I participated on a panel of men this past weekend addressing a small conference of women who had spent two days learning about the opposite sex from expert women instructors. We the panelists were the final authority, I guess. Seems like we’ve been puzzling with gender differences since humans first took a look between their legs and realized something was different, and in particular since about 1967 when most of the western half of the planet began letting go of a 10,000 year-old paradigm at the sometimes vociferous request of its women.
All for the better, I say, this paradigm shift. It was inevitable, and perhaps a longtime coming. But I do not find women all that mysterious, I have to admit, at least no more mysterious than anyone else who isn’t me. As writers, it won’t do to romanticize or (of course) villainize the opposite sex. I think, for instance, of Sue MIller. A portion of The Lake Shore Limited is told from the point-of-view of a middle-aged male actor. The portrait is intimate, sexual, psychological, and Miller doesn’t drop a gender stitch.
I don’t know if my female characters have been as true as Miller’s male character was in that book, but if one person can do it, anyone can do it. And it’s simple, in a way. You simply turn a compassionate eye on your characters and you soon discover they will always have more in common with you than you at first imagined. The trick, as always, is to hold that compassion for as long as possible, without letting your quibbles with your father or mother or husband or whomever sneak in and contaminate your work with the idea of an uncrossable divide between men and women.
I reject the concept of some great divide between the sexes. I see the divide between all people being exactly equal. That it is easier to cross the divide between you and someone else who looks and talks and pees like you does not make the divide any wider than that between you and someone who does all those things a little differently. The difference is that with some people you have learned the route across that divide and so you can cross it quickly and without thinking. But the distance is no shorter.
I know it can be fatiguing learning new routes over and over, and at times you can become lost, particularly if you believe the route should be the same with each person. But every time you make that journey with someone new, you draw the world a little closer to you, just as your perception of any journey shortens the more times you have traveled it.