I made up a story yesterday and as I sat down to compose the narrative, I realized I’d created a difficult problem. I imagined a story that I couldn’t tell.
Of course, I did tell the story, but I did so with severe limitations. There is only one writing rule I consider inviolable. I will not write internal dialogue for a character foreign to my nature. I will not write what an Englishman thinks about being English. I will not write what a Doctor thinks about being a doctor. Those don’t come up much. Most importantly, I will not write internal dialogue for a woman about being a woman.
This is strictly contextual. When a woman is merely another person, I have no issues. If a woman on the bus thinks “I hate riding the bus,” I’m cool. But, with rare exceptions, I don’t write bus stories. I write erotica. I write emotionally realistic stories about adult situations. I am not qualified to write this kind of story from a woman’s perspective. I have nothing to contribute to the personal conversation of womanity.
This is the key point. If I were stranded on a deserted island, writing stories for my completely male audience of castaways, I would write a woman’s perspective with impunity. My mock view point would be as valid as the imagined female thought process of any man there. But in the real world, where women are as likely to read my stories as any man, I would consider it insulting to pretend I can tell women what women think about being a woman. I have nothing to contribute to that discussion.
This attitude goes beyond my own writing. I won’t read a story by a man from a woman’s perspective. I won’t read a story by a woman from a man’s perspective.
There is a fine line here, that must be emphasized. I can write stories about women. I can write stories where women interact, perhaps by expressing their internal dialogue in speech. I have ideas about what goes on in women’s heads and I can make guesses as to what they think and how they will act in response to those thoughts. This, to me, is entirely different from proposing internal dialogue.
One of the best stories I have written, Burning Letters, brought this matter to a head. A woman goes outside to burn her old love letters, at the insistence of her jealous husband. In the course of burning the letters, she reads a few. Realizing that her jealous husband is out of line, trying to deny her past, she kicks over the BBQ where the fire is raging and walks away as the house begins to burn. Cool story, bro. Then I realized that without her internal dialogue, a woman goes outside, burns some paper and sets fire to a house. Ouch.
I struggled hard with this story, using every trick I could muster to let the story progress without the phrase “she thought.” I was not satisfied with the result, but I finally let it go. From the world, particularly women, it was acclaimed as the best story I had written. In my turmoil, I had been forced to write with greater poetics and structure than a simple internal dialogue could have mustered.
So not only won’t I try to capture the female mental process, I know that denying myself that easy option forces me to be a better writer. That’s a lesson worth remembering.