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the language of women; or, star-gathering

I have been reading Dancing At The Edge of the World, by Ursula le Guin. I love what she has to say about the shape of the novel:

... the Hero has decreed through his mouthpieces the Lawgivers, first, that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that the central concern of narrative, including the novel, is conflict; and third, that the story isn't any good if he isn't in it.
 I differ with all of this. I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us. (p169)

Angela Carter once wrote a story, The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter, in which almost nothing happened. People were bewildered. People were disturbed. It happens to be one of the most powerful and lovely and horrific stories I've ever read, and it works on so many levels I can not describe them all here - but it does not fit the linear rule. It is a snapshot, a suggestion, a bag of seeds and stars. It is a feminine story. And it's how I myself best like to write.

I know, I am walking on dangerous ground by using words like feminine! So let me say straight off that I believe men can have feminine aspects to them, and women can have masculine aspects, and all people are individual, but we only have so many words, and our words aren't always nuanced as we would like, so I beg your forgiveness for any offence.

Elsewhere in Dancing At The Edge of the World, Ursula talks (literally: it was a commencement speech) about men's language in life - words of power and battle - and the softer language of women. It's a beautiful and thoughtful speech, but when I first read it, I rolled my eyes somewhat. Old-time feminist, I accused her silently in my mind.

Then I came across an article in the Huffington Post: 30 Best Places to Be A Mom. Their criteria : lifespan of women and children, years in education, percentage of women in positions of governmental power, and length of maternity leave. New Zealand made the top 30 because women here spend on average 20 years in the education system.

And there it was. The language of men, imposed on the experience of women.

I don't know about you, but as a woman I think New Zealand is a great place to be a mum because :

* Our world-class maternity care is free (unless you choose to pay for private services)
* Health care for children is excellent, and usually free until the age of ten
* The air is clean, the neighbourhood is not crowded, the water is safe
* It's generally safe to walk the streets
* Food is relatively affordable, clean, safe, and easy to get
* Women are respected and seen as equal to men
* I have choices about my child's education (at least at the moment)
* Disadvantaged women receive government assistance so they can parent well in most situations
* Folk hereabouts are generally nice

It's nice to live a long time, but there's not much point in it if you're sick, endangered, and forced into a slave marriage. And maternity leave is great - except it's even better to respect the role of homemaking women, and to support them as much as possible to stay at home if they feel that's important. And frankly I couldn't care less whether my politicians are male or female, they all think the same way anyhow, and it makes no difference to my own life or my parenting.

So as a woman I am surely going to write differently from men? Well, you wouldn't actually think so, considering the sorts of books so many women write these days. Heroines who are basically guys in female bodies. Sex which reads like a male fantasy rather than the evolution of relationship which is what really interests women. Plots which tick all the boxes and follow all the proper steps. Stories which can be neatly charted.

I've finally realised that I'm a feminist author, because I could write a straight-forward novel just fine but I resent having to do so. I want to be able to talk like a woman. To ramble on sometimes, exploring different paths rather than striding immediately towards the Dark Lord's castle. I want to allude. To wander in a circle or simply stand somewhere and just describe that one place. To dig up things and lay them out and that there is the whole story. To be organic, and in-the-moment, and intuitive. To wonder exactly why the Dark Lord is so grumpy - maybe a tonic would do him good? To want to feed my armies, and care for their wounds.

I don't want to tell women's stories, per se. I want to tell stories as a woman. Le Guin did a wonderful job of it in Tehanu. Clarissa Pinkola Estes is another who reminds us of the feminine voice, the old woman-ways.  Theodora Goss has a gift for it too, sometimes. And of course many of the classic novelists did it, especially those writing for children, like LM Montgomery.

As for me ... I am not as great a storyteller as these women. But I do have an idea of what is right for me as a woman writer. Le Guin says that what makes a story is, "you want to find out what happens next." The kinds of stories I want to write are the ones where I show you one perspective of what happened, and you hopefully imagine what happens next. It's not possible to write like that using male language. I don't even think a novel can achieve it.

I want you to pull something out of a bag of seeds, of stars, of strange and lovely words, and sit for a long while dreaming, pondering, and deciding what it means to you. That seems a very feminine way to me. Offering a story as a relationship, rather than a telling.


  1. Oh, my God. YES!

    Thank you so much for this fabulous, wonderful, insightful, thought provoking post--*LOVED IT*

  2. This brought tears to my eyes, Sarah. I don't have much to add... just echoing Susan's "YES!"

  3. thank you both most kindly.

  4. chiming in with a third, and most emphatic, YES!


  5. oh my!!! i love you! (i hope you don't mind!) this is the best thing i've read in forever. and i so agree - i always say plot is secondary to me; not that i don't want a plot, but it's that linear thing. it's those rules. i want to wander a bit.

    this is inspired and wonderful.

  6. I'm so glad I found you and your blog. Your musings and encouragement to dream, imagine, and to offer storytelling as a relationship keep me close to my feminine intuition, rather than choking on all "The Rules." Thank you. And btw, that was a GREAT observation about the language of men imposed on the experience of women.

  7. I like what you said about offering a story as a relationship, rather than a telling. I think that I prefer reading stories that fit this description, and it's probably why I love to read what you write here.
    I would love to visit NZ someday. Itr sounds like such a wonderful place. I'm happy as a woman where I live, but I can see that it is not as easy for all women in my area. I will go and check out that article and see where Seattle fits in.

  8. Your comments are all so kind and I am very grateful. Thank ou for your wonderful company!

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