by Jeffrey Thomas
I know a talented young writer who once admitted on a message board that he was not ready to write a story from the point of view of a woman. He seemed to feel he could not do so with authenticity. I thought this was odd, coming from someone who feels they can write convincingly of supernatural occurrences. How much more commonplace are women than ghosts, demons, and aliens! Though often, they are hard to distinguish from such entities…but I digress. This writer seemed to think it was presumptuous of him to even deem to write from the perspective of the opposite sex, as if he feared being called to task should he get the psychological flavor wrong.
Then I know of another writer named Stephen King, who has a healthier attitude. This young fella came out of nowhere with a novel about a teenaged female outsider with psychic abilities. Yikes, how did he pull that off? Well, aside from the fact that a male writer may have a wife or girlfriend, a daughter, sister, female friends and at the very least a mother, I guess he just drew upon his own experience from interacting with this exotic race. King grew even more ballsy (or ovariesy) as he moved along in what I predict to be a successful career (keep your eye on this guy). He wrote one short story in which an African-American woman who works in a hotel collects, um, stains from bed sheets to use in some kind of juju. When I think of this story I sometimes sit back in admiration and wonder, “How stumped for ideas was he that night? Jeesh!” But you know, it’s Stephen King, so it’s a good read. The point is, he made me believe in that woman. And King is not a woman, nor is he African-American. Now maybe if I were either of those things, I might scoff at this story, poke holes in it. But for this white male reader, at least – I bought it.
What separates a white writer writing from the perspective of a black man from a white actor of bygone times acting in black face? Aside from matters of respect and sensitivity? Well, it isn’t impossible for white actors to portray black characters (as they have done in Shakespeare plays like OTHELLO) in a work of artistic merit. For that matter, in Japanese Kabuki plays men in geisha drag traditionally played the female roles. Linda Hunt was brilliant playing a male Indonesian (neither of which she is) in the film THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. But acting and writing are different forms of art, and use different means to accomplish their ends (the actor dons physical makeup or costume; the reader dons the writer’s words and ideas). In writing, the process has to do with facts, sure. It has to do with observation. But most importantly, it has to do with empathy. Empathy will take you far as a writer (and in life in general; try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes sometime – it can do wonders in human relations). Yep, empathy can be a writer’s Swiss Army Knife.
I was very gratified when an early short story of mine called A WOMB SCORNED was accepted by the small press publication ABERRATIONS, with the praise that I had made the editor feel a woman had written the story (though I can’t recall now if that editor was a woman or not). But I was prouder still, years later, when a female friend read a story of mine in which the main character was based on my first wife Rose, who is a deaf woman (neither of which I am…but it didn’t seem like that big a stretch to me, with my empathy instrument trained at such point-blank range). This friend praised the fact that she could closely relate to the female protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. It amazed her that a man had written it. Besides a sense of accomplishment, I think I felt a bit amazed that this should have to amaze her.
I was to experience yet more flattery for my skills of empathy, for my amazing abilities as a chameleon, a Lon Chaney of the written word!
Do you know I almost became more successful as a writer of gay pornography than as a writer of fantastical fiction?
It almost happened like this. I had placed a story in a small press anthology edited by a writer who was gay. Later he became the editor of a mass market paperback collection of gay erotic western stories, and since he liked my work he invited me to contribute. I was a bit amused by this and said to my wife, “How could I ever come up with a gay erotic cowboy story?” It wasn’t so much the gay part that stumped me as the cowboy part. My wife said, “Maybe I could come up with an idea for you.” That was when I puffed up my chest and thought, “Whaaat? I am the writer in this relationship! I don’t need YOU to come up with an idea for me! I’ll plot my own damn gay erotic cowboy story!” Which I did. And thus, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was born. Oops…wrong story. Anyway, it was ironic that this editor had had me do several rewrites of a story set in my world of Punktown for his previous anthology, but he accepted this story straight off (am I then better at gay porn than SF?). In fact, my story was so arousing that he confessed he had to, er, relieve himself of said arousal after reading it. After that, he would often tease me by asking if I were truly straight. When the book came out, on its back cover it boasted of “gay literature’s brightest stars.” But the editor told me another of the “gay” authors therein was a woman writing under a male pseudonym. He went on to plan more anthologies of various genres for this publisher, and solicited more stories from me…accepted story after story. For some, I simply took an existing hot heterosexual story of mine and turned the female character into a man. (And made the appropriate anatomical adjustments in the naughtier bits.) Well…as fate would have it, I did not become a successful writer of gay porn. There was a falling out between editor and publisher and only the western-themed book made it to print. I sold one of the orphaned stories to a magazine where the editor informed me that my story had made him “hard – damn hard,” but I never heard whether or not the magazine ultimately came out. One of the stories, about gay Chinese gangsters, appeared recently in my collection THIRTEEN SPECIMENS. Anyway, I was proud to have succeeded in impressing gay writers, editors and readers with these stories. It again confirmed that I was able to put myself in the spurred boots (and nothing else, girlfriend!) of a person who was different from myself.
But really…that different? I know what warm flesh feels like against mine. Is it too far of a leap to extrapolate, then, what it would be like if that flesh were male? The leap was not in overcoming the physical facts, but the psychological barrier. But why should that be daunting? I have written about characters who were clones, aliens, mutants, devils, ghosts, androids. I even wrote a story from the perspective of a pistol (GUN METAL BLUE, in AAAIIIEEE!!!) – though the idea of the story is that every gun is the personification of a demon. Shouldn’t I be able to write from the perspective of an Asian, an elderly person, an autistic person? These creatures all have one thing in common. They are human beings, with a very similar range of feelings and needs. When you tap into the universal, it really isn’t that difficult.
I may not care to write from a certain perspective too much, though. For example: children. I used to look askance at children as protagonists in adult fiction (despite brilliant stories like LORD OF THE FLIES). That was stuff for the King wannabes, I thought. Adults are far more complex and interesting to write about than children.
And then I became a father.
I still tend not to put child characters in my stories often, but only because adults are generally more empowered to act upon their situations than children are, and thus make more dramatic protagonists – generally speaking. I can still “get into it” more if I am writing about a female protagonist, because she is more like me in being an adult. As different as the protagonist might be from me in
their particulars, as I say, I like to be able to find that common ground.
I love the writer Patrick McGrath’s work, and in his collection BLOOD AND WATER he has a story told from the point of view of a fly, and another from that of a boat. And these are not, to me, silly stories, experimental fluff, but fine pieces of effective storytelling. A writer of McGrath’s stripe can even empathize with an insect, an inanimate object.
And the best part of that? He can make the reader empathize with these things, too.
Dare I say this is where writing can perhaps be most important? Not in pushing a political stance, addressing a particular issue…but simply in letting us see through the eyes of a person who is not us? In reading, we can become chameleons. We can become anyone and anything. And in becoming them, maybe find out more about ourselves in the bargain.