Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Pearl

One of my favorite writers, Lucius Shepard, is also a Facebook friend.   He was recently in Nantes, France, and posted a little story on Facebook about the singer Patti Smith.  He had seen her in the Seventies, wild and out of control, most likely messed up on drugs.  The next time he saw her was just recently in Nantes, and he described her as a sixtyish lady in a long coat and boots, waiting in a hotel lobby, a smile on her face and bouncing on her toes.  He lamented not catching her recent show, but said it didn’t matter, as ‘the little dance’ she did in the lobby had answered all his questions about her.  “Patti Smith has survived her personal rock and roll and, as do some few survivors, has grown a pearl around the sadness that entails.”
That last line struck me as an incredibly beautiful piece of sentiment, and I couldn’t help but reflect on it throughout the day.  Everyone has some measure of sadness in their lives, and most of us try to move beyond it, or dispel it, or drive it from our lives through whatever means we find at hand--perhaps religion for some, or drink or drugs for others, or sex, or baking or perhaps, for some, through art.  But no matter what we do, that sadness never really leaves us, it just becomes a part of us, like a scar that tells the story of the roads that we have traveled. 
The concept of “growing a pearl around it” is quite a powerful thought, for that’s what we, as writers, are hopefully doing when we take whatever measure of sadness is dealt us and turn it into something beautiful with words.  I’ve had great sadness in my life at times, but I’ve never found a greater opiate than putting pen to page and turning those sour, ascorbic lemons into lemonade, or turning the painful, gritty grain of sand into a pearl, as Lucius so beautifully put it. 
Such thoughts leave me feeling dreamy and poetic as I sit down for my daily writing session.  All is well in the world, but somewhere, through the quantum throes of time, hurt lingers.  And there is always room for another pearl....

Friday, November 4, 2011

Gender in Writing

I was reading some comments on a story on Every Day Fiction where a commenter was critical of the author (a woman) trying to write from a male point of view.  He backed up his comments with a link to a website called Gender Genie, which he said detected that the author was a female as well.   Turns out Gender Genie is a little site where you paste some text in a window and an algorithm developed by some scientists evaluates the prose and guesses the sex of the author. 
This got me to wondering, how would the Gender Genie identify the sex of my writing?  Not that I really care, but I couldn’t help but wonder, after reading this, how I, a male author, was doing on the few occasions when I tried to write from a female point of view. 
As I scanned through my folder of stories written during the past year, I realized that the bulk of the first person stories were from male POV, and the majority of the third person stories utilized a male as the POV character.  I did have a few first person stories that I’d written from the POV of a female character, so I decided to check those first. 
First up was a story called “Django,” about a woman who meets an eccentric man at a Renaissance fair, told from her POV.   I pasted a thousand words of the story into the Gender Genie, and this is the result I got:
Words: 1007
(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 1306
Male Score: 1242
The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: female!
Cool.  I managed to fool the Gender Genie.  One down.  I pasted in another story, this one called “Fly,” told from the POV of a winged girl who is captured and held prisoner in a bleak city.  I seemed to have fooled Gender Genie again:
Words: 1022
(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 1437
Male Score: 1280
The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: female!
I tried a third female POV story, this one called “Moonshine Girl and the Golden Cat.”  Same result.  Female. 
I was Feeling rather proud of my gender bending abilities in fiction, but nevertheless I decided that as a control I’d better paste in some of my male POV stories as well.  The first one I selected was a little piece of flash called “Lessons Never Learned.”   It’s a first person piece told from the POV of a man who has lost his wife.  Here were the Gender Genie’s results:
Words: 976
(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 1474
Male Score: 958
The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: female!
 Hum, I thought, that’s weird.  But it was a bit of a touchy feely sort of story, so I quickly pulled out another male POV story, this one a gritty piece called “The Dirt Under my Fingernails.”
Words: 663
(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 782
Male Score: 693
The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: female!
Uh oh.  Something is amiss here.  I plugged in a few more stories.  Female.  Female, Female.  Is Gender Genie trying to tell me something?
I was about to give up on the whole process, when I came across of couple of recent pieces of flash that I’d written called Cobweb and Mustardseed, Both written from a female POV.   I pasted in Mustardseed first.  It’s the story of a streetwise prostitute in New York, told in the first person.
Words: 1016
(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 794
Male Score: 1154
The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!
“Cobweb,” told from the POV of a female dancer in a Shakespeare production, scored the same as well—Male. 
Hum.  I finally had a male result, but these times I was trying to sound female.   Or was I?
The accuracy of the Gender Genie notwithstanding, this exercise got me to thinking about how much I try to manipulate gender in my writing, or if I consciously do it at all.  As writers, we are nothing if we are not keen observers of life, and I like to think that I can observe the world through more than just “male” colored glasses.  
The bulk of my stories are third person, and I like to think that I remain somewhat gender neutral when I write in this manner, but this exercise has got me to thinking that maybe I don’t.  In reading various pieces of fiction over the years, I must admit that sometimes a piece feels as though it were written by a man or a woman to me, though I’ve never really tried to identify why.  Other times this is not the case, and I’ve certainly found plenty of examples where male or female characters written by an author of the opposite sex still felt quite genuine to me.   I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinions of this issue. 
As to the original commenter’s post, which stated that female authors should not try to write from a male POV, I am inclined to heartily disagree.  Whether any writer, male or female, succeeds at writing an opposite sex POV is strictly in the eye of the reader, and there are many different perspectives out there. 
What do you think?