If you’re a boy writer, it’s a simple rule: you’ve gotta get used to the fact that you suck at writing women and that the worst women writer can write a better man than the best male writer can write a good woman. And it’s just the minimum. Because the thing about the sort of heteronormative masculine privilege, whether it’s in Santo Domingo, or the United States, is you grow up your entire life being told that women aren’t human beings, and that women have no independent subjectivity. And because you grow up with this, it’s this huge surprise when you go to college and realize that, “Oh, women aren’t people who does my shit and fucks me.”
And I think that this a huge challenge for boys, because they want to pretend they can write girls. Every time I’m teaching boys to write, I read their women to them, and I’m like, “Yo, you think this is good writing?” These motherfuckers attack each other over cliche lines but they won’t attack each other over these toxic representations of women that they have inherited… their sexist shorthand, they think that is observation. They think that their sexist distortions are insight. And if you’re in a writing program and you say to a guy that their characters are sexist, this guy, it’s like you said they fucking love Hitler. They will fight tooth and nail because they want to preserve this really vicious sexism in the art because that is what they have been taught.
And I think the first step is to admit that you, because of your privilege, have a very distorted sense of women’s subjectivity. And without an enormous amount of assistance, you’re not even going to get a D. I think with male writers the most that you can hope for is a D with an occasional C thrown in. Where the average women writer, when she writes men, she gets a B right off the bat, because they spent their whole life being taught that men have a subjectivity. In fact, part of the whole feminism revolution was saying, “Me too, motherfuckers.” So women come with it built in because of the society.
It’s the same way when people write about race. If you didn’t grow up being a subaltern person in the United States, you might need help writing about race. Motherfuckers are like ‘I got a black boy friend,’ and their shit sounds like Klan Fiction 101.
The most toxic formulas in our cultures are not pass down in political practice, they’re pass down in mundane narratives. It’s our fiction where the toxic virus of sexism, racism, homophobia, where it passes from one generation to the next, and the average artist will kill you before they remove those poisons. And if you want to be a good artist, it means writing, really, about the world. And when you write cliches, whether they are sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, that is a fucking cliche. And motherfuckers will kill you for their cliches about x, but they want their cliches about their race, class, queerness. They want it in there because they feel lost without it. So for me, this has always been the great challenge.
As a writer, if you’re really trying to write something new, you must figure out, with the help of a community, how can you shed these fucking received formulas. They are received. You didn’t come up with them. And why we need fellow artists is because they help us stay on track. They tell you, “You know what? You’re a bit of a fucking homophobe.” You can’t write about the world with these simplistic distortions. They are cliches. People know art, always, because they are uncomfortable. Art discomforts. The trangressiveness of art has to deal with confronting people with the real. And sexism is a way to avoid the real, avoiding the reality of women. Homophobia is to avoid the real, the reality of queerness. All these things are the way we hide from encountering the real. But art, art is just about that.
though how to really own your shit would be to talk about this on your tumblr and talk about how you fucked up in the past and will try to fuck up less in the future.
Ways I have really fucked up (that I know about):
1. I misgendered an acquaintance when speaking to their then-partner. I was mortified, corrected myself, and tried to move on with the conversation. I was also wasted — these are not excuses, they are reminders to myself to be more careful under these conditions because it is my job to remain vigilant even if I am not sober.
2. I have misgendered customers who come into the coffee shop. Saying, “Hello, ladies!” when “Hello, folks!” would be sufficient and just as friendly. The lesson here is for me not to assume someone’s gender upon seeing them — case in point, my friend C, who has been amazing and forgiving of my idiotic assumption upon meeting him — I need to use less gendered language, too, and this is something I have improved upon in the past couple of years.
3. About three years ago when cleaning up a coffee shop I worked at, I said out loud to a co-worker that the owner should “hire some Mexicans to do this job right.” I was joking about our boss being unreasonable, but obviously that isn’t funny. It was one of the more fucked up things I have ever, ever uttered out loud. My co-worker at the time garnered an incredible amount of respect from me when she called my ass out and told me my statement was unacceptable to her. I apologized immediately — and then apologized and thanked her again about a year later. I am most ashamed of this one, I feel sick even typing it out. The fact that this shit came out of my mouth makes me want to hide under a rock and never come out again.
4. I am sure there have been one million transgressions I wasn’t aware of, and for those I am sorry too.
I hope to find more people like my co-worker mentioned in #3, and surround myself with them. I am grateful for the friends I have who do and will continue to call me out when I say or do something that is wrong. I am thankful to have found an online community which encourages me to keep learning, and illustrates to me when I have done something wrong (or even just tacitly supported wrongdoing). It’s an ongoing process. This is part of it.
Going through years-old photos, ticket stubs, letters, and notes gives a body a strange nostalgic weight. The reminder that you lived all that time and loved all those people has a physical remainder — these things. These things you are sorting, some of which will end up in a landfill, some of which will make art, some of which will go back into the box or tin to be rediscovered the next time you move (which will hopefully be never).
The tuft of cotton he forced me to pick alongside the highway the very first time I visited him in North Carolina. He goaded me get out of the car, run to the edge of the field, grab a tuft of someone’s ripe crop. And I did it because I’d never seen cotton in person before, not as anything other than clothing I purchased in a store. The tuft hung from my rearview mirror for the duration of our relationship, two more years. It stays.
The letters she wrote me when they were first starting to date, when she was borderline obsessed with my friendship and I was too insecure and alone to recognize her instability. She sounds manic in every single one. They go.
The Jump, Little Children burned CDs she sent me in 2003, along with a few letters she had accrued over the course of months. We’ll meet for the first time this year, when she comes to the east coast for grad school. It stays.
The pictures of my first love with our cockatiel, Sebastian. The last phone conversation we had was after Sebastian died; he wanted to know what year we’d gotten him, so he could calculate his age and decide whether he’d been a good bird-father. I Google his full name and try to find him in the internet white pages so I can mail the images without disturbing his new life. They go.