Thursday, January 22, 2015

I Am Woman: A Personal Approach to Gender

I read Rick's and Barbara's recent posts regarding gender in our genre, and I enjoyed their respective insights. I will stumble into the discussion here — the way I did into my new series and in turn my experience with the topic.

After writing my first six novels using the first-person point of view of hard-boiled males (both PI and amateur-sleuth), I taught a woman named Kylie, an early childhood-education major taking my night class at Northern Maine Community College. She was probably my age at the time (early thirties), and she worked harder than anyone I'd ever taught: she was a single mother (I'd see her dropping her toddler off early each morning at the same Head Start program my infant attended). Then each of us would leave to work for the day — me, to teach technical writing and composition at NMCC; she, to do menial labor (multiple jobs) all day before attending night classes.

My work at NMCC taught me many things. Among them: that most of my struggles are First World problems — that I have it a hell of a lot better than most. And Kylie, unbeknownst to her, drove that point home, wearily showing up each night, always prepared, always ready to lead discussions, writing and rewriting essays, and every bit earning her "A."

I never forgot her. And a few years later, I found myself writing a scene featuring a mother and a daughter at a kitchen table in Aroostook County, Maine, arguing about the way the younger woman was raising her daughter. The grandmother couldn't grasp the realities of single-motherhood.

I don't base my characters on people I know. (No, I'm not Jack Austin. No my wife isn't Lisa Trembley — Stop asking!) But many of my characters possess the attributes of people I have watched/known/or met. A nervous habit. A way of pronouncing a particular word. A hand gesture. These are things I notice, details I can use that (hopefully) bring a scene to life for the reader.

But as I wrote that kitchen-table scene, I knew Kylie was (in part) the daughter. And the more I wrote and allowed the character to breathe, the more I realized how heroic the character was. I knew she was representing more than just herself, that if I wrote honestly enough (I believe deeply in Hemingway's adage "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.") that my character Peyton Cote would resonate with other single mothers, who experience the same hardships, challenges, and rewards that Kylie did and Peyton does.

Did I succeed? Who knows. But the effort was and continues to be there.

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