Creative Ladies' Rules for Writing
By Nikki Miller
Writing rule #1: Begin with a quote.
Fie, fie! unknit that threat'ning unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes...
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey...
Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
- Katherina, former Shrew, delivering her monologue upon being tamed by Petruchio, in the 1590 comedy The Taming of the Shrew.
Writing rule #2: If you are a thoughtful, intelligent woman, 2a. don't ever begin with a quote, especially one written in iambic pentameter (as PRETty AS it SOUNDS when READ aLOUD), and 2b. realize that Katherina is not a real person, but a character dreamt up by a man in 1590. As satire? As portrait of the idealized woman? Who knows Shakespeare's intentions, but whatever they were, that woman stinks; don't be her. Don't be afraid to voice your opinions, however benign or controversial they may be. And get them down in writing for the public to take in, carefully consider, to be moved by, revolt against. Then say some more.
You open yourself for criticism when you're bold enough to share your thoughts in writing or conversation, but it seems the harshest criticisms are reserved for women. Take a little trip down memory lane with me, won't you? (Writing rules #3 and 4: Engage your readers through use of personal narrative. Engage them then by addressing them directly; furthermore titillate their literary sensibilities by launching into second-person narrative.)
You are a twelve-year-old girl. You and your friends are pulled aside one day and sent to a location halfway across town, away from the boys. Your teachers are preparing you for your lives after elementary school. Are they teaching you about menstruation? About the importance of washing while on your period? Instructions like "Don't flush your sanitary napkin down the toilet, don't wear white pants, and DON'T be SCARED you'll SPROUT some HAIR down THERE?"
No; that was all covered the year before, and among a much larger group of girls. So why are you being segregated?
On this day, you're joined by a small contingent of young women - the female students of your school's gifted education program - to be taught two lessons which will stick with you in the decades to follow:
1. You are a smart young woman. As such, you will on occasion be viewed as a threat to men (and to other women).
2. You're just gonna have to deal with that, honey, unless you wanna become someone's humdrum housewife. And that would be such a waste - you did so well on your achievement tests this year!
These were well-intentioned adults. They didn't mean to scare us into submission, scare us into secondary school careers as head-nodding, agreeable cheerleaders, rah-rahing in support of the boys. Rather, they were offering us our first fist raise, our first challenge to buck the system, and a caution of rough waters ahead.
Fast forward eighteen years. Last summer in the Wisconsin Dells, I saw something that made me worry for my hypothetical past self, as well as for myself in a hypothetical future. On a side street, down the block from a tiny wedding chapel, I found myself face-to-face with a horrifying device in a museum dedicated to the history of torture.
This thing - it wasn't the rack, and it wasn't the iron maiden, two contraptions that come to mind when one imagines torture. The thing that took my breath away was an instrument used during medieval times on women who said things considered disagreeable by men. You've done this, of course; if you tend to have strong opinions, as most intelligent people do, you probably don't think twice about sharing them. But learning that history had given us a device designed to shut women up brought on that gurgly, nervous feeling in my bowels.
I soon discovered I wouldn't be introduced to just one anomaly of a torture device; down the hall from contraptions meant to stretch and crush and slice and dice were a whole series of devices intended not to kill their bearers, but to intimidate and humiliate them. These "friendlier" devices were the kinds intended for use on women accused of lesser crimes than witchcraft, adultery, or having been impregnated by the seed of the Devil.
For lesser offenses, such as gossiping, nagging or arguing with one's husband, women were submerged in water repeatedly by a device called the ducking stool. This punishment was popular for those convicted of being a common scold, the name assigned to a woman who was troublesome, angry, who broke the peace by quarreling (a crime only women could commit).
Others were forced to wear the branks or scold's bridle: an iron cage for the head, with a curb-plate, sometimes studded with painful spikes, pressed down upon the tongue to inflict pain or even pierce it if the woman attempted to speak. If two women were found quarreling, they might be placed in a dual shrew's fiddle. Imagine a piece of wood cut in the shape of two violins joined at the fingerboards, with two large holes cut on each side to fit around the bearers' necks, plus four smaller holes for the wrists, binding hands near one's face as if playing a fiddle and forcing the two bickering women to stand face-to-face in this awkward position until they'd settled their differences.
This is how our society, in its former incarnation, punished women who spoke up even on the most benign matters. And while we no longer dunk and bind as punishment, speaking up seems in more modern times not all that much less offensive.
I've been described by male friends, whom I've often engaged in vigorous conversations on topics as critical as "Best ZZ Top album," as being "too opinionated," though it seems they get free rein to pontificate all they want. Women who speak up, who put their intelligent thoughts and opinions on display, are more often described as a loudmouth than an intellectual.
And with good reason; the subjugation of another's voice is one of the most commonly (and easily) used tools of those in power, whether through the extermination of native tongues, lack of attention paid to the perspectives and stories of historically disempowered communities, or spending more time talking about a female candidate's choice of business suits than her political platform.
It's a damnable problem. It's a problem that can be named, that can be contextualized historically, and that continues today (even if not through the literal bridling of a woman's face). It's about oppression so deeply-rooted in our lives still today that even women and men who consider themselves feminists might be ashamed to occasionally find themselves more likely to call a woman than a man a "loudmouthed bitch." You've done that, right? I have. It's icky, but it happens.
And so, for the inaugural issue of C.L.A.P. where we have a collective of women putting forth their ideas, whether in writing or via other media, I say, "Fuck the Patriarchy!" No, that's breaking writing rule #5: don't employ overused or cliche statements. Instead, "Fuck Petruchio!" And now, writing rule #6: write a conclusion that ties up your story neatly, and brings you full-circle to your introduction.
PETRUCHIO: Why, there's a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate.
And thus was born one of the worst musicals of all time.
Nikki Miller, of Minneapolis, MN wears the following hats: Volunteer Wrangler, MFA Student, Freelance Writer and Photographer, City Pages and stuffedpheasant.blogspot.com