Identity, Lipstick, and Alfred
I may be known for writing about transgender characters, but that’s relatively recent. I have written all of my life, but with a big gap in the middle when I traveled professionally (before the age of laptops). In school, I’d won some fiction awards and gone the usual high-school-and-college-creative-writing-magazine-editor route, but for years my writing was non-fiction, mostly technical writing for manuals, newsletters, sales materials, and whatever the client ordered. All along I’d been writing fiction on my typewriter, then my desktop computer, and now I live in my laptop!
My non-fiction writing was solid and paid the bills, but I needed to know the quality of my fiction so I began participating in every writers’ conference and writers’ group around. Loved the conferences; hated the groups. There was more ego and backbiting than literary critique. I took graduate courses in fiction and screenplay writing. I found more egos and backbiting, and now flavored with politics and ideology. In the writers’ groups a work might be dismissed as ‘simplistic’ while the same piece at university was dismissed as ‘Marxist’.
I found that the face-to-face nature of a group or class created prejudice—in the literal sense of ‘pre-judging’ even before the story was read. This was especially apparent after we were encouraged to “tell us a little about yourself”. Critiques became prejudiced by the age, sex, education level, and background of the author—none of which, I felt, should be a factor of a literary critique in a learning environment.
I wanted my writing reviewed, not my life. I withdrew from the groups, finished the semesters and still wasn’t sure about the quality of my writing. Writers’ conferences are still valid and I attend whenever possible, but I decided to find writers’ groups online, hoping the anonymity and geographical disbursement would shift focus from the writer to the writing.
That anonymity worked both ways; I began noticing similar critiques, from strangers thousands of miles away. I noticed time and time again, regardless of the prestige of the forum or participants, there was evidence of reader bias based on the authors’ bios. Men were told they couldn’t write romance; women were told they couldn’t write action or suspense—not that they weren’t allowed, but that they couldn’t write them well to convey any experience that they “quite obviously did not have”.
It was the tyranny of Write What You Know. This is a dictum taught in countless Writing 101 classrooms, yet this is a limitation; writers must use their imaginations. It’s ludicrous to expect writers to only write about what they personally know and experienced. Mark Twain knew about riverboats, having piloted on the Mississippi, so he could write about that. But he’d never been a black man—so, following Write What You Know—he shouldn’t have written about Jim. And so the world would have lost Huckleberry Finn.
I realized that part of the Write What You Know tyranny was responsible for the bias, however specious. Writers in workshops faced bias against location: “Oh, you’re from the midwest? You couldn’t possibly understand life in Los Angeles.” Against age: “How can you write about an elderly man? You’re a woman, and only 24.” Against education: “You set your novel in a university, yet your bio shows that you only graduated from high school.”
It struck me that these biased comments were only made because the others in workshops knew the writer—that “share yourself with the group” business on the first day, however well-meaning the instructor’s request.
I experimented; I submitted an action-romance to an online writing group, and used a male author name. The group’s response was that the action was gripping and suspenseful, but that “You don’t really understand how women think.” I sent the exact same manuscript to a different writers’ group, but with an unmistakably feminine, Victorian-era name. The response? “You don’t really understand how men fight. The descriptions of the rooms and clothes have nice details, though.” The exact same manuscript!
Consequently, I have two ‘experiments’ in operation: First is my own anonymity. I do not divulge any personal details. I am a college graduate who has traveled extensively and held a number of different jobs—so I’m like a lot of other people. Beyond that, I try to maintain my, um, invisibility. Obviously, this means no Facebook photo and detailed bio! I am also experimenting with a form of corporate ‘branding’, with all of my books having the same cover background. When readers scroll through their ebook collections on their device, you can always spot a Karin Bishop book—even when the covers are reduced to the size of postage stamps.
I believe people buy and read a Stephen King novel, or Jodi Picoult or John Grisham, for example, regardless of the cover—because they trust the writing.
I want my writing to be judged on its own merits, and not because of a pretty girl or studly guy on the cover! So I am experimenting with a cover “brand” with repeated symbols—my covers all feature a chessboard, the classic binary, only mine is not black-and-white; my chessboard is grayscale, roughly symbolizing the gradation of gender. The background is lace; the bright red lipstick is the most obvious feminine icon, yet is also phallic. And the head of the lipstick is split, as a bishop’s mitre would be, which is a joke on my name.
So, with familiarity, my covers should lose any influences over the writing they contain. And due to my experiences with bias, I am limiting any influences over my writing by being purposefully reclusive. Take my writing as you read it, and not what you may read into it by knowing details about me.
As to influences on my writing? Every book ever read, and every movie ever watched. All music and lyrics heard, all paintings studied, and everyone I’ve spoken with or watched. It may seem to be a facile explanation but it’s also quite accurate. I also listen to people all around me, in malls, airports, salons, grocery stores, or just passing them on the street. I listen to what they’re saying, how they’re saying it; their word choices and cadences. I might even learn some of their likes and dislikes, and what moves them.
But I am also influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s theory of the ‘MacGuffin’, the plot element that drives the narrative but is not itself of importance. In his film Psycho, Marion steals $40,000 and flees. The theft of the money isn’t the point of the movie; it’s the MacGuffin, the mechanism, that gets her to the Bates Motel, which is what the movie is about. In his film Notorious, the whole point is to get Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together, although the superficial plot is about radioactive sand in wine bottles.
Nobody watching a Hitchcock film actually cares about the forty grand or bottled sand. Nobody cares whether Indiana Jones actually finds the Tabernacle; we’re along for the ride. Nobody cares about ‘the letters of transit’ in Casablanca. All we care about, what moves us—what we cry over and cheer for and remember—is whether Cary and Ingrid get together, about Indy’s adventures, and about Rick and Ilsa’s parting in the fog.
First and foremost, I want to write stories that move people.