I just read Pittsburgh author Dave Newman’s story, “Asteroids Falling Up,” in The New Yinzer, a fine online literary magazine published here in Pittsburgh. My eyeballs occasionally bulged as I read this risqué coming of age piece.
This story punched windows into walls of reticence as I read. Perhaps, I thought, I can write more boldly – on other topics. Whether fiction or memoir, Newman’s compelling story would not ring true or have such impact had he toned down or skirted his topic.
I mention this story, this experience, to illustrate the value of reading across the gender divide. As a writer I benefit from exposure to a wide variety of ideas, perspectives and writing styles. I could never get this credibly bold glimpse into a developing male psyche from anything written by a woman.
Which brings me to writing groups and classes. I’ve been teaching memoir and creative writing classes for over fifteen years, all but a couple with mixed groups. Like Marion Roach Smith, I use the laboratory method for teaching memoir: students write stories on topics of their choice and read them aloud in class for group discussion. Some might assume mixed groups would stifle the range of topics. Experience has proven otherwise.
Thousands of stories have reflected a cross-section of life, often sweet, maybe salty, sometimes humorous, occasionally spicy or painful. Women have written about abuse, grief, rape, abortion, menopause, sex and more. Men have written about abuse, grief, humiliation, disabilities, sex, and more. In every case, classmates of both genders have responded with support and acceptance. After deeply intimate disclosures I’ve checked with individuals. Each said s/he felt relieved and validated to have shared the story. Several said the mixed group was an unexpected comfort.
Not everyone shares this view. “Many women have been traumatized by men and they need the safety of a women’s group to heal,” I’m told. Maybe so, especially if the deeper purpose is therapy. Maybe that’s true for certain men too. Some organizations offer support exclusively to women, assuming some will need this safe haven – or just want to hang out and write with the gals. Men must find their own way through the storm.
Sharing nascent stories and receiving encouragement and acceptance powerfully energizes group members and builds deep bonds of camaraderie and compassion. My hope and dream is that over time we’ll all feel strong enough to share stories about anything with anyone, especially across the gender and other divides. How else will we understand, accept, and possibly forgive those who are different? How will we fully heal from abusive treatment of whatever sort or degree without at least symbolically confronting perpetrators? Writing buddies and classmates make splendid stand-ins.
My interest in the topic of exclusion and personal experience with being excluded is deepening and intersects with the writing community. As I continue to write and explore, I’m saddened and embarrassed by the divide posed by women’s writing organizations that exclude men seeking support such as they offer. How could I tell a mixed class that some of them might benefit from membership in a national organization, but “no boys are allowed”? No way! I dream of the time these organizations will find a way to meet individual needs while also building bridges across the divide as the National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW) is already attempting to do.
For a simple, email-based mixed group experience, I invite you to join the free Life Writers Forum I co-host on YahooGroups with memoir expert Jerry Waxler. Members run the gamut from widely published to novice. The sidebar gadget on the right is the easiest way to join. Lurk awhile or jump in.
I also encourage you to read across the gender divide to limber your write brain and broaden your perspective. Let Dave Newman punch windows in your walls.
Write now: without naming organizations, write a comment as long as you wish about your writing group experience. Have they been a help or hindrance? What would an ideal group be like for you? Mixed or single sex? Further explore your thoughts in essay form, for yourself or to share.