It’s been more than a year since I’ve been able to take a writing class. That’s why I felt a sort of relief walking into Sonya Lea’s six-week workshop, “Burning Down the House,” which began a few weeks ago at Richard Hugo House.
As Sonya’s description put it, the class was designed for writers looking to excavate truth, and to leave behind pretense. I can’t say that I was surprised to see that all fifteen or so of us are women. In fact, as I looked at the faces sitting at tables arranged in a U, part of me felt safe and smug—yes, that’s smug, not snug—because, as usual, it was all women who showed up to do the tough work. We were a little bit of everything: young and old, native and foreign-born, and a range of sexual and gender identities.
Another part of me felt angry. When it comes to classes designed to tap into deep emotion and personal experience, why don’t we see more men? If men went inside more often, I believe the world would be a better place—not only for us, but for them, for everyone. I’ve heard confessions from male friends and lovers over the years who wished they had grown up in a house or a society that didn’t punish men for being emotional, which makes me wonder, since they seem to hold so much power, can’t they do anything about this? (A brittle side of me rolls my eyes and says, “Get over it,” since women have been punished for being emotional since the dawn of paternalistic society… but that’s a topic for another post.)
I also felt sad and a little short-changed. In the last class with Sonya, we actually did have one man student whose work focused on breaking boundaries of typical female characters. He wrote futuristic/fantasy lit, and I was delighted to discover that, unlike many (most) male writers, his portrayal of women was actually multi-layered and insightful. His comments in class were likewise thought-provoking and, most importantly, came from a different perspective. We didn’t always agree on everything, that’s not the goal, but we did learn from each other. Having him in that class made me want other opportunities for respectful dialogue if only to hear what “the other side” thinks, to play out the binary narrative.
Admittedly, I was also relieved when the door closed and we took roll, thus confirming that there were no male students yet to come. It meant that we wouldn’t have to code-switch into the language women use in mixed company. We wouldn’t have to hold back what we really think, we would let each other speak without talking over one other or cutting each other off, and we wouldn’t feel the need to couch our work in apologies (or, at least, not as many.) The right kind of man, as described above, can be safely admitted into our coteries but, to be honest, when there is more than one and at least one of them carries himself as a stereotypical man, it lends an aura that makes women feel vulnerable and defensive. I can’t explain it, but there is indeed a curtain of relaxation that falls like velvet when women realize that they don’t have to strap on their armor. As Margaret Atwood once said:
Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.
How we get past this as a species, I do not know.
What I do know is that each of us, by virtue of being human, has experiences in life that we need to contemplate and reflect on in order to process, learn and recover from. This is the path to becoming decent human beings, which is the only way we’re going to secure a future for our species and the rest of the planet we inhabit. We need to do the messy investigative work, which means delving into memory, action, consequences and aggressions against each other. We need to find and acknowledge what we’ve done and what others have done to us; we need to sit in the uncomfortable muck with what we learn rather than ignore what makes us hurt and pretend to go about our lives all the while these rotten brown spots fester inside.
Each week that our class has gathered has been emotional. Even after all these years, I’m surprised when it trips me up to read my own work in a safe setting. Knowing that these other people will catch me allows me to take chances and reveal things to strangers that I otherwise wouldn’t, but it still catches my breath to learn how much I keep inside, even from myself. On paper, my words appear like flat expressions of fact, but when my mouth imbues them with sound, a fiery animus takes over. It’s a human response: someone reads her truth aloud, even a brief revelation of a genuine thought or naked feeling, and the rest of us melt because her humanity has hit us square in the heart and spoken to ours. At that moment, we suddenly become more obvious to each other as emotional beings.
Why does this matter? Because in a world where we have become accustomed to swiping left or filtering out what doesn’t fit our ideal, we are becoming more estranged to one another. It’s easy to do horrible things to people who don’t matter because they aren’t real to us. In this era, it is critical that we find a way to remain tethered to what makes us human, and that is our powerful, and wonderful, emotions.
It may seem like just another writing class, but this is important work, human work, spiritual work, that we are doing together. And so I am back to wishing that there were more men doing this work alongside us. Last week, GOP members in Congress argued that women’s prenatal health care shouldn’t be covered by insurance because we have lady-parts they don’t, and thus it’s a “women’s issue” and not a universal (meaning male) one. At moments like this, I want to pull my pink pussy hat over my eyes and ears and either shun society completely or throw a tantrum, neither of which will make anything better.
Instead, I keep telling myself to have faith. I keep hoping that, through art and education, we can find ways of building bridges toward each other—that instead of burning down houses, we might come to a point where we can build them together. This requires that we continue excavating our truths without pretense and bravely reaching out to share them. This asks that we keep stacking the stones of an arch-to-be, and have faith in our design such that, while we may not be met halfway, we might find support in surprising places that helps to set a keystone, and from that, continue building the bridge together to the other side.