Photo coutesy of the fantastic Roni Kay…
There have been two points so far, at which I have had to re-invent my novel. The first was when I realised that the central story wasn’t big enough, and I replaced a distinct vodka with a unique religion. The second rewrite became unavoidable when I realised that if half of my characters were going to be female, I had a lot to learn a lot more about what it means to be a woman.
That epiphany was the result of three awkward periods of self-discovery. I experienced the first of these after I managed to almost completely destroy a friendship with an adventurous and astounding woman, Elza, through my inability to understand her perspective. The two of us spent several months travelling together, and yet the whole time we also moved further apart. The silver lining to what was a dark cloud was that honesty on her part allowed for introspection on mine. I was at least able to learn a valuable, if emotionally expensive lesson.
The second flashlight to be shone on my gender naiveté was held by another inspirational woman, Linda. I’d always found ways to convince myself that there were no vast differences between men and women, that it was simply our individual experiences that led to misunderstandings. But Linda helped me see that as my own experiences had only ever been as a man, I had ended up with a strongly gendered bias to my thinking. Yes, I was a product of all the things that had happened to me, of my environment, of the people I’d spent time with. But it would have been impossible for a woman in similar circumstances to have the same experiences. Society’s attitudes towards gender trumped my hope that we weren’t so different as we all seemed to think. Shit.
Around this time I read a Margaret Atwood quote, which compounded my understanding:
“Men’s great fear is that women will laugh at them. Women’s great fear is that men will kill them”
I spent some time bouncing between the two sides of that quote, combating my defensiveness. Both Margaret and Linda had helped shift my perspective in a new direction.
The last twist to my viewpoint was a short, sharp one, encountered around half way through the film ‘Wild’. In the scene that challenged me, Cheryl Strayed is alone in the woods, and she’s approached by two hunters. My presumption at this point was that things were going to go dreadfully wrong, and I wanted to be anywhere but in the theatre, watching what I thought would happen next. It was my intense relief when the men didn’t attack her that shook me. For years I’ve tried to point out that the media’s to blame for other people’s heightened fears, but I have to accept that I’ve been shaped by the way ‘they’ portray the world as well. And if the media’s amplification of a history of men subjugating women has made me uncomfortable at the idea of a woman caught alone by two men in the wild, how much more fear must that idea hold for some women?
I spent a lot of long walks rattling around inside my head after that, trying to make sense of all this. I explored my past. To what degree had I sexualised past friendships? How many relationships had I destroyed through wilful ignorance? How many women had I scared through my actions, or words, or attitudes? It would have been easy to tie myself to my failures, to see myself as a bad person. But in my heart I believe that I am good, and that I am the engineer of my own future. So I decided I needed to stop digging a pit and start building a bridge. I resolved to do better, to be better.
The interesting thing about taking so long to write a novel, is that the rewrites can mirror your experiences. This rewrite of my story began with a look at my characters. One character was blind, and I’d spent a lot of time trying to write as a person without sight, as someone who draws the world inside her head. But two of my four central characters were female, how much consideration had I given their experiences as a women in determining their paths through the story? Not enough.
So I began to read more by female authors. I examined the great conversations of my past, how often was it a woman who kept me awake, offering me new ways to examine Christianity, or gun control, or Israelis? Or Batman?
And then I walked from one side of Spain to the other, usually in the company of astounding women. And through this time I began to rewrite my female characters, as women. My principal character is a man, but he had to change too, his motivations, his confrontations with himself, the impact of these women’s new decisions on his plans. In fact he really had to step the fuck up. To say much more would give away too much of the plot, but I know that when I write the foreword I will be thanking a number of influential ladies.
I don’t want to be an apologist for men, I don’t see much value in trying to explain what shaped my biases in the past. But I do want to say thank you to all the people, men or women, who have contributed to me being a better person today. Some of you managed to improve my world view in as little as 24 hours, astounding. I will always be to a degree the result of what surrounds me, so I’m making a promise to myself that I’ll continue to as often as possible surround myself with good people. And I make a promise to all of you, that I will do my best not to cause fear, or anxiety, and to try to put myself in your shoes.