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Richard Alther wrote his latest novel from the perspective of a woman. Here, he shares his observations on writing from the opposite gender's point of view.
I write novels because I can't make up my mind about certain issues that seize my interest. I want to explore all points of view, hoping to crack open my often set-in-stone disposition, wherein I've become mentally lazy.
Writing affords me the chance to read and research a topic or two for a novel over one, two or more years. I get to wallow in the subject, fill notebooks, usually without even a germ for a compelling story that could morph scholarly thoughts into arresting people and ideas, relevant to our everyday lives. And be entertaining!
For my new, fourth novel, Roxie & Fred, the subjects were the psychology of creativity and limits—or not—to being a truly vibrant oldster; "living till you die," as the goal is bandied about. I decided to have one protagonist of what became my love story be a woman, long past affairs, marriage, children and men when the tables are turned for her on romance, out of the blue.
What do I know of senior sex, inappropriate to discuss among family let alone polite society? And for a female? Intimacy as a widow, for example, is usually regarded by the lady herself even many years later as "cheating" on her beloved. There are icons like Picasso who in his 80s and 90s "had" women a third his age. Senior men, a.k.a. "silver foxes," in our culture can get away with "trophy" wives. But women of a certain age? To me this subject seemed positively ripe for indulging my imagination as a writer. That said, I read everything I could find of women declining to throw in the towel on this formerly vital part of life, even against their own better judgment. Besides, as a life-long feminist, former househusband with a wife assuming major breadwinning, I thought it was high time I took advantage of being a novelist to live within a female mind, and body. I had done so in Siegfried Follies, but she was secondary to the two male leads.
Creating my female character forced me to ask: what is truly different about a woman that is a departure from my experience as a man?
This is of course beyond the subject of sexuality in all its dimensions. Sex is basic to our humanity, but does this hold true for a really older person, female or male? Even in our prime, I think most folks would agree that love-making, although essential, is secondary to the broad scope of a deep relationship.
I am a parent and so is my heroine. I had misgivings about compromising my career with family life, and so does my Roxie. I've had the benefit of varied cultural perspectives from living abroad, and so has Roxie. I garden, practice yoga, follow a "green" lifestyle, have lived on my own without a loving partner… I believe you get my drift: more in common with my heroine than not in many ways.
On the other hand, I concocted, for me, an ideal female version of myself… a woman I'd like to look like and act like and feel like—very different from me. She meditates and is at peace with herself in a still male-dominant society. As a writer I gave myself the chance to leap beyond what I know to what I could imagine. Personally, that's the thrill of crafting fiction.
For ages I've read interviews with major authors articulating how they came up with a beginning to their story, knew how it ended, but totally relinquished themselves to their characters as the writing proceeded. This absolutely occurred for me in creating Roxie in my new work. She was assertive, knew (mostly) what she wanted, an independent gal to say the least, and, besides, she was a lot older and more experienced than me. Who was I to argue?
She and my male protagonist, Fred, are serious artists, as am I. But I wanted to scrutinize the painter at his easel, inside-out. My research is a source of psychic fuel to plunge in and screw up my courage, to reach beyond my comfort zone and discover so much I didn't know, often not agreeable, particularly about myself. The act of writing for me is side-stepping the ego. Breathing room! When I read what I've written, it's beholding, unvarnished, reflections of my soul, like it or not.
Bottom line, I must say that I love to write. I love language and fluid prose--to read it and to write it. Fortunately in my day at my school even zoology exams were written essays. Fine. So how can an English major earn a living? Luckily I read Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy, a British aristocrat on Madison Avenue in that era, which led me indeed to a successful business career, from Manhattan to Vermont.
All the while I've been writing, "creative writing" or professional/practical. Perhaps constant practice is a huge benefit for any writer: to have the mechanics, the rhythm and discipline down pat, leaving one free to focus entirely on characters, plot, the emotional guts of a novel, or the cogent sequence of a non-fiction work.
It is through literature, not non-fiction, that I have gleaned best I can an understanding of the world, my circle of friends and loved ones, and myself, in that order. Of course all of this is forever evolving. And so keep writing I must.
Richard Alther was born and raised in suburban New Jersey. He graduated as an English major from Cornell University and pursued twin careers as a writer and painter. He is the author of four novels: THE DECADE OF BLIND DATES (2008), SIEGFRIED FOLLIES (2010), THE SCAR LETTERS (2013), and ROXIE & FRED (Regent Press/September 19, 2017). For more information, visit richardalther.com.
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