I’m off to the Penzance Literary Festival in July to give a talk on online promotion for authors and planning the trip is reminding me of all the good memories I have of Cornwall, especially learning to surf there. When I took my first surfing lessons in Newquay several years ago, a quiet week at the surf school led to the accident of my being taught by an extremely experienced coach in a lesson consisting only of me and one other woman.
That coach, Mike Young of Escape Surf School, had researched the differences between men and women’s learning styles in surfing. He totally got the women need to perfect techniques in order to feel confident. Women are less likely to throw themselves into a situation and just try things out than men are, especially with the looming prospect of being held down underwater and tumbled over and over by large waves.
I had such an amazing experience on those first surf lessons that five and a half years later I’m still surfing and doing so much more regularly than I did in the early days. I don’t think I could have pinpointed it at the time but part of what made the experience was the way that Mike tailored his teaching style to suit women. I have since had lots of other lessons, both in surfing and in snowboarding. I now realize just how irritating it can be when I’m pushed to do things before I’ve gotten comfortable with a technique or, worse, being told multiple times that I just need to ‘go for it’ or that I just ‘need more confidence’. Those things will come but I need to practice in order to get there.
Mike Young is not the only sports coach who works this way and I’m not the only student who enjoys this type of coaching. A quick look around the internet reveals that all sorts of lessons in sports or outdoor activities are taught in a women-only format. After all, in addition to gendered learning styles there’s also the issue (I find) of men competing with each other, charging ahead to do things they might not have even understood yet and sucking up all the instructor’s attention because what they’re doing looks pretty dangerous. I have no problem with men behaving like this. I’d just prefer to learn in a space where this doesn’t happen once in a while.
Gendered Learning and Writing
As I’ve described in another blog post, publishing is a very gender biased sector. Women buy more and read more books than men and they make up most of the publishing workforce but male authors tend to get all the awards and review coverage. Shifting this balance will be a very uphill battle indeed. I’m not sure I’ll see a substantial change in this state of affairs during my lifetime, but I’d love to be proven wrong. In the meantime, I propose that we find ways of preparing women writers to face this unwelcoming environment by creating a more female space to write and learn in.
Again, I’m not the only person to suggest that women can learn more effectively in a female space. There are nearly fifty women’s colleges in the US and they widely market their successes in helping students improve their leadership qualities and confidence as well as increasing participation in male-dominated academic subjects and extra curricular activities. In Britain, there are only three women’s colleges in the country—all at Cambridge where they are run within the co-educational environment of the university rather than being truly all female institutions. Indeed, if I learned anything about the UK system during my twelve or so years of it, it’s that the system demands similarity from institutions rather than diversity as is needed in the much less regulated US market.
The boom in online education and the diversification of the types of education now available online has paved the way for ever more specialist courses to be offered, the likes of which will probably never be seen in UK universities. Imagine a university entertaining the idea of a coding bootcamp that would take participants from knowing nothing to being ready to walk into an entry-level job in a few weeks time. That would give quality control, management and administrators a headache too painful to contemplate but this sort of thing is widely available on and offline these days. Then I like to imagine a university offering the same coding bootcamp only to women. That would make heads explode in the offices of quality control, management and administration.
Humanities education has lagged behind practical subjects like IT in online learning opportunities. I think it’s time we remedy this in the field of creative writing, a subject UK universities have had huge success with over the last ten years or so, regardless of these courses being inflexible, expensive and very traditional.
What Makes a Good Women’s Writing Course
Good teaching and committed students are a given, but I have a number of specific ideas about what is needed to make a good women’s writing course, one that can be an antidote to the competitiveness of the publishing world. The following ideas are what have led me to develop the Women’s Book Drafting Boot Camp.
A Noncompetitive Environment
It’s easy enough to say that a noncompetitive environment will benefit women who’ve been knocked back many times by an unsympathetic publishing industry, but how can we create this in practice? I would argue that a multi-disciplinary group could work wonders here. Novelists, memoirists, travel writers, journalists and bloggers are usually aiming to meet different goals when they embark on a sizable project. Their ideas about success in publishing, payment or peer recognition are different. Taking away competition for the same types of publisher, prize or other recognition can help forge relationships.
Time to Master Technique
Women need time to master technique through practice. Embarking on the writing of a book is a large, time consuming undertaking. I believe that taking on such a project can be made much more workable by learning the techniques that successful writers use to get through the difficult first drafting stage of writing a book. Writers with full time jobs often get up at 5am to get two hours of writing in before getting ready to start their day job. William Godwin and his daughter Mary Shelley wrote every morning, read in the afternoon and went walking for exercise every day. Murikami writes every morning and then runs a 10K six days a week. These aren’t mysterious habits but they are well worth experimenting with.
Development of Resilience
Women tend to internalize failure, looking at situations from a self-blaming point of view. Men tend to look outward for causes of their failures, seeing that environment, circumstance or scarcity may well be more the cause than personal failings. Making women fully aware of the many, many environmental factors working against them in writing and publishing and encouraging them to consider these circumstances rather than relying on self-blame as an explanation could result in the development of more and more successful women writers. Just getting up the courage to send work out for publication a few more times or a bit more regularly could make all the difference for many people.
Sports education and training proves that women like learning in a female space and they often find more success in that type of environment. Online learning provides the opportunity to hone more and more specific skills and to do so in a mixed or single gendered environment. I think we will be seeing some fantastic innovations in the next few years that could well lead to a certain amount of leveling of the gender bias in publishing.