Why would a man run his hand slowly along a concrete wall?
Do men never do this?
My writer friend didn't think so. He said when the male narrator of my short story "Tentcity" did it, that was the end of his believability. I said, "Maybe he was thinking. It was helping him think." My friend said that wouldn't help.
When the story was published, the first comment to pop up said not all men (this was pre-hashtag) were jerks who would leave their children's mementoes to burn in a fire. I thought about replying, defending my jerky protagonist and my right to imagine my own characters, thank you very much. But I decided I couldn't speak for all men, or all writers. I went to get an apple from the fridge, until that felt too symbolic.
I didn't write directly about men for a while after that. And when I decided to write a novel about Daniel Boone, the frontier explorer whose life was so startling it almost reads as fiction, the voice didn't come easily. It took me three complete drafts to face writing in the first person, as Dan himself. Doing it felt like a cross between a prom and a wrestling match.
The prom: I ended up a little in love with the Dan of my creation. I had dreams about him, or about historical re-enactors dressed like him. I avoided YouTube videos of the 1960s TV show, dreading having my hazy McDreamy morph into Captain America in a coonskin cap. Casting around in earlier drafts---one involving a frame story about a researcher, another in the third person--made me feel like a Fifties wallflower, waiting for someone to ask me out. Some Day my Prince Will Come is no fun, until suddenly he's there and you're grinning and running around figuring out his likes and dislikes and tics. Do you like this dress, Dan? I bet you do! Adelle Waldman's recent New Yorker article about fictional heroines knowing their beloveds better than they know themselves rang a few bells for me.
The wrestling match: not what you want from your prom date, but that's where my initial giddiness ended up, with me struggling to predict his feints and fake-outs, to figure out what the hell he was thinking when he was taken captive, for instance, and failed to even try to escape for six months. He's a slippery figure, much written about and much mythologized, but he didn't leave many of his own words behind (two versions of autobiographies vanished, a huge loss to history). He isn't who I think he is was a pathetic and grinding refrain in my head. Only I can write this was another, the sound of the desperate novelist bogged down in a draft. Sometimes that slipped into Only I can't write this. I wondered about handing off my idea to someone else. Maybe to my male writer friend. I wanted to be able not just to hear Dan, but to pin him, which meant accepting that he was my character, completely under my control, and throwing away any rules about who writes what. So I'm not sure that his voice was a deliberate choice, exactly, or just a necessity that gave me that control.
Are male and female voices so fundamentally different; is one so impossible for the other to imagine? The obvious examples--Tolstoy and his Karenina, Flaubert and his Bovary? Those are third-person, sure, but there's Alexander Chee directly voicing Lilliet Berne in his great recent novel The Queen of the Night. Then there are Jonathan Franzen's Patty Berglund sections in Freedom, which garnered him mixed reviews, and scared me somewhat, though I'm glad male writers get called on this issue too. As I tried to write, I reminded myself that I was writing not just as a man, but as a dead man, and one from another century. These latter differences didn't seem to cause so many problems. And there were no concrete walls on the frontier, at least.
I carried on in the first person. The voice started to pour out. I had another dream, about physically turning into Dan, literally walking like a man along a creek near where I live. Daniel Boone was never the obvious choice for non-American, non-hunting, non-tough me to take on. But the difference helped, in the end. I had to think harder to build him. He made me think harder. We took each other over. It was a fair deal.
I've had letters from male readers saying I got it right. I've had letters from women saying the same thing, or saying that I've nailed what it's like to be married to such a man. Maybe the women characters were my way in--Dan's wife and her sister and his daughters all came roaring along, without so much wrestling. Anyway, I've since taken up kickboxing.
I don't think about myself specifically as a woman when I'm boxing, or writing. I say with Lady Macbeth, Unsex me. I say writing as another gender forces perspective and empathy, and you'd better try your damndest to get it believably right. I say sometimes the voice comes after you, and you have no choice about it. Ask not whether a man would run his hand along a wall. Write about what you want. Or about who wants you.
I'm the author of My Name is a Knife, All True Not a Lie In It, and The Old Familiar.