If you’re a boy writer, it’s a simple rule: you’ve gotta get used to the fact that you suck at writing women and that the worst women writer can write a better man than the best male writer can write a good woman. And it’s just the minimum. Because the thing about the sort of heteronormative masculine privilege, whether it’s in Santo Domingo, or the United States, is you grow up your entire life being told that women aren’t human beings, and that women have no independent subjectivity. And because you grow up with this, it’s this huge surprise when you go to college and realize that, “Oh, women aren’t people who does my shit and fucks me.”
And I think that this a huge challenge for boys, because they want to pretend they can write girls. Every time I’m teaching boys to write, I read their women to them, and I’m like, “Yo, you think this is good writing?” These motherfuckers attack each other over cliche lines but they won’t attack each other over these toxic representations of women that they have inherited… their sexist shorthand, they think that is observation. They think that their sexist distortions are insight. And if you’re in a writing program and you say to a guy that their characters are sexist, this guy, it’s like you said they fucking love Hitler. They will fight tooth and nail because they want to preserve this really vicious sexism in the art because that is what they have been taught.
And I think the first step is to admit that you, because of your privilege, have a very distorted sense of women’s subjectivity. And without an enormous amount of assistance, you’re not even going to get a D. I think with male writers the most that you can hope for is a D with an occasional C thrown in. Where the average women writer, when she writes men, she gets a B right off the bat, because they spent their whole life being taught that men have a subjectivity. In fact, part of the whole feminism revolution was saying, “Me too, motherfuckers.” So women come with it built in because of the society.
It’s the same way when people write about race. If you didn’t grow up being a subaltern person in the United States, you might need help writing about race. Motherfuckers are like ‘I got a black boy friend,’ and their shit sounds like Klan Fiction 101.
The most toxic formulas in our cultures are not pass down in political practice, they’re pass down in mundane narratives. It’s our fiction where the toxic virus of sexism, racism, homophobia, where it passes from one generation to the next, and the average artist will kill you before they remove those poisons. And if you want to be a good artist, it means writing, really, about the world. And when you write cliches, whether they are sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, that is a fucking cliche. And motherfuckers will kill you for their cliches about x, but they want their cliches about their race, class, queerness. They want it in there because they feel lost without it. So for me, this has always been the great challenge.
As a writer, if you’re really trying to write something new, you must figure out, with the help of a community, how can you shed these fucking received formulas. They are received. You didn’t come up with them. And why we need fellow artists is because they help us stay on track. They tell you, “You know what? You’re a bit of a fucking homophobe.” You can’t write about the world with these simplistic distortions. They are cliches. People know art, always, because they are uncomfortable. Art discomforts. The trangressiveness of art has to deal with confronting people with the real. And sexism is a way to avoid the real, avoiding the reality of women. Homophobia is to avoid the real, the reality of queerness. All these things are the way we hide from encountering the real. But art, art is just about that."
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft….
…perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground—you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.
When I was twenty-one, I had my tonsils removed…. For the entire week afterwards, swallowing hurt so much that I could barely open my mouth for a straw. I had a prescription for painkillers, though, and when they ran out but the pain hadn’t, I called the nurse and said that she would really need to send another prescription over, and maybe a little mixed grill of drugs because I was also feeling somewhat anxious. But she wouldn’t. I asked to speak to her supervisor. She told me her supervisor was at lunch and that I need to buy some gum, of all things, and to chew it vigorously—the thought of which made me clutch at my throat. She explained that when we have a wound in our body, the nearby muscles cramp around it to protect it from any more violation and from infection, and that I would need to use these muscles if I wanted them to relax again. So finally my best friend Pammy went out and bought me some gum, and I began to chew it, with great hostility and skepticism. The first bites caused a ripping sensation in the back of my throat, but within minutes all the pain was gone, permanently.
I think something similar happens with our psychic muscles. They cramp around our wounds—the pain from our childhood, the losses and disappointments of adulthood, the humiliations suffered in both—to keep us from getting hurt in the same place again, to keep foreign substances out. So those wounds never have a chance to heal. Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp."
I don’t like to talk a lot. Some people call this shy or introverted. So what if I am? These are the traits that help me soak up daily surroundings for future material.
It’s amazing what you can see if you just sit back and shut the fuck up sometimes. Sure, you’re not the popular guy at the bar shooting back beers while telling tales of his old college days. You’re not the comedian fearlessly telling jokes to a sold out show with an audience laughing to tears. You’re not the person they asked to give a speech at their wedding, birthday, or graduation. But when everyone devotes their energy to only the sense of hearing, you use the sense of sight. You see that the barfly only drinks Bud Lights in attempt to lose his beer belly and that the only crowd he can still impressed are lanky frat boys who just turned 21. You see that one woman in the audience, third row and center, who is laughing hard – like she deserves it, like it’s been bottled up for so long, and you wonder why. You see the bride’s tiny baby bump and realize it’s a shotgun wedding. You see aunts and uncles more interested in the cupcakes than the birthday boy. You see a grad lose his smile as he steps off the stage and weighs his diploma in his hand. He thinks, “How long will this piece of paper convince others that I’m good enough?”
I am shy. I am most definitely an introvert. But more importantly, I see a lot of truth when I sit and stare. …And if I don’t see truth, I will do my best to make that shit up until I’m satisfied.
Exercise: Find a place you normally don’t spend a lot of time at. Go there alone. Have some kind of device to record your thoughts. Exist in the space for at least an hour and observe (without looking like a complete creeper!). People watch. Notice attire, physical features, mannerisms, and relationships. Eavesdrop. Pay attention to objects, especially ones that don’t belong. Ask any and all questions as if you were a child first discovering the space. Ask questions until your mom tells you to stop, then ask some more. Write all of this down. Strangers are characters waiting to be explored.
In early December 2002, Jane Espenson—who by that time had written episodes for Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly—wrote an essay on the general process of writing a television episode for the official Firefly website on Fox.com. The original is archived here and is also reproduced below. Quick note: Kyle is a member of the Firefly Web Team.
Hello Kyle (Editor’s Note: and all you Mutant Enemy fans around the world)!
I’ve been asked to describe the writing process on a Joss Whedon show. I am primarily a Buffy writer, and I’m not in the Firefly writing room that often, but the general procedure is similar.