When I was nineteen, Stan Lee ran a contest looking for new comic writers and artists to flesh out his idea for a worldwide search for aliens who’d been on earth for centuries. The winners would take creative control of the comic and Stan Lee would edit. I was so new to writing that I thought I might actually win. I punched out a script and sent it to a friend for feedback. A day later she gave me the first writing feedback that really pissed me off: Ryan, you can’t write women.
It wasn’t a philosophical question of whether or not a man could write something from a female point of view. It was about craft. It irked me, because like all good insults and great criticism, it was absolutely right. I hadn’t yet done the necessary, lifelong, work of identifying and disassembling the misogyny I had learned.
I’d spent the last four years at an all boys high school, so my understanding of women was shaped by the four or five women I interacted with regularly—two being my mother and sister, and women in 90s sitcoms and action films replaying in the 2000s. As most gender theorists or women with televisions will tell you, those characters are either male sex fantasies or wisdom bearing elders. Worst of all: I still thought of women as a homogenous group. I believed they had one voice, and every woman I knew was an outlier.
College helped me grow out of that. If I ever turned a corner, it was around my senior year. I read fiction by women. There’s the quiet, contemplative prose of Alice Munro portraying the world of working class Canadian women. Jill McCorkle with her incredible metaphors and caustic Southern humor. Roxane Gay with her amazing, plain spoken but biting prose. Toni Morrison. Grace Paley. Julie Otsuka. Karen Russell. Alison Bechdel. There are so many talented women writing, and none of them sound alike.
The secret, if there is any, is just that. Women don’t write a certain way. Neither do men. (Think of Ernest Hemingway versus Michael Chabon. Stephen King versus James Baldwin.) If you’re a man trying to write a woman, start out by identifying your misogyny. From there, try to craft a character that’s not tainted by that. Give them a distinct voice and focus on the ways that you’re alike, and try to breathe emotional truth into something you’ve never experienced. I hope that’s something that I don’t need to tell you.
Whether it is or not, get yourself to the bookstore and read people that are different for you. Your fiction will thank me.