As a male novelist, I’m regularly faced with conveying female characters persuasively. At a conscious level, I make no pretense of understanding women. I find their way of looking at life baffling. I don’t mean that they’re in any way wrong or mistaken; I mean that I don’t understand.
Maybe a recent example will illustrate my problem. A female friend was trying to open a new bottle of lemon juice. When the top didn’t respond to her gentle twisting, she rinsed it thoroughly with hot tap water, and it opened easily. I would have tried applying muscle first, then banging the top with a table knife, and finally using pliers.
“You men,” my friend observed. “You always resort to brute force first, even when there’s an easier way.”
Maybe I learned something.
Yet my women readers tell me that my female characters, for example Tuyet and Molly in Last of the Annamese, ring true to them. And when I read my own work, the female characters feel authentic to me. What’s going on here?
My guess is that we all have, at an unconscious level, an understanding of the various facets of humanity that don’t usually permeate the conscious mind. That would explain why my characters so often surprise me when they do things I wasn’t expecting.
My writing technique is to avoid the rational mind and let the words flow. That means that I don’t do an outline until after the third draft. For the first three drafts, it is as though I’m watching a scene in my mind and writing down what happens. It often feels as though someone else, not me, is doing the writing. That sensation could explain why the Greeks, for example, believed that a muse was doing the creating with the human artist acting as a tool or translator.
After the third draft, I review my work analytically and deductively, looking for balance, clarity, and craftsmanship. After that, I shift back and forth from the rational to the meditative until I am satisfied that my work is done. One of my novels, No-Accounts, went through 21 drafts before I was sure it was finished. That’s why it takes me 15 years to write a novel.
My way of writing may explain why my female characters work. Maybe I have a deep, inarticulate sense of women that only shows itself when I let go of my conscious mind and let the words tumble out on the page. And maybe that’s why, when I have a life problem I can’t solve, I sit myself down and write about it until an answer appears.