Men at Work: The Unexpected Freedom of Writing Male Characters
My first novel is set in the late 1950s in a host of locations, including a nuclear reactor floor and an Army base in Greenland. Sometimes, when I tell people this, they look at me a little funny. My own mother, an avid reader, asked me straight-up: “Why do you like to use such manly settings in your stories?”
I’m always quick to point out that my novel is populated by both women and men, and for every barracks or bar there is a kitchen table, a couch and cocktails, even a delivery room: the provinces of women, all. But I have to admit that the sections I wrote starring my male protagonist, Paul, set in the most far-flung (and, yes, masculine) locations, were the easiest and sometimes the most enjoyable for me to write. Why was that?
I should probably start with the “me” in question, during the writing of the novel. I was a mostly-housebound naval officer’s wife, 30 years old, kept occupied by that most female and nurturing of tasks: mothering three young children. While I’d worked since I was fourteen (mainly in animal hospitals; sometimes in bookstores) and had earned a graduate degree just before becoming a mom, my life at the time more closely resembled the day-to-day of the 1950s military wives in my novel more than it did that the lives of my “modern” civilian friends. Now my days were spent at the commissary and at playgrounds, where gaggles of women divided themselves by their husbands’ rank and swapped intel about good prices on everything from bulk steaks to handbags. The world of military spouses, even today, is a predominantly gender-segregated one.
Military life also, for the most part, segregates the work of childcare. My husband’s military duties sometimes left me at home for weeks or months with infants and toddlers, whose needs and emotions, which I felt privileged to witness and respond to day in and day out, required a quality of concentration and attention like no job I’d ever done before. Mothering bled into every hour of my day — there was truly no moment in time when I was not a mother — and I was so close to it that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Was I a good mom? Were things going “well”? Yes, probably, I certainly hoped so, but parenting is a perpetual and nebulous task. There were plenty of days when I lost my patience with one of my children, or felt like I didn’t give all three of them an equal amount of attention. Then there was that one, horrifying time (a statistical outlier!) at the public pool when I called an older lady a “bitch” for snottily informing me, in front of all her goggle-wearing gray-panther friends, that I was handling my son’s tantrum wrong.
Nights like those (especially like that one) I fell asleep thinking, “Tomorrow, you’ll do better.”
And then I woke up and wrote scenes of Men at Work.
My male characters’ tasks, for the most part, had distinct beginnings and endings. The men drove from home to work and back again; they punched in and out on time cards. Sometimes I found myself absurdly fantasizing about jobs I could go to, concentrate on, and get paid for, in contrast to the mess of diapers and baby food and various, awkward physical discomforts that came with my new role as mom. I longed for discrete physical chores like the ones I had at animal hospitals (which are a deceptively physical workplace, by the way): lifting some 120- pound Rottweiler out of a tub, or scrubbing something and then sitting back and watching it gleam.
Recently, I was talking to a male writer friend whose novel-in-progress includes large sections from the point of view of a female character. Though an accomplished writer, he still felt the strain of writing the opposite sex. Was he convincing his reader that this voice was a woman’s? he wondered. Was he managing her complexity, her femaleness? I thought so, but as any fiction writer would, I could identify with his concern.
“Women are such…critters,” he said, laughing and earnest at the same time. “They’re so inside their bodies. You know what I mean? Their bodies always have to be taken into account. Men don’t notice their bodies until they break.”
And boy, did I know what he meant. Never had I been required to take my own body into account more than I now did in my role as a mother. Sometimes, it made me proud; sometimes it was just plain embarrassing. But my body was always there, suddenly changing while my husband’s stayed exactly the same; making humans, delivering humans, feeding humans, sometimes malfunctioning and sometimes impressing me. Couldn’t live with it, couldn’t live without it.
But what if I didn’t have to notice my body until it broke? Imagine the freedom.
And imagine I did. I let myself escape: decades into the past, and into made-up people. Suddenly it was easier for me to write scenes where men dug seventy-pound blocks of ice from the walls of an underground Army base, or raised and lowered the rods of a nuclear reactor core, than it was for me to plot out conversations between two women at a coffee table. It was when I wrote the daily life of my female characters — reprimanding their preschoolers, scrubbing sinks, vacuuming — that I sometimes lost momentum. Maybe I’d just done those same things too many times; maybe they were too familiar.
Military wives in the fifties, like me in the 2000s, were often placeholders, staying put while their husbands came and went, did manly things, risked their lives, were sent across the globe. We’ll just sit here at this coffee table til you get back, their lives implied. And I was a little jealous. Part of me wanted to go off with the men. They were allowed to be active, to throw tantrums. Their five-o’-clock shadow was sexy while the women meticulously shaved their legs. They could sprawl in a seat without crossing at the knees, they could climb and holler. They were never faced with the indignity of corsets or periods, the gravidity of pregnancy.
In the early, hazy predawn hours, scribbling away in my black-and-white Mead composition book, I found myself writing pages and pages of scenes where men spat, cursed, went to late-night bars, acted like gentlemen, punched their bosses in the face, fought for their lives or died on the floor of a nuclear reactor. I know it sounds funny, but it was almost as if I could wake up earlier than my gender, or at least my own life, and allow myself the freedom to inhabit any body I chose.
And in the 1950s, as in my own life, it was the men’s bodies that moved.
Of course, this was not to say that I’d want to be a man. Overall, I prefer the company of women, of the military spouse sisterhood. And with my 1950s male, military characters, just as for soldiers today, their freedom came with a very particular price: They had to do what Uncle Sam asked. They did have to work on that reactor floor until it blew up or they did have to go overseas in wartime, and the women, as ever, were both lucky and confined, staying home.
The men didn’t notice their bodies til they broke — but they did break. One of my male characters succumbs to asbestosis; three are killed in a nuclear accident. The women, protected and bored, outlive them.
It was only after I finished writing my scenes set in masculine locales that I could sit back and look at what I’d had the women do all those pages, and I realized that some of them were chafing against their settings just as I was. Sometimes, in the scenes I’d written, this wasn’t clear enough. I dug back in, and found the question, “Does she want to be here right now?” a very useful one as I tried to flesh out the female characters to match the men.
Maybe my own sense of stasis had even infected my female characters too much. It was my literary agent (younger than myself and living in New York City, rather than a cornfield town in Illinois where I wrote much of the novel) who started making suggestions that animated the women. “What if she just slaps him?” she wrote after reading one scene. And what if? I thought. That would be kinda fun, wouldn’t it? To be honest, I wanted to smack the guy myself. So I let his frustrated wife slap him, and found the scene I’d wanted had been sitting there the whole time.
I couldn’t wholly liberate my 1950s military wives, and I think they would’ve panicked if I tried. But amplifying where they chafed against their constraints in 1959 — and paying attention to places where they might have felt satisfied and perfectly at home — made me imagine what they might have been like if they lived today, with the freedom to choose whether they worked on a reactor floor or raised children in a split-level, whether they always stayed home or whether they came and went.