Jeremy L. C. Jones
When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, I pitched a fit over my Halloween costume. I wanted to be a hobo* and there was something about the way the overalls fit that just wasn’t right.** I don’t remember the exact problem, but I do remember totally melting down—tears, screaming and yelling, finger pointing, the whole bit.
My mother came up with a last minute solution.
“It’s perfect!” she said. “Just perfect.”
She dressed me up as a girl.
Mom had given birth to two sons, but she always wanted a daughter. She used to tell me often enough how she’d “carried me like a girl” when she was pregnant. My name would’ve been Meredith.
Minutes before we headed off to school, Mom put me in a slate blue suede skirt, a puffy white blouse, and heels. I’ve blocked out the color of the heels. All I know is they were high and they clunked loudly everywhere I walked. There was a faux pearl necklace, and my long blonde hair was pulled up in pigtails.
School was a nightmare. Lots of jeering and teasing in home room, and it only got worse when we marched through all the classrooms in the costume parade.
I figured maybe I’d get to take my costume off at lunch time, but, no, we had to keep them on until after the assembly during which they’d announce the winners of the all-school costume contest.
In retrospect, I can see it coming, but back then it caught me as a total surprise. Up I went onto the stage. In front of the whole school. Even the high-schoolers were there.
In my mind’s eye, I can watch myself from the audience: chubby, shy, well dressed, and kind of cute. At the time I was totally and utterly traumatized. The word terror comes to mind.
This all happened at the tail-end of the 70s and it took until the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 before I ever felt comfortable wearing clothes – any clothes, boys’ or girls’ – again. From then on, it was khaki pants, plain button down shirts, and brown leather shoes. Simple, rugged, manly clothes.
Still haunted by my first and only intentional experience wearing women’s clothing***, I was both delighted and a little startled to meet fiction writer Danny Pelletier who once… well, I’ll let him tell you about that below.
Pelletier attended the Goddard College MFA program and he now teaches at Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Pear Noir!, Quarterly West, Monkeybicycle, and Night Train.
One of my earliest memories is begging my sister to dress me up like a girl. I’ve always had a fascination with the female mind and body, something I eventually confused with sexual desire, since I spent my years in college desperately trying to get any warm body under my covers. But by my senior year, with Mrs. Dalloway sitting dog-eared on my bookshelf, I realized I was more interested in what it means and how it feels to be female.
I’d been writing female characters, and been thoroughly ego-stroked about how well I did so, as early as junior high. Classmates attributed this to my complete disregard for sports, my love of poetry, and my desperate need to succeed academically. But these are all stereotypes.
I spent two years at Goddard trying to put my fascination to good use. About my thesis, my advisor wrote, “That a male has written so thoughtfully and accurately about female experience and the female body is nothing short of amazing.” My second reader wrote that it was “an intense exploration of what it is to be female, nuanced and balanced and astonishing from a young male writer.”
Out of idle curiosity, I once pasted a few excerpts into an online gadget that claimed it could identify a writer’s sex by using some sort of algorithm. Two out of three times I was female. The catch? The two “female” excerpts had male narrators. And the “male” excerpt was a story with a female narrator that I labored over for years.
So my two years in grad school were both my best and worst experience writing the Other. Though I enjoyed my experience at Goddard, immersing myself in the female psyche, I can’t help but wonder if I really explored what it means to be female. My main character, Margaux, had a complete disregard for sports, loved poetry, and had a desperate need to succeed academically. Sound familiar?
Both of the excerpts the online program listed as female were stories about men coming to terms with female sexuality. And though I’ve been praised for writing women so well, I’ve yet to publish any story about what it means to be female. My only honest explorations have been male characters with the same desire as me to blur the gender lines. No, I don’t mean begging, like my four-year-old self, to be decked out in a dress and high heels, but to look beyond clothes and body and skin. Maybe the real question I should ask myself and my characters is what it means to be human.
Jeremy L. C. Jones
My experience being dressed up like a girl and winning the Halloween costume contest doesn’t have a whole lot to do with writing. Or it didn’t really at the time. Back then, I was deeply engaged in writing a series of space stories about flying fruit and ray guns. My astral lemons and oranges were all male.
Over the years, though, I have struggled with writing female characters.
I grew up in a mostly male house, lived on a mostly male street, played male sports and games, and had very few female friends until later in life.
Yet, today, I live in a house with two women, my wife and daughter. One of the greatest joys of my life is being there as my daughter grows up. It’s like getting to re-live a childhood, this time seeing the world through the eyes of a girl.
When we’d found out my wife was pregnant, I just knew our child was a girl. Just knew it. I was beside myself with joy. I so wanted a daughter, and we were going to have one. Perfect!
But I was a little nervous, too.
“I don’t know how to raise a girl,” I said to my wife.
“Don’t raise a girl,” she said. “Raise a person.”
Something clicked–as a writer, as a father, as a person.
No longer would I try to write female characters. I would write people.
Post-Goddard, my writing has evolved from exploring gender to exploring gender roles. One of my characters, a tomboy who loves basketball, gets pregnant and must confront female gender roles head-on. In the first draft of my thesis, her abortion leaves her ruined. I even publicly read a god-awful story I’d penned about her angrily trying to come to terms with her decision.
I knew this was the wrong reaction when I read Lauren B.’s essay “Roe vs. Wade vs. My Boyfriend”, in which she writes about her abortion being “no big deal”.
“My abortion had basically been the uterine equivalent of minor knee surgery,” she writes, “annoying and a bit painful, but not soul-destroying or existentially angsty.”
I felt as if I were reading the words of my character, as if she had taken life outside of me—as all good characters eventually do. And I knew I’d been cheating myself, writing toward some clichéd idea of female hysteria.
The last lines of the god-awful story are, “We killed our baby.” But my character, I knew, was adamantly pro-choice. I’d seen a video online once of a punk-fab looking girl confronting a pro-life protester, explaining that he didn’t know what it was like to have to make that kind of decision. She was visibly upset about his protesting and perhaps regretful about her decision, but she was confident about having made the right choice.
Again, I felt as if I were watching my character speak for herself.
Although the god-awful story remained in my second draft, I’d done some damage control elsewhere, making her a more confident, self-assured character in the story I eventually published in Quarterly West and in a revised first chapter, in which both she and Margaux became more fully developed characters.
But all this is necessary. Writing badly is an important part of the process. We must first misjudge ourselves and our characters before we can truly know one another as people. Your characters will misread you and you’ll miswrite them, just as two people who have known one another for a long time squabble over petty misunderstandings.
In other words, the arguments make the marriage work.
By revising “What I Should Have Done” for publication, I learned a lot about keeping part of my characters in shadow. You can’t let all of your characters wear their emotions on their sleeves. I think now of my characters as a crescent moon—reflecting certain societal expectations, like gender roles, and keeping most of themselves hidden. When writing badly, we tend to focus on the crescent, since that is the brightest part, but the shadow is what’s important.
Jeremy L. C. Jones
When my mother was a little girl, she stuffed half a dozen kittens into a cigar box. By opening and depressing the lid, rhythmically, she made a sort of squeeze box. When I first heard about her making music with a box full of kittens, I thought it all sounded like something a boy would do – not a girl.
Around the same time, my aunt carried a mushroom-shaped bullet around in a sock. It was the slug from a stray rifle shot that almost killed my grandfather. Carrying that thing around seemed like something I would do.
I combined these two oddities in a short story and I learned that girls aren’t just girls, they’re people, too.
My six-year-old daughter, Molly, has a stuffed animal named Bug Eyed Monkey with a Shirt On. He has big eyes and wears a leopard print shirt with a pink collar. He also wears an expression that suggests he just did his monkey business on the carpet.
A while back, I called Bug Eye a girl. It was a simple slip, an inadvertent use of the feminine pronoun. Maybe it had something to do with the leopard print and pink collar.
“Daddy,” Molly said, with equal emphasis on each syllable. “Bug Eye is a boy monkey. He just likes girl things.”
Molly takes make believe very seriously. She immerses herself into scenarios of her own creation with astounding intensity. She will sing, dance, and narrate as she goes. I call it Extreme Pretend and I admire the heck out of it. I hope she never forgets how to access her imagination so fully.
Since Molly was born, I have learned a lot of very important lessons about writing, but none of them teaches me as much as Molly’s ability to dive headfirst into her imaginings—to all-but-become someone other than herself, to stretch the boundaries of possibility well beyond their limits.
Writing has to be more than merely dressing up like a girl or acting like a fictional character. The writer must believe in characters as individuals.
Writing can put us in our mother’s heels or our sister’s dress, can bring an inanimate monkey to life, but it must also must make us all feel that the person in that dress is real.
We can never completely know each other. There is a limit. If we could know what it was to be another person, know what another really felt and thought – if we could actually see through the eyes of another, we wouldn’t need art so desperately.
Art thins the veil between us. It cannot remove the barrier between us fully, but it is the closest we can get. We will always need each other, you and I, to satisfy our desire for connection through conversation, love, and art.
*I was and still am a big Woody Guthrie fan. And I still like hobos. However, my daughter tells me that my wife likes hobos better than I do, because she bought a hobo a hamburger once.
**The problem, according to my mom, was that I wanted to wear my t-shirt over the bib of the overalls. Stretched tight by the pillow I was wearing to form a hobo belly, the buttons on the overalls made “nipples” on my chest and under the shirt and I thought it made me look too much “like a girl.” Maybe this is what gave mom the idea?
***I have nothing against cross-dressing. It’s just not my style. Not that I really have a style.