Today we are so excited to have a guest post by author Carrie Mesrobian, whose amazing contemporary debut SEX & VIOLENCE is out TODAY. I've read SEX & VIOLENCE and was blown away by how perfectly Carrie nails her male main character's voice. As another female author who writes male characters, I've been dying to pick Carrie's brain on her approach to writing boys, both from a craft perspective, as well as a philosophical one. Her thoughts are below. Enjoy and be sure to check out SEX & VIOLENCE!
ON BEING A GIRL, WRITING AS A BOY
When authors write stories from the point-of-view of the opposite gender/sex, readers are always surprised or fascinated – how are they able to do this?
The question came up in the recent Twitter Q& A with Lauren Myracle and Trish Doller: how do writers “know” what the opposite sex is thinking? What do you have to do to write as the opposite sex/gender?
Here’s a memorable cinematic example of Jack Nicholson explaining how it’s done.
I’d love to say that it’s as simple as that – subtracting one quantity, or adding another. I’d love to be able to prescribe some other gimmick: ladies, wear a fake mustache when you sit down at the keyboard; guys, paint your nails a heart-stopping pink.
A.S. King had some interesting points in a recent post for the CBC Diversity blog. She maintains that it’s all her human experience she draws from:
“Every one of my characters is a part of me. Not my shell, but my emotional experience. Emotion knows no race, gender, or tax bracket. When a human being is sad, they are sad, and sadness is not limited to any one type of person. The same goes for love, happiness, anger, jealousy, and list-all-other-emotions-here. Emotions are universal.”
As the female author of a male-narrated book, I can only nod vigorously with A.S. King. Almost every thought or emotion Evan Carter has in Sex & Violence is one I’ve had. Evan’s mood disorder, his insomnia, his avoidance tactics -- all cribbed whole-cloth from my own life. His discomforts and annoyances, his fixations on his body and on sex itself, even words he doesn’t like: all shockingly happen to coincide with my own.
Still, there were some things about writing from a male point-of-view that I needed help on. These are not key character questions, generally, but details that you would just know, balls to bone, if you will (heh), if you had grown up in the body of a male.
Here are some explicit examples. I had no idea how quickly a guy can get an erection, and no idea how long erections can last. No idea how one goes about disguising one’s erection, or if it was actually difficult to do so or not. And no idea how often boys masturbate and whether they discussed this with other guys; no idea where, geographically, they managed to do so; no idea if this involved planning or strategy or just luck.
Given that this kind of thing is not generally discussed in polite everyday conversation, I needed some expert male advice. In my case, I am fortunate to be married to a guy who doesn’t mind being quizzed about how often he jerked off in his teenage years, or fielding random calls in the middle of his work day where I asked him for a ballpark average on how long it might take after seeing a particular sexual image to getting excited down there in your pants. I had him explain, in exhaustive detail, the things he notices and likes about girls. I had him explain, in exhaustive detail, what kinds of things turn guys on at that age. (It goes without saying, but my husband, in addition to be very smart and unflappable, is also an extremely patient man.)
So, that’s how I dealt with sexual differences. But what about the whole social construct we know as gender? Having grown up groomed in Girl World with no brothers, I knew little about the expectations boys grow up under, either., obviously, I could extrapolate, from looking at our culture here in the U.S., how two American white boys from a small town would talk to each other. But I was also aware of how the mood shifts in girls’ conversations when a guy walks into the room; I assumed the same was true of guys. It occurred to me that short of surveillance cameras, I had no way of really knowing what guys talk about when they are in each other’s company. Just as I was unaware of what it’s like to have dangling, unpredictable genitalia, I was also clueless about the often-silent messages our culture transmits to boys, the kinds of things their fathers teach them (or don’t teach them.) I needed to know more about such messages, because it affects, on a micro level, just what kinds of things two boys might share, say, while sitting in the middle of a lake fishing.
Our culture shapes both genders, sends different messages to both. For example, what constraints might a boy grow up under that might influence how much he shares with his friends? And what kind of boy disregards those constraints? Is my character living by that code, or not? And what happens if you disobey that code? There was a lot of reading I did on this subject, but also lots of questions I asked of my husband and any other men that happened to sit next to me at dinner or a party. Sometimes these were questions the men themselves had never contemplated, so the answers weren’t just fascinating to me.
Here’s something that sounds weird: I think I like writing from a boy’s perspective because I am a feminist. In order to imagine it out of existence, I want to understand patriarchy down to its roots. I want to understand why men do what they do, why they think what they think. Back in college, for a project about violence against women, I was leafing through a copy of Playboy I’d nicked from a guy friend of mine and my roommate asked me what the hell I was doing reading that awful stuff.
“I want to know my enemy,” I said. “I want to see what I’m up against here.” In my mind, this was the beginning of my long curiosity about what was going on in the minds of men and boys.
So, what would I tell someone who was thinking about writing from the opposite sex and/or gender?
First, it’s important to note that this wasn’t anything I planned. Sex & Violence started with a girl narrator, actually. It was only in experimenting, writing in the voice of this new boy character named Evan, that I realized I liked being in his head. I looked forward to writing his chapters; it was so much fun! Eventually I converted the whole book to his point-of-view. So, I’d say go for the fun, the good feeling, whatever gets you excited. If that means sticking with your same gender/sex, then that’s okay. I think writing fiction should be mostly an enjoyable process, especially at the beginning, when you’re just figuring out who is who in your story. For me, when something gushes out and feels delicious, I know I’m doing something right.
Second, it is unbelievably helpful to talk to people of the opposite sex/gender that you trust and ask about them those things you don’t understand. But you have to be willing to talk to them. And unembarrassed about what you ask. There may be things you don’t even know you don’t understand. Our culture does a bang-up job of socializing us into our boxes; it’s pretty easy to not be able to see the forest for the trees. So having people you can pose very embarrassing or explicit questions to is essential. I don’t know that I’d say out front to these people that you’re doing research for a book; that might make some people nervous. Perhaps couching the questions in terms of “I just really need to wrap my mind about this glitter make-up thing” or “What’s the deal with nobody wanting to use the center urinal, now?” As if you’re just a curious individual, not someone desperate for answers. In my case, my husband had no problems telling me all of these things. They were just sitting there, for the asking, really; he’d never planned to tell me, but he certainly didn’t mind speaking about these topics. So getting to know him better, as well as understanding male behavior more, was a win all around for me.
Third, go back to A.S. King’s post. Remember, that even though anatomically men and women are different, emotions are not. If a guy feels annoyed because his fantasy football team is in the shitter or if a girl is annoyed because she just spilled hot chocolate on her new shoes, it’s still annoyance. Think of how it feels to make someone smile – both guys and girls know that feeling. Think of how it feels to be lonely – that doesn’t feel different on the inside, even if individual responses to loneliness will vary. Think of bright shining anger, wanting to smash something or someone into bits; think of giddy nervousness about important event about to happen; think of corroding-your-guts guilt for doing or saying the wrong thing. Emotions are the stuff we are made of. Tap into what’s already inside of you then take it for a ride on the other side. You might just surprise yourself by how much fun you have over there.
Thanks, Carrie! Congratulations!