Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of listening to writers Elissa Schappell and Susan Brownmiller discuss their experiences as women writers at a free program for Women’s History Month at the Brooklyn Public Library. Schappell, author of two short story collections including Blueprints for Building Better Girls (she’s a personal favorite of mine from back when I was an intern at Tin House), interviewed Brownmiller, who has been writing about women’s issues since the seventies, including one of the earliest published books on rape, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.
As the conversation bounced between their personal experiences and experiences they learned of secondhand from other women writers, a common theme occurred: women often don’t feel like they can tell their story or tell it how they want to tell it.
Brownmiller recounted that women she interacted with in the seventies felt like they couldn’t write about certain subjects, from fighting in the war to bullfighting. “Hemingway was what writers were supposed to be like, and if you were a woman it was really hard to feel like this was something you could do.”
Elissa, who teaches at the MFA program at Columbia, lamented that not much had changed. She finds that many of her female students invested in work they weren’t particularly interested in writing. When she asked why, one student responded, “No one is going to be interested in my experience.” This prompted Elissa to have the realization that part of her job as a writing professor was to give women permission to take their lives seriously.
Throughout the talk, they focused on Brownmiller’s activism and groundbreaking writing about rape. They also discussed a big problem that occurs all too often in feminism, the infighting between women. This has long been a concern of mine, when women turn on each other. But the conversation kept coming back to the problem of women being told to write a certain way (or not to write a certain way).
Schappell discussed the origin of the title of her story collection Blueprints for Building Better Girls: she had a writing teacher she deeply admired and believed would support her, but instead the teacher hated her work, saying, “What’s wrong with all you little feminists today like Mary Gaitskill? You write about rape and about drug addiction. Don’t you realize when you do that, you’re part of the problem? You have a moral obligation to write stories that provide blueprints for future generations of young women to lead their lives.” As a writer (and a reader), I have a problem with this statement and with the implication that we write stories in order to show people how they are supposed to live. As a realist, I’ve always thought I wrote stories to show people how they already live.
The problem Schappell struggled with as a young writer was what to say and what not to say. I think this is true for many women writers, and I would agree with Brownmiller’s observation: “It’s very hard for women to get the attention of men.”
Women’s History Month has ended for another year, but I’ll take with me the appreciation that there are writers like Schappell and Brownmiller who blazed the trail for the next generation of women writers and will continue to fight the good fight. And I will remember Schappell’s words about owning our writing, “These are the stories you need to be writing.”
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