Tag Archives: Susan J. Tweit

Checking Our Biases

The name of this blog, “Telling Herstories,” reflects the mission of the organization it represents, Story Circle Network, to nature and support women’s voices and stories. I thought of that mission recently as I followed an email discussion among a group of women writers.

The thread involved a mystery writer who had taken over her father’s famous series after his death. She picked up the thread of his characters and stories, but wrote the new books under her own name and with her own twist. Her tales shifted the point of view of the series by taking a woman who had been a minor–and somewhat cliched character, as one commenter pointed out–and had given this character a starring role. Adding a woman’s voice and perspective changed the voice, tone, and focus of the stories.

Some of the commentators on the list didn’t like those changes. Others chimed in to say they knew mystery writers who had commented negatively about the new additions to the series and thus, they didn’t intend to read them. Still others pointed out negative reviews on Amazon. Several said they had sampled the daughter’s books and been disappointed about the amount of Native American culture in the stories, versus in the father’s books.

As I followed the discussion, I grew uncomfortable. Not simply because the author in question is a friend, though she is; because I felt like a group of women who are writing “herstories” were not reading herstories. By which I mean, I felt as if they were judging this woman’s work against her father’s, instead of reading it with fresh eyes for what this author, an award-winning writer herself, brought to the series.

I thought for a while–I am a slow thinker! And then I wrote a careful comment giving some background on the daughter’s choice to take on her dad’s series, and how hard it had been for her to make that decision given her particular situation. Then I got to the point that I felt was really important:

“I think part of why some people don’t like the books is simply because they are written from a woman’s point of view, not a man’s. We’re used to the way men write, and we sometimes have a hard time shifting to women’s more intimate, “quieter” way of telling stories. Not that these particular stories are quiet; they open with a bang, and move quickly. But they’re different from the father’s.

“Seems to me that [the daughter’s] portrayal of Native American culture and place is just as strong, but it’s the domestic side of that culture, which is subtler, less flashy–more human in some ways, and more focused on family and healing relationships the on the public ceremonies.

“I think the ‘color and flavor’ that [one commenter] mentions missing is just that [the father] was writing about the male side of that culture, and [the daughter] is writing about the more female side of that culture. It’s interesting to think about how habituated we get to one way of telling a story and how hard it may be to change our perspective.”

One of the things I value about this group is that its members think, and consider. Their responses reflected that, including this one:

“The daughter brings new perspective and more dimensionality to the characters. Men are from action-adventure; women are from motivation and psychology, to paraphrase a famous book title, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” That one gave me a chuckle.

And this one from another: “I agree that we do get habituated to how an author tells his or her story, especially if a reader has followed a series. I think that is definitely the case for me with this particular series.”

Another commenter added this thoughtful twist: “You could be right about it being the change in perspective on Native American culture being what I’m picking up. . . . I’ve decided I’m going to keep reading her, not only because I found her books enjoyable, but because as someone pointed out, her perspective shift, while feeling less “authentic” to me (and isn’t that embarrassing–that I, who have known exactly one Southwest Native American, would set myself up as an authority on whether or not a book based in the culture sounds authentic), might be equally valid.”

Another commenter checked the negative reviews on Amazon and quoted this one that inadvertently makes the point about our gender bias relating to how a story “should be” told: “I couldn’t get used to seeing the story unfold through [the new female lead’s] eyes versus that of the main male police characters. But of course [the daughter] is a woman so I will just have to accept it.” Yup. You will….

We ARE women, and we do write from our own perspective–that’s a gift, not a fault. We’re not simply trying imitate men’s ways of writing and telling stories; we’re telling our own, in our own ways. It hurts my heart when we fall into the trap of criticizing another woman for finding her own voice and her own perspective. Seems to me that if we’re going to write herstories, then we also want to be informed readers of herstories, to check our biases, and be supportive of other women’s work.

Perhaps you’ve guessed who the discussion was about, but in case you haven’t and you are curious, we were talking about Anne Hillerman’s books, Spider Woman’s Daughter, Rock With Wings, Song of the Lion, and Cave of Bones. They follow up on her father, Tony’s, famous Chee and Leaphorn series, set mostly on the Navajo Reservation of northern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. Anne’s latest, Cave of Bones, debuted at Number 7 on the New York Times bestseller list, so I’d say she’s onto her own successful series!


Susan J. Tweit • plant biologist and award-winning author, speaker, teacher
Read her work at http://susanjtweit.com
Winner of the Colorado Book Award, the EDDIE, and the Colorado Author’s League Award (five times!)
Fellow, Women’s International Study Center, Santa Fe
Writing Resident, Carpenter Ranch, and Mesa Refuge
TEDx speaker, and past chair of the National Writing Panel for YoungArts

“What we do best comes not from our heads but our hearts, from an ineffable impulse that resists logic and definitions and calculation: love. Love is what connects us to the rest of the living world, the divine urging from within that guides our best steps in the dance of life.” –Susan J. Tweit, from The San Luis Valley

Writing: A Typical Day at WISC

One of the reasons writers crave time away to write is that so much of our daily lives isn’t actually spent writing. We all have family, friends, community work, administration (answering inquiries about writing assignments, talks, workshops; publicity, paying the bills, reminding people to pay us, accounting, etc), and so on.

If you asked the average fulltime writer how much time they actually had to put pen to paper or hands on keyboard, the answer is likely considerably less than 8 hours a day (except in the days or weeks immediately preceding a big deadline, when we panic and make those words fly!).

Two hours of actual hands-on, uninterrupted time is a figure I hear. I’ve been writing a long time, so I have more practice in focusing and ignoring interruptions than many writers, which means on a good day I might get in three or four hours. But that’s a lot.

So when we have the opportunity to leave our daily routine behind and just focus on our writing, we’re ecstatic. Or terrified, because then we have to actually produce something. Or both ecstatic and terrified.

Which I think describes how I feel having a whole month here in Santa Fe at the Women’s International Study Center, with few responsibilities besides writing. I’ve gone through the whole gamut from over-the-top excited to what-the-heck-am-I-doing-here? And that was just the first day…

So what’s a typical day of my writing fellowship like?

Pretty ordinary. I get up at my usual time, around six a.m.. (Which is easier now that we’re past daylight savings time and those very dark mornings!)

An especially lovely dawn

I take a moment to appreciate the dawn out my windows, and then I do half an hour of yoga (which reminds me to be in my body while I write, not just in my mind), and my morning gratitudes, which include a salute to the four directions, plus earth, sky, and self, in place wherever I am; plus sending out love and good wishes to friends, family, and my far-flung community, human and moreso.

After yoga I write in my journal for half an hour or so, and then I bathe, dress, and eat my simple hot breakfast cereal of organic whole oats and other grains, plus organic dried fruits, and cinnamon for sweetness and blood pressure/ blood sugar control. I read the news online over breakfast (although some days I wonder why I even want to know), and then head back to work.

Breakfast (earthenware bowl by Jim Kempes–see below)

I do my best to focus and write until early afternoon, usually about one-thirty or two. Usually that means I write for a while, then have to stop to think, pace around, check my email, resist the obsessive urge to read the news, and then sit back down at the keyboard again.

When the stream of words dwindles to a trickle and nothing I try restarts it, I break for a late lunch, answer more messages, and then go back to the writing to see if there’s anything else I can say. If not, I need to move, so I head out for a walk.

Sometimes I have an errand (like walking to the grocery store for food!), but mostly I just ramble at random, letting the writing rest in my subconscious while I look at interesting walls, gates, gardens, sculptures, plants, and other sights, and listen to bird calls or ravens croaking, people talking in different languages, traffic whizzing past, cathedral bells… I smell tortillas frying or chiles or spicy piñon smoke.

Eye-catching details in a woodbine (Parthenocissus vitacea) vine with blue berries and red stems

When I get tired, I come “home” to this quiet casita on a dirt side street and read a book from my stack, or check the news or answer emails… I usually eat my simple dinner early and then read until bedtime, do a bit of yoga and am asleep by ten.

Yesterday I played hooky all afternoon and drove out to the Chama River Valley (Georgia O’Keeffe country) near Abiquiu with my agent, Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli. Our mission was to visit Lesley Poling-Kempes and Jim Kempes, she a fine writer (and another of Liz’s clients) and he a ceramic artist. (Lesley and Jim stayed with me last month in Salida and brought me one of Jim’s wonderful ceramic vessels.)

Jim’s large sculptural ceramic forms issue from the desert along the dirt road leading their house; I could have spent all day finding and sitting with them. (And I so wished Richard could have been there to delight in them and talk art with Jim.)

See it?

As it was, we had just time to admire the beautiful adobe house they built with their own hands (building the studio first, as is proper for any artist, and then the house), and then we followed Lesley to the house of a member of her writing workshop. We had tea with Peggy and another poet and workshop member, Ginger, and talked writing and women’s history and elections, and life.

And then, all too soon, the sun set to the south of Pedernal Mesa, and it was time to head home to Santa Fe, tired but full from the time with friends and art and beautiful landscapes.

Sunset from Peggy’s house

Today was an ordinary day, which meant I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, a joy in itself.

Thank you to my Santa Fe friends for understanding my need to write, and also making sure I get out of my cave from time to time, and to Laurel and Jordan of the Women’s International Study Center for the blessing of this time. It is rare and precious, and I am using it well!

Thank you, Peggy Thompson, for the gorgeous hand-knitted wool scarf as well…

For more from Susan J. Tweit, visit her blog.