By Circumstance and Design: Gender, Writing, and Interiority

May 5, 2011 | by | 8

“By circumstance and design, the work of many women writers is concerned with issues of interiority.”

That’s the first sentence of a 2011 AWP conference panel on “The Great Indoors: Gender, Writing, and Re-envisioning Literary Merit.” While preparing my remarks for that panel, I began to think more deeply about the implications of that initial sentence, specifically this notion of circumstance and design. What, precisely, is the link between women writers and interiority? What are the situations and inclinations that lead many—though by no means all—women writers to embrace depictions of interior life? To what extent is this decision informed by gender?

At the time, I was also conducting background research for a women’s studies course, and I happened upon a passage from Joyce Johnson’s 1983 memoir Minor Characters.

In 1953, when she was a junior at Barnard, her creative writing professor told Johnson that she and the other young women in the class should collect experiences before beginning to write.

“How many of you wish to be writers?” the professor asked the class. All of the students raised their hands.

“That’s too bad,” he said. “First of all, if you were going to be writers, you wouldn’t be enrolled in this class. You wouldn’t even be enrolled in school. You’d be hopping freight trains, running through America.”

They would, in other words, be boys.

The message here is clear: experience counts. And experience, by definition, is physically rigorous and risky. If you want to be a writer, forget the classroom—go enroll in Outward Bound.

Today it’s easy enough to see this statement for what it is. Yet while we may disavow the baldness of the remark, the assumptions behind it are still very much with us.

A New York Times article from January 31, 2011 on gender disparities in Wikipedia noted that the writer Pat Baker has a three paragraph Wikipedia entry, while Niko Bellic, a character from Grand Theft Auto IV, has an entry five times as long. Apparently only 13% of Wikipedia contributors are women, perhaps because, as the article put it, Wikipedia fosters “a culture that may discourage women.” Now I know virtually nothing about Grand Theft Auto. But surely there are women who do, just as there are women who like football games or boxing matches or John Wayne movies. The thing is, no matter how we may feel about these narratives, we’re unlikely to be the protagonists of them. Cheerleaders? Sure. Love interests? You bet! In the action driven stories that take up so much shelf space, psychic and otherwise, women are relegated to Minor Characters. Ulysses is exciting; Penelope, not so much. Only who’s to say that Penelope’s story—with its aspects of wit, longing, hope, menace, duplicity—isn’t also compelling? Must “adventures” be physically daunting to matter? Must they take place out of doors?

Penelope’s experiences were, by necessity, interior. But even today how many women can drop everything to hitchhike across country or backpack alone in the wilderness or hop freight trains? And what happens when they do? The romance of rugged individualism is another “culture that may discourage women.”

Recently, I received a very thoughtful and somewhat lengthy e-mail from an
editor at a respected literary journal in response to a story I’d submitted. His e-mail started with the usual kind words, praising the story’s “intimacy of details” and “the richness of the protagonist’s interior life.” It then went on to explain that the piece was being rejected because “the majority of the story happens so close to the protagonist’s interiority” and to request that I include “more of the external world.”

This was well-intentioned and generous advice. Someone—a busy editor—had taken time to give me feedback on an unsolicited story. But his advice left me puzzled because it struck me as somewhat contradictory: praise for a story’s “intimacy” and “interior life” contained within a request for its opposite: “more of the external world.”
In other words, “We like all this interior stuff, really we do. Now, could you please go make the story more external?”

Around the same time this occurred, I had the pleasure of working with the fiction editor at Bellevue Literary Review on edits to a story that was to appear in the next issue of that journal. She, too, mentioned how “interior” the writing in the story felt, not pejoratively, our discussion having to do with, in her words, “the difficulty of keeping your reader in a piece that’s wedded to a single interior consciousness.” Our conversation was about interiority as a matter of stylistics—which is to say, a matter of design. But what about the issue of circumstance?

On nice days, when my students ask me to conduct class outside, I have a ready answer. I warn them about all the reasons why we should stay indoors: ticks, mosquitoes, sunburn, poison ivy, muggers. I tell them my motto: “You’re always better off indoors.” I’m joking—but not entirely. The truth is, I’m a lot more comfortable indoors than out, and I think in my own case that this has at least something to do with being female.

It is true that a disability forced me to spend much of my adolescence indoors and limited what I could do physically, including most outdoor activities. My stories and essays reflect this predilection for interior spaces, set as they are in kitchens and bedrooms, libraries and classrooms, hospitals, movie theaters, restaurants—places with walls. But I don’t think this tendency can be strictly attributed to physical limitations.

Some years ago I was walking down a not-yet-gentrified street in a residential neighborhood in Boston, where I used to live. It was late at night, July, and I was with a friend.

After a block or so, my friend stopped, excited. “Look!” he said, pointing to a tree planted in the sidewalk. It was an elm, a giant of an elm, with branches that arced far above us and touched the brownstone across the street. What with blight, elms are rare enough, and this one was truly impressive.

A couple of blocks later, my friend stopped again. This time he indicated a second story window where dozens of birds were flying around a room with a vaulted ceiling painted to resemble a cloud-streaked sky. We watched them: parakeets and finches and other exotic looking birds that dove and swooped and flew in and out of cages.

Later, at home, I wondered at my obtuseness. Henry James has said that a writer should be one on whom nothing is lost. I wanted, badly, to notice things: the aviary, the elms, the small surprises the world gives up. What else was lost on me?

I thought about my friend Michael, walking around Boston, seeing things that I blew right by. I thought about the way he walks—slowly, looking left and right, taking things in, taking his time. Then I thought about the way I walk—briskly, eyes focused straight ahead, aware of my periphery, careful not to make eye contact with strangers.

It’s the way that many urban women learn to walk, the self-protective stance we inhabit whether consciously or not.

The next night I conducted an experiment. Walking home from dinner, I decided to slow down. This worked well enough within the confines of the Christian Science Center, which is crowded and well lit and (I might add) patrolled by security guards. Things got a little sketchier when I head south down Mass. Ave. An entire block had been torn up to make way for a new subway. The block was essentially deserted; a couple of streetlights were out. Two men turned a corner and started walking towards me—there was no one else around—and…I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t slow down. I breezed by, all business and busyness.

Of course it’s likely that had I slowed my pace nothing would have happened. Or nothing more than the routine verbal harassment that women are subjected to. On a busy well-lit street these comments lose their edge. But it was late and quiet and dark and I acted on a sense of apprehension that has become second nature to me.

In the end, I suppose, I’m not much more likely to stroll the streets of my New York neighborhood at night than I am to hitchhike across America or explore the Amazon. Perhaps, for safety’s sake, I’m cultivating a type of blindness, a blinkered point of view. I don’t know. All I can say for certain is that for many writers interiority may be a more complex issue than a simple matter of choice. For many of us it’s a natural perspective, and the great outdoors never really felt like home.

8 Comments to 'By Circumstance and Design: Gender, Writing, and Interiority'

  • Brilliant analysis of how society has shaped women’s lives and, for some, their writing with respect to style, subject matter, and perspective. Margaret Atwood’s recent retelling of Penelope’s story in The Penelopiad (Canongate 2005) offers some interesting perspectives on the discussion of interiority.

  • Caralyn says:

    As a would-be writer, I’m a little baffled. Can you provide an example of what the literary journal editor considered “interiority”? Does that mean women’s characters often think too much instead of taking some type of action? Or that the plots often focus on their individual lives instead of the wider world?

    If the latter is the case, I’m a little amazed that people involved in fiction are so literal. Often, it seems to me that even when a story is literally about the relatively small concerns of an individual life, the imaginitive reader can see immediate parallels and insights to significant issues in the wider world. Or am I misunderstanding the whole concept?

    As you can likely tell, I am confused to say the least about what literary editors seek.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking piece!

  • Lisa M. Hase says:

    Thanks for providing insight and perspective on a situation (i.e. the under-representation of women’s voices in print) which I often find hard to articulate; that that which is is considered “good” by editors, male of female, has much to do with what they’ve been “taught” is “good” by and through a male dominated canon. I encourage everyone to question what is “good” writing and re-examine that which is often over looked.

  • Dinah Cox says:

    A visiting (male) writer, sharing anecdotes, repeated his standard advice to apprentice-writers at a recent craft talk I attended. “Get a job,” he said. “The more mundane, the better. Go out and wash dishes for a living and then write at night.” He didn’t say so initially, but I sensed this advice was meant more for male apprentice-writers than it was for me. He continued, and I learned I was right. He went on to detail what happened, once, when he gave a young man this advice and, to his surprise, the young man took it to heart. Little did the older writer know, the young, would-be writer also had a wife, and–you saw this coming–she was pregnant at the time the young man decided to drop everything to become a dishwasher/writer. Lo and behold, the young man is now a somewhat successful novelist. On the flipside of that is that I think more young (and old) women probably ought to hop trains or become dishwashers for a while, or at least do something other than marry the guy who hops trains and washes dishes and then not do much else except maybe raise his children, wash his dishes, maybe pick up some kind of unfulfilling job for extra income. All the while she’s dreaming of the day she goes out and hops a passing train. Nevertheless, I always bristle when a (male) mentor of mine starts to look all dreamy-eyed when he tells the story of some now-famous-rock-star-guy getting his start by writing songs while working at a fast food restaurant–the best job he ever had, he said, because you didn’t have to think too much. Well, I’ve worked at a fast food restaurant. And it wasn’t that much fun. This same male mentor of mine is a very adventurous type himself–and I admire that about him–but he seems not to realize the adventure itself requires, or at least is better served by–well, being a “guy’s guy,” able to travel alone, romantic and rugged, maybe catch a few fish and write a letter–or an email, or a text–to the wife back home. Remember that crappy movie about writers a while back–Wonder Boys? Yeah, they were wonderful all right. But they only made a movie about them because they were boys.

  • Hi,

    I was also baffled and somewhat provoked by this piece. Horvath challenged me to examine my own tendency toward Interiority in my writing. I have had all kinds of so-called real-world life experiences (no freight-train hopping but close) and yet my experiences rarely feature in my writing and if they do it’s in an “interior” way.

    I have written a longer response to this on my blog that suggests it is not so much a lack of external experience but the result of a literary legacy or inheritance from our novel-writing foremothers.

    Really interesting topic, would love to have been at the panel and would love to see more on this topic.

  • Patti Horvath says:

    Hello all,

    First off, thank you for your comments and the important questions you raise. Clearly this topic hit a nerve.

    In answer to some of your responses:

    Caralyn, you ask a really great question—what do literary editors seek? Wish I knew. They’ll all tell you they seek “good writing”…but that’s such a subjective criterion. And (you ask) what do they consider “interiority”? Again, good question. In my own case, I suspect the reason for that characterization is twofold:

    1) The story I mentioned in my piece takes place indoors, at a kitchen table. The editors specifically asked for “more of the external world” in a story that has to do with the ways in which grief isolates us from others. In other words, get that girl outta the house! So I’m afraid, yes, it’s that literal.

    2) I suspect the “interior” characterization has something to do as well with the collapsed distance between the narrator and the protagonist, as the narrative voice in this particular story adheres closely to the protagonist’s consciousness.

    Yesterday, incidentally, I came across this description of my work on the website for The Review Review. “It’s a quiet, interior story, with unexpected physical details…”

    This was for another story altogether, one that takes place partly outdoors (at a carnival). So I suspect reason #2 is behind this description as well. I should stress that I don’t in the least mind the characterization. Rather, as my essay indicates, I seek to “own” it.

    Moving on

    Thanks to Deborah for the provocative piece on your website. You raise such an important point about our literary ancestors and how they were excluded from life outside the domestic realm. And, yes, of course that has a lot to do with how we, as women writers, posit ourselves. We look to other women writers as models, draw from them, absorb not just how they write but their subjects and settings. So often gender precluded their full engagement with the external world, and this is a legacy we’ve absorbed.



  • Becky T. says:

    This is a wonderful article. It sheds light on some very important issues that concern women who are trying to get published and how their work is perceived by those who have the power to publish them.

    I wonder, though, if in some places the writer is confusing the issues of gender and class. Women make up a predominant section of the service sector workforce, with thousands of women working in physically demanding factory jobs, geriatric care, nursing, etc. To me this sort of work does not lend itself to the sort of “indoors,” “interior space” of which the writer speaks.

    I think there is a very particular kind of interiority that women experience, certainly. But I wonder if this is not a middle-class experience, the sort of emotional self-reflection which is a function of having certain basic needs–food, clothing, shelter–provided for.

    I don’t mean to make any assumptions about the writer, and I would like to reiterate that this is a terrific article that opens up a lot of conversation. I just think we need to be careful when we discuss these issues.

    Are we discussing experiences that are specifically related to women? Or are we discussing experiences of a certain class of women (and men)?

  • A very helpful article. I really needed this badly

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