson was in my essay – which I ignored – I think that what XY really meant in his email is that I offended this group because − HOW DARE I!!! How dare I write something that made them feel stupid!
People usually don’t take kindly to being “outed” as something other than the way they want others to see them − even when it’s unintentional − and, apparently, that’s what happened – which instantly made me persona non grata. Because here this pompous, condescending group was – acting like a bunch of academic know-it-alls – and my little essay hit a painful nerve and called their collective and individual bluffs. My essay exposed their biases and limitations, as though it were a mirror of truth that reflected their intellectual shortcomings and immaturity. They took quite personal something that was never intended to be personal. Caught off guard, they resorted to trying to undermine and discredit me as a person as well as what I’d written. As it turned out, like the young man in my story, they didn’t appear to know quite as much as they professed. What was inexcusable and intolerable for them, of course, was how apparent and public this was for all who were there to see. But as my mother used to say, “Tough titty.”
Of course, embarrassing them was never my intention. There’s no way I could have known the impact my essay would have on this group, especially since it had been well-received by others. Frankly, I’d thought of the piece I read as one of my “safer” narratives, which is one of the reasons I went with that one. And despite what XY suggested, I was gracious. I was polite. I answered questions. I let insulting comments slide. I didn’t get on my soapbox about sexist biases or the misogyny I encountered. I even said thank you. I certainly didn’t demean anyone or set a poor tone by reading to them. And how can asking for feedback and then clarifying why I’d written this piece or expressing my genuine confusion about this group’s differing views from other groups’ perspectives be demeaning? Knowing that others had understood my essay was too much for this group to handle? Talk about being thin-skinned! If they didn’t understand my story, they didn’t understand it. That in itself gave me valuable feedback.
In hindsight, all I can say to XY and this particular writers group is − if the gasp fits, then choke on it, motherfuckers – and get over your pretentious, stereotyping selves!
Now XY and his writers group can officially feel slighted by me − but only if they choose to.
Personally, I don’t care for confrontation − but I’m also not one to back down to bullies or bullying behavior nor do I needlessly suffer bullshit expectations by bullshit people. When that happens, I tend to walk away. Then I write about them.
So if someone wants to be a self-proclaimed authority who’s claim to fame is knowing where and when to insert an Oxford comma, and they don’t approve of me or my work because I’ve not met their preconceived ideas or gender − so what? That has no bearing on who I am or what I’m about − although at this point, I’ll be glad to tell them where they can insert their Oxford commas – and dangle their participles!
I’m glad Jennifer Lawrence, Alexandra Petri and others are fighting the good fight! I’m glad there are people out there who push the boundaries, challenge the status quo, refuse to compromise on what really matters and who make others feel a little less comfortable and complacent in their rigid and skewed realities. Reading about these two women makes me feel less alone in this world. Who knows, maybe their fighting the good fight will even keep this world from becoming a post-apocalyptic wasteland – even if that flies in the face of others who insistently harbor some bleak, romantic notion that our future must one day become such a horrific place.