Orson Welles remarked that the best artists are more feminine than masculine. I count this as one of the most sagacious remarks one of the most sagacious men ever to live ever made. We might misunderstand Welles at first, and think he’s speaking to the work made by female artists, which wasn’t what Welles meant at all. His point was that the greatest artists understand the value of vulnerability in their work, the place for emotion, the candor of the human heart when emoting the nature of its human needs, and that the ultimate goal of any artist is to connect. Not to intimidate, nor beat the chest; but to move from the lap of the reader, to the most fundamental level. Call it soul, call it essence; the label need not matter. We know both the stakes and the place. There’s no strutting or peacocking involved in that endeavor, no thumping of the chest, which Welles recognized as masculine. That’s what he was talking about, and he was correct.
It’s why I can’t abide the writing of Ernest Hemingway, which is a sort of readerly emetic for me. I want to say, “Okay, tone it down, tough guy, it’s okay to be human, and to use more than one note.” Having written Madame Bovary, a novel lived through the eyes and soul of a woman, Gustave Flaubert asked how he, a man, was able to bring off what he did. The French author had no problem answering as pithily and accurately as possible: “I am Madame Bovary,” he said, and Flaubert, like Orson Welles, was also correct. He got it.
I am a white, athletic-looking male who at first glance appears as if I might soon be en route to the hockey rink for a spirited game, elbows flying high and no quarter given in the corners. For many years of my career, my work featured male protagonists. My female characters, I believe, were every bit as richly developed, but it wasn’t through their eyes that my fiction operated. Somewhere back in the summer of 2019, when I composed the first story in this volume, in “Fitty,” I had an epiphany that my journey as an artist needed rerouting, and that I, as that artist, was changing. I was neither primarily masculine nor feminine. But I was someone who wasn’t using all of the colors of the paint box. And if I was mutable and yet solid, real, concrete, actual, why would I limit myself when I could flow into any direction, and into any person?
In the several years following, I wrote over 350 works of short fiction. Most of them—let us say seventy-five percent—featured female narrators and/or protagonists. Writers are often told to write what they know, and what you end up with is a lot of people with limited life experiences, who’ve always been sheltered, sucking on a silver spoon, doing a kind of fictionalized autobiography. But just as Flaubert had his realization that he was Madame Bovary, I had mine, and what that epiphany entailed was that I was story. I was not the author of my own works, in a way. I was their recorder. I flowed into other people’s directions. Whether I came to them or they came to me did not matter.
I think what you want to do—what you must do—as a prose artist is to give the reader characters who are out there. They are not literally out there. I hope soon that you will turn a few pages and leave this introduction behind and come to meet a teacher named Carlene and a young girl named Fitty. I don’t think you will be the same after you meet them. But I do believe that as you journey with them through their world, their relationship, you’ll come to think that they are out there. You could meet them. They are somewhere in the world, and their path has simply not been overlaid atop yours. In one regard. I would argue that that regard is the less consequential than the manner in which their paths are situated within your own.
There is an out there that transcends geography and even solidity. The pressing of the flesh. These characters, and all of the characters in this book, exist on their own. I have met them. When I have met them, I have known what to do. To listen. To understand. To wait when waiting is required. What they are going to do—and they always do it—is tell me their stories. They belong to them. Because these characters are real and they are out there. I have absolute trust in them, and that unconditional trust is perhaps unlike any I may ever have for a person with whom I could physically meet later today—in theory—for a couple lattes at the café. Those stories will be told to me. I don’t know what they’re going to be, their shape, their outcome, until I am told. I have no gender, I have no race, I have no chest to thump, nor need to do so. What I exist for is one thing alone, and that is to connect in the realest, truest ways, because I think that is not only what matters most, but all that matters. Story is that way. And I am it.
The way this is supposed to go right now is book deals happen because of someone’s skin color and gender, which is as sexist and racist as it gets. The work of feminist fiction—and I’ll put this book up against any that has that label affixed to it—is not supposed to come from the white, sporty, Boston male, and this particular work of feminist literature is so beyond the trappings of that label or any label as to occupy its own slot in the world of narrative and books. I came into this world with the ability I came into it with, and for many decades since that formal emergence, I have worked eighteen hours a day, at least, seven days a week, to hone that ability, to be fully present in this journey of art and entertainment making that is always changing. As it changes, I change. I can feel it. There are days when I might write a friend and say, “I’ve changed again.” I molt—on the inside. There is nothing—to date—that I can offer the world that is more connective than this volume. It’s why I’m here. It’s part of what I’ve become.
F. Scott Fitzgerald—another writer who was distinctly non-masculine, as we’ve defined that term—lamented near the end of his life that his talent had left him. He was wrong. He had changed, and simply had yet to understand how he’d changed, and mistook this for a lessening. He said that there was something more than his blood, his seed, in the stories he wrote, calling it the extra that he had, and that it was gone now, and he was just like the reader who was reading those words.
These stories of people who are out there, of Carlene and Fitty and so many more people, are not only the extra that I have, they were the extra that I learned I had, and they are as true as anything has ever been, no matter what is or is not between my legs, because this is how it goes, when one is story. These people told their stories to me, and now, if you’d be so kind, let them do the same to you, as I have recorded the journeys they had to share. Should a reader come to these pages with prejudice and expectations of what someone automatically can’t do, I encourage you to try and hold fast to that attitude, because you are about to be parted from it, and feel the limits of that manner of thinking all the greater, by the characters in this book.
Not only are they out there, they are right here, and they are more real than real. They belong to themselves, and what I’ve done here, is set up an introduction with you. What remains now is the going forth. Please give them my best.