Dear female students: Stop writing about men

Guys in my class don't feel the need to dissect broken relationships. Why do the women? For that matter, why did I?

Topics: Life stories, Women writers, Feminism, Coupling,

My college students write a 20-page piece of creative nonfiction at the end of every semester, many of them memoirs. Over the years, I have heard about suicide attempts, rapes, arrests and the deaths of friends. I can never predict what they’ll write about, but here is one constant: The females in the class tend to write about a romantic relationship, and the males do not.

I’m not saying my male students are not sensitive. Some have detailed abuse at the hands of relatives; years spent in the foster system; hunting trips with their fathers; the thrill of learning to race motorcycles; but only once or twice in the nine years I’ve been teaching these courses has a guy expressed his need to understand why a relationship has fallen apart.

But the women do. They write reams about The One, or the One Who Got Away. Sometimes, the student outlines in heartbreaking detail the lengths she went to maintain a relationship — transferring schools so they could be closer, putting up with poor treatment, and so on — all to no avail. At some point, the relationship ends, and she’s left mourning the person she imagined to be her great love. Another common theme — and this one never fails to shock me — is the young woman who discovers her boyfriend is cheating by reading his texts on his cellphone. So he’s cheating, but she’s invading his privacy. I have to still my hand from writing “WTF?” in the margins.

I resist the urge to critique the relationships as they are explained to me; I’m not their counselor, I’m a creative writing teacher, and so I focus on ideas like resonance, tone, use of language, narrative structure and the Sisyphean task of my job: copy-editing. But many times, I have wanted to write letters to these young women in which I explain my complicated feelings about what they are going through. How, at 48 and settled into a long-term relationship with the man I love, I wish for them greater adventures in their lives than simply falling in love. I do have female students who have written about other things: time spent overseas; learning how to pick up your life after your best friend dies in a car accident; life with an alcoholic parent; the camaraderie they experienced playing a team sport. But too often, it is the same story: He doesn’t love me. He loved me and then stopped. Why didn’t he ever love me?

It’s enough to make my feminist bristles stand on end. Why is it all about men? I think, rolling my eyes. Can’t they write about something outside of their world of two?

And then I remember what I was like at that age. If the younger me were to write an essay for this class, it might well have wrestled with the dynamics of a relationship. I have been writing about the men in my life for a long, long time.

I started keeping journals when I was 10. My first entries were about fights with my little brothers, or my desires about what I wanted to be when I grew up, or trying to figure out why my best friend and I were not getting along.

I have other diaries, too. They embarrass me, especially the ones from my late teens and early 20s. Who was this young woman who was so caught up in thinking about young men and what they thought of her? Who measured each part of her body so that, when she measured those parts again, she would be able to show that she had made progress in her desire to be stronger and thinner? Where were this young woman’s dreams? Was all she ever thought about was how she looked to men, or how she looked at men? It was what a friend of mine calls “me myopia.” Me, alone. Me, not good enough. Me. Me.

And that’s what I see in these young women’s papers. This fear of being alone and the desire to be rescued from the “me” in all of this.

So, I write in the margins about the style in which they’ve written something, or that they’re telling not showing, but I also want to tell these students that there is more to life than guys. That I wasted too much of my time thinking about men, and it was only the creation of a life that was my own — not theirs — that made it possible for me to let go of the obsessive thinking.

I want to tell them that they are in the midst of years that they won’t get back. That college is more than hooking up and drinking and hooking up and thinking about how to make this or that young man like you. That the heart that was broken your freshman year of college will undoubtedly get broken again, and it will, as has often been said, heal stronger at the broken places.

But, at age 20, would I have listened to my own advice?

I am now at an age where I am old enough to be their mother. And, as with my own experiences as a mother, I wish there were a magic formula for making a broken heart feel better. One of the most painful things I have experienced as a mom is watching my own children hurt from a broken heart. And, when I’m dealing with that, I don’t chastise my children for falling in love: I hold their hands, tell them I know how much it hurts, that I’m sorry.

With the students in my class, I always hope that simply writing down what happened will allow them to see — in black and white — that perhaps “Mr. Right” wasn’t so right after all. That’s not for me to say to them, but I always hope that the evidence narrated in the essay will become a form of self-teaching. It was through the process of writing that truths about my own life were revealed to me.

In addition to my other embarrassing diaries, there is the diary from 1985, when I went to live in France at the age of 22. In it, I see traces of the me I shall become. Yes, I struggled with loneliness. The total immersion program I was in forbade me to speak English, even with my fellow English-speaking students, and so I had to learn to communicate in foreign words and phrases. Eventually sentences and paragraphs. And, as each day showed progress in my language skills, something was happening to me, too: I had to learn to be in a foreign language, too. And as small as I had felt when I first arrived, I began to feel a stirring. I have never-sent postcards from that time in which I write about wanting to find a connection to something bigger than myself but which I could not name.

I hold onto these postcards, self-indulgent though it may be, to remind myself that discomfort and fear and loneliness are often the first signs of growth. I understand my solitude in such a different way now. It is a tool I use to get writing done, even when what I want to do is go in search of my children or my lover and see what they are up to. Being a writer is not just thrashing about trying to figure out why he doesn’t love you — though it can be that — it is also finding a place where you can be alone and it’s OK. It’s more than OK. It’s right.

It is raining outside as I return to my grading. Another young woman has begun her story about how the guy she met at a party last year seemed like he was going to be Mr. Right, and it’s taken her months to be able to write about this. I grip my pen tighter, take a deep breath.

The cars are making that noise, that sluuussssssshing as tires cut through water. It is a melancholy sound, and eight years ago, it was my accompaniment as I wrote my own tale of a wrecked heart. I have to remember that as I, once again, offer my editing tips on how to turn a single tale of woe into the universal tale of female longing that years of teaching have taught me it is.

Lorraine Berry is an associate editor at Talking Writing. Follow her on Twitter: @BerryFLW

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>