A Classroom Visit

Last week, I had the privilege of fielding some questions from the students in a colleague’s Women in Literature course. They were reading “My Life as an Abomination,” a short story in which a young woman explores her sexual identity. (It’s also where I got the title for this blog!) The questions the students asked were a little challenging — especially since I’d written the story about eight years ago — and also insightful. Here’s some of what we all had to say:

I have found that everyone has their difficulties growing up. We all have our issues whether it be; family life, battling an addiction to drugs, finding your identity, feeling alone or like an outsider, etc. For you, what was the hardest part about growing up? (Assuming there was one that trumps the rest).

I was pretty shy and bookish as a child, so it was difficult for me to fit in at times. Most of the kids who went to school with me were really into pro wrestling and arson, and I was more interested in reading science-fiction novels and watching Doctor Who. One result of this was the assumption among my peers that I was gay. This was Northeast Philadelphia in the 1980s, and there was a lot of homophobia in my school, so it wasn’t uncommon for the other kids in my class to beat the shit out of me. One kid tried to drown me in a public pool once, and another kid gave me a concussion in the schoolyard. There were other incidents as well. Sometimes I fought back, and other times I didn’t. And though I wasn’t gay, the fact that people would pick fights with me because they thought I was may have played into my understanding of the narrator of “My Life as an Abomination.”

Where did the idea for this story come from, did it stem from real events in your life?

I wrote the story in response to a writing prompt. The prompt was to write a story that ended with the line, “To think, she could have been a sailor.” My immediate thought upon reading the prompt was that a woman spoke this line, and from there I started imagining why she might say it. I never found it difficult to write in the character’s voice. To me, she’s an outsider who want to fit in, and I think most people feel this way at one time or another in their lives regardless of whether they’re men or women. To this extent, it stemmed from events in my own life, since I’ve been as much of an outsider at times as anyone. But beyond that, the details of the narrator’s life do not parallel my own.

Being that you are a man, you give a very realistic feel to the lives of teenage girls.  Did you base any of these characters on women that you may have known?

To an extent, but not really. I knew someone who worked in a flower shop once. And I also knew someone whose house was tilted. But these details are mainly superficial. Before I wrote the story, I hadn’t met any women who told me about struggling with the same issues as the narrator of “My Life as an Abomination.” After the story was published, however, a couple of friends of mine who do happen to be gay told me that the story did, in fact, capture some of their own issues and concerns about coming out to friends and family.

In your story, the girl seemed to come from a not so normal family. While writing this, did you make it so that the girl had her feelings toward men and wanting to be with a woman because of her family life growing up?

I found it interesting that most of the girl’s relationships were with women (her mom, aunt, sisters etc.) and how her view of men were tainted. Did you portray it this way to show a possible cause to her feelings towards women? 

No to both questions. I don’t believe that anything “causes” homosexuality. People are born one way or another. More accurately, they fall somewhere on the Kinsey scale. We have natural inclinations, but culture labels them as “good” or “bad,” “natural” or “unnatural.” This is what I was trying to bring out in “My Life as an Abomination.” A young woman with a particular set of sexual inclinations keeps bumping into cultural messages that tell her she’s bad for feeling the way she does. As a result, she has to learn to set those messages aside and find her own way to happiness and fulfillment. Fortunately, we live in a time when we’re gradually moving away from such labels.

If you had to rewrite the story, would you mention more of the father? There was not really much of a mention of a father. It was mostly more about the mother who obviously was not happy about her marriage.

I’m pretty happy with the story the way that it is. Even though the father doesn’t show up a lot, I think his presence is definitely felt, as the following question suggests. I would, however, add more cowbell.

In your story, the father exerts a level of control over the sexuality of the girls/women is pervasive, startling, and disturbing. I feel like a big turning point in the story was when the narrator described the relationship between Allison and the professor. Was the professor in the story (Dr. Eck) meant to mirror the father and was Allison’s interactions with him meant to provide the narrator with a source of strength and introspection with which to break out of the dysfunctional, misogynistic world she had grown up in and start living in her own skin?

Yes. I think I even named him Dr. Eck because it sounded a little bit like “Ick,” and I wanted him to come across as someone who’s as unsympathetic as the father. Basically, Allison provides a model for the narrator, an example of how to stand up against patriarchy and preconceived notions about sexuality. She shows the narrator how to be comfortable with herself and that there’s really no such thing in life as “normal.”

What personal experiences in your life encouraged you to compose such a story? Also, what are your thoughts on sexual and identity fluidity?

Mainly it was my general sense of being an outsider through most of my young life that encouraged me to write the story. I guess it was my way of saying that everyone feels alone sometimes, and that at least we all have that in common.

As for sexual fluidity, I think we all fall somewhere on a spectrum of sexual identity and preferences, usually leaning one way or the other, with some of us leaning more strongly in one direction than others. Most people are probably somewhere in the middle, but society tends to push us in a single direction that we might term heteronormative. In other words, to be “normal” in our society is to be heterosexual, so a lot of people who think they’re heterosexual have just never stopped to wonder whether they might be attracted to members of the same sex. Or if they do, they know that such thoughts generally can’t be spoken aloud because doing so would violate many of our cultural taboos. If our culture didn’t apply labels like “gay” or “straight,” I imagine people would feel a lot more open to exploring their seemingly conflicted leanings.

In terms of identity fluidity, I find that I can be many different people over the course of an hour.

I know many of my classmates have commented on the fact that you are a male writing as a female, but I would just like to comment once again on how great of a job you did at narrating from the female perspective. I was especially impressed by your narration as a young girl–you captured the emotions of a lost, troubled girl quite well and nearly had me convinced that you were once one of them. In fact, I was racing to finish the story because I was wondering if perhaps you got a gender-corrective surgery later on in life (this was before I read the blurb about you!). Once again, I was very impressed. Was this your first time writing as a woman? Why did you choose to present the story in this way? Why did you choose to write about this “abomination” at all? Were your characters or subject topic influenced by anyone that you know? Have you written anything else in a woman’s voice?

I’d say that about a third of my fiction is written from the perspective of women. I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve always written from the perspectives of both sexes. Even in high school, I’d write short stories from both perspectives without really thinking about it. Maybe the problem is that no one ever told me not to do it, so it doesn’t seem like a huge leap to me.

The longest work I’ve ever written from a woman’s perspective was my novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. I don’t think writing that book was much different from writing other, male-centered, fiction because my biggest concern is always creating characters who seem human. And to me, some of the most interesting things that make us human don’t have much to do with gender. We all have secrets. We all experience desire. We all want things we can’t have. And we’re all flawed in so many ways. That’s mainly what I try to get at in everything I write, but the idea of having secrets and desires and wanting to fit in really drove me to write “My Life as an Abomination.”

The way gender comes into play for me has less to do with who I am and more to do with our culture. I’m especially interested in the kinds of messages our culture sends to both sexes. What it means to be a man. What it means to be a woman. Our culture places different sets of demands and expectations on members of each sex, and these are the factors I like to explore in my fiction. I don’t feel like I’m putting on airs when I write from the opposite gender’s point of view. Mainly I’m just asking myself how I would feel if culture placed X or Y expectations on me based solely on which chromosome my father gave me.

22 thoughts on “A Classroom Visit

  1. I’ve enjoyed learning more about some of your writing here, but mostly I’ve enjoyed learning a little more about you! I suspect that we would have been good friends in school – bookish Doctor Who geeks together.

    I’m looking forward to getting my hands on some of your writing (especially the Doctor Who book) after my wedding, and I’ve also mentioned you to a fellow Who fan who likes to read about the author on a personal level 🙂

    • I’m so glad that you’re enjoying blog — and I hope you like the Doctor Who book, too. It came out in 2007, so it’s a little dated by now (no mention of Matt Smith, for example), but I like to think it’s an enjoyable and informative read!

      • It’s Doctor Who; I’ll enjoy it no matter what because I’ve loved the show since I was very small – I remember hiding behind cushions during the Cybermen episodes, loving the tingle of fear, and of course I loved Tom Baker’s hysterical Jelly Baby decoys! 🙂

  2. Your answers are lush with great insight, Marc. I’m continually fascinated, at times frustrated, with the expectations and labeling that goes on in regards to gender. I feel we credit biology too much for gender differences and culture, too little. I’ve been considering writing a part memoir/part social commentary on the topic. Hmm…

    I can’t wait to read more of your work. (In other words, don’t you dare stop writing!)

  3. Nice to see insightful questions from a class! Your responses provide equal insight into you as a person and a writer. Well done by all involved. BTW, “My Life as an Abomination” is a fantastic story, and I recommend it eveyone.

  4. Very interesting. I’m not sure that everyone can convincingly write as either gender – so that is quite a talent! 🙂
    Nice to get some inside info on the person behind the writer’s mask too! I suspect the experience of being something of an outsider is quite common to writers – perhaps it helps us be good observers.

    • I agree… As writers, we’re in the precarious position of being both a part of society and observing society from afar at the same time!

  5. Fascinating post, Marc! Emotionally penetrating!

    I’m still trying to get most of what I write published, but I also frequently write female characters. And when I grew my hair long after getting out of the Air Force (a lifetime ago!), I frequently ran into the “getting in touch with our feminine side, are we?” glares, comments, and other…”issues.” It’s most curious how points of view germinate, how “male” and “female” morph over time. What is expected. Personally I feel “male” and “female” are forms of nonphysical energy that are labeled as such, once expressed into physical existence. Nothing good or bad about them, neither one is better nor worse than the other. They’re complimentary. And as you say, slide your marker up and down said scale as to how much “male” or “female” one is at any given time. I personally don’t care about one’s orientation–show me what KIND of person you are. THAT’S what matters.

    Again, excellent–and, yes, as August McLaughlin so eloquently put it, “…lush with great insight,” Marc!

  6. Read your “My LIfe as an Abomination” the other day. What incredible, densely packed writing! As I’d commented on the link itself, this story felt like a full-length novel packed (NOT condensed) into a short story. I’m really not trying to blow any smoke up anywhere, but I can’t remember the last time I’d read a short story that conveyed so much emotion, so much living, so much STORY in the confines of a short as this one did! It was like you’d magically wove so much more energy and emotion into the story than the mere words there should have been able to allow. It’s weird…or maybe I was in a weird “Zen place” as I read it…but I really felt added depth, dimensions to this story between the lines, between the spaces, that were just plain weird. Outstanding effort, Marc!

    • Thank you so much! I’m flattered and humbled by your kind words. It’s always a wonderful thing when a reader “clicks” with a story!

  7. The more I read your blog, the more I think many of us were short-changed in our educational process by not having more teachers with your open-minded, and genuinely human approach. I don’t think I can recall ANY of my teachers who felt that “…some of the most interesting things that make us human don’t have much to do with gender. We all have secrets. We all experience desire. We all want things we can’t have. And we’re all flawed in so many ways.”

    Had I continued to pursue teaching as a vocation, my guess is the outsider label would be applied to my experience as well. We need to emphasize diversity in our attitudes and in our acceptance of different points of view, and your writing from different perspectives demonstrates the benefits of a broader view of the world, particularly in our educational process.

    Lots of great reading here, Mark………John H.

    • Thank you, John. I appreciate your kind words and, needless to say, agree with your point about emphasizing diversity in our attitudes.

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