I’ve always been a feminist – I was reading Simone de Beauvoir at 13 and I nipped out from my job at Foyle’s bookshop in London to see Gloria Steinem speak when I was 19 (and, yes, she was amazing!). I volunteered at the Feminist Library before I went to university at Queen Mary, University of London as a mature student, where I joined an English Department which was known as the ‘women and the gays,’ a mantle we wore proudly! I was lucky enough to be taught by some of the most influential feminist scholars of our time, such as the late and great Professor Lisa Jardine, who supervised my doctoral thesis on masculinity in the Renaissance. But what has this all got to do with your writing, peeps?
Well, a helluva lot actually, because most of my writing coaching and editing clients are women – and my workshops have always been crammed with us gals too, as are literary events, such as author readings. Women dominate the creative writing world and even the study of literature, but, yet, more men still get published and women’s books are even less likely to be reviewed, if they do manage to get into print.
Put it this way, J.K. Rowling used her initials when she submitted Harry Potter because she knew there was a bias against women writers when it comes to agents and editors (something which was backed up by this shocking experiment by one female author). In fact, some genres, such as sci-fi, are still considered very much male preserves, so much so that if women begin to make inroads in these areas, there is an outcry and even active movements to keep women writers and women of colour from winning major awards, such as the Hugo. Indeed, even books just ABOUT women are less likely to win prizes too! (Gulp!) Classic women writers are also less likely to influence others’ literary work. (Eek!) However, some prominent authors, such as Joanne Harris, are already speaking out about this sexism in the writing world.
With a pussy grabber-in-chief in The White House, women’s rights are being bombed back to the medieval times in the US and we’re also set to lose our human rights here in the UK when Brexit happens and we’ll probably go the same way. I mean, we have a female PM who discusses ‘boy and girl jobs,’ as if we were supposed to stick to being secretaries (ugh). Nope, things aren’t looking great for women right now and it’s got me thinking – I cannot do much about closing the gender pay gap, stopping women from suffering domestic violence or being trafficked and I cannot prevent them dying in childbirth – except by giving money to charities to support these causes and by voting for politicians who do this work.
But what I am damn good at though is helping writers – so now I want to use my skills as a writer, coach, mentor and editor to help get more women published, to ensure more women write the books that are inside them, that they tell their stories that are so especially needed at this point in history. I want to enable women to speak their truths, to submit their work and promote themselves as authors with confidence.
That’s why I’m shortly going to be specifically becoming a feminist writing coach, supporting ALL women writers with big things to say, along including my trans sisters and gay, bi and straight men who have also had enough of the patriarchal BS!
I want to do this because I not only believe there’s a bias in the literary world which needs correcting, but because I also believe women have it much harder than men in terms of just finding time and energy to write and thus getting a book done. I think there’s also the factor of gender hiding behind the fact that 97% of books never get finished and I feel the following factors make literary life much tougher for us women. I do believe gender is performative, as Judith Butler argues – and, as my beloved Ru Paul says, we’re all born naked and the rest is drag – but the world acts like the two sexes are concrete and discriminates accordingly, so I think we still need feminism and to support women’s causes.
I cannot do much about the publishing industry’s bias, but I can support women as they address the obstacles which can get in the way of us flourishing creatively – and I’m going to outline some of the possible problems female writers face that men don’t below.
SOME REASONS WHY WOMEN WRITERS FIND IT HARD TO BE CREATIVELY SUCCESSFUL:
1. WOMEN DO FAR MORE DOMESTIC WORK: It’s not a shocker, but studies show that women do much more housework than men and they take more responsibility for a couple’s children (studies have shown men consider looking after their own kids to be ‘babysitting’!) and women do more ‘mental labour’ in terms of organising family events and so on.
I’ve seen this a lot with my female writer clients – it’s tough to find the time and energy to write because of these demands, especially when a woman works full-time or has a stressful part-time job as well. Male authors with families are far more likely to be able to get on with their creative projects in peace because their partners will be doing more housework and childcare duties, even if the guy is well-meaning and caring.
This sets women writers at a big disadvantage against their male counterparts just in terms of getting the chance to write and complete their books. Indeed, I believe many women’s novels don’t get finished because they are overwhelmed by their huge household chores and looking after kids and I think this is a tragedy. So many wonderful, talented women are probably not expressing their literary talents and the world loses out as a result.
I can’t change gender dynamics and the division of labour overnight, but I can help women writers to carve out more time for their creativity, even in the midst of a busy life, by using tricks I myself have used to find a way to make creative progress, despite having chronic illness and other issues. I can also help women to make themselves a priority and to set better boundaries around their scant free time. We may not be able to buck patriarchy off our backs overnight, but we can start to make inroads in grabbing back our lives and our time – and that’s what I want to support women writers to do.
Check out these tips on how to write when you’re busy to help yourself snatch more creative time and the trick of postponing those tasks you thinks are so important to create writing time. You might also consider talking to your partner about housework and childcare (apparently, most men say they’d have helped if they had been asked!) or ask friends and family to pitch in to give you some time to yourself. If you’re struggling and you have the cash, you could also hire a cleaner, babysitter or gardener in order to get a writing break – it’s good to delegate stuff that you’re not good at to people who love it to free yourself up and to give them money in their pockets too. So often I have to give ‘permission’ to my clients to get or ask for help because they feel they’re not living up to some perfect feminine domestic goddess ideal … which brings me to my next point.
2. WOMEN ARE MORE SELF-CRITICAL: We live in a world in which women have to the thin (but not too thin), beautiful (‘But, oh, maybe she’s a bimbo?’), smart (but not too smart – ‘Isn’t she full of herself!’), a perfect mother and wife (lordy, you should never be without a man or not have kids!), successful (but not too successful – ‘She’s such an ambitious bitch!’) and on and on. Is it any wonder then why so many women are self-critical? We can’t win!
This isn’t just about looks either – I believe the critical attack on women impacts on every part of our being, including our creative confidence. The male writers I’ve worked with are often very confident (maybe that’s why less of them seek coaching and editorial feedback), even if their work still needs, well, more work, whilst the most gifted women seem to doubt themselves and their talents. The Inner Critic attacks all of us, that’s why I ask about it in my Book Diner author interviews, but my experience shows me that women definitely have a harder time believing their writing is good on the whole than men do. (One male poet said yesterday that most male self-confidence is BS, but it it helps to get them started when they’re after a writing life and I agree!)
That’s why I want to work with women writers to boost their creative self-esteem and give them the self-confidence to tell their stories and make their literary abilities known to a world which badly needs art and a multiplicity of voices to heal.
If you’re a woman, you can help stop this cycle too by not judging famous women – a common sport – or even being mentally snarky or gossipy about those you know … let’s all support each other instead. If one of us gets published and becomes successful as an author, it means the rest of us can too. There’s no need for comparison – it just shows us what is possible. Successful female writers are our inspiration, not our competition. Treating yourself to a big dose of healthy self-love can usually ease these jealous, insecure feelings.
3. WOMEN ARE TAUGHT THAT THEY MUST BE PERFECT: This ties into the point above in some ways because often I feel we are scared to really go for it in terms of our writing because we fear criticism. In a world where women are taught to be perfect and please others, there is a real risk when we write that we will face rejection and failure and someone out there will probably not like our work. It doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s just the nature of the writing life (I hate Austen, for instance, and millions adore her!).
This is, I think, much more of a problem for female writers than men as we’re conditioned to make others happy, even if it means setting ourselves aside (see point 1!). So when someone says ‘No’ to our novel or is, God forbid, upset by what we have written, our ‘be nice to everyone’ womanly hearts feel awful … Indeed, I think that many women find it hard to write novels and submit and sell them because they cannot face the shame of possibly not being universally seen as the golden girl so many of us have been taught we have to be. (Male writers, in my experience, tend to take criticism and rejection on the chin and they may even ‘diss’ the person who didn’t take to their work, rather than consider that there may be a problem which needs to be dealt with!)
No novel is perfect and no writer is perfect, but I want to help more women to embrace themselves as good enough as they are and to thus embrace their writing and all its glories and issues, so they get actually their books done. I also want to support them as they submit and promote their work and face the ups-and-downs of that process, knowing that not everyone will love and get their work, but that they’re still valuable artists and that all is well with the world! If you’re feeling discouraged and low in confidence, you can try this exercise.
4. WOMEN ARE TAUGHT TO PLAY SMALL: I’m a big fan of Tara Mohr’s book, Playing Big. It’s basically a very practical and wise commentary on how women are taught to play small in our culture and are told not to speak up, not to have an opinion, not to be ambitious, not to be successful, not to be loud, not to take up physical space and so on … Mohr discusses how this impacts upon our lives and careers and how we can change it. (I totally recommend you read it – I use it with my writing clients all the time!)
This book really struck a chord with me because, in order to be successful as an author, you need to express yourself, be determined and to very publicly demand attention for your work – and not just from just agents and publishers when your manuscript is done, but the world at large. (Yikes!) Writing, selling and promoting books means playing big in every sense – and that’s not easy for most of us women who have been trained our whole lives to sit in the shadows and be quiet and a good girl … And that’s not even adding on the other ways in which women of colour, trans women and gay or bi women are silenced even more, on top of just carrying the joyous baggage of being female in a patriarchal, heterosexist, homophobic, and often racist world!
I know this playing big stuff is painful because, in even writing this and ‘outing’ myself as a feminist in this post, I feel vulnerable as I’m risking criticism and shame.
Who do I think I am, right?
I think a lot of women writers, of all kinds of backgrounds, feel the same – and that’s why books don’t get finished, or even if they are completed, they sometimes sit in a drawer, rather than being submitted. It’s also why a lot of published female writers struggle with marketing their work. It means saying, ‘Look at me, look what I’ve achieved, look at my truths, my opinions’ – and that’s against our cultural conditioning!
I’m lucky that I come from a long line of petite, feisty, anti-authoritarian, working-class feminist women (my mum wouldn’t let me have a toy iron or cooker as she said I would do enough when I grew up – I just ended up being not domesticated at all, ha ha ha!) who speak their minds and tell their amazing stories. I still fight with the voice which tells me I need to close my mouth and sit down, as it were, but it’s a fight I mostly win (hence this blog!) and I want to help more women to win that fight too and to start playing big as authors so they can write their books, sell the heck out of them and promote themselves as authors with pride.
I hope you’ll come with me as I move towards creating a feminist writing coaching practice – my website and the ways I help authors will be changing soon, but, if you can’t wait to start playing big as an author, please check out my coaching and mentoring services. If you would just like to chat with me about your work, I do offer a complimentary 30 minute ‘Writing Breakthrough‘ session where we can discuss how to help you get past the obstacles in your writing life or you can just contact me with any questions. Please feel free to join my private Facebook group as well where a group of lovely scribes support each other as we’re going forward with our writing projects. I’ve created a online masterclass on self-editing too, complete with a ‘cheat sheet’ to help you edit your next draft to perfection and you can get it here.
Until next week, remember to keep being kind to yourselves, letting go of the self-critical and perfectionist thoughts when they come (as they will!) and just getting on with carving out what writing time you can by negotiating with loved ones and seeking help where you can. Set boundaries too around what time you do have and take yourself seriously as an author, even if the world doesn’t! Be gentle with yourself too if you have difficulties with that process as we’re all works-in-progress and we’re swimming against huge cultural and social tides. We may not be where we want to be yet, we women writers, but we’re not where we were, so progress is possible. We just need to keep creating and playing bigger, step by awesome step.