From time to time, I write a under a male pen name. I cannot tell you what the name is nor will I disclose what I've written, but it's been used across poetry, essays, and stories. Nobody--including my family--knows this about me, but I am telling you now. The editors of accepted pieces don't know who I really am, and it will stay that way. The male persona of me was born over four years ago, but he's older and privileged and very confident, and he really doesn't give a fuck what you may think of his work.
I'm curious about men. That's why I created him. I do want to know what it's like to inhabit that kind of body, those parts. The depth of those vocal chords. Hands that are bigger than my own. What awkwardness and rage feels like to man. Does he cry the way I cry. Is his desperation similarly drawing down the heart. I want to know what it's like to be a man the same way I want to know what it's like to be rich, or black, or a child again. All my life I've obsessed over the Other, but only inhabited Otherness late at night in dreams. I wake up in a house full of women.
Have you ever heard of "impostor syndrome?" It's kind of ridiculous but true.
For a long time I had trouble accepting any kind of writing success. In this world where people bullhorn the noticeable decline of the publishing industry, the sheep's wool of slush piles, the funny and stark NY Editor confession blogs, the awards passed from old rich male hand to another...well, rightfully I convinced myself that each acceptance I got was a matter of luck and timing only, having nothing to do with talent or reader appreciation.
So this also started as a kind of test to see if I could publish more using a guy's name.
Under this male pen name I wrote with absolutely no fucks to give. It wasn't liberation in content nor was it an excuse to my characters to express any kind of misogyny (several of my Catherine Campbell stories have simply bad people). No, it wasn't the interest in pushing content boundaries so much as it was the approach to writing itself. "To hell with people and circumstance, I deserve this time to write," he would say. And he would do it, and he'd send out work while brushing his shoulders off. He also wrote terrible work that will never see the light of day. He really did write some awful shit. But he doesn't dwell on it. He doesn't check his privilege. He never second-guesses his profession or success.
My male pen name morphed from a girl's curiosity to a writer's gender experiment to a fount of different energy that also happened to exist in the calm hurricane eye of a major social problem.
One day, about a year after creating this male pen name, an idea for a novel hit me. The main character happened to be a guy, an older gentleman, and the first draft was coming through in 1st person point of view and the voice was distinctly the voice of my male persona. After finishing that draft, however, I realized that the main character and my internal male weren't the same. No, they were not the same at all. What? Suddenly men were no longer lumped into one large mystery. It was the first big break in my writing where I allowed myself to write from a male viewpoint as Catherine. I also took my male pen name off the manuscript, started writing subsequent drafts in close third person while looking over this new man's shoulder. He was poor like me. He was lost. He had motivations I didn't understand. I learned to love him and see where he lead me through the book and how much he'd take when I threw hard choices at him. I journaled a lot about the process during these drafts, too. I put my own name on it, published an excerpt. Wrote another draft. The more I write male characters while being myself, the more comfortable I am exploring and inhabiting the Otherness and not apologizing for it.
There is a number of women who write phenomenal stories and novels with male protagonists. Flynn, Waldman, Tartt, Hinton, Homes, McCullers, Byatt, Rowling, Lowry...the list is long, people. Continually revisiting their footsteps helps me forge my own path and be okay taking risks as a female writer, especially if I'm playing with the architecture of a work (as architecture is traditionally a man's field, another hurdle).
Do I still have trouble accepting my writing strengths and successes as my own? Yes, but it's getting better. As writers across the board we're socially encouraged to be humble. Keep your head down, do the work. But as female artists' issues and the VIDA count and various scandals are spotlighted more brightly each year, there is this community building--a large community made up of men and women who encourage women to submit more, publish more, take more chances, be themselves. Meanwhile, we also urge editors to reexamine their own (recognized or not) personal gender bias. This community will not back down. More doors will open for us, doors which have been shut for far too long. Impostor syndrome will dissipate.
Sometimes I feel truly split inside myself, and I'm ashamed about that. After getting some distance from a draft, I can see exactly where my voice ends and where his enters. Then the whole piece rings false. "Go away," I tell him. My bookshelves are 80% male authors. Sometimes I want to shout, fuck Mailer! Fuck Pynchon! Fuck Roth and Ellis and Franzen and Knausgaard and Banville and Russo!
The male pen name is my main confidence. A name. Nothing like the men in my real life. It's because he has nothing to lose. He has nothing he has worked so hard to attain. He doesn't have marriage, divorce, children, family, regret, love. But what kind of legacy is only paper.
Will I stop writing under that name? This/that. Soon. We'll part amicably, he'll go to rest in the back of my brain. He's not typing this.
My own work was pretty good earlier today and may be laughably bad tomorrow. But I still go up to the edge of the cliff. I just can no longer convince myself that looking over the edge is the same as the bird flying.