The kitten-killing kind

At a writers’ conference I attended, people kept talking about whether men can write female characters and women can write male characters.

First a female author said that trying to figure out men is like parachuting into a jungle without a map and trying to figure out how to survive. I feel her pain; that’s how I sometimes feel when trying to figure out women.

Another author said that when she was writing a book with a nineteen-year-old male narrator, she felt like a nineteen-year-old man. I wondered how she could be so sure. When readers say I got Lara, my Fast Lane heroine, right, I don’t think it’s because I felt like a divorced thirty-two-year-old woman. It’s because of empathy, and empathy is intellectual and imaginative. Effective, but not quite all the way there.

Another author said there are just two things a female writer needs to know about men: They’re simple, and they’re literal. I think she meant what she said, but I don’t really get it. Requires too much thinking.

If you notice a pattern here, it’s because there’s a pattern here. I didn’t hear much talk about whether male writers can write convincing female characters because I was part of a romance-writing panel and mostly hung out with romance writers. I was the only dude in the group. Which isn’t a bad way to spend a Friday afternoon.

But, I have to say, if you think men are simple and literal, you haven’t figured out men, you’ve figured out a comedy routine. I would never say, “All you have to know about women is that they like shoes and worry if their pants make their butts look big.” (And, by the way, the answer is “no.”)

The day ended with a talk by Tawni O’Dell, author of Backroads, who made two interesting contributions to the debate even though she doesn’t write romance.

The first was a story from her tomboy childhood, when she and a male friend were toting their BB guns down the street and came upon a crow picking at a kitten that was not yet dead. The friend wanted to shoot the cat. O’Dell wanted to take it to a vet. The boy said there was no hope and pulled the trigger. O’Dell vowed never to speak to him again.

She did speak to her grandmother, though, who told her that men and women have “different natures,” and wasn’t it good that her friend was able to put the kitten out of its misery? The next time O’Dell saw the boy, she told him she was glad he was able to do it. And he said he was glad she couldn’t.

I’m not sure what the takeaway is supposed to be. Men kill; women nurture? Men don’t let emotion get in the way of what has to be done? Men are strong enough to do what women can’t? I’m sure plenty of women raised on farms and ranches would be able to put down a suffering animal. Female veterinarians don’t defy people who bring them old and suffering pets to be put to sleep.

Maybe she just meant that men and women have—by nature—different strengths.

O’Dell’s other contribution was a line from her work-in-progress about how “men spend their lives trying to prove themselves to others, but women spend their lives trying to prove themselves to themselves.”

I think she’s right. And it’s music to my ears, since it describes Lara and Fast Lane hero Clay to a tee.

It’s also a more nuanced—and fairer—way to express general differences between the sexes than other opinions I’d heard. Men and women may likely have different approaches to cutting a path through the jungle of life, but neither path is harder and neither way is better. Just because they don’t think, act and talk the same about their journeys doesn’t make either gender simpler or less capable of deep emotion and reflection.

It just makes us different. And, like granny said, aren’t you glad?

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