Who would have thought...
First semesters at any level of education, are hotbeds of new experiences whether you’ve been in school for years or are just starting out. My first semester in grad school was eye-opening on several levels. Learning grammar skills I most surely missed in my previous years of schooling; being exposed to writers with whom I'd had a nodding acquaintance with over the years reminded me of why I'd fallen in love with the written word in the first place. These were the lessons I needed to learn, the experiences I needed to have.
That first year included a class called Readings for Writers – Chick Lit. I took the class strictly to satisfy my credit requirements as “chick lit” was my least favorite genre of writing. My opinion was based on crappy romance novels I’d come across during junior high school and the rise in popularity of the “chick flick” – movies based on “sappy” novels about women who in the end, always ended up with Prince Charming.
Side Note: this is during the way back times when the patriarchy still had a vice grip on all the things, especially how women were allowed to show up in film, print, and such. While we're still in the chokehold, I can say things have improved greatly in the last 10 years.
Bookstores everywhere were chock full of shelves and shelves of “what every woman should be reading at the beach this year.” I would walk past the displays casting disparaging glances at the smartly, oh-so-fashionably jacketed books. I hated the colors, the jaunty font of the titles. I felt as if these books were mocking my relatively drama-free, tom-boy lifestyle. The books' synopses promised tales of women with fabulous clothes, living ultra-fabulous lives, and making fabulous money. Gag. But there I was in class, coming face-to-face with my nemesis.
I’d begrudgingly watched (and secretly enjoyed) Bridget Jones’ Diary, Two Weeks Notice and 27 Dresses (Chick-Lit on film). But my literary life otherwise was a never-ending stream of nightmares, from vampires to werewolves, ghosts, goblins, and the supernatural. I had read Poe, Lovecraft, Matheson, and King; watched almost everything Hitchcock ever produced and just about everything that Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney had stared in. So, imagine my surprise when I’m combing through the many unfinished manuscripts I had on my hard drive for a piece to use in the class workshop, and I come across a novella I had written back in 2005. It was all about a woman in her mid 30’s, struggling with life after a divorce, all the while learning to love herself, and of course, ending up with the true love of her life. There wasn’t a vampire or zombie in the whole story. Yes, I had unconsciously written a very classic Chick-Lit-esque story.
How did this happen I wondered as I continued to learn more about the genre in class. The answer was revealed in See Jane Write: A Guide to Writing Chick Lit by authors Sarah Mylnowski and Farrin Jacobs.
The very first pages of the book spoke directly to me:
“Contrary to popular belief, chick lit is not all about shoes. Or clothes. Or purses. Yes, some chick lit characters enjoy their fashion collections, but if an interest in designer names is what made you pick up this book, maybe you should grab Vogue instead. Chick lit is also not all about getting a guy. Love may be a happy diversion, or a painful pothole, but the chick lit story is about the main character’s road to self-discovery.”
After reading that simple paragraph, I began to pay closer attention to the works of fiction we were reading in the class, and I finally realized why Chick-Lit and I hadn’t gotten along. It wasn’t as if the stories were constantly shooting me dirty looks across the room or even snubbing me with a, “I’m better than you” attitude. The problem had been that my experience with earlier books in the genre had been limited to the fluffy stories that the mainstream (*cough* patriarchy) had thrust into the limelight. Those books struck me the same way as the majority of princess-based Disney films had; you know the ones in which the “happily ever after” fantasy was being forced down girls’ (be they ten years old or older) throats. The idea that some heroic dude was going to ride up on the fabled white stallion and whisk the heroine away from the bad things in her life – the evil boss and rotten job or her extremely dysfunctional family, or just being fat and unhappy – was way more *cough - bullshit* than I could stand.
The reading list and class discussions were so varied that I had no choice but to see the deeper connections and ideas Chick-Lit produced. The saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover” was never more applicable. In some of the stories we were reading for class, the heroine was unhappy with some aspect of herself and or her lifestyle, had an “a-ha” moment, then went on to happiness with or without Mr. Right. And then there were some in which the idea of a “happily ever after” was a question, not a definite ending. *Spoiler alert* Heartburn by Nora Ephron ends with the heroine snuggling up to her cheatin’ husband, not quite happy, but at least coming to a point of acceptance. An ending far from what I had come to associate with the genre.
Ultimately, this class solidified the style of novelist I was. I found ways to deviate from the rigid “romance” format I had come to find so constricting. I could still produce quality stories about strong female leads. My characters didn’t have to shop, be fashionable, have shoe addictions, and spend their every waking moment looking for Mr. Right. My characters could tote guns, chase monsters, and stumble upon Mr. "Can Keep Up and Not Get Himself Killed” because, in their worlds, it’s do or die and everybody needs saving once in a while regardless of their gender identity. My characters could want companionship, not saviors, and decide not to give up the lifestyles they enjoyed for love or to have children. They could do all these things and still find their happy endings because ultimately, I decide what stories I want to write. And what I want to write are stories about women finding and falling in love with themselves. And who wouldn’t want to read about that?
How are you enjoying it so far? Leave a comment below, and let me know what you think. See you back here next week!