I'm Just Saying…

June 30, 2010

Of Mice and (Writing) Men

In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf pontificated on  novel writing and how the process would be “affected by the sex of the novelist.” Writing the opposite sex can be, in my opinion, a tricky business. The non-fiction market is flooded with such titles as How Men Think, For Women Only: What You Need To Know About The Inner Lives Of Men, and the classic Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. These books only accentuate the emotional and psychological divide that exists between the sexes. In the movie As Good As It Gets, a woman asks Jack Nicholson’s character how he writes women so well. He answers, “I think of a man and I take away reason and accountability.” This line may get on my nerves but it does raise the question, how does a writer effectively write the opposite sex?

The writer’s burden is always to create characters that are truthful, and therefore memorable; characters that feel “real” in a fictional world. Well, it’s my turn now.

I have reached the point in Deciphering Bella where Mark, Bella’s husband, is ready for his moment at center stage. Through nine chapters, Mark has been seen only through Bella’s eyes. To explain why now is the time for Mark’s point of view is impossible. This entire book has followed its own rhythm, its own natural progression. It is simply time. I suspect Mark will have a lot to say about his life, his marriage, and certainly his wife. So what will he say? Good question.

Women’s preoccupation with understanding men has been going on since recorded time. What do men want? What are they thinking? What are they feeling? I hesitate to say it, but I’m sure more than one woman has wondered at some time, do men have any feelings? The male sex itself is cloaked in secrecy. Look at it this way: their private den/game room/tv room is referred to as a cave. That alone speaks volumes.

I am the last child and only daughter in a family of three children. All I can offer is this: the male influence is powerful. I despise the sound of nagging (giving or receiving). It’s like nails on a chalkboard. Except for the scant bout of chattiness, I talk less rather than more. My conversation consists more of short statements then questions. I can ride in a car for long periods in total silence. I know better than to interrupt a man while he’s concentrating on one task to discuss something else. Women multi-task. Men don’t. In spite of all this, I have yet to crack the code.

When writing men, I can’t figure out if they are the distraught, vulnerable, heartbroken victims crooning love songs or the callous, careless louts you read about in women’s magazines in answer to questions like, “What’s the worst way a guy ever broke up with you?” And I do wonder, are we as women writers guilty of writing in absolutes? Do we only make room for The Prince or The Cad, with not much wiggle room in between?

There are many writers, men and women, who have created amazing work in writing the opposite sex. Larry McMurtry’s portrayal of Emma and Aurora in Terms of Endearment and Judith Guest’s glimpse into the innermost thoughts of Calvin Jarrett in Ordinary People are only two examples. Calvin appears truly mystified by the behavior of his wife. In his musings of Beth’s past mood swings and outbursts, we get a realistic portrait of a man at a loss. Though he clearly saw what was happening with his wife, he couldn’t understand her actions. The end result was a man unable or unwilling to deal with the situation. 

To be honest, perhaps describing a man as being “at a loss” is not accurate. I seriously wonder if most men feel the best way out of an issue/disagreement/argument is to admit guilt in the matter or stay out of the way, compliment her shoes, and hope it all goes away. I suppose that line of thinking goes with the conventional wisdom that men are easy to figure out – sleep, sports, and sex. I’m not convinced writers can accept that. It’s in our nature to always be on the hunt for something deeper – what lies beneath.

The excellent indie film, Small Town Saturday Night, written and directed by Ryan Craig, was an eye opener for me. Craig created three-dimensional, fully formed male characters, portrayed by a group of fantastic actors. Craig doesn’t spoonfeed his audience and he doesn’t explain everything. He leaves it to the audience to pay attention and piece together the puzzle of these characters. I found that these men are not heroes or villains, all good or all bad. They are human, they are flawed, and their emotions and reactions to their successes and failures in work, life, and relationships, from their own perspective, ring true. Craig shows that men have their own way of communicating, and they do communicate; however they also compartmentalize their life, experiences, and emotions as women rarely, if ever do.

But now I have to concentrate on what my character, Mark, will say and do. He has a wife with serious emotional and psychological issues. At this point in the story, he has yet to realize just how serious these issues are. It will be my challenge to accurately portray a man faced with difficulties in his marriage he never expected; challenges he “didn’t sign up for.” As in life, what kind of man Mark turns out to be will depend on his decisions. I will have to know what he’s thinking as he makes those choices.

I think I’ll pick up a copy of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus as part of my research. It couldn’t hurt. 

I’m just saying. 

J.

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