Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman

I’m tired. Tired of being a woman, tired of how equality between the sexes appears to be retreating and I’m tired of being considered a female writer, as if I work in any way differently to a man. What do I mean when I say that?

I’m thinking of the recent unmasking of Elena Ferrante, the attempts to pin the writer’s achievement on her husband, or to link back to her personal life as if that’s somehow going to lessen the value of the work. If the Neopolitan Novels did spring from personal experience, they are still valuable and they are still a phenomenal achievement.

I’m thinking of the fact that I’ve had several recommendations to watch Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s brilliant comedy, Fleabag and they all came from men; something about that fact makes me queasy. The show is brilliant, treading the fine line between comedy and tragedy with such a delicate touch and showcasing nuanced writing and performances. The subject is frank as well as funny and that’s perhaps where my unease lies. I feel like men seize on it and say, “this is true” and “this is how woman experience the world” and I think, not this woman. Waller-Bridge’s writing is as courageous as it is funny but that does not mean the perspective of the show is mine, nor does it create any obligation to expose myself, literally and figuratively, in my writing.

I’m thinking about the fact that my (entirely lovely and not at all sexist) workshop group are interested in the poems I write about aspects of my personal history in an entirely different way and that makes me want to stop writing them.

I’m thinking about this expectation that female writers should expose themselves in their writing, as if this one woman’s experience speaks to all women. I admire writers such as Sharon Olds who are vivid and visceral in their presentation of the female experience and emotional turmoil but that doesn’t mean I want to follow down that road. To me, this need for female writers to share intimate details feels like another demand on women and come on fellas, I’ve already got my face and my weight and the clothes I wear to worry about, you also want me to take my sexual experience and make it somehow universal and mean something? It feels like a particularly clammy form of voyeurism to me.

I’m thinking everyone – not just female writers – uses their personal experience in their writing whether they choose to do so explicitly or not and that to dismiss women’s writing as somehow lesser on these grounds is sexist. If you ask three people to write a love poem in the abstract and give them the same opening line, you’ll get three very different poems. The same would happen if you asked them to write a poem about, I don’t know, trains. It isn’t just about emotional experience – if those three writers had all had the same experience of romance and yet had read entirely different authors, or lived in different places in the world, the poems would be different.

I’m thinking that it takes as much technical skill to lay your life bare as it does to create a fictional world. I don’t weep into my gin and tonic when I write poems about ex-boyfriends any more than I dress up in ancient armour when I write about Roman soldiers. In both cases, I write and refine and restructure and amend and re-write until the poem says something that comes from me but is not quite mine.

I’m thinking that, through reading, I’ve walked miles in so many pairs of shoes – male and female – and I have always found freedom in that. I have been an astronaut, a detective, a penniless troubadour and a powerful witch, an animal and a piece of the landscape, a distant star and a mythical figure. I’m not a female reader, I’m a reader. I’m not a female writer, either. It’s not that I’m trying to hide the fact that I’m a woman or that I feel any sense of shame about that. It’s just that I don’t think it should get in the way of the writing. When I write, I seek the same freedom of imagination that reading provides to be anyone and go anywhere I choose. You know, the same freedom male writers have.