Body Narrative: Gender


I was not ladylike, nor was I manly. I was something else altogether. There were so many different ways to be beautiful.  

                                    —Michael Cunningham (A Home at the End of the World)

Traditional conceptions of gender and sexuality permeate every aspect of our society and culture, affecting not only how we see the world around us, but also how we use language to communicate ideas and information. As a result, contemporary writers are often the subject of gender stereotyping, with male and female writers being associated with radically different styles. This sense that one must “perform” a gender role in order to be taken seriously causes many writers to conceal their authentic selves and passions because they fear the judgment of readers and other writers.  

Yet, as Edward Abbey once famously wrote, “It is the difference between men and women, not the sameness, that creates the tension and the delight.” With this in mind, many writers today are increasingly shedding the outdated dogmas of gender and investigating their own definitions of masculinity, femininity, and the areas in between and beyond. These writers are using their poetry and prose to address cultural and social biases directly, and to help others navigate the uncharted areas of modern gender and sexuality.   

A Brief Guide to Crossing the Gender Divide 

Crossing the so-called gender divide is no easy feat. Womanhood, sexual orientation, and “accepted” behavior, are steeped in literature and social discourse. It can be difficult for writers to see through the haze. The advice below for writing against gender norms will help author avoid common pitfalls and create innovative works that deconstruct the dichotomies of gender and sexuality. 

  1. Avoid gendered language. 

For many of us, traditional gender roles have been reinforced since childhood. As early as elementary school, we were taught to use masculine nouns and pronouns (he, him, his) when a subject’s gender was unclear or when referring to members of both sexes. This is often referred to as using the “universal he.” At the same time, female nouns and pronouns (her, she, hers) were often used to describe objects, animals, and forces of nature. This gendered language reflects and reinforces outmoded associations for both sexes, placing men in dominant roles and women in subservient ones. 

By using non-gendered or gender-neutral terms, writers can create content that is accessible to both male and female readers. Examples included changing stewardess to flight attendant, freshman to first-year student, fireman to firefighter, mankind to human beings, and so on. In addition, special attention should be given when writing about sexual orientation. American transgender activist and author of the award-winning novel Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg, writes about the difficulties of lesbian and transgender life, and cautions writers about confusing sex with gender when referring to a character or the self. 

By moving the emphasis away from normalized undertones of gender, sexuality, or sexual attraction, writers invite new readers and further self-reflection and imagination. 

  1. Try out new styles and aesthetics. 

It’s been proven that linguistic styles differ between males and females. Women’s speech tends to be more emotionally expressive and employs more compliments and apologies. As Australian researcher Janet Holmes suggests, “Females are more attentive to the affective function of conversation and more prone to use linguistic devices that solidify relationships” (Holmes, 1993). Likewise, Leigh Ann Jasheway (2010)—humor author and columnist, writing and life coach, and part-time instructor at the University of Oregon—says women are more likely to start a sentence with a question, state preferences in their writing rather than make demands, and use apologetic language even when being decisive. 

This means that while men prefer to write about an accomplishment—a battle won, a dog trained, a disease conquered—women often favor a focus on the relationships and emotional relevance of a story, such as what happens to the family left at home while the spouse is off fighting the war; what it’s like for the dog to learn to sit and stay; or how to handle the strain of caring for an ailing family member. 

According to the researcher Evelyn Fox Keller (1978), objectivity and rationality are highly masculine qualities, making male writing in many cases more similar to a scientific investigation than the interior journey of women’s writing. Men also tend to use more commanding and aggressive language. Jasheway (2010) says this may explain why women are more likely to read literary fiction and self-help books, while men tend to favor history, science fiction, and political tomes. 

These writing qualities, while not universal, represent how modern readers typically approach and make assumptions about a text. Rather than judge a book by its cover, readers will judge it by its author’s gender—among a host of other qualities—and respond to the text accordingly. Take for example, J.K. Rowling. She used her initials “J.K.,” because she was afraid that boys wouldn’t read her if they knew the book was authored by a woman. Other examples include: Armandine Lucile Aurore Dupin wrote novels in the 1800’s under the pseudonym George Sand and Alice Bradley Sheldon, who wrote science fiction using the pen name James Tiptree. By incorporating styles and aesthetics linked to both genders, writers can create more original and imaginative texts, which will better engage and inspire readers to overcome stereotype definitions and gender norms. 

  1. Use characters to examine gender identity. 

Speaking about women’s writing, Helene Cixous, the author of “The Laugh of the Medusa,” says the following: 

[W]omen must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Women must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement . . . I wished that that woman would write and proclaim this unique empire so that other women, other unacknowledged sovereigns, might exclaim: I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. (p. 875-876) 

Cixous suggests that it is vital now, more than ever, for writers to create characters and literary voices that defy gender-based or sexual classification. Instead of painting males as dashing heroes and bloodthirsty warlords, or women as damsels in distress and emotional wrecks, writers should strive to build rounded characters that tangle with and overcome gender stereotypes. The gender of Jeanette Winterson’s narrator in Written on the Body, a romance story that examines the relationship between sex, gender, sexuality and narrative, is ambiguous. In doing so, the author challenges the notion of gender and sexuality as the foundation of identity. 

A great contemporary example is New York Times bestseller and author of the Plum Series, Janet Evanovich, who does an exceptional job of finding the balance between masculine and feminine in her own writing. Her series’ protagonist, Stephanie Plum, is a bail bondswoman who performs her job with a characteristically feminine style in a male-dominated industry. Similarly, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was successful not only because of its suspenseful plots and high-quality writing, but also because the characters transcend stereotypes of gender and age. This is why girls, boys, men, and women alike continue to devour her books by the millions every year. 

In a recent interview, Evanovich suggested her method for developing rounded, multidimensional male and female characters was to incorporate traditional masculine elements into female characters, and vice versa. This is a simple and useful method for all writers, leading to more exciting, unique characters that provoke further thought on issues of gender and sexuality. 


By employing everything from pronouns to syntax to gender-bending protagonists, writers have the power to take a meaningful stance on what gender and sexuality mean today and in the future. Rather than suppressing our everyday struggles with masculinity, femininity, sexuality, and gender roles, we should use them to strengthen our resolve, and to show readers with similar struggles that they are not alone. 

Writing Prompts:

Describe a time you were conflicted about the use of “girl” versus “woman” or “boy” versus “man” in your writing.

Write about your experience with masculine or feminine dominant language.

In what ways do the language, chapter titles, and references used show gender bias?

What are some of your favorite examples of intriguing male and female characters?

Explain how integrating style differences can make your work more inclusive of different genders and gender expressions.

Write a paragraph from the perspective of another gender.  When finished, write another paragraph from the perspective of someone from the opposite gender. Are there any differences?


Cixous, H. (1976). The laugh of the medusa. (K. Cohen & P. Cohen, trans.). Signs 1:4, 875-893. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Halmstad, H. (n.d.). Gender, Sexuality and Textuality in Jeanette Winterson’s

Written on the Body. Retrieved from

Holmes, J. (1993). Women’s talk: The question of sociolinguistic universals.    Australian Journal of Communication, 20:3. 125-148.

Jasheway, L. A. (September 3, 2010). How to write intriguing male and female

            characters. Writer’s Digest. Retrieved December 11, 2014 from     writing/he-said-she-said

Keller, E. F. (September 1978). Gender and science. Psychoanalysis and   Contemporary Thought, 409-433.


Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry Therapy, Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health, Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women, Statement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.


Body Narrative: Love


Parting is all we need to know of hell. –Emily Dickinson

Among all of the emotions we can have, love is one of the most exhilarating and powerful. Hormones associated with love include dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, adrenaline, vasopressin, testosterone, and estrogen—all of which are part of the brain’s reward system and are responsible for regulating passion, motivation, and sex drive. [i] Writing is or can be a type of love.

In her TED* talk “How We Love” (2014), anthropologist Helen Fisher likens love to cocaine addiction, claiming the hormones involved are part of the “reptilian core” and stimulate wanting, motivation, focus, and craving. Love, Fisher believes, is one of the most addictive substances on earth and, like hunger or thirst, almost impossible to quit. [ii] While we can’t force ourselves to fall in love with writing, we can learn a lot from our body’s response, including how to simulate those responses in order to improve our writing practices.

What if you could harness the passion associated with romantic love and apply it to your writing practice? Writing would become your obsession, your focus would skyrocket, and you’d get so much more done!

The brain is motivated by love because it operates on a reward system. Try giving yourself rewards for writing, starting small, with the pleasure sensors. Buy specialty chocolate, which helps the body release serotonin; licorice, which helps release estrogen; shellfish, which has been linked to an increase in testosterone; or other delicacies; and give them to yourself as a reward for writing.

Love involves more than just physical pleasure. Helen Fisher also postulates that there are three stages of love: lust, attraction, and attachment. Each stage is driven by different hormones and chemicals.

Stage 1: Lust – involves the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone (in both men and women)

Stage 2: Attraction – involves the neurotransmitters adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin

Stage 3: Attachment – involves two major hormones: oxytocin and vasopressin

She goes on to say that love is part of human chemistry, deeply embedded in the brain, and can be awakened at any time. She calls romantic love a “mating drive” that allows you to focus and conserve energy.

The three stages of love can also be applied to our relationship with writing.

Lust: You can’t resist writing. You may not know the direction you are headed, but you know you have to write. 

Attraction: You want to learn more about the craft of writing to become a better writer. You join a community of writers and keep writing. 

Attachment: You long to be repeat the process of being published, gathering a following, and making a contribution

When you’re ready to move on to stage two with your writing process, attraction, you’ll want to set clear goals and regularly achieve them. This triggers dopamine, “the reward molecule,” which is more prevalent in extroverted people who have uninhibited personality types. [iii] Start with goals you can easily achieve, write for five minutes every day, and gradually up the ante. Experimenting with outrageous styles and techniques or writing in unexpected places, such as on a rooftop or under a tree, can trigger a dopamine response as well. 

In the final stage, attachment, couples form deep bonds that allow them to sustain their relationships. Further along in her TED Talk, Fisher claims that after 25 years of marriage, the same regions for intense romantic love are still active in partners’ brains. Cultivating this bond with your writing practice will take time, but you can create conditions that will facilitate a long-term connection.

Studies show that the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin accompany physical touch and intimacy. Writers can provoke the release of these hormones by forming connections within a writing community. Write in a group setting, share your struggles and offer praise. Having another human being to whom you can give affection will increase your oxytocin and make writing more sustainable in the long-term.

Finally Fisher also discusses anthropologists who have found love in 170 societies—which is to say that they’ve never found a society without love. Love is one of the most natural and invigorating processes our bodies undergo. Harness the power of love, apply it to your writing process, and cultivate a euphoric response every time you put pen to paper.

* TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. 


Image from

[i] “Neurochemistry.” (Aug. 28, 2014). Hmolpedia: An encyclopedia of human thermodynamics, human chemistry, and human physics. Retrieved from 

[ii] Fisher, H. (2014). How we love. TED Radio Hour. NPR. Retrieved from


[iii] Bergland, C. (Nov. 29, 2012). The neurochemicals of happiness. The Athlete’s Way. Retrieved from


Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry Therapy, Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health, Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women, Statement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.


Body Narrative: Hope



Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all

— Emily Dickinson

Barbara Kingsolver begins her 2008 Duke University commencement address, “How to Be Hopeful,” with: “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.”

As writers, we battle with hope everyday. We hope for publication, for an audience, to win awards. We hope to master the craft, to make new things familiar and familiar things new, to persuade, to expose the truth. We hope to preserve memories and histories and to make a difference in someone’s life.

Yet every day our ability to maintain high hope is challenged by rejection, insecurity, jealousy, finances, time constraints, and other factors. Maurice Lamm, in The Power of Hope, identifies the fear of being hopeful: “We know in our bones that hope is everything. In the back of our minds, we suspect it is nothing at all.” [i] For writers, hope has become another four-letter word that sounds nice in theory—and in fairy tales—but has little authority over our day-to-day realities.

According to best-selling author Dr. Christiane Northrup, “Hope is actually a biochemical reaction in the body.” [ii] Hope releases chemicals at each synapse, which intensify the motivation to learn and innovate solutions to complex problems. Our brains reshape themselves to accommodate through chemical reactions, which is known as plasticity. Brain strategist Dr. Ellen Weber puts it this way: “[W]henever you act hopefully on what you expect to happen – your brain responds by creating just the right neuron pathways to bring about that new reality.” [iii]

People who expect a positive outcome—such as having their books published—are more likely to see results, which explains why successful people (think Stephen King) tend to stay successful in the long run. However, achieving actual success isn’t required as the catalyst—quite the opposite, in fact.

In studying the neurochemical changes in the brain when patients were given a placebo for pain, Scott et al. (2007) found that high expectations of a result caused the brain to release more dopamine and thereby significantly reduce the sensation of pain. Additionally, having high levels of hope can help a person resist a decrease in hope after receiving negative news. [iv]

The lesson here: be hopeful, regardless of your circumstances. It won’t be easy, as Barbara Kingslover reminds us: “The hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities, and hang on. If you run out of hope at the end of the day, to rise in the morning and put it on again with your shoes. Hope is the only reason you won’t give in, burn what’s left of the ship and go down with it.”

Writing Prompts for Cultivating a Hopeful Disposition:

  • Write a character who loses hope in something. Write about how this character then got hope.
  • Write an inspirational story about overcoming obstacles through hope.
  • Write about the strength and tenacity of your will.
  • Describe a person you know whose hope provided her a new path in her writing career.
  • Write a character who doubts her every decision.
  • What are your highest hopes for your writing?
  • How do you stay positive and engaged in your day-to-day writing?
  • Write about a decision you made as a result of having hope.
  • How have you instilled hope in a fellow writer? Was it through words (simple and straightforward communication) or actions, a belief, or through a collective vision?
  • Write about a situation and your realistic and unrealistic hopes.

Writing in itself is an act of hope. That is, we write to be heard and to make sense of the senseless—we write hoping a connection will be made. Now apply that mindset to the aftermath of writing—and write, hope, write, repeat. Hopefully, hope will take you a long way.


Remember, Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and

no good thing ever dies. –Stephen King



[i] as quoted in “Science of Hope” (n.d.).

[ii] as quoted in “Can You Imagine Cancer Away” by Elizabeth Cohen (2011, March 3).

[iii] Weber, E. (2010, Oct. 17). “The Brain on Hope.”

[iv] Ward. (2008, Oct. 16). “The Neuroscience Behind Hope.”

Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry Therapy, Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health, Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women, Statement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.