Ladies, It’s Sort of Our Fault when Male Writers are Alcoholics

Today we have a YouTube podcast by one of my favorite living writers, Andrew Klavan. Skip all the political stuff at the beginning (unless you need a laugh, cause Klavan is funny).  For this post, we are going straight to the Mailbag segment at the end of the show.

At 34:10, Klavan reads a question from a listener who says that he is writing a screenplay.  The writing process has required him to open up some bad memories of his own, which though it resulted in good writing, has been hard on him and has slowed his progress.  “How do you deal with this, Mr. Klavan?”

At 34:58, Klavan agrees that this is a problem.  “Writing can really rip you to pieces, especially if you are an unsteady personality.”  Later, he will end the segment by saying, “Especially if you’re a really good writer, you’re really gonna hurt yourself sometimes, and you have to take care of yourself and heal.”

So far so good, if so obvious.  This is something that all writers know, even if we try not to talk about it a lot because it makes us sound like overly fragile artiste types.  Still, it’s good to hear this confirmed by a professional who has written hard-boiled crime novels and screenplays and has even gotten paid for them.

But things are going to get wilder. Klavan starts elaborating on why writing can mess you up.  He mentions that if you write a villain, you have to tap in to that evil place in yourself.  Then, at 35:40, he adds, “When you create female characters, you have to go into feminine parts of yourself, which for men can be very upsetting.  I think that’s why a lot of male writers are alcoholics, because they don’t like to face that part of themselves because it makes them feel that they’re not manly.”

Whoa! Wait! Stop, Mr. Klavan. Back up. This is fascinating, and I have so many questions.

First of all, do you think that female writers have a corresponding problem? And if not, why not?

Secondly. Klavan has just said that writing female characters can be so depressing that it drives men to alcoholism. Wow. Now my question is, are they depressed just because they are dismayed to find they are capable of thinking in a feminine way? In other words, are they upset only by the implied insult to their manliness?  Or … is there something inherently upsetting and/or depressing about being a woman, and these male writers are experiencing that directly?  My money’s on the second one. I can see that it would be a lot to handle for them, poor lambs.  Being relatively unprepared for it and all.

In other words, it just more fun to be the average man than to be the average woman?

And I’m not blaming anyone for this. If there is some truth in it, I think it has a physical cause (female hormones).  Dennis Prager has said that if the average man could suddenly be given a woman’s brain for a day, he’d be totally overwhelmed by everything that’s going on in there.  Whereas if the average woman could be given a man’s brain, she would go, “This is terrific! I’m free!”

Anyway. If there is any truth in my theory, it would follow that it is less emotionally taxing for female writers to write male characters than the reverse.

Based on my limited experience, I think this is true. Perhaps it’s because, to a greater degree than men, women are already in the habit of putting ourselves in another person’s shoes.  We have been given a natural tendency to do this.  We need to do it, as mothers, so as to intuit the needs of our children, whether they are boys or girls. So, we get a head start on that being-depressed-by-other-people’s-emotions thing.

A couple of caveats.  No, I am not saying that women make better writers than men, nor that women are automatically good at creating male characters (there are plenty of counter-examples to that idea).  Just that women already tend to do, in our daily lives, a perhaps slightly less intense version of that part of the writing process that some male writers find so depressing.

What do you guys think of all this?

18 thoughts on “Ladies, It’s Sort of Our Fault when Male Writers are Alcoholics

  1. This is very interesting. I don’t doubt that many aspects of being a female are hard. What many modern females tend to forget is that being a human being is hard in general. So it is not coming up roses for men all the time. Maybe this is why they like to commit suicide so much.
    I’ve never tried to write a female character (that I can remember) because it is too hard to relate. I have a hard time relating with females who are close to me sometimes because they are so different.
    Men nowadays must navigate a minefield of what is okay to say about a woman or they could quickly be labelled as a misogynist.
    Maybe I don’t love my characters enough, but I’ve never found writing fiction mentally taxing. Writing about reality is a different story. It takes a toll.

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    1. Oh, sorry! Yes. I was definitely not meaning to imply that men do not suffer. In this fallen world, everyone suffers.

      I was purely comparing our mental and physical default settings, which I think are a little harder on women because of all the fluctuations and discomforts associated with being designed for childbearing.

      But talking about the default settings is only a tiny part of the picture. It doesn’t take into account all the other bad things that can and do happen to anyone in this world, including being demonized as in the current societal war on men.

      Also, men’s more consistent and robust design means they are the ones who are capable of doing very unpleasant yet necessary things that most women simply couldn’t manage, such as boot camp and combat. Thanks, guys!

      I can definitely relate about not being able to relate. I relate to my male MCs better than to, shall we say, certain men whom I might or might not have to live with. Of course, with a character, you can undo mistakes, unlike in a real relationship. That’s the nature of the beast.

      I read somewhere about something called the “sexual diamond” (not what it sounds like). Basically it means the sexes are most alike when they are very little. Then they get less and less alike as they get older. This peaks during the early 30s (childbearing years). Then, as they age, they have more and more in common again. They diverge, and then converge, creating a diamond shape. Something to think about.

      Maybe writing about reality is where your passion is. When I write fiction, I am actually writing about reality too. It’s hard to explain. But I don’t write books in modern settings precisely because it’s such a minefield and also I don’t think I’d be able to get the details right.

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      1. No need to apologize. I didn’t feel like you were saying men don’t suffer. That was directed at society as a whole.

        Your assessments above make sense. My folks have grown closer as they aged. I think part of that is being retired and not having to deal with the stresses of work and kids.

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  2. I haven’t had time to watch the video yet, but I don’t quite buy that argument as you describe it. Pretty sure men have just as much stuff going on in their hearts and minds as women, but some of it is a bit different stuff and we may process it differently.

    Now I haven’t completed writing any novel yet and I’ve only written a few short stories with female main characters, so I have a ways to go in immersing myself in that viewpoint creatively. My experience so far has been no more depressing than writing male characters with depressing things in their lives. And I doubt that will change. Writing any character deeply, whether male or female, eventually forces the author to deal with spiritual truths. That can certainly be stressful, especially when it causes you to look honestly into yourself, but I think those truths are universal. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my understanding so far.

    When I’ve read books about women and by women, I can sink into the character POV just as well as with male protagonists and authors, with no more or less emotional stress. Fiction (and my faith in Jesus Christ, really) teaches me to empathize. Fiction helps me feel what another person feels without having their problems leave the page and become my own. Sure, a story can affect me emotionally and stick with me, and become a part of me, but it’s effect has nothing to do with the protagonist’s sex; it’s their spiritual and emotional journey that affects me.

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    1. Thanks for your insights. There is too much here to respond to it all at this moment, but wanted to acknowledge the comment.

      With the Dennis Prager quote, the point was not that men are stupid or have no emotional depth, just that they tend to think of one thing at a time, whereas women tend to think of a bunch of things all at once, all the time. Men’s ability to focus is a really good thing. It allows y’all to dive deeply into a given subject and really become an expert on it. Also, some men, including perfectly intelligent ones, have the experience of sometimes not being thinking about anything in particular (an experience that I frankly can’t image). Of course, that’s a generalization. It might not apply to all of you, especially not to all male writerly types. 🙂

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      1. There are certainly differences between men and women generally. I know many times when my mind drifts off and isn’t pondering anything specifically, but is simply *being* in the moment. It’s a part of daydreaming where the mind hasn’t quite found its object yet. But other times my mind is definitely full of a bunch of different things and I have trouble focusing. Focused thought is a skill and I fear I need more strenuous practice at it. Distractions abound!

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      2. I once read this rather cheesy, oversimplified book called “Men are Waffles, Women are Spaghetti.” It asserted that men have an array of “boxes” in their minds and they prefer to have only one open at a time. OK, fine. Then it said, Some of the boxes are empty. What???

        I said to my husband, “Do you think that’s true?”

        And he said, “Well … it certainly matches my experience.”

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      3. Oh, and I was also reacting to the idea that women are at fault for some male writers becoming alcoholics because they’re so complex that men can’t handle writing them deeply. That not only is false from empirical evidence but just seemed insulting to both sexes! Not that I think you were making such an accusation! But no, ladies, it’s not your fault if some male author can’t handle his life or work and turns to the drink. He’s got other problems!

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      4. Haha, yes, the title was pure clickbait. Of course, even if a given male writer becomes depressed by the experience of writing female characters, that’s not women’s “fault” per se. It’s hard to sum up a complex concept in a catchy title.

        Of course there are many reasons writers become alcoholics – or alcoholics become writers – and this has been discussed a lot to the point that it has even become a cliche. I think Klavan would be aware of this too, since he himself has struggled with depression and, if I remember rightly, alcohol.

        I had just never heard that theory of a possible contributing factor advanced before, and I found it really surprising, but credible, coming from someone who is a very manly man, and a writer with chops, and has been depressed.

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    1. 😀 You got it. I just couldn’t believe Klavan set off that bomb.

      I’m not just making this stuff up, though. A while back I read an article which was pretty remarkable for reasons of its own, the thesis of which was basically “I have a right to transition to a woman even if it doesn’t make me happy.” The guy mentioned that he was taking estrogen, “Which is like a slow-release sadness drug.” I knew it!

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  3. Such an interesting post!

    For starters, I have to agree with the part about how “writing can really rip you to pieces” (great way to put it). This is especially true when it comes to writing from a villain’s perspective (or an anti hero, which is the same thing as I tend to do a lot). People say it’s traumatizing to kill your darlings, but the hardest thing is putting yourself in the darkest frame of mind and getting your characters to do something terrible (much like what Jordan Peterson says about mulling over the process of whether you could commit evil acts).

    Anyway, that’s a little aside from the topic of this post, i just find it interesting (even if it does make me seem like a fragile artiste type 😉 )

    I think I agree with your take- it makes sense- regardless of my experience writing characters (which is complicated) I cannot imagine feeling emotionally taxed by writing from a male perspective. I think it’s as you said- women spend so much time putting ourselves in other’s shoes (and perhaps thinking too much what men think anyway 😉 ) But I think Klavan’s got a really interesting starting point here- and I’d love to hear from more male author’s brave enough to explore it! (just springboarding off this, I think it may be why some men choose to write more masculine female characters?)

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    1. Wow, so much here. Glad it has started a discussion.

      I absolutely agree about the cost of facing the dark place in yourself and I don’t think it’s entirely off topic since Klavan mentions that as well. (And his protagonists are often people with very dark impulses who are undergoing a transformation.) I do think there’s a benefit in, how shall we say it, staring into the void, for both author and reader. (As long as it’s done well and not just as a justification for evil.) It’s not fun, but it does make us more cautious, mature, and humble.

      Secondly, I agree with you that this is a very complex topic and any statement about it is going to vary a lot with personality of author and reader and even within individuals depending on stage of life, etc. So I’m kind of scared to say much about it because almost anything I say is guaranteed to be wrong for someone. (Why did I post this, then, you ask? Because I love it!)

      I certainly get depressed on behalf of my male characters, but the fact that I can write them doesn’t scare me from the perspective of “am I not feminine enough?”. Again, perhaps because being able to identify with others doesn’t scare a woman as much? Another possible lesson is that the whole fear-of-not-being-manly thing is a much bigger deal than I realize or even, possibly, am able to imagine. So that might be a growth area in writing realistic male characters. Of course, we all know what it’s like to feel humiliated, disappointed with ourselves, or afraid of failure.

      Regarding tomboyish female characters: yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Not too long ago I had a discussion with David over on his site about how C.S. Lewis does a good job writing female characters, but all his best ones are rather tomboyish. We concluded that wasn’t surprising considering that Lewis wasn’t around women at all for most of his life. I have noticed this problem in other writers too (especially sci-fi for some reason?).

      But it also works the other way. Jean M. Auel’s male romantic lead, Jondalar, thinks and emotes like a woman IMO.

      Also, She’s Come Undone was written by a man and the POV character is an amazing, completely convincing woman. So, you know.

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      1. Ah I’m glad you didn’t mind me going off into one then 😉 that’s really interesting about Klavan’s characters- makes me want to read his books more! And I love that phrase “staring into the void”- I think it encompasses the idea- it’s about growth. And we can’t overcome evil if we don’t understand it.

        I do think it’s different for every writer/reader- but I think that’s part of what makes art more enjoyable (I get what you mean when you say “I’m kind of scared to say much about it because almost anything I say is guaranteed to be wrong for someone”- I think that’s very apt for explaining fear of writing anything really- but I think it’s so much more fun/rewarding to explore difficult topics!)

        Oh yes, I can relate to getting depressed on behalf of all my characters (especially because I’m the source of all their pain 😉) and I definitely get depressed about whether I’ve done a good enough job with them (which I’ll probably get back to in a second), but it doesn’t cause me any discomfort to write masculine traits. I cannot imagine getting depressed/thinking I’m not feminine enough. I think it’s definitely in part that identifying with men doesn’t scare women as much- I feel like it’s both a skill we have, but also learn to cultivate. I think you touch on an important point about the not being manly enough. And I guess, on the flipside, we praise women for being more masculine sometimes- so it’s perhaps not something we get insecure about? I was actually thinking earlier about how it’s a point of pride for a lot of women nowadays to be more masculine.

        Either way, I could definitely use that for writing better masculine characters (this conversation is giving me so many thoughts about not making my male characters as in touch with their feelings and definitely making them fear coming off as feminine more!). I will admit, while I don’t have a fear of writing male characters, I definitely lean more on writing feminine characters both for good and bad reasons (admittedly, it can be a crutch, but if I’m being more fair to myself, I’m also drawing on the fact it’s more common nowadays to find feminine men, plus the fact I prefer writing/exploring feminine traits and that 99% of my current batch of characters are villains 😉)

        Which brings me onto the fact it makes me feel *so much better* to know that writers as fantastic as Lewis fall into this trap (not that I should be letting myself off the hook, but I do think it’s an interesting compromise, because I’d see that as a success, since I still believe they’re girls, even if they come across as tomboys). I have noticed it a lot in sci fi (and a fair amount in fantasy). Personally, I don’t mind it all the time, cos I can find these characters believable (though sometimes it just comes across as a bloke in a dress), but it’s an interesting thing to note.

        And now you mention it, there are *a lot* of other female writers who do this- I just finished reading the second in the Queen’s Thief series and the main character *definitely* emotes like a girl. I think it’s interesting again that he falls into the more anti-hero role, which I think tends to disguise the fact that he has a lot of feminine traits/might be part of the reason why it works. The more I think about it, the more common I think this is. Chima Williams does this as well with all her male characters. And sooo many writers do it with their love interests/male characters (including all the current big names in YA fantasy like Maas, Bardugo, Schwab/Clare). The thing that’s interesting is in turn how much these then appeal to women.

        I do think it’s really good to know this, cos then I think male and female authors could catch it more in their writing, but I also think this speaks volumes about the differences between the sexes. So much for being able to escape your own gender 😉

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      2. Hmm, don’t quote me on that “staring into the void” thing. I think it’s a quote from some really nihilistic philosopher, and I’m not certain that the void he meant was actually the darkness of the human heart, so I might have been misapplying the quote. Even if it does work fairly well in this context.

        Yes, my experience too has been that if you’re a girl, there is little stigma attached to acting or thinking like a man. If anything, it’s regarded as a positive thing. So that makes it less scary for us to identify with male characters (or to imagine that we do … but perhaps we are overestimating how well we write male characters … more on that in a sec). I was always a tomboy (or a tomboy wannabe), so when reading Lewis’s tough girl characters, I felt understood, but also my values of “the good girl characters are the boyish ones” were re-enforced. Again, not his fault really. No one writer, however brilliant, can be everything. I think he had an excellent grasp of what virtue looks like in little girls, less so of what it looks like in grown women. (Although there is Mother Dimble in That Hideous Strength.)

        I don’t mind tomboyish female characters (cos they do exist, and many of us aspire to that), but I do find it comical when, say, the crew of a spaceship is about half female, the captain is female, but they don’t behave or problem solve at all like a mixed group or a group of women. They behave exactly like an all-male platoon. I remember encountering that in a sci-fi book that was otherwise pretty good. I didn’t find it offensive, just unrealistic and a bit less emotionally impactful. If the plot was going to play out like that, the author would have been better off just making them all men to begin with.

        I don’t read a lot of YA or romance, but it makes complete sense that the kind of romantic lead that appeals to those audiences would be a gorgeous man who thinks and feels like a woman. And they are always so emotionally tortured, too, which is perhaps the same thing. And frankly, that kind of writing puts a big burden on real men just as female Thor puts an unrealistic burden on real women. That was the kind of male character I created when I started writing as a 12-year-old.

        So yes, I agree that it is good to talk about these difficult things. Look at this, we’ve just figured out how to show more respect to each sex by letting them be themselves in our writing. I call that a good day.

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      3. Oh it just reminded me of David Tennant’s Doctor Who (his motivation for running across the universe, saving the day, is that he was made to stare into the void as a child)… shows what high culture I’m into 😉

        Yeah that’s certainly something I’m used to (if anything, I’ve been criticised for female traits). So yeah, I don’t generally hear women saying they’re afraid to write male characters. And I relate- I had a tomboy phase too (kind of hard not to when you have older brothers making you play football/soccer 😉) so I was always perfectly happy to read tomboyish characters. And I agree with that.

        Oh yes I really agree with you. I notice that as well and like you said, I don’t find it bad per se, but a tad unrealistic. I also find this with a lot of kickass female characters- where I just end up wondering if they could’ve been a man. This also kind of relates to when you touched on the matter of how women vs men emote- cos I think a lot of men kind of skirt around the differences as well (I also end up thinking they could’ve just been men).

        No worries- you’re not missing out 😉 I’ve been trying to cut back. I just think it comes up *a lot*. Haha yup emotionally tortured is an apt description! I think it definitely would put the burden on men- more from the fact that women think men ought to act this way and they really don’t (I think the difference with female thor is that, as much as some people like to imagine that men read these books, it doesn’t seem like that’s the case). So in the sense that they’re female fantasies for women, it’s okay… but if that bleeds over into reality it’s not so good.

        Agreed! 😀 hehehe! Me too!

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