Surveying Women Writers

Mslexia is currently running a survey about how women writers feel that their partners help and/or hinder their writing. I imagine I’ll have more thoughts once the results are released, but just taking the survey sparked a couple of things in my brain:

First, it made me head-tilt a bit to see that the default assumption is that a woman writer has a partner. Even the Twitter call-for-answers phrases it as a given, not as an “if”. The questions do, occasionally, give options for single women, but even then, some of them assume that the participant is divorced or widowed, not never-married — and it definitely assumes that the participant has had significant relationships in the past, since the alternate questions then ask about your most recent partner. The phrasing of those questions also tilts towards an assumption that you’ve shared a household with a partner at some point.

If, like me, you’re not only never-married, but have never lived with a partner, then the survey isn’t particularly seeking your opinion. Perhaps there are, or will be, other Mslexia surveys seeking information on how friends and family support and/or damage a woman writer’s career. I certainly think it would be worth looking into. I know my family’s had a much larger impact on my existence and development as a writer than any partner has. Partners come and go, but my family has been a constant in my life for twenty-eight years. I also think it would’ve been easy to add a question for single women, or even for “when you were single”, asking how that helps or hinders. For instance – Does it help that you’re more mistress of your own time? Or do you end up filling the time a partner might take up with other things? Is it better not to feel pressured to share your work with a partner, or do you miss having someone to bounce ideas off of? I think it’s an important aspect that the survey will be missing out on — as a control group against the effects of a relationship on a woman’s writing, if nothing else.

Several of the possible responses also played into some of the worst stereotypes about writers — that they are moody, selfish, unpredictable beasts, tormented by Their Art. I’m hoping those were only included so that the results can show that, no, that’s not what we’re actually like, but… I don’t know. There’s a conversation there, somewhere, about where the ugly stereotypes about women and the ugly stereotypes about writers overlap, and how that affects the world’s view of women writers (and, possibly, what has so often excluded us from enjoying equal recognition and acclaim as our male counterparts).

I was also sort of disappointed, as someone who enjoys these things (and as someone who’s taken a lot of online surveys), that the survey didn’t also take any demographic information. There are a lot of potentially fascinating metrics that the survey will be totally overlooking. I’d be interested to know, for instance, if women of my Millennial generation feel that their partners support or hinder their writing careers in different ways than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers. Do we value different contributions towards our writerly lives than our intellectual mothers and grandmothers? Are our partners more likely to give one kind of support, less likely to give another? I’d also be interested to know if there are racial or socioeconomic disparities in those feelings. Does education level matter? Does it make a difference if the partner works out of the home? If the writer still has a “day job” or not? I can guess at what the answers might be, based on anecdotal evidence, observation, and a general awareness of gender politics, but it’d be nice to have numbers to dig into based on actual writers’ lived experiences.

And the survey does nothing to distinguish between heterosexual monogamous relationships and any other kind. It does consistently use the term “partner” rather than “husband/boyfriend”, which is good, but I think it’d be very interested to see if the satisfaction rates were different between heterosexual or homosexual couples, or if women in same-sex couples value different contributions or experience different detractions from women in het couples. The survey ignores entirely the concept of any other relationship structure besides a committed pair. This is not, really, surprising, since most of the world does, too, but — well, it occurred to me. When I see people in polyamorous bonds write about the benefits of their relationships, many of them talk about how it restructures domestic duties, and that does seem relevant to the survey’s purpose.

So, overall, I’m interested to see the results and what conversations they start, but I feel like there were a lot of missed opportunities here, too.

The Cast of Aven: The Vitelliae

There’s a lovely Roman women dollmaker, and I like to play dress-up sometimes. Because I’m an adult. The male dollmaker isn’t quite as good, since it pretty well only works for military costume, not casual or senatorial, but since Gaius here is a tribune, it’ll do.  The lack of togate options did mean I had to leave out their father, though.

I had fun with these — I’ve actually done several variations for each of the girls, but let’s call these their “meet outfits”. Aula Prima is a little daring, Gaius is a well-funded military tribune, Latona favors elegant luxury, and little Alhena is rather more demure and restrained than her elder siblings. And I like how I can show the family resemblance — Alhena and Gaius share a severity of expression, Aula and Latona have the same eyes, Gaius and Latona are just slightly darker-complexioned than their siblings. Alhena’s hair should be a little more true red, Aula’s a little more copper than strawberry, but I worked with what I had available.

Aula Vitellia Prima

Aula Vitellia Prima

Gaius Vitellius Caranus

Gaius Vitellius Caranus

Aula Vitellia Secunda, called Latona

Aula Vitellia Secunda, called Latona

Aula Vitellia Tertia, called Alhena

Aula Vitellia Tertia, called Alhena

Forthcoming: More men and women of the city, including men of the army and a bevy of magically-inclined ladies.

I will see a division

Reading “SFF in Conversation: Women Write SFF” by guest blogger Andrea K Höst over at The Book Smugglers kicked me in the pants to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while — actually tally up all of my books and see what the male-female ratio is.

So. My shelves as they currently stand contain 302 books by female authors, 219 by male.

It breaks down thusly:

Fantasy: Female – 47, Male – 58
Historical: Female – 108, Male – 67
Romance: Female – 96, Male – 0
Thriller: Female – 3, Male – 22
Spiritual: Female – 11, Male -3
Academic (Shakespeare): Female – 12, Male – 21
SciFi/Speculative: Female – 23, Male – 31
SciFi Reference (Star Wars): Female – 2, Male – 17

Some further notes on all of that —

This tally does not actually include all the books that I own, just those currently out on my shelves. There are three boxes of “miscellaneous” that have remained in boxes since I moved a year and a half ago, and I was not quite dedicated enough to this little whim project to unpack them. (Yes, I know I own a ridiculous number of books and should probably downsize).

The fantasy shelf would be almost equal if it weren’t for Terry Pratchett, since I own about half of his Discworld series. Neil Gaiman accounts for a large chunk of the rest. But, in fairness, a good chunk of the female novels on those shelves are due to Mercedes Lackey.

The historical shelf is not divided between fiction and nonfiction. I didn’t tally this up, but I can tell at a glance that most of the “hard” histories — primary sources like Suetonius or Boccacio, or nonfiction secondary sources — are by male authors, most of the “soft” historical fiction novels are by female authors like Jean Plaidy, Michele Moran, etc.

It is perhaps no surprise that my entire extensive collection of romances (primarily Regency, some Victorian, a very few Georgian, a very few contemporary) has been written by female authors. It is interesting that if you take out this category, my books are otherwise almost equally represented.

The thriller shelf is dominated by the fact that I own everything Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have ever written. (I counted them as one person, so that number almost doubles if you count them individually).

My spiritual books are all pagan in nature, another realm often dominated by female authors.

The disparity on the academic shelf is saddening but not surprising. Women are making considerable strides in that field but haven’t closed the gap yet.

Sci-Fi/Speculative, though, was the big shocker to me. Those numbers were actually almost even until I got to my Star Wars shelf, thanks to a variety of authors like Gail Carriger, Suzanne Collins, and Veronica Roth. And then, when I hit my nostalgic SW shelf, the women disappear almost entirely, which is why I actually separated out the reference books — because, yes, I still have and proudly display my Star Wars encyclopedia, role-playing handbooks, and the guides to droids/weapons/planets/characters/aliens/etc. And the disparity there is breathtaking. In this tally, I only included the top listed name for each book, usually the editor or project director. But things like the roleplaying handbooks had dozens of contributors. The one I opened and counted up had nearly 40 male contributors and 2 female. Just. Astonishing. That franchise needs some female voices in it, fast.

So — I don’t know that I have any grand point about this, but it was a curiosity I had and felt the need to sate.

The Writer in the Woods

I don’t believe in writer’s block. Writer’s block is just code for laziness. I am an adult, and so when I am lazy and procrastinating, I am at least capable of admitting that that’s what I’m doing. I will also admit that, as a teenager, I went through those melodramatic phases where I blamed everything on “my muse” — or on my characters, as though they were capable of stymieing my progress with their obstinate independence. Also crap. Excusable then, in my youth, as I was learning and growing. Those were also quite popular fads among internet writers at the time (and may be still, in some circles), and I was utterly susceptible to the influence of my peers. But those avoidance techniques are thoroughly unacceptable for any grown human who wants to be a writer. (And therein, I think, lies the real problem — more people are interested in claiming to be writers than in actually doing the work of being writers).

It’s actually rhetorical, and it’s something you see characters in Shakespeare doing a lot. Devices like prosopopoeia and meiosis and synecdoche allow you to assign agency to an inanimate object, to an abstract concept, or to some part of your whole being, thereby excusing you from responsibility. It’s crap when Romeo blames “Love” for making him kill people, it’s crap when Proteus blames his tongue for slandering his girlfriend, and it’s crap when a writer blames a mythical block or muse for a lack of productivity.

What I do believe in, though, is a writer getting lost in the forest.

Into the Woods by Pure_Poison89 on DA

Into the Woods by Pure_Poison89 on DA

It’s possible to be incredibly productive, to be working every day, and yet to not actually get anything done from an end-result point of view. Despite hours of trekking and searching, thinking you’re on to something, you might have no luck at all in finding the right path. Dead ends will plague you, not just in the dramatic way of cliff faces and sudden ravines, but the simpler and altogether more probable way of realising the path loses definition and gets reclaimed by wilderness, leaving you just as much in the middle of nowhere as you were before. You can end up going around in circles, landing on the same point and again and again, despite how little it’s doing for your narrative. You might find lots of things — but none of them get you where you need to go. That shrubbery sure is interesting, but it’s not advancing your plot. There are a lot of trees, but you can’t see the forest for all of their branches smacking you in the face. Maybe you wander across a fairy ring. Do you step inside and find inspiration? Or does it muddle your brains and lure you into a pointless tangent? Maybe you trip up and end up in a swamp, inundated by ideas, but ideas that are rotting, stagnant, thick and heavy and sucking you down into their murky depths.

Yes, it’s easy to see this as another metaphor spiraling out of control; yes, it’s another way for a writer to romanticize her everyday tasks; and yes, writers do seem to experience a nigh-uncontrollable urge to construct narratives out of anything in life.

But the difference here is agency. You’re the one doing the wandering, and it’s up to you to find your way out of the woods. It’s not always easy, and sometimes it can take quite a while even to realise that you’re lost — especially because it can feel so good while you’re experiencing that placebo effect of false productivity.

Hopefully, eventually, you break the cycle and can step out into the clearing again, where you can organise your plot into neat, cogent patterns and solve whatever problems you’ve created for yourself. The only one who can get you and your story out of there is you. And isn’t that better, than blaming it on some block that suddenly falls out of the way, or than giving the credit to an ephemeral muse who deigns to revisit you? Isn’t it better, aren’t you stronger if it’s your own doing, your own triumph?

Now — is the moodling worth it? Are those tangents and sidetracks and wandery mountain paths worth it? The romantic view says yes, of course, it’s all about the process. The pragmatic side of me says — no. Not always. Sometimes spending time in those metaphorical woods is every bit as wasteful and self-indulgent as playing Civ V while streaming 18 straight episodes of Chuck. (Just as a, y’know, hypothetical for instance). If you’re still in the early stages with no pressure on you, then getting lost isn’t so bad and might lead to worthwhile discoveries, but if you’re staring down deadlines with other people counting on you, it’s time to drag yourself out.

Personally, at the moment, I find myself in a bit of a thicket. I’ve tried several approaches and made a series of attempts to get out, and yet I keep finding myself in some of the same snarls. So it’s time to try a different technique — retrace my steps, perhaps, get back to the last point where I thought I was on-track, and find my way out from there. Look at the outline. Look at the character arcs. Look at what the story needs and what a reader will want. Look for the gaps and the weaknesses.

I know the path exists. It’s up to me to find it.