Keep your memoir in touch with changing gender roles

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

After high school, instead of going to college Jancee Dunn looked for work. She got a job at Rolling Stone magazine, and became a celebrity interviewer. As I read her memoir, “But Enough About Me” it struck me that this book was completely different from the books I read when I was younger. For one thing practically all the books I read in high school and college were by men. I started reviewing books that influenced me at different periods of my life, and discovered remarkable patterns, both in myself and in the culture around me.

Sensitivity to current gender roles
In the 60’s, I knew a few things about feminist issues, but those issues took a backseat to my male-oriented questions. For example, would I end up fighting in Vietnam, and how in God’s name was I supposed to form a relationship with a girl when I was too shy to talk to her? Decades later, my relationship with women and feminism have evolved. In addition to outgrowing my bashfulness, I have come to expect women in leadership roles in every walk of life. Women are professionals and business people, warriors, politicians, and of course, writers.

Once I focus on these changes in gender roles, both in individuals and in the culture, I understand so much more about how to write to today’s audience. It turns out I have to toss away many of the lessons I learned while I was growing up. For decades, I’ve eliminated the obsolete “him” to refer to the “universal man.” That’s a given in our present culture. Now, looking more carefully, I see additional nuances that need to be adjusted.

Increasing sensitivity to the role of women as consumers
When people talk about movies now, it is common to hear some categorized as “chick flicks.” The publishing world has its own version of this called “chick lit” routinely mentioned at writing conferences by the editors and agents who decide what books are hot. Just a few years ago, I didn’t understand these terms. Now I would describe them as stories with greater emphasis on relationships, feminine success stories, and in general presenting the world through a feminine point of view. The culture has become sensitized to the variety of ways men and women are looking for information and entertainment. And this collective discussion has helped me tune in, too.

So how does this realization help a memoir writer?
As I make the journey from being a reader of books to a writer, this line of thinking offers me additional insights. I was already looking at my audience as a collection of cultures, and generations. Now I add genders to the mix. To learn more, I turn toward the memoirs I am reading.

In John Robison’s memoir “Look Me in the Eye” he reaches out to his mother later in life to try to sort out their memories. And Jancee Dunn in her memoir “But Enough About Me” portrays her respectful connection with her father. These comments about relationships to an opposite sex parent provide a glimpse into the way gender begins to affect us from the time of birth. The presence of our parents in a memoir can share these attitudes with readers.

Just as I am striving to catch up to the current feminine role, some women my age are trying to do the same. In a writing group, one woman fretted that her voice sounded too “personal.” I didn’t understand her concern. Since we were discussing her memoir, I assumed “personal” was exactly what she was trying to achieve. Then I realized she may be struggling with some of the same issues I am. During her education, she too read mostly male writers. Now, writing her memoir in the twenty first century, she needs to update her sensibility to the modern acceptance of a feminine literary voice.

Another memoir rich with this historical unfolding of the relationship between the sexes, “Navy Greenshirt: A Leader Made, Not Born” by Diane Diekman. The author enlisted in the Navy in 1972. When she started, it was a man’s world, by almost any definition. And yet she brought an attitude of relentless mutual respect, expecting to be treated with dignity and insisting on treating others the same way. Her focus on the high road broke barriers. By the time she left, she had advanced to the rank of Captain.

I was never a woman and I was never in the navy, and so all of my ideas about what such a career would have been like were formed from lurid headlines, snap generalizations, and simplistic assumptions. Reading Diekman’s memoir I traveled territory that was inaccessible in my own experience. Through the author’s eyes, I witnessed an honorable group of men and women, devoting their lives to serve their country, while at the same time doing their best to keep up to date with the evolving sexual mores of our times.

Kate Braestrup, author of the memoir “Here If You Need Me,” is a member of the State Game Wardens Service in Maine. Despite her bullet-proof, or more correctly “ballistic” vest, she doesn’t attend crime scenes to catch bad guys but as a chaplain, she brings her natural warmth to provide spiritual support. She did not claim that only a woman could do this job. In fact, the previous chaplain was a man who moved on to offer spiritual guidance to motorcycle gangs. So her effectiveness was not because of her gender, but in harmony with it. She let me feel how her femininity contributed to the pleasures and wholeness of being human.

When Jim McGarrah, author of the Vietnam war memoir “A Temporary Sort of Peace” told his dad he was joining the military, his dad tried to stop him. “All I thought when my father argued violently to keep me from enlisting was that he must be jealous because his war was over and I might win more medals in mine. I don’t think I ever considered he had learned through experience that the word man was just the back half of the more important word human, or that being a better human rather than a better man might be a loftier and more beneficial goal.”

McGarrah spent a lifetime recovering from his 1960’s teenage assertion of “manliness.” And as he struggled to regain wholeness, he was hampered not only by the backward drag of post-traumatic stress, but also by his attitude towards women. Overcoming his training that they were subservient was part of his psychological journey, and like Diekman, and for that matter all of us who lived and grew through these decades, his personal maturing of relationships between genders paralleled the culture’s.

As I research my own memoir, I too look across these decades and see how my understanding of the two genders during this period has deepened in step with the awareness of my culture. By exploring these evolving relationships I am treated to another profound truth. That is that memoir writing is not a static snapshot, but a moving story that sweeps across time, showing who we were, how we have grown, and how we continue to keep step with an evolving world.

Marketing prompt: To turn your writing from a journal for yourself to a written communication that will be enjoyed by readers today, ask who are they, and what will they get from your writing. Write a sketch of a typical reader. How old? What have they learned so far? Where are they heading next?

Writing prompt: Who are your favorite authors? Write about the different payoffs you get from the male versus female authors?

How will your gender affect your own story? How do you think key moments would be different if you were the other gender? (Use this insight to consider how each gender might respond to your story.)

Note: Gender in my life reading
If I read books by women agonizing over meaning, I don’t remember them. All my writers were men. Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Ferdinand Celine. Surely there were women authors who also agonized. They just didn’t come under my scrutiny. About 15 years ago, I read my first book by a feminist, “Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem” by Gloria Steinem, a book I found to be informative more about self-help than about being a particular gender.

One of the best books I have read about memoir writing is called Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by literature professor Louise DeSalvo. She offers many important insights into how writing your story can change your life. While the book did not emphasize feminist perspectives, DeSalvo is a world expert. Earlier in her career, she made her name as a top scholar on Virginia Woolf, one of the first of the modern feminine writers.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

7 thoughts on “Keep your memoir in touch with changing gender roles

  1. Jerry, you may also know that, in some circles, “feminist” is now a bad word and conjures up stereotypes of bra burners and militant lesbians using the “c” word at marches on Washington.

    When I was in college I interned at a terrific magazine called Ms. Though Gloria Steinem was no longer running the mag in a practical sense, she was still there philosophically. And when a man bought the mag midway through my internship and got rid of the advertising department, Gloria showed up at the offices, proving once again that she was the Joan of Arc of feminism and was there to help save it. That was 1990. Happily, the magazine still exists…and it is not subject to the concerns of advertisers.

    After you’ve checked out the works by Naomi Wolf and Marilyn French, come on over to my blog and find out why I’m TAGGING you today. The rules are there, and maybe it’ll spark something in your memoir writing and teaching.

    Melanie
    http://melaniegold.blogspot.com/

  2. Hi Melanie,

    Thanks for sharing your connection with Gloria Steinem. That’s so funny the way things are interconnected. I went to look at your six random bits of information and see that we have another overlapping karma. You are interested in the French and Indian War. It’s curious that I have written about this historic period in a blog entry about visiting southwest Pennsylvania. You can see my blog entry here:
    Southwest Pennsylvania Tourist

    I’ll have to think about the tagging game.

    Jerry

  3. I’ve not yet gone to Fort Necessity–I know I have no excuse, but after reading your entry on Quiet House and having read some of Cindy Ross’s work on the great nature trails and biking paths out that way, I’ll have a well-rounded time when I do make that trek.

    I suppose you already know that the National Road was/is also known as Forbes Road. If you fell for Marty’s love of PA history, you’d like two documentaries: When the River Ran Red and George Washington’s First War. I met the man who plays Tanahgrisson, the Half-King, at Gettysburg’s annual “History Meets the Arts” celebration, which is happening this weekend.

  4. Jerry, thanks for your mention of “Navy Greenshirt.” I especially like this line: “Through the author’s eyes, I witnessed an honorable group of men and women, devoting their lives to serve their country…”

  5. Pingback: Fiction built on a foundation of real life « Philadelphia Stories Weblog

  6. Outstanding article, Jerry. Thanks for flagging it for me. I especially appreciated your insightful comment, “Reading Diekman’s memoir I traveled territory that was inaccessible in my own experience.” That’s the ultimate value in reading, being able to go beyond oursleves, gender aside. Question is, are we willing to go beyond ourselves?

  7. Pingback: Gender Sensitivity and Wisdom in Memoirs | Memory Writers Network

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