My very first university level English class was taught by a visiting professor from New York City. I think he was a published poet but I don’t remember for sure. He had a passion for Raymond Chandler and loved to sit in the front of the class with his feet up on his desk and talk about the books and the movies. Philip Marlowe seemed to be a personal friend.
I was bored. I had just discovered Kurt Vonnegut and had no interest in neo-noir or poetry. What I learned from him was that Montana was as far from the reality of New York City as any two states of existence could ever get. No one from a city ever went outside on a cold, clear winter night just to look up and see the sky ablaze with stars, stars so bright the snow reflected back the light, or listen to the train whistles piercing the silence from ten miles away. City people have never looked off into the distance and been able to perceive the curve of the earth by what disappeared below the horizon. (Gah, I sound like Roy Batty from Blade Runner. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe….)
This professor told us a story about how he learned that Montana was a place like nothing he had ever experienced before. A girl in his creative writing class turned in a story. The assignment had been write to something but make it based on your own life experiences. The old write-what-you-know adage. This particular girl wrote about living on a ranch and doing what all ranch kids do – roping, branding, riding, hunting, haying, butchering your own meat, teaching your quarter horse Indian-pony tricks, etc. He gave her an “F”. (He was one big-hat-with-a-feather away from being the teacher in “A Christmas Story”. I can just imagine him writing the “F” with a great flourish while saying You will shoot your eye out!)
Of course she protested the grade.
“I didn’t ask for fantasy,” he told her. “Girls do not do this stuff.”
She corrected him in no uncertain terms. Montana women did this and much more.
I only remembered this incident recently when I was asked why I write what I write.
In a word – frustration.
When I was little I used to lay in bed at night and re-imagine the stories I just saw on TV with better endings, better characters, better dialogue. I wanted girl characters to be like the woman I saw around me, smart, fierce, and unafraid to get their hands bloody.
I didn’t understand the term shrinking violet. Being timid could get you killed and frail things die in the long, dark Montana winters.
I was a reader. I read everything. Women in literature are, as a rule, sad, pathetic, frail, and helpless creatures. Shakespeare couldn’t write a powerful female character to save himself. Ophelia was a neurotic whiner. Bianca was a cardboard cutout. Gertrude, hapless and helpless, let her own son die because she was not shrewd enough to make sure all the men in her life were alive at the end of every day. Don’t get me started on Juliet.
In those days sci-fi, in general, was a vast wasteland of male adolescent angst. Most books had no important female characters at all. Frank Herbert’s Dune was an exception, not the norm. Vonnegut’s female characters were all the punchlines in his jokes. There are really good female sci-fi authors but their most “popular” works had male protagonists. When they wrote a powerful female lead, half the time the book was labeled Fantasy because when women write about the deep, dark, watery realm of the female psyche they ofttimes give it a mystical, magical form. In girl fiction, a cigar is never just a cigar. That is why girls love dragons, cats, and unicorns. The lack of female characters or poorly written female characters drove me into writing my own.
I have a theory that the words meant to describe the real events in a girls formative years were gradually purged from our collective consciousness over the course of ten thousand years. Or perhaps they were never invented. But with the daily discoveries of modern science, we now have the words. Magic is just the ability to perceive the universe on a quantum level and like quantum particles, one cannot describe it without altering its nature. Tell me about string theory and the pan-dimensional universe and I will explain to you why your wife always knows where you left your car keys.
“You cannot describe the human psyche using the terminology of quantum mechanics,” the psychology professors yelled.
“Well, therein lies your problem,” I replied.
After all. I am from Montana. I have seen shit you guys will never understand.