Assay@NFN15: Exploring Women’s Bodies, Sex and Sexuality in Writing Non-Fiction

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Anna March, Heidi Czerwiec, Jen Fitzgerald, EJ Levy, Ashley Perez

Panel description: Our physical lives and sexuality are central to human experience
and therefore worthy topics of consideration in our writing. However, writing the female body/sexuality presents unique rewards and challenges for non-fiction writers and readers alike. This variously diverse panel will explore, through a feminist lens, these issues and their intersection with under-representation of women in publishing non-fiction. As a group, we will explore the frequently cited concern that contributions by women to the non-fiction field are disproportionately in the area of memoir/personal essay. We will interrogate whether that is a valid concern or if it’s a veiled diminishment of the worth of those categories. We hold the position that women’s bodies and sexuality deserve rich, serious, diverse, nuanced and varied consideration and will discuss how we can broadly foster such writing.

Anna March introduced the panel as a discussion of how women’s sexuality and bodies are valued or not, and how that affects our writing.

Jen Fitzgerald drew from her experience as the former VIDA Count Director to describe the current literary climate from a gender perspective. In addition to counting bylines in magazines, Fitzgerald counted bylines in every volume of Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, and Best American Short Stories from 1986 through 2010. Allowing for margin for writers who don’t identify along traditional gender binaries, she found that Best American Essays was the series most heavily dominated by male writers. According to her counts:

  • 53% of works published in the Best American Short Stories series were written by male writers.
  • 61% of works published in the Best American Poetry series were written by male writers.
  • 71% of works published in the Best American Essays series were written by male writers.

Fitzgerald pointed out that, as with counting bylines in standalone journals and magazines, counting Best American bylines provided real data to support anecdotal evidence of gender disparity in publishing.

Since 2010, female writers have gained some ground in the Best American Essays series. From 2010 through 2015, 62% of the works published in Best American Essays (and 53% of the works listed as notable essays) were written by male writers.

Fitzgerald also noted that Best American anthologies edited by male guest editors always skew more heavily toward male writers, while those edited by female guest editors are either balanced or skew slightly toward male writers.

VIDA counts have documented, not changed, the literary landscape, Fitzgerald said. She encouraged writers to challenge the status quo, for example by interrogating recommended reading lists and building foundations on which women’s writing can exist.

Heidi Czerwiec discussed how her work constantly requires her to navigate the ethics of writing about bodies that aren’t her own. She described four recent projects that in some way appropriated the stories of other women:

  • The poetry collection Self-Portrait as Bettie Page incorporates the story of pin-up model Bettie Page.
  • The poetry manuscript Maternal Imagination draws on women’s birth stories to offer a female perspective on the monstrous body.
  • The poetry manuscript Sweet/Crude investigates the sex trafficking of women in the Bakken oil patch.
  • In writing about her adopted son, Czerwiec tells his birth mother’s story.

In all of these works, Czerwiec seeks to bring to the page underrepresented issues in need of representation, such as:

  • Sexual and artistic agency
  • Historic shaming of mothers
  • Effects of the Bakken oil boom on women
  • Socioeconomic divides in the experience of motherhood

Czerwiec writes about other women’s bodies in order to amplify their voices. At the same time, she implicates herself within her own writing, explicitly acknowledging her privilege and culpability.

Anna March introduced herself as a writer focused on relationship/marriage and feminist issues, as well as an inheritor of three generations of sexual shame. She characterized writing about women’s lives as an act of rebellion, quoting Muriel Rukeyser: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Writing about women’s lives, she said, is taking ownership and wielding political power.

In light of the gender disparity in publishing, as documented by VIDA, March made four recommendations to women writers:

  1. Do the writing. Don’t stop.
  2. Listen to women’s stories, read women’s stories, buy women’s books and publications.
  3. Push back with editors and agents when writing about women’s bodies and sexuality. Be willing to articulate why these topics are important.
  4. Clamor for the writing we wish to see. Write to editors. Be part of creating a world in which this writing is upheld.

March acknowledged several barriers facing women who write about their bodies, as well as suggesting ways to overcome each barrier.

Barrier: Internal shame

Overcome by: Knowing that other women will come forward with similar stories after you’ve shared your story

Barrier: Fear of negative comments

Overcome by: Realizing that those people will find something negative to say no matter what a woman writes

Barrier: Fear of damaging real-life relationships

Overcome by: Being upfront with the people you write about

Ultimately, you may choose not to tell certain stories, March said, but don’t let fear keep you from telling.

Ashley Perez described the process of writing an essay about her experience with sex and pain. She recalled feeling consumed by this story and unable to find peace until she told her truth in writing. Beyond the cathartic benefits of creating an initial draft, Perez shared several insights she gained while working with an editor to shape the story for publication.

  • As with other writing, narrow your focus. Determine what specific thing your essay is about. That one thing defines this piece of writing. Don’t worry that it defines you or all of your writing.
  • Consider whose voice has authority in your writing. Whose lens are you writing through? Even when we think we’re writing from our first-person perspective, we might discover that we’re letting other voices speak for us.
  • Decide who will have access to your drafts while you are writing. Avoid sharing drafts with people who will pressure you to censor your work.
  • Sit with the parts of your writing that make you uncomfortable. Those may be the most important parts of your story.
  • Engage with a literary community to find supportive editors and readers.

EJ Levy noted that at least one editor at Harpers claimed that unlike men, women tend not to pitch again after they’ve been turned down once. She encouraged women to pitch repeatedly until the door opens.

Levy then read a piece titled “Notes Toward an Essay on Hair,” a portrait of her female body exploring the ritual of shaving her face.

**

Kim Kankiewicz is the co-founder of Eastside Writes, a community-based literary arts nonprofit outside of Seattle. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Full Grown People, LARB, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Washington Post, and con-text. Find her online at kimkankiewicz.com. Twitter: @kimprobable

6 thoughts on “Assay@NFN15: Exploring Women’s Bodies, Sex and Sexuality in Writing Non-Fiction

  1. Small, essentially insignificant discrepancy, but I (with the help of Assay’s own Nick Nelson) counted Best American Essays’ gender distribution and found that overall (since 1986) men have written slightly over 68% of the “best” (reprinted) essays, and since 2010, they’ve written just over 60%. The first two years (1986, edited by Elizabeth Hardwick, and 1987, edited by Gay Talese) were particularly brutal, with only 5 women writers represented total (3 and 2 each year; vs. 14 and 18 men). In 1991 (Joyce Carol Oates), there were 9 men and 11 women, and in 2011 (Edwidge Danticat) there were 10 men and 13 women. These are the only two years that women outnumber men in BAE. The closest to even was 2014 (John Jeremiah Sullivan) with 11 men and 10 women.

    Liked by 1 person

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