Reading and Writing Across the Gender Divide


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.

Image credit: “Writing Group” by James Mitchell, Creative Commons license


KathyPooler said...

Sharon, the message of non-exclusion is clear and the delivery eloquent. Gender-based groups can serve a purpose and may very well be the choice for some. But I appreciate your call to think beyond the barriers and find ways to work together. A thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. Thank you.

Sherrey Meyer said...

Sharon, kudos on a post well written and delivered with class! I appreciate your tackling the topic, and although I have not been a member of a writing group, I have been in workshops and other situations where the group was mixed and have read and discussed others' readings without any discomfort. However, as you so tactfully point out, this isn't the case for everyone. As a member of the forum, I encourage others to come here and test the waters of sharing within a mixed gender group. Thanks for calling us all outside our boxes with a goal of finding ways to work together.

Sharon said...

Thanks for your thoughts Kathy. Actually, I do see a way to work together. Open the larger organization to all and offer individual local or online writing groups the option of same or mixed.

Who knows? Stranger things have happened. Chatham College, one of the last holdouts among women's colleges is going coed next year. Their enrollment dropped so drastically they can no longer survive without diversifying.

I'd really love to have been able to tap into a larger organization to provide support in this region. We had to start from scratch to build our own in the country library system, because our libraries are legally prohibited from providing facilities to groups that discriminate. Fortunately the number of library groups continues to grow and thrive. Another new one began last week.

Sharon said...

Thanks for affirming the comfort level of mixed groups Sherrey, and for seconding the invitation to join the Forum. Your contributions there help make it the success it is.

Linda Joy Myers said...

Hi Sharon--Yes, a very brave but logical, compassionate, and thoughtful take on what to me seems so clear. As a therapist, I have seen both men and women be abusive, compassionate, angry, and empathic. We are all human, and the issues that are part of being human are shared in some form throughout our species. It's true that certain aspects of society and cultures tend to share people in certain roles and traits, but personality traits don't usually stop at any particular gender line. However, when people are easily triggered by certain kinds of stimuli, it's better for them if they heal further in whatever setting helps them do that.
I was urged to create NAMW as women only by various groups, but I have two sons, and many lovely and loving males in my life. And, as a matter of fact, in my childhood it was the women who were the abusers more than the men. I love the fact that men and women can gather, write, agree or disagree, just like humans. Onward!
Linda Joy

Linda Joy Myers said...

I meant that cultures "shape" people in certain ways. Typo correction!

jerrywaxler said...

What a great topic, Sharon. It introduces awesome topics, The relationship between the genders naturally creates tension and power. And I applaud the women's movements of the last century to right some of the wrongs associated with that power. I see the Memoir Revolution as the next step. By telling our stories, we break down walls, helping Others become one of us. I wrote about this in my blog after reading Times They Were a Changing. How else could I understand the importance of feminism in the 60s and 70s than by reading about it through the eyes of the women who lived it? By coincidence last night I was reading a manuscript by a woman who suffered post-partum psychosis, a quintessential gender problem that cries out for compassion and understanding. How else could I understand such a condition unless some generous person chose to put it in writing? By sharing it with strangers, she was including all readers.

I understand the value of a group of like-minded people. I had an uncle who was a dwarf. His whole life people couldn't take their eyes off of him, fighting a sense of horror. Late in life, he discovered a group of little people, and his mind exploded with the joy of being in a room with people like him. I know\ guys in a men's group, the Mankind Project. By dealing with the emotional pain of being a man they have grown deeper wiser, and more sensitive.

These explorations of self by collecting together into support groups fills me with joy and hope. I have never been in a woman's group but am sure that they too feel that sense of understanding, that courage that comes from knowing that others get you. I applaud it and encourage it.

That's also exactly the feeling I encourage in my writing groups. By letting others into your situation, by writing your story, you gain the sense of relief and support of feeling that your readers understand you. The point of writing a memoir, in my understanding, is to frame our lives in terms a stranger could understand. When we share our world in a story, they have the opportunity to cross over from Other to Us. Through this method, I have shared the world through the eyes of a polio survivor, a bereaved father, a breast cancer survivor, mothers, daughters, combat veterans, old people trying to remember younger years and young people struggling to understand future years. The list goes on and on, expanding my vocabulary of the human condition.

I have led many memoir workshops in which men and women have revealed gender sensitive memories. Once the shock of disclosure is passed, the healing begins.

Thanks so much, Sharon, for your ecumenical belief that genders need to talk to each other. Shortly after I met you in 2007 you introduced me to Linda Joy Myers, founder of NAMW, who also has an open policy to gender. Thanks to this expanding, loosely knit blog community, I have grown so much. Thank you all!

Before this memoir revolution, I would never have even dreamed about commenting on such sensitive topics in a public forum. Over the years of learning and listening to other people's stories, many intimate details of life experience have become fair game not only for private healing, but public healing as well.

Best wishes,

Jerry Waxler, Author of Memoir Revolution

madeline40 said...

I have always participated in mixed gender writing and poetry groups. I find all perspectives not only helpful to my writing work but also helpful to my healing. I applaud you, Sharon, for this sharing your thoughts on this topic. Of course as you mention, some will want gender specific forums; however, I think there are terrific benefits to mixing it all up.

Sharon said...

Wow, Jerry, what could I add to those thoughts? Thanks for sharing them. We'll all write on!

Sharon said...

Madeline, I agree some will always want and benefit from gender-specific groups. That underlies the concept I outline in my earlier reply to Kathy. For some, mixed groups are a great first step. For others, they could be a later one. Nice to have choices. Painful to face fences.

Sharon said...

Thank you for giving us a therapist's point of view, Linda Joy. I so appreciate that you did stick to your vision and open NAMW to all. It's so much the richer for the diversity possible with the entire writing community to draw from as program resources. May it continue to grow and prosper.

melissaburchcchrshomna said...

Great to raise the consciousness. I would hope writers and especially memoir writers are indeed looking to share their books across gender as they incubate them:) It will make a better book. And of course it's up to the writer to chose what they want to do... My experience (beyond therapeutic settings) is that women's groups gave women a chance to be heard but that was over 30 years ago and things have been changing for the better. Or maybe women writers haven't had that problem for a long time:)

Mary Gottschalk said...

Sharon ... I loved this piece. The key thing, from my perspective, is that none of us is "defined" solely by our gender. Not all women think alike and not all men think alike. Assuming that a group will have common interests, or that its members will "learn" more, simply because it "excludes" the other gender strikes me as nonsense. Thank you for framing this issue in such a thoughtful way.

Sharon said...

Thanks for the perspective Melissa. Perhaps there is some generational element involved. A vast cultural thing. But that's huge and outside my blog focus. Some women writers claim the doors are still heavy if not totally shut. I don't see that as being true in memoir, but I'm sure some would take me to task for that. So the whole idea is to support everyone, regardless of their choice of a single-gender group or mixed.

If there are real issues of exclusion in the market place, wouldn't it work better to rally ALL the supportive forces to address it headlong rather than saying "they've won't play with us. They were mean to us. So let's don't let them play with us even if they change their mind."

Sharon said...

Mary, you raise a great point. I an currently re-reading the book BRAIN SEX by Anne Moir. She cites peer-reviewed scientific evidence that delicate changes in the mother's hormonal state during gestation can affect physiological brain structure, genital configuration, sexual identity and sexual preference. Typical male brains are configured differently from typical female ones, but the differences exist along a continuum. Some women DO think more like a man. Then we have the whole identity thing. So what does gender really mean? What about men who think more like women? How do exclusion lines based on which restroom a person is legally entitled to use make sense?

Shirley Hershey Showalter said...

Sharon, I applaud you and Jerry for your innovative Life Writers Forum, and I also agree that a mixed gender reading group can be helpful to both men and women. My writing group consists of my neighbor down the street (a man) and a woman across town. Both have helped me and each other on many subjects, including the credibility of characters of the opposite gender in our work. Most groups I'm in have at least twice as many women as men, but neither seem to be bothered by the imbalance.

Sharon said...

Shirley, your reliable little group sounds fantastically helpful and you make a great point about the credibility of characters of the opposite gender. Even memories of real people are constructed through filters of perception and others can help us become aware of those filters.

My classes are also about 2/3 women, but once I had one that was nearly all men. I didn't notice much difference between the one with all the men and others.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Any woman who has been a part of or ever experienced a woman's writing group knows how energizing, validating and creatively important it can be. For those who are not accepting of all-women writing groups, deeper issues are at play.

The reason that women are writing their memoirs and life stories in ever greater numbers is because they are allowed to find their voice and feel comfortable doing so without the reprisal of others telling them they have no business doing so. Being validated by other women of like mind is a powerful incentive and validation to present their stories in the safety of a place where others have experienced the same thing and there is a lack of judgment . . ..

Some who write books want to appeal to a broader market than women. So they don't want to be associated with women's groups, or any other groups.

If you want credibility, etc. in your books, you learn that through life and put it on the page. It has nothing to do with whether you belong to an all woman's group, incorporate men into your writing community, or not.

Sharon said...

Susan, thank you for your views. I don't think anyone here is non-accepting of women's writing groups. What so many of us hope for is more opportunity and support for forming mixed groups. What I hope is the collective intention is to build bridges and expand opportunity for all.

Today I spoke with a friend who leads a life story group at a library, as I have also done for over eight years now. She has an amazing array of people in that group. One is a trans-gender individual. Would such a person be welcome in a women's group? If the person is genetically female but surgically male, which group fits? And vice-versa. These people probably need a huge amount of help and support for writing their stories, whichever DNA configuration they begin with.

What about men whose sexual identity is female, but who have not yet had surgery? This condition has been shown to be correlated with maternal hormonal levels at critical points of gestation and not a mental aberration. Would they be welcome? What about women who think like men?

Nothing is simple. Nothing is cut and dried.

I hope you don't feel attacked for your position on the value of women's groups. If you truly believe in the power of writing, as I feel certain you do, I hope you can recognize the diversity of needs and join with us to make sure those who don't fit women's groups as they stand today, or who prefer mixed ones, will have an equally supportive home elsewhere.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Thank you, Sharon, for your reply and making it clear that you are not attacking nor are you non-accepting of women's writing groups. I understand that your experience with a women's group has left a bad taste in your mouth and for that I am truly sorry. Our group, the Women's Writing Circle, would welcome you with open arms and there would be no censure of you or people attempting to make you feel "outside" the Circle,

Jerry Waxler taught a Circle workshop and he can attest to the safety, as he put it, that is harbored in the Circle that allows for honesty and writing to blossom,. Ditto Linda Joy who also taught memoir in the Circle. In fact, since you live in Pittsburgh and we are in the Philadelphia area, I offer you an open invitation to come to the Circle, speak to our group, join in a read-around and see for yourself how empowering, validating and inspirationall a woman's writing group can be.


Sharon said...

Susan, I appreciate your invitation. If it weren't a five hour drive across most of our vast state, I'd take you up on it sooner rather than later. I likewise extend an invitation to you to visit any of our mixed group writing families in Western PA. But really, my concern is not about any one specific group, but collective groups that erect fences.

Please understand that I mention having had a bad experience in a women's writing group only to illustrate that "women only" is not a guarantee that a group will work well for any specific individual. I re-emphasize that group chemistry is a separate consideration from gender. I've been in many groups, some mixed, some not, and some just fit my needs better than others.

My concern is that EVERYONE have a safe and energizing haven to support them as they write, regardless of their DNA structure or association preference. Right now that opportunity is not equally extended, and that's not The American Way. You have sons. If they decided to follow your lead and write their life stories, would you not want them to have a supportive group?

Susan G. Weidener said...

Sharon, Any structure a group takes on is positive so long as the message and mission of that group is clear and positive.

I can see your point that including men is good as it gives women chances to face "their perpetrators," and likewise for men. However, to say that having an exclusive group is counter-intuitive and wrong is a baseless statement.

Look at Facebook for example. It started as a website "exclusive" to only college students. Once it became popular, they expanded and then made it a tool for everyone. Now some people will argue that Facebook is watered down because everyone can use it.

Also, I wrote extensively about men in the Circle on my blog and am including the link here:

And I should add that most, although not all, of our workshops are open to men. It is our read-arounds that are open only to women.

Sharon said...

Susan, sounds like we are closing in on mutual understanding here. I'm in total agreement that "to say that having an exclusive group is counter-intuitive and wrong is a baseless statement." Whose claim is that?

I knew that you've had men involved with your circle at times. Bravo for that!

Continue your great work.

SuziCate said...

The writing group I used to attend was a mixed group. I found great value in that fact though the group itself was not what I was looking for. I also belong to a women's circle and it is empowering, many issues are discussed which would be uncomfortable for many without the trust they have among these women. Both group are beneficial depending on what the writer is looking to receive and give in return.