A male writer’s fascination with female perspectives
Fiction writing is — in equal parts — imagination, empathy and transmogrification of lived experience.
The alchemy which turns my leaden autobiography into fictional gold (hopefully) is often a change of viewpoint. It’s the ‘What if?’ which sparks the narrative from the inciting incident.
Very often, I find myself wanting to write fiction from a female perspective. I’ve been told, by female readers whose opinion I value, that I’m good at it. About seventy per cent of my regular readers are female, so I guess I can’t be too lousy.
That’s gratifying praise, but I would be sad if it were unusual. Why should biological sex be a barrier to empathy or imagination? A man who cannot step outside his own ego to consider what a woman might desire in a lover, what she might hope for or fear in life, her insecurities, passions and preoccupations, is a sad specimen of humanity.
We consider it unremarkable that a female author might write a male protagonist well. The converse should also apply. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of study material, in terms of literature by female writers, and — shock! horror! — real live women to converse with.
A teen obsession
One of the great passions of my teenage years — that turbulent time of consuming and confusing passions — was the music of Kate Bush.
I remember as a fourteen-year-old boy hearing ‘Wuthering Heights’ on the radio when it topped the UK charts back in 1978. It was starkly different to any music I had ever heard, and I thought it the most beautiful thing. I wanted to hear it over and over. I’d just been given a record player for my birthday — with earphones, sensibly — so that was an option.
As a teenager on scant pocket money back in 1978, buying an LP was a big deal. I remember the excitement of leafing through the album covers in the record shop, then carrying my large, precious, fragile purchase home; the magic of placing the record carefully on the turntable, then sitting back to listen. The Kick Inside and Lionheart will have been among my first five albums; I’m not quite sure of the order. I later bought Never for Ever and Hounds of Love.
My musical choice was an eccentric one for a boy of my age in a nondescript South Hertfordshire town, practically a London outer suburb, attending an unruly, knockabout comprehensive school and trying (unsuccessfully) to project a tough, manly image.
It set me apart from most of my male friends, whose tastes varied from Punk and New Wave to Reggae and Ska to Hard Rock. One or two were quite appreciative of Kate for attributes other than her music, but in general she was considered a bit odd — strangely theatrical and alarmingly uninhibited.
Lessons in loving
Inside those two lush album sleeves I found astonishing things. Here was a woman only six years older than me who wrote and sang of sex and lust, not in a self-consciously smirking or demonstratively rebellious way, but in a matter-of-fact, of-course-this-is-what-humans-feel way, full of profound and intimate insights into female and male psyches. Much of her material for The Kick Inside was written when she was only thirteen. I still think it a remarkable body of work.
We had a reasonably thorough sex education at school, in terms of the biological fundament and advice on avoiding STDs and accidental parenthood, but when it came to negotiating relationships, Lord no! There we were on our own. Until I finally had my own girlfriend (poor lass!) to practise with, Kate Bush taught me more about sexual love than anyone else.
I think that young singer-songwriter is a wellspring of my abiding fascination with women in a way that is more than merely sexual. Your otherness but sameness (because what we share as human beings is far, far greater than what separates us); your awe-inspiring potential and your soft but enduring strength.
Losing my way … and finding it again
I lost my way rather in my later teens. I ought to have sought out female friends — platonic friendships that weren’t too muddied by hormones — much more than I did, but I was too preoccupied with my own awkward male sexuality and with finding myself academically. I might have been a happier and kinder person had I done so.
I was lucky at least in that Modern Languages at uni was predominantly female-populated. I’m afraid though that I was aloof towards most of my female fellow students. I probably seemed an arrogant arse, an arid intellectual overachiever; really I was just shy and a bit of a coward.
It was really in my final year as an undergraduate that I started to become more myself, and my self is a man who enjoys women’s company and women’s conversation a great deal, especially when you’re forthright and relaxed and get down to the nitty-gritty, which many of my female friends in those young, single days had no qualms about doing.
Listening to my female friends laughing and lamenting over past relationships; discussing who they fancied and why; swapping feelings and experiences and perspectives — usually with a fair quantity of alcoholic lubricant — these were great joys of my twenties. Another was spending hours each week drawing and sculpting naked male and female forms in art classes — this too was a perspective on our similarities and differences, our strengths and vulnerabilities.
I don’t think that any of this translated necessarily into being a better boyfriend. I was still grappling with insecurities that were a hangover of my lonely, frustrated teens. I had something to prove, at least to myself, and notches on the bedpost were, I’m afraid, the reassurance I sought. I was an odious womaniser for a few years. Not that I realised it, and was really quite offended when a gay male friend warned off the latest recipient of my interest. (To no avail: I think he just piqued her curiosity.)
Forty-four years after The Kick Inside, married for the last twenty-five of them and easing into semi-retirement, finding time at last to ruminate on experiences and explore possibilities through fiction, I’m finally coming back to where I started with dear Katie, now a matronly sixty-four to my balding, fat fifty-eight, but still rather wonderful.
Thanks for reading! For comprehensive links to my fiction, please go to the home page, but here are a few of my stories from female perspectives available free online:
Astrid – a woman in a failing marriage falls in love with a delapidated old schooner.
Badger Hill – a walk in rugged country goes terribly wrong for a young female hiker.
Writer’s Retreat – a struggling novelist in an isolated seaside cottage learns that she has company.