Sexist Pitfalls


 As anyone can see from this website, I am a writer. I have two books scheduled for publication this year. Dallas Forever Changed- The Legacy of November 1963, will be released at the end of May by Pelican Publishing. Overcoming History, which is a telling of the path to the 2005 World Series by the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros, will come out in September. A new publisher, Summer Game Books, is releasing that work. I am happy about these developments and am looking forward to more projects.

 However, now that I have gotten that self-promotion out of the way, I want to write about a couple pitfalls I have experienced as I tried to establish a writing career. We all need feedback and training. Re-writing is what is essential to writing. So writers’ conferences are one key factor in getting feedback and learning our craft. But I think writers need to know that a class or conference or even feedback from a writer’s group can be detrimental. And we can find that another writer we admire may not be a suitable mentor.

 For many years, I attended a writer’s conference in the Quad Cities. About eight years ago I attended a mini-conference there that was a one day session on a Saturday. The best thing about this conference was that I was able to submit a partial manuscript and then would have a session with two instructors to get some feedback.


 It was a disaster.


 One man and one woman composed this two- instructor team. I had known them both from other conferences. When I sat down, the man said the woman had a problem with my manuscript. I wondered if it was that badly written. Her objection had nothing to do with my writing style.

 “Your protagonist is an 18-year male who is still a virgin,” she said. “I find that to be impossible.”

 She sounded somewhat bitter. Have bad experiences with men, did she?


 I almost laughed in her face. Of course, for various reasons, that is not impossible. Additionally, although I didn’t say it, she wouldn’t have had a problem with an 18 year-old girl still being a virgin. If fact, she would applaud that most likely. But then again, that would be impossible, too, according to her, because since no boy of 18 would be a virgin anymore, no girl would be, either. After all, he would have to have a partner. Regardless, her ignorant sexist attitude was obvious.


 “You must change this,” she said.


 “I won’t,” I told her.


 Then I explained why. The protagonist in the story actually had a healthy view regarding sex and girls. But during his junior year in high school, his father dies in a firefighting accident. Suddenly the young man lost his passion for life and that included his passion for girls. The story made the point that this passion died with his father, and this caused problems regarding his sexual identity. This is not uncommon for teenagers even without a traumatic event. And yes, that includes boys.


 This is what good fiction is supposed to do. Create multi-dimensional characters that don’t fit stereotypes and re-enforce ignorance. For this character, his lack of interest in sex stemmed from the depression. That’s right, some of you sexist women and dumb ass men. (for example, Bill Maher.) Males do get depressed.


 So fellow writers, this is what it means when people will tell you that you have to believe in your writing. You are going to run into idiots like this. You can’t change a story based on the advice of an idiot. Your work has to be accepted or rejected on its own merit.


 My second sexist encounter occurred with a successful woman writer who has had a great career both in fiction and non-fiction. I won’t mention her actual name except to say that she is fairly well known nationally and has had two books made into movies. Just for clarity sake I will name her Carol.

 I had been a fan of Carol’s for some time. Some years ago I attended a writer’s conference in San Francisco. Carol was leading a workshop and so I took one of her books for her to sign. It was her first book.


 After the workshop, I approached her. Carol was flattered I still had the book and happily signed it. It was a nice meeting, and I was happy to have had a pleasant encounter with a person I admired.


 Carol has a website and I subscribed to it. I’d e-mail her on occasion. Sometimes it was to discuss writing or something posted on her site. Other times, I’d write her after reading one of her books. I have a distinctive name so she remembered it. Also, by my e-mails, she knew I had read six of her books.

 There is one thing I have always been aware of: It is hard for a woman and man to be friends, even electronically. So, to avoid any misunderstandings I mentioned that I have a wife and daughter. Secondly, I signed off with a “Sincerely,” and both my first and last names. I figured that was formal enough and sent the right signals.


 One day I saw that Carol was offering a writer’s conference in a rustic setting in New England. In her announcement she stated that any writer, no matter what stage of development, was welcome. To get things started, any interested writer was asked to send off a small sample of their work. It was to be e-mailed to Carol’s assistant.


 I did so and got a reply from the assistant. I was told to call the assistant so we could talk. But the assistant already wrote that this conference was not something that would benefit a man.


 I e-mailed back and wrote that this was offensive. Never, I wrote, have I been discouraged from attending a writer’s conference because I was a man. The announcement had said nothing about Carol’s conference being aimed at women. This was sexist, I wrote, and I was passing on the phone call.

 I thought of e-mailing Carol, but I thought that was useless. Her assistant was her employee and she was not going to do something without Carol’s approval. I was disappointed and thought this was an awful way of promoting a writer’s conference.


 Several days later, Carol e-mailed me. She was upset. I had offended and upset her assistant. She added a weird statement about how her assistant “protected” her. I didn’t know an accomplished woman in her fifties needed “protection.” And Carol didn’t appreciate my charges of sexism. Finally, she wrote, the conference had proved to be helpful to women and doesn’t seem to help male writers for some reason. So much for my charges of sexism.

 But finally here was the kicker. At a past conference, two men came on to Carol. Although she didn’t give details, apparently the men got violent when she rejected their advances. I don’t know how violent they got but she was obviously still traumatized. (Carol also added because she was a celebrity of sorts these men conjured up a fantasy that had nothing to do with reality. Was this why she needed “protection?”)


 My answer again included the fact that I had a wife and daughter. I didn’t mean to offend her assistant, I wrote, but I felt misled. I thought it was terrible that these two men assaulted her. Finally, I wrote that I had four non-fiction books published but I needed help in breaking the fiction line. That is why I wanted to come to her conference.


 I received no reply and didn’t care.


 There was no excuse for what those two men did to Carol no matter what it was. But in mentioning that fact, she seemed to tie me to them and I needed a few showers to wipe off that dirt off. If she truly feared another ugly incident, just advertise the conference as a woman’s event and skip misunderstandings like this. Then she can also skip the intimating that I could do the same thing.


 I took five of Carol’s books out of my home and donated them to the public library. I still have the one book she signed, but don’t know what to do with it. I don’t like giving away or discarding autographed books, but I have no emotional attachment to Carol’s book. Meanwhile when one of her books was made into a movie recently, I refused to see it.


 Carol is a great writer. She has a great ability to use simple details dramatically. Her stories are quirky but she pulls them off. She has unique abilities.

 As a person I have my doubts. I don’t have any doubt about one thing: I was fortunate not to go to her conference. I didn’t need another sexist instructor. And I found it quite offensive that I was good enough to be a reader and not a student. Regardless I am no longer a reader.


 For a time, I thought I overreacted. A year later she advertised her conference again and again didn’t say it was aimed at women. You would have thought she would have learned.


 So, it also obvious we writers have to be careful out there. We need the right teachers and mentors. A successful writer does not make an appropriate teacher. We can’t trust just anyone. We need to protect our work and maintain our self-respect. We don’t need the Carols of this world unduly influencing our work. I put The Quad Cities woman in the same category.