Filed under: Art, Fiction, Opinion, Starring Local Feminists
First of all, I’ll state, for the record, one of the first rules of writing: Perfect people are BORING.
Every character, in order to grow and create an interesting story, needs a flaw— sometimes more than one! With my male characters, I can heap on the flaws— pile ‘em on with a big spoon. It’s easy to write for men; it’s comfortable, and I can get away with most of bad stuff I invent for them. People don’t ask why this guy is a former-alcoholic liar with anger issues, or a blatantly racist skirt-chaser pedophile. It’s given that it’s his character and this might be important to story.
When I create flawed female characters however, something weird happens: everyone asks why I did it. Why does this character have body issues? Why does this character hate her mother? Why is this character a callow bitch? Why did I choose to represent women this way?
I get confused by questions like this, especially because my answer is always, “Because that’s her character. That’s who she is.”
When a woman sees a female character in a male-dominated story, we tend to suddenly latch onto that character and say, “This is me. This is all of us.” And when we see her do something we don’t like, we collectively groan. “She’s let me down. She’s made me embarrassed to be a girl.”
I do this with my favorite female characters. I do it constantly, which is why there are so few female characters in comics and books that I actually like. I’m often too terrified to make female characters of my own. I’m scared of letting us all down.
I’m gradually getting over my fears; Skeleton Crew has no less than five female characters from a range of ages and backgrounds. We’re also introducing a female villain shortly and she’s loaded with flaws. I have to credit my awesome brother and co-writer for this, who was the first to invent all these girls before letting me run rampant with their dialogue and designs. To his credit, he never stopped to think, “What if I get this wrong?”
In the end, I just do what I do, not because I want to give traditional comics the bird, or to create the ultimate girl character. I honestly forget the fact I’m a girl—a lone skirt in a field of slacks. That’s not important. I do it because I love it, and if no one read my comics/books, I’d probably keep doing it anyway.
I write what I write because I have stories to tell and I think you would like some of them. I want to create characters who you relate to no matter what your gender, race, orientation, or lifestyle might be. I want to create people that feel real to you with enough seeds of truth in them that you can say, “I get that. This speaks to me.”
Tangent Artists is a predominantly female-owned and operated webcomics and publishing company in Northern Virginia. They run three weekly webcomics: horror comedy series Skeleton Crew; Swords & Sorcery & Sarcasm series CRIT! ; and nerd-life comic, Donuts For Looking. Monica Marier is a co-founder and working artist/writer for all three series. She has also published three fantasy novels through Hunt Press, including the much-lauded first book in The Linus Saga, Must Love Dragons.
It was thrilling to see my short story “Salsa” in the latest edition of So to Speak. I’d worked a long time on this character and story (Montserrat appears in two other stories I’ve written, so I’m invested in her). I’m grateful that the editors chose “Salsa” and gave it such a lovely platform.
I sent my short story “Salsa” to So to Speak because I felt that my main character Montserrat was a woman who missed the energy and drive of the feminist movement. Maybe it was her culture. Her age. Her own internal rigidity. She wanted to be a dancer. A musician. A mother. None of these things worked out, but instead of giving up, she followed her husband and his career around the United States worked in the schools in the cities they moved to. She might not have gotten what she wanted, but she was of use. She felt useful. And yet that certain something was missing for her, and this became even more pointed when her husband died. And as her mind began to unravel, she was left only with the need to do something. To be of use again in the ways she knew how.
Montserrat’s drive reminds me of one of my favorite poems, “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy. In that poem, the speaker looks not at the façade or shine of things but at their function, their use, the work of those things. Her gaze is the same; she writes, “The people I love best/ jump into work head first.”
Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Famous” focuses on this drive as well, the speaker stating “I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,/ of a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,/ but because it never forgot what it did.”
Montserrat never forgot even as she was forgetting.
I’ve been in academia all my working life, though I’m not a true, rigorous academic. I’ve written around the genres—fiction, poetry, non-fiction—and I’m not really sure my work contributes to feminist discourse per se, though I know all female voices add to our story. When I write, I don’t aim toward a particular agenda or philosophy, and I’m pretty sure feminists aren’t reading my work on purpose. In fact, I’ve written in a genre that feminists in the past have attacked: romance.
As I was growing up in the 1970’s, feminists were wearing shirts that read “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” And romance? It’s all about the woman needing the man (in a good romance the man needs the woman, too). In the romance world, fish ride bicycles all the time. And yet, my goal as a writer is to show people as rounded and human. To depict men and women un-stereotypically even if they are falling in love.
With literary fiction, I am basically trying to figure out my characters, and by doing so, I peel away the outer layers, exposing the true humanity. We are all thwarted and flawed and interesting and challenged in some way. That’s what I want to write about and what I want to read.
As a woman who benefitted from all the women before me, I want to make sure that everyone is able to do what she wants. I encourage my students to write it all down, no matter what it is. To go for it, no matter what the job is. Though I was born in the early sixties and was raised initially in the 1950’s mode, I came of age after various social movements broke open everything. I feel very lucky to have gone through high school and college thinking I could do what I wanted, though I know there are still special doors I cannot enter. But I’m doing exactly what I planned back in my freshman year of college. I found my journal from that time a few years ago, and I read my own words: “I want to write and teach.”
And I am. What a blessing.
Jessica Barksdale is the author of twelve novels, including “Her Daughter’s Eyes” and “When You Believe.” She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing classes for UCLA Extension.
Filed under: Announcements, Fiction, Poetry, Post by: Sheila M, Starring Local Feminists, Women's Health
Tonight, at the Black Squirrel in Adams Morgan (2427 18th Street NW Washington D.C.),we will host our second annual Will Read For Women Donation Drive to benefit the Bethany House women’s shelter of Northern Virginia.
Starting at 8:00 PM guests are asked to bring toiletry items and other pantry necessities as “price of admission.” Suggested items include: Baby wipes, Adult wipes, Lotion, Shampoo, Conditioner, Combs, Bleach, Dish detergents, Dishwasher detergents, Razors, Tweezers, Lip balm/Lip gloss, Vaseline, Brushes, Toothpaste, Toothbrushes, Mouthwash, Bath soaps, Laundry detergents, Toilet paper, Paper towels, Napkins, Diapers (size 3-6), Pull-ups (size 2T-5T).
Our performers for the evening will include Kim Roberts, Kyle Dargan, Nicole Idar, Jill Leininger, and Mel Nichols.
Looking forward to seeing you there!
As I worked on “Empty Cases,” I didn’t think of it as a feminist piece of writing. In fact, I think of my writing as writing and not necessarily as feminist writing, though I’m often told my writing is feminist. I suppose this is because I am a feminist—that’s just part of who I am—and naturally that will come through in my writing, which is also a part of me. It did occur to me in a late draft, though, that the story was very much about women, in particular women who are weighed down by dead-end jobs, single motherhood, poverty, and depression.
“Empty Cases” began as an essay about my time working at Columbia House, the mail-order music club, in Terre Haute, Indiana, when I was in high school during the 1990s. Most of my writing begins in an autobiographical place. Over time, as I embellished the story and then pared it back down, I had a hard time remembering what “really happened” and what I had made up for the rhythm of the writing as well as for the emotional effect, or the poetic truth. What I wrote and revised became my memory of that difficult time in my life. To be safe, I submitted the piece as “fiction.”
At some point in the drafting process, I changed the doctor character from a woman to a man. I’m still not entirely sure why I did that, but I suspect it’s because I had a hard time accepting that a woman in authority wouldn’t listen to and help a young woman who was clearly struggling. The narrator in the story desperately needs someone to step in and comfort her, to tell her everything will be OK. Unfortunately, the women who surround her, including the women who work with her in the factory, and her own mother who is trapped by social injustice and depression, cannot give her that. Thinking about the doctor’s gender taught me what my unconscious had previously hidden from me: even though the narrator is on the brink of adulthood, she still needs a mother. I changed the doctor back to a woman (what she was in “real” life).
While thinking about this guest blog post for So to Speak, it occurred to me that in addition to needing a mother, the narrator, as well as all the other women in the story (cold doctor included) also need feminism. I didn’t know anything about feminism until college. It wasn’t until I started taking Gender Studies classes at Indiana University, until I started reading more literature by women that I became a feminist. Through those studies, I began to see the injustice of sexism and classism in America.
The women of “Empty Cases” are lacking. Uneducated, they are unempowered. They have no way of getting out. They are fed a quick fix, a cheap, satisfying-for-a-moment meal from McDonald’s, and when they do seek help, when they do question, their problems and feelings are dismissed and covered up with a band-aid from the pharmaceutical industry.
Fortunately, in college I found an academic home. I found “mothers” in the feminist texts I read as an undergraduate (Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich). I found “mothers” in female faculty who mentored me (Susan Gubar and Catherine Bowman), feminist writers who cared about my learning, my wellbeing, and what I had to say. Had it not been for my education, for the nourishment I received from feminists and feminism, I could still very well be in that empty place where I began.
Filed under: Announcements, Art, Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry
The Fall issue features our annual Fiction contest. For more information on how to enter our contests, please see the contest submission guidelines.
We only accept submissions through our Submission Manager. Please submit your work electronically. Simultaneous submissions are acceptable as long as we are notified if a submission under current consideration is accepted elsewhere.
How to Submit
Please use our online Submissions Manager and send a submission that provides:
- A single .doc or.docx document (excepting art submissions) that contains your Cover Letter, followed by your work. Please read the Genre Guidelines for information about formatting your work.
- Your Cover Letter should include your name, address, phone number, email address, how you heard about So to Speak, and brief bio describing your background as a writer or artist and any applicable awards or publications.
- Any applicable contest fees will also be paid online.
We will also notify you about the status of your submission electronically.
- Please send up to 5 poems at a time, not exceeding 10 pages total.
- Poetry submitted during the August 1 – October 15 reading period will be considered for our Spring annual poetry contest & must be accompanied by a $15 reading fee. See contest guidelines.
- Poetry submitted during the January 1 – March 15 reading period will be considered for our Fall issue & requires no reading fee.
- Please submit one prose piece at a time, not exceeding 4,500 words.
- All fiction submissions should be double-spaced with numbered pages.
- Fiction submitted during the January 1 – March 15 reading period will be considered for our Fall annual fiction contest & must be accompanied by a $15 reading fee.
- To enter, submit a manuscripts not exceeding 4,500 words (with double-spaced and numbered pages) and a cover letter through our Submission Manager.
- All entrants will receive a free copy of our Fall 2013 issue.
- Judge: Asali Solomon
- We welcome submissions of personal essays, memoir, profiles, and other nonfiction pieces not exceeding 4,500 words.
- All nonfiction submissions should be double-spaced with numbered pages.
- Nonfiction submitted during the January 1 – March 15 reading period will be considered for our Fall Issue & requires no reading fee.
- Fall 2013 Art Contest: The “Hybrid” Book
- Visual Art submit from January 1-APRIL 15
- click here to view full 2013 contest guidelines.
- Jurors: Helen Fredrick, Alice Bailey, Brigette Reyes.