Why I Write What I Write

I’m a straight, married man, and I write, among other things, lesbian romance novels. I feel like this requires some explanation.

I’ve always been drawn more to women and their stories and life experience than to men, even outside the complication of physical and romantic attraction. I don’t know why this is; it’s just wired into who I am. Always has been.

I grew up like a typical boy, with mostly boys as friends. Societal pressure, my interest in math and science (stereotyped as male pursuits), and activities like the Boy Scouts saw to that. Still, I preferred the company of girls to boys in just about any context.

My favorite playmates in the first grade, before any of that societal pressure, were girls. In high school, as soon as I was allowed off campus for lunch, I joined a group of six girls for cheap takeout at Chop ‘N Wok, and I learned to use chopsticks when they made it clear I wouldn’t eat otherwise. Among my fellow engineering students in college, my best friend was female, and outside classes my social circle was mostly made up of women from my girlfriend’s dorm. My career choice – software engineering – skews overwhelmingly male, and it’s actually gotten worse since I graduated from college, but even there I’ve had the privilege of working with some fabulously smart women.

It’s not that I don’t value male friendship – many of my best friends are dudes. It’s just that in any group, a disproportionate number of the friends and colleagues I value and remember are female.

In my reading, too, I seek out women’s voices. I mostly read science fiction and fantasy as a kid, where women and girls have historically been poorly represented, but I still found female characters I loved. Perhaps my strongest personal connection with a fictional character was with Menolly of Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall books. Though my life was nothing like hers, I immediately understood the shy, exceptional girl who ran away from the limits of her small, closed-in life. That she was a girl didn’t make it any harder for me to relate to her struggles and her successes. In retrospect, it might have even made it easier for me.

When I read, and particularly when I write, I get to be somebody else for a while. I get to step into somebody else’s shoes. Whether those shoes are sneakers, heels, or combat boots, the foot that goes into them is female more often than not.

So that’s why I read and write female characters. Why lesbians? The simple answer is that the part of women’s life experience I find it hardest to relate to is romantic interest in men. As we’ve already established, I generally find women more interesting than men, and I’m not attracted to men at all. I perfectly happy for people, male or female, who are attracted to men; I just don’t get the appeal. Falling in love with a woman, on the other hand, is something I understand.

There’s more to it, though. Women, especially straight women, have limits in both narrative and real life that men do not.

When a woman settles down with a man, his needs expand to fill up the available space in the relationship, only leaving room for hers to squeeze in around the edges. This happens even in modern, enlightened couples – they may strive for equality in the big things, but unconscious biases inevitably sneak into the million little things that make up a marriage. It happens all the time in my own marriage (to that high school lunch pal and college girlfriend), no matter how I try to fight it. We simply don’t have the mental capacity to think through every action, every situation, so we fall back on routine, and routine is reflective of a society that undervalues women even in this age of supposed equality. There are exceptions, of course – stay-at-home dads, mothers with high-powered careers – but they’re depressingly rare. Rarer, I would guess, than women who identify as something other than completely straight.

Lesbian relationships completely upend this dynamic. They start on even ground. Differences in age, income, class, ethnicity, religion, and all sorts of other things may unbalance a relationship between two women, but the big hammer is completely absent. A lesbian is never the lesser partner just because she is a woman. Lesbians do face all sorts of other hardships, including appalling discrimination and hate, but in this one way they retain a kind of agency in their lives and relationships that straight women rarely do, even today. I find that inspiring.

More than anything else, though, lesbian stories just make sense to me, deep down in that part of me beyond thought. I saw Stop! Kiss! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival back in 2000, and to this day I still remember it as the most beautiful love story I’ve ever seen on stage, screen, or page. I read Nicola Griffith’s The Blue Place two years ago, and it affected me more powerfully than any story I’ve ever encountered. A rare few stories have brought me to tears; The Blue Place knifed me in the gut and left me for dead.

So when I write, most of my protagonists are women, and many of them are genderqueer. I am aware that a straight man – top of the privilege ladder – writing about people who are neither of those things may make people uncomfortable or cause offense. Both the potential for offense and the writing itself make me a little uncomfortable as well, but not enough to stop.

I do the best I can to write with respect for all the cultures and social groupings – women or men; queer or straight; Asian or white or black or Hispanic; rich or poor; able-bodied or not; programmer or artist or doctor or Wizard of the Guild; etc. – from which I draw characters. I hope the results speak for themselves.

Thanks for reading.

This entry was posted in Writing.

4 comments on “Why I Write What I Write

  1. Beautifully put. I loved ‘The Blue Place’, too…

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    • RE Andeen says:

      Thanks for your comment. Writing is an exercise in throwing your words into the void and hoping they will mean something to somebody. It’s good to know they were received.

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  2. Fran says:

    Still… I wonder how many of your readers know that you are male? It may be clear where you write as RE Andeen, but it certainly isn’t where you’re Salish. Was that a conscious decision, to leave your gender blank?

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  3. RE Andeen says:

    When I posted my writing as Salish, I wanted to minimize the personal information I put out there. I filled in Seattle for a location, because obviously, but left the rest as the default.

    I write under RE Andeen because I want the work to speak for itself. Anyone reading it can find out I’m a man with minimal effort, if they care about such things, but I don’t want to lead with that information. The value of the story comes from the text and the reaction it provokes, not from anything having to do with me.

    I realize that doesn’t really agree with the current fashion in art, which says that the creator’s life experience is inextricably bound up with the work, but I don’t really buy into that notion.

    I do see the value in the Own Voices movement. We all benefit when marginalized voices are amplified, and a member of a marginalized group will generally write an account of the experiences of that group that is both more truthful and more meaningful than somebody looking in from the outside. And the further outside our regular experience, the more valuable the authenticity of the voice.

    But I reject the corollary to the idea of Own Voices that some insist on – work that is not created with an Own Voice is necessarily worth less, even morally wrong, because the creator has no business writing from his privileged perspective for a group to which he does not belong.

    To me, the purpose of art, and especially written fiction, is to allow the reader to explore what it means to be human in the (mostly) risk-free space of the page, constrained only by the writer’s imagination. The value of a work lies in how well it does that.

    Part of my motivation is self-interested, because if I could only write about straight white men, I wouldn’t have much to write about. Out of the dozen or more pieces I’ve written, only two have protagonists who fit that description, and only three have male protagonists of any sort. But I also believe that by telling any artist that a topic is forbidden to them, we diminish the value of art for everyone.

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