On Writing Like a ManBooks, Essays, Social Justice — By Matt Miles on April 25, 2012 at 10:37 am
It wasn’t until college that I learned men don’t have empathy. I had just switched majors from pastoral studies to missions, and looked forward to a reading lineup that included an anthropology book on culture. Before we’d start, however,the man who was our teacher and the head of the missions department wanted to survey the spiritual gifts of our small class. I believe he called on me first, and being Johnny on the Spot, I blurted out, “Empathy, I guess.” I said this not because I thought I had it, but because the people I most admired did, and I thought it to be a noble pursuit.
His response with a slight smile was “You might want to do a word search on that.” In subsequent classes he would inform us that some gifts were limited to one gender. “For example, only women can have the gift of empathy.” That explained a lot. About him, anyway.
I thought about this before I read this amusing post by regular Burnside contributor Larry Shallenberger. I know Katelyn Beaty is right, and that there is a damn good reason for the Red Bud Writer’s Guild and other groups like it. I also get, as a male, why it’s so easy to miss how male-dominated any kind of publishing is. We’ve been told empathy, and its most effective gateways including reading, listening and writing (at least writing well) are all effeminate, unless you’re writing about politics, sports or theology. Forget the fact that many of my favorite writers–David Foster Wallace, Craig Thompson, Doestoevsky, and Sherwood Anderson, to name a few–are so because of their ability to capture the thoughts and feelings of those outside their immediate world. Even C.S. Lewis’ greatest work, Till We Have Faces, had female lead characters. But this teacher of mine didn’t exist in a vacuum, so many of us soaked in this shit longer than we should have. As a result, sometimes we tend to stink a bit, not because we lack empathy, but because we were told we should. Ladies, please be patient with us. (“Us” meaning “me,” really.)
I’m amazed at the emergence of new voices with stories to tell, and upon reading works such as Junia is Not Alone, I’m thankful many sharing their stories are female writers. I hope this surge of new opportunities for voices to be heard means one of empathy in the world of authors who are Christians. I also hope it means we’ll ditch unnecessary and toxic conversations about who deserves to feel what and start reading, then sharing, each other’s stories.
That being said, I hope writer’s guilds like the one mentioned above are the means not the end. I hope there will come a time when more men read, and not only books by authors like them, but also others who are different. My favorite classes were the ones about comparative religion, and surprisingly enough, none of them made it into a competition where Christianity wins out, complete with muscle flex. I wish new authors well from different backgrounds, and I wish for more readers to emerge alongside them. I wish to see conservative readers sharing articles about the downside of Chuck Coleson’s ties to the Moral Majority, and progressives to share about his work in prison ministry. There are trickles in our insular dams, here and there; I’m hoping for a flood. I’m hoping we all lose track of what it means to write like a man or a woman, and just write honest human stories beyond our own. It’s a long shot, but if men can have empathy, anything’s possible.