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Posts Tagged ‘women’

When the heart is young, by John William Godward

For a male writer, it’s perhaps safer to write only as a man, and about men, that all the characters in our stories should be men, and the women no more than cardboard cutouts in the background labelled loosely: mother, sister, wife, love/sexual interest. Except that by doing so we eliminate half the population from our stories, and that would be silly because – you know – women can be interesting too!

But when we include women, and particularly when we try to write women characters, and especially in the first person, we risk making ourselves look ridiculous – especially to women – and that’s half our potential readership right there, laughing at us. It’s a terrifying prospect for any male writer who wants to be taken seriously! But knowing how women think is something men have been debating for millennia without coming to any satisfactory conclusions, so it would seem even the most diligent research on the subject is pointless. As for actually passing ourselves off as a female writer, with a female pseudonym, it would be a very brave man indeed who hoped to get away with that!

Apart from the monks among us, most men have at least some experience of women, so if we’re writing from experience, how come we’re prone to making such a hash of it? Don’t we take any notice of women at all – even the one’s we’re with? Could it be there’s something simplistic about the way we relate to women? For example how about this:

“She breasted boobily to the stairs and titted downwards.”

This little gem went viral on social media a while back and, yes, it’s a fair description of how a man might describe a woman in his story – what she looks like, what she did and how she did it. It’s exaggerated of course, but it drives the point home nicely. We do tend to relate on a physical level, eyes glued to bosoms and bums. All right, maybe as a man, what makes us notice a woman is what we find sexually attractive about her, or not, but if we’re introducing her as a character there must be something else about her that others – i.e. women – can relate to.

A woman might notice what the character is wearing and what that says about the person’s social, income and even moral standing – is she casually dressed, smart, frumpy, tarty? Does she look happy, sad, pensive? How does her appearance, her demeanour make you feel?

The fact she has bosoms probably wouldn’t be mentioned by a woman writer, any more than a man would write about another man having elbows – it’s simply a given that all human beings come equipped that way – unless the lady’s bosoms are the reason a guy got distracted, tripped over his feet and crashed into the water-cooler. Then it would be reasonable to mention them.

Altogether it would appear a lighter brush is needed when us chaps are writing women into our stories. We mustn’t get hung up doodling extra goggle-eyed detail into those erogenous zones – it’s all a bit adolescent. Yes, we’re programmed to respond that way, but we have to somehow transcend that level of thinking as writers of stories, realise there’s more to women than whatever it is that gets us going in the trouser department, unless of course, it’s a woman our male protagonist is interested in sexually. But even then, is it purely her physical appearance that attracts him? If it is, then say so, but accept that also says something about your guy, and is that really what you’re trying to flag to others?

What else is there? There must be something? The way she looks at him? The fact she bites her nails, taps her toe, fiddles with her hair. Why does she do that? The fact she likes re-runs of Mork and Mindy – what does that say about her? And why does he like that about her?

Now for the hard part: try imagining you’re a woman, writing as a woman, and what it is that attracts you to a man. Do you imagine it’s simply the bulge in the trouser department, or  the enormous, rippling gym-honed torso? If that’s all there is to it then fine, we can assume women are wired the same way as men – only the other way around. Except, that can’t be the case can it? Because why do you see so many good looking women hanging out with such defiantly unhealthy looking guys? Is there, after all, something fundamentally different about the way women relate to men? I mean why would they waste a body like that on such an unreformed slob? Could it be women see bodies differently – both men’s and their own?

You could have a stab along those lines: that it’s more something in his smile perhaps, or his eyes, or maybe it’s that a woman can tell a lot about a guy simply by the way he smells, and not so much by the things he says, as the things he doesn’t say. And if you’re really, really struggling, then try reading some books written by women. And if you want to know how they relate to others in an erotic way, then read some female erotica, but make sure it’s erotica written for women by women, not by men pretending to be women for men.

I’ve written ten novels now, so I’m sure I’ve come a cropper several times, had the girls breasting boobily all over the damned place. I suppose in one sense it doesn’t really matter if you get it wrong, because we’re all just amateurs writing online, aren’t we? But if you’re a big shot writer making millions, priding yourself on your authenticity, and you have your girls breasting boobily,… well, shame on you!

Of course the other argument is you’re wasting your time writing if you’re a man anyway, or at least flagging yourself as male with a male pseudonym, because an oft quoted and very discouraging statistic tells us 80% of readers these days are women and most of them prefer books by women, at least when it comes to genre stuff. About the only place left for men to write as men is  literature, but since no one’s reading much of that anyway these days no one’s going to notice, or care, if we’re breasting boobily or not.

How to write a woman into your story? There are no rules. Just do it,… but think about it, and in the process you might learn something.

 

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scent-of-a-womanFirst of all I apologise for my last post. If any of you were feeling down when you read it, it will have done little to cheer you up. I can only say it was the result of a workaday Monday morning at the year’s back end. I read the poem to my son and he said it was impressively bleak. He also said he didn’t like the poet at all – far too depressing on an empty stomach – and was appalled when he learned it was me.

So, I’m glad to say I don’t feel like that all the time, that just as there need be no firm reason for a decline in spirits, it can take equally little to restore a sense of buoyancy.

Take Sunday for example. There is a donut seller on Southport pier. A few years ago, I could not smell the donuts. Indeed, I could not smell anything. I could push my nose into a bag of the freshly fried little things and smell nothing. On Sunday though, I caught the scent of them even from the road as I drove along the promenade, and they cheered me. Ah,… donuts!

Perhaps it was the wind that carried the scent – it was a fresh day, cold – but the scent of those donuts rendered at once last Monday morning’s poem of measured misery a distant memory. I bought six. It’s one of life’s little paradoxes that even the most heavenly scent emanates from sources that in excess are bad for us, but on occasion we simply don’t care. I carried my bag of donuts to the pier’s end, their scent mingling with a brininess of the wind and an incoming tide. Heaven!

Less wholesome,  was the scent of blocked toilets in the cafe in town. I had called for coffee after my blow on the pier. The cafe was empty. I didn’t linger, yet years ago I would not have noticed the maleficent odour and would have sat down quite happily, in all ignorance. Instead, I followed my nose along Lord Street, enticed by the scent of restaurants, pizzerias, more coffee shops, then an impressive waft of perfume from through the doors of Beals.

There was more perfume from the girls in the crowds on the street.Ah, the scent of a woman!  Indeed on days like these I am in an ecstasy of perfume and can happily follow one trail after another. I realise this is not a good defence against accusations of stalking, but I am also fickle – the lightness of a daytime perfume, or the sultry heaviness of evening,.. girls, you can still warm the cockles, but it is your perfume that sets them on fire. I politely decline all other charms.

Scent opens up the unseen dimensions of the world. It’s impossible to say how extraordinary this is unless you have lost your scent, say for decades, then had it make a recovery. The health professionals I consulted offered little hope. But there’s good information out there – people who tried things and said: this worked for me. You can usually tell them apart from the charlatans by the fact they don’t want any money in exchange for this information. Alpha Lipoic Acid has worked for me. It’s just a food supplement, and it took a while, but it’s gradually opened up a door to a greater experience of the world once more.

I return to the car, return to it’s familiar scent. Yes, the familiar scent, the multilayered scent of place – impossible to label as one thing or another. I can’t define the scent of my car at all. It may be the carpets, or the vinyl top, or something leaking through from the battery in the boot. It smells, dare I say, manly, spicy, a little oily but with an acidic, almost citrus tang. And this is odd because for the first twelve years of its life this little car was owned by a woman. There were lipsticks and little perfume bottles lost down the backs of the seats, and Duran Duran CDs. Yet for all of this purely physical detritus, she seems not to have left behind much of an olfactory impression at all.

I massage my nose with fingertips while I think about this, bring back some feeling after the cold of the air, and as I do so I smell the shaving cream I used that morning, also the hint of an aftershave transferred from the fingers of my gloves – Kuros – an aftershave I wore so long ago I no longer recall the occasion. Yet there it lingers in the pockets of time, waiting to trigger the unexpected – memories of a girl I used to know, and who had a particular liking for that scent – so much so, she would borrow it from me. It would render her weak, she said.

Ah, when the scent is sharp it is a revelation.

When it’s missing from your life altogether, it’s not funny.

Sunday scent and the day feels warmer.
Pity’s Mondays round the corner.

We’ll end it there.

 

Graeme out.

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When I was five I ran away from school. I didn’t understand my incarceration there, and felt I was getting nothing in return, so I decided to leave. Escape wasn’t difficult. I chose the chaos of a playtime, observed the gate, observed the inattentiveness of the guards and simply walked out. Yes, I went entirely undetected by “authority”, which I learned early on, for all  of its bluster, is actually a bit numb. I was, however, observed by one of my fellow inmates, a bossy, busybody of a girl, who raised the alarm. So, with authority now awakening like a dozy hippo at her shrill call, I decided to run for it.

I did well, made it a good mile towards home. But “authority”, not being sufficiently fleet of foot itself, had dispatched another inmate to catch me, a swift limbed girl, older than me. I gave her a run for her money, but catch me she did, eventually. She would grow to become the most beautiful girl in the village, but for now she took my hand gently, and led me back into imprisonment. The snitch probably became a kingpin of Human Resources in a bland multinational.

If I was reprimanded on return it went over my head, for I remember none of it. I think my father was expected to have a word, which he did, but he was more amused than outraged, more impressed than dismayed. He seemed to be saying that while rebellion was not to be universally despised, I still had a lot to learn about the world, and what it meant to be alive within it.

But I had already learned some important lessons here. Number one, escape was not going to be easy. Number two: ones fellow inmates were blind to their incarceration and could not be relied upon to assist in evading ones own. And number three: a man does well to be circumspect in his dealings with women, especially bossy ones, but even more so those who chase after him, no matter how beautiful , because it’s unlikely to be to his advantage in the end.

Of course as I thought more about the problem, and my father’s words, I realised the bounds of incarceration extended beyond the school gates, so it was impossible to ascertain when safe ground had been attained. Indeed observing the world, I realised the whole of it had been constructed as a fiendishly clever prison, one in which the inmates thought they were free. Escape from such a place would require more than a swift pair of legs. It would require a perpetual awareness of the madness, but also, since one could not rely upon one’s fellow inmates for discretion, it would also require one to go deep under cover, to pretend absolute conformity, and while pretending, to remain vigilant, and to plot!

I was inspired by the true story of the wooden horse, the one where POW’s in Germany, made a wooden vaulting horse, carried it brazenly into the prison yard each day and, while a group of men vaulted over it, another, hidden within the horse, began digging a tunnel underneath it. It was a painstaking business, the dirt grubbed away, scoop by scoop, under the very noses of the guards. It sounds improbable, but it worked, and three men got away.

Me? I’m still digging, still pretending conformity,while dreaming of the freedom to simply be, to not have to get up at crack of dawn every morning , to say to myself: “Now, what shall I do today?” And if the answer is “nothing” then so be it, for there will be time a plenty to enjoy both the nothings and the fullness of days, days entirely of my own shaping, like the days before I was captured as a child from the wild of preschool years.

Of course, time itself is the biggest prison, and my tunnel is taking an awful lot of it in the digging. We begin to fear old age and frailty will deny us the pleasure of our lives when we are finally free to enjoy them, that there is a possibility, having spent the war years digging our tunnel out under the wire, the war will be over by the time we’ve cut that final slice of turf to daylight and liberation. Then we’ll be standing on the other side looking back, the guards themselves having long turned for home anyway, and we’ll be thinking: was that it?

I wonder if it would not be better to have simply joined in a bit more. I don’t mean this in the sense that I have not engaged with the world – at least physically – for indeed I have. I have sampled much of what it has to offer, but while doing so I have always held a part of me in reserve, never forgetting the imperative for escaping the madness at some point.

Or is this talk of escape not merely cowardice? Is the madness not my own? So, the years pass and the school-desk becomes the work-desk, and the puzzling thing is, I can walk away from my incarceration tomorrow. There is no need for a tunnel now, and no swift limbed beauty will come to drag me back to that desk. So why don’t I? I can argue I’m doing it for the money, that a man must eat, that the money is now the trap. Sure, there are monks who go into the world wrapped in only a binding of cloth and with a bowl to beg and that may be a definition of true liberation, but who among us is willing to live like that?

So is it not the falsehood, but the truth itself I am running from?

And is the truth not this:

Welcome to your life. Freedom will come to each of us soon enough. In the meantime, we should make the best of what we have, otherwise the most secure prison is the one we build around ourselves, not so much preventing us from getting out, but preventing others from getting in.

It’s something to think about, but for now, if you’ll excuse me, I still have a lot of digging to do.

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George and the Dragon  - Rosa Corder D G RossettiWe have seen how the material path in a man’s life is ultimately self defeating, and its rewards potentially poisonous to the quest for contentment and meaning. The other path, the quest of a man in search of his soul, is no less exhausting, but those men bound upon it can at least sit down for a minute in order to gather their nerves and catch their breath, without fear of being swept away by Ego’s ever pressing timetable.

The quest for Soul is something open to all men but it is a lifetime’s journey, no matter what stage of life a man embarks upon it. And we must be careful of our expectations too, for Soul is not another thing to be acquired and ticked off on the list of life’s little necessities. Indeed a man cannot “acquire” a soul at all, because he already possesses one. It is more the degree to which he is intimate with it that is the important thing, or failing that it is the degree to which he even knows it’s there. The soul is a man’s secret and most perfect lover. Pay her sufficient devotion and she will transform you; indeed she will at times blow your mind. Neglect her though, and she’ll make you wish you were dead.

For every man, images of Soul are projected out into the world in many forms, but the most recognisable is in the shape of the human female. It can come as a shock to many men that women are not as perfect and divine as our early infatuations with them would have us believe. I’m sorry girls but you can be as stupid, vapid, shallow, mean and vain as any man. You also snore and make the same bathroom noises. Women are, in short, human, but a man’s attraction to them, once piqued, can take on the proportions of a holy devotion. For a fervent seeker of Soul, in the guise of womankind, this can turn out to be,… disappointing.

In psychological terms, though he may not be aware of it, a man projects the soul he already possesses onto the form of another human being. He looks at the woman, but does not see the actual person before him. What he sees is an image of his own soul. If he’s lucky the woman will do the same with him and there is created the potential for a happy-ever-after story, provided the process of actually getting to know one another doesn’t upset the fantasy. But it doesn’t end there. Just because a man pairs up with a life mate, does not mean he is now intimate enough with his own soul to have finished with the quest. No. The quest is just beginning.

A man can be happily married, then discover to his surprise a deep attraction for another woman, or perhaps several other women. It’s important at this point he realises his soul is still at work, shape-shifting, drawing his attention to other aspects of himself, and to which he has yet to awaken. But these aspects are not to be explored by literally engaging with the object of his projection, more by withdrawing those projections and releasing the energy back inside of himself.

To be sure, this is a dangerous stage for a man. It can bring him down, ruin him on a string of affairs, or he can rise above it, withdraw his projections from the material world and give strength to the soul growing within him. Make no mistake, let loose into the material world, a man’s soul might easily destroy him, but recognised instead as a valued psychical partner, along with a man’s ego, she can transform him. In the alchemy of medieval Europe, this marriage of the King and Queen (Ego and Soul) gives birth to queer offspring and much else that is mysterious, even terrifying, but no one said this quest was going to be easy.

Withdrawing one’s projections from the world is a tricky business, and requires first of all the taming of one’s ego. Ego is an analytical genius, and will act on the evidence of its findings. Once it realises women are simply human, it can play ahead to the end scenario of divorce and acrimony, and hopefully step back from the brink before blood is spilt. Age helps too, also the realisation that there are certain things in life worth more than yet another failed relationship: a comfy sofa, a glass of red wine, a good book, a fine cigar. Yes, material things are sometimes to be appreciated, but a wise ego treats them also with circumspection.

Mythical quests in storybooks often involve the hero doing battle with a fearsome creature, say a dragon, in order to rescue a beautiful, flaxen haired, gym honed, damsel in distress. (George and the dragon nfor example) For dragon think Ego, for damsel think Soul. But a slayed ego is neither use nor ornament to a man, for in dealing with a freed soul a man needs his wits about him. In the alchemy of the East, if the female yin is allowed to dominate, the result will be a disaster. More properly the female receives the male yang, softens him, applies her wisdom and directs him in useful ways, but she is careful never to dominate the dance, or the direction of the whole will be subverted to an unfortunate end. An ego dancing entirely to Soul’s tune is not a pretty sight; it takes a man out of the world, makes him doubtful of his place in it, and narrows his horizons to no further than the rim of his spectacles.

Returning again to the Eastern alchemists of the Dao, man is seen as inhabiting a universe that is as much inside of him as out. He is seen as straddling the worlds of Heaven and Earth. Each informs the other, and a wise man pays heed to the dynamics of both. Too much of the material world and a man loses himself in the forms of the earth, finds himself trapped without a starship to blast him back home when the time is right. Too much soul and She reaches up from the dark lake to drown him in his own thoughts, overwhelm him with his own tortured imaginings. He dies to the world, before it has taught him all it can – for such, say the Daoist sages, is the only merit in living a long life.

A safer place for abstractions of Soul is away from women-folk altogether. Wise men have found it in the retreat afforded by the natural world, in the beauty of nature, the quiet of the forest, in the shapely mountain peak. All these things bear the likeness of Soul and she will call to any man who is sensitive to her presence. She will make him yearn for a thing he knows he does not yet possess, yet infuriatingly it is a thing he cannot see or touch or even adequately define. When I was younger I responded to such things with an eye for conquest, but conquest, like all ego-driven acts, leaves one hungry for more. Nowadays I see it more in stillness, and can rest more easily in the knowledge it is not a thing to be grasped by the intellect, nor through physical effort. It is an opening, both in and to nature. And through it, through this guidance of Soul, we realise the glimmerings we see in the mind’s eye are glimmerings of our own deeper identity, that the infinite beauty of nature is a reflection of our own God-given nature, one of infinite complexity, depth, and potential.

In choosing our way through life no matter which path a man takes, life is going to kill him in the end. But one path brings with it the essential knowledge of his immortality, while the other denies it entirely. The mythical quest is a journey whose outcome is far from certain, and most of us who attempt it keep getting eaten by the dragon. But to fail in one’s search for Soul, is not really to fail – indeed, it is to be expected, for how else are we to learn and grow? To fail on this path, is more to stumble by the wayside, but we find a faith in Soul is sufficient armour for the Dragon’s worst excesses, and no man who has at least once chosen Soul over gold, is going to be down on his knees for long.

She simply won’t allow it.

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Our financial institutions are having a hard time at the moment, having brought the world closer to ruin than all our terrifying stockpiles of thermonuclear weapons ever did. I’m not sure I understand where the money’s gone, who’s got it, or indeed if it ever existed in the first place and, like the cold war, wasn’t in the end some kind of monumental bluff. Anyway, the banks and building societies are at least conscious now of a deficit in terms of their public image and seem to have been taking corrective action, but in ways that, for me at least, backfired spectacularly recently, and had me thinking only how much we’ve lost over the decades. I’m not talking about money here, but something far more vital and it concerns our sense of what is real.

For most of us, our contact with these financial institutions is through the front line counter staff. The women on those counters are the most human face of the “industry” (and they are mostly women). We know them. They are our wives, our sisters, our nieces, and they are the girls we knew at school.

Cue my little story:

There was this girl. We’ll call her Chrissy. At school, Chrissy was a lovely young woman, pleasant, easy going, very pretty, and I don’t mind admitting I carried a bit of a candle for her. But, you know how it is? Being a shy kind of bloke I never did get around to, well,.. so much as speaking to her as it happens. We left school in 1977. She went on to college to do her A Levels, while I got myself an engineering apprenticeship, and I lost sight of her for a bit, but then, quite unexpected, some thirty years ago, I spotted her working behind the counter of the building society in my local town, and I thought to myself – I wonder if she remembers me? If she ever serves me, I thought to myself, I’ll say: “We were at school together, Chrissy.” It wasn’t that I wanted to make a big thing about it – we’d both moved on romantically, and I’d simply thought it would be nice to see her smile, or even to struggle to remember me – it made no difference. It was the touching base with some point in my distant past that seemed to be the important thing here.

Now, I don’t go into the building society very often, but when I do, I take my turn in line, and I have a one in five chance when it comes to drawing an individual cashier. And would you believe it, in thirty years I never drew Chrissy once? The fact she’s still working there is no small miracle in itself, but it seems even more incredible to me that not once in thirty years did she ever update my passbook. I’d watch her from the corner of my eye as I stood in line, and I was always impressed by how little she seemed to have changed. Indeed for a woman of 51 she still has a very lovely look about her and is instantly recognisable from the old form photographs I’ve kept of those olden times. She has something, at least for me – embodies something. But it’s complicated.

Fast forward to the present day:

One evening, recently, I had a call from someone doing a survey on behalf of that building society. They were checking up on the customer “experience” and how I rated it, having recently used the branch. Had the counter staff addressed me as “Mr Graeme”? Had the counter staff, on conclusion of the transaction asked if there was anything else they could help me with today? There was a lot of other useless guff as well. I answered in the affirmative, whilst thinking to myself the poor b@$t@rd$ – they’d all been sent on a course on how to speak to customers, how to be human, and present a caring face! I gave them a top score because in this respect, and as a fully paid up member of a trades union we’re all brothers and sisters and it’s us against the ever present spectre of the hare brained management type bastard gurus and their fiendish plots to outwit us.

Now, I was in the branch again, last week, and I drew Chrissy. At last! For the first time since 1977 I was standing in front of her, and thinking to myself $h1t, what do I say? I mumbled something about a passbook update, and she spoke so efficiently to me, handled that passbook like it was greased, and before you knew it I had it back in my hands, and she was smiling her dismissal at me while at the same time asking if there was anything else she could do for me today, “Mr Graeme”. It was a polished performance. Perfect, and as human as a machine.  And I thought,… where had Chrissy gone? The building society had once had a real treasure there – a charming, personable lady, efficient at her job, loyal to the branch, having been there all that time, and they’d replaced her with an effing robot.

So I said nothing about having known her at school – that little balloon I’d carried all those years had been suddenly popped.  I and walked out, feeling a little disappointed, a little thoughtful, and I sat down in the coffee shop and I wrote about it.

We are each of us human, obviously, but how an institution can come to believe it presents a more human face by imposing a scripted “behaviour” on its front line staff beggars belief. To be human is to be spontaneous, to smile sincerely, to listen to the irrelevant aside of the lonely old lady, to take that bit of extra time with people because we are all people and do not make good machines. You cannot script that kind of “behaviour”. And the last thing we need as human beings is to worry constantly as we’re doing our jobs that there’s some phantom cold caller ringing up your customers and asking them to score you for the scripts you’ve used, and that if you get less than perfect performance you’ll have a suited moron taking you to one side for a bit of behavioural correction. That’s not how you build a more personal face, nor an efficient organisation. That’s how you break people.

Anyway, you most likely wouldn’t have known me, Chrissy. In 1977 I had hair down to my collar and a rather goofy, naïve expression. Now I’m follically challenged and grizzled and occasionally grumpy, but come to think of it still pretty naive, so maybe you’d’ve have recognised me after all. But what I’d really like to say here under the veil of total anonymity is that I do still think of you, and when I see you I think of the times we shared, and though they were pretty chaotic in their own way, they seemed a little more human, a little less “scripted”,  a little more “real”.

I’d also like to say that in my book you’ll always score 10 out of 10.

Graeme out.

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