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Opinion

Op-Ed: How I learned to stop writing for old white men

Illustration by Anastasia Vasilakis
(Illustration by Anastasia Vasilakis)

There are few things more revealing than a fervent hobby. If you expose someone’s passionate pastime, you somehow learn more about him than the activity alone should reveal. Think Vladimir Nabokov’s butterflies, or George W. Bush’s portraits. As for me, I’ve practiced only one activity with near-religious regularity, and have done so for longer than I can remember. I’ve been trying to give it up recently, since my daughter was born. But nearly all of my life has been arranged around this pursuit. That all-encompassing interest, the one I’m aspiring to spurn, is this: watching boys do stuff.

I’ve watched boys play drums, guitar, sing, watched them play football, baseball, soccer, pool, “Dungeons and Dragons” and “Magic: The Gathering.” I’ve watched them golf. I’ve watched boys work on their trucks and work on their master’s theses. I’ve watched boys build things: half-pipes, bookshelves, screenplays, careers. I’ve watched boys skateboard, snowboard, act, bike, box, paint, fight and drink. I could probably write a six-volume memoir based solely on the years I spent watching boys play “Resident Evil” and “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.” I watched boys in my leisure time, I watched boys in my love life and I watched boys in my education.

Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the ill-defined but acutely felt white male literati.

I watched Melville, I watched Salinger, watched Ford, Flaubert, Díaz, Dickens, watched even when I didn’t particularly like what I saw — especially then, because it proved there was something wrong with me, something I wanted to fix. So I watched Nabokov, watched Hardy, watched Carver. I read women (some, but not enough), but I didn’t watch them. I didn’t watch Mary Austin, or Louise Erdrich, or Joan Didion, or Joy Williams or Toni Morrison, though all have been as important to me as any of the male writers I mentioned, or more. It was the boys I watched, watched to learn. I wanted to write something Cormac McCarthy would like, something Thomas Pynchon would come out of hiding to endorse, something David Foster Wallace would blurb from beyond the grave.

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It was Toni Morrison who pointed out that Tolstoy was not writing for her, who said she was writing toward black women. Who am I writing for? Who am I writing toward? It dawned on me recently that I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the ill-defined but acutely felt white male literati.

I wrote my first story collection, “Battleborn,” for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, in beseeching, in people-pleasing, that especially feminine malady. I needed to prove I could write away from my own experience, which was girlish, made unserious simply by being mine. Look, I said with my stories: I can write men, and I can write women as men see them. I can write sex; I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old miner getting a boner!

Perhaps natural then that “Battleborn” was well received by the white male lit establishment: It was written for them. The stories seem, from this vantage point, a pander. Among the praise offered: She can write like a man. Which in our culture means: She can write.

I have been asking, deep down, as I write: What would Philip Roth think of this? What about Jonathan Franzen? When the answer is probably: nothing. Which is to say I have been reenacting in my art-making the ceaseless pastime of my girlhood: watching boys, emulating them, trying to catch the attention of the ones who have no idea I exist. This is a dispiriting revelation on its face, but becomes desperate because I thought I was doing this for myself. I was under the impression that art-making was apart from all the rottenness of our culture, when in fact it’s not apart from it. It is made of it.

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A friend on Twitter says: “A lot of young women (not to mention this WM) loved that book. Should I tell them to disregard their reading experience?”

If you liked my book, I’m grateful. But people at the periphery will travel to accept and even love things not made for or toward them; we have been trained to do so our entire lives. Anyway, I’m not trying to talk anyone out of their readerly response, only attempting to understand a phenomenon that happens in my head, and maybe in yours too. I am trying to confess what went on in my mind when I made the book, to compile an honest inventory of people I have not been writing toward, though I thought I was: women, young women, people of color, the rural poor, the American West, my dead mother.

The preceding is either an aesthetic/artistic/personal epiphany or my ritualistic prepublication freak-out; perhaps a little of column A, a little of column B. I’ll tell you this: I have not written anything of consequence since my daughter was born. It’s easy (and important) to say, “You had a baby, it gets better,” and I’m glad for those who have said it.

But I wonder if part of the reason I have not been writing is because I have not been seeing. My gaze is no longer an artist’s gaze. Why would that be? I think it has something to do with the fact that I don’t wander in the desert much anymore. I write this from maternity leave, from days spent home with my baby, and that, patriarchy says, is not the stuff of art. Once again I am a girl and not a writer. No one said this. No one has to. I am saying it to myself.

When my daughter was born, my life became suddenly more intense, more frightening, more beautiful, more difficult and more profound than it had ever been, yet I find myself with nothing to write about.

“Nothing’s happening to me,” I bemoan to a friend, a writer, a woman. “I need to go shoot an elephant.”

She replies, “Dude, you’re a mother. You’ve had a child. You’re struggling to make your marriage work, man. You are trying, against your nature and circumstance, to be decent. That’s your elephant!”

Yet when I write some version of this down, it seems quaint or worse. I thought I had enough material for a novel, but when it came out it was barely a short story, and one that felt unserious. I tried a story in the form of a postpartum-depression questionnaire, and it felt quaint. Domestic. For women.

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Motherhood has softened me. I don’t want to write like a man anymore. I don’t want to be praised for being “unflinching.” I want to flinch. I want to be wide open.

I am trying to write something urgent, trying to be vulnerable and honest, trying to listen, trying to identify and articulate my innermost feelings, trying to make you feel them too, trying a kind of telepathy. All of this is really hard in the first place and, in a culture where women are subject to infantilization and gaslighting, in a culture that says your telepathic heart is dumb and delicate and boring and frippery and for girls, I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible.

I have built a working miniature replica of the patriarchy in my mind. I would like very much to bust it up or burn it down, and though I am afraid I don’t know how, trying is my new pastime.

Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of “Gold Fame Citrus.” This essay was excerpted from a lecture delivered at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop.

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