Pen and Metaphor
The Gendering of Writing

Through the centuries, theories of authorship have been at pains to establish parallels between artistic creation and biology, often, it seems, to give the male author a physical as well as a mental edge. In the nineteenth century, for example, Gerard Manley Hopkins proclaimed that the essential quality of the artist was "masterly execution, which is a kind of male gift, and especially marks off men from women, the begetting of one's thought on paper, on verse, on whatever the matter is." In the twentieth century, John Irwin went even farther, claiming that writing is "a kind of creative onanism ... the use of the phallic pen on the 'pure space' of the virgin page."

Where does that leave me as a woman writer? How can I begin with those kinds of metaphors at my disposal? How can the female defile virginal white paper with such an extraordinarily phallic symbol as a pen? It may seem metaphorically impossible, but I do it anyway, the pen writes, and the virginal white paper loses its innocence.

The pen is hardly the only part of the creative metaphor anyway. Male writers have proved to be experts at appropriating female metaphors for the creative act as well. The artist "conceives" the work of art, it has to be "nourished" and finally "brought forth." Alexander Pope defined eloquence as "a perfect conception with an easy birth." And then there's the parallel of ultimately losing control over the child of your heart or your brain. You are certainly responsible for letting words loose on the world, but once they're gone, you can't determine what course they'll take. So perhaps we women aren't that metaphorically disadvantaged after all. Or should I perhaps say metaphorically challenged?

But on another level, creativity and childbearing are two different things entirely, and the envious male who came up with the analogy should be silenced once and for all. You have an authority as author -- the similarity in the words there is no mistake -- which is almost completely lacking and to a large extent undesirable when you have child. Of course, not all people at all times have seen it that way. Many people and many times have seen their children like fictional creations, to be molded to their will. The legendary patriarch determined characteristics and career of his offspring, if not birth and death. Birth and death, of course, were always the sole privilege of the author.

Which brings us back to the authoritarian author wielding his all-powerful phallic pen. Another problem with that image, though, is that it's slightly outdated. Who creates anymore exclusively with a phallic pen? The typewriter started taking over a century ago, and now it's the computer. In our day and age, the properly phallic writer would have to give his manuscript to a typist: a computer may be a lot of things, but it is hardly phallic. Which gender could we assign to it? The computer is ultimately a completely receptive instrument -- and thus feminine? And completely logical -- and thus masculine? On the one hand, the memory bank of the computer could be seen as a womb, protecting the fruits of creative labor until they are brought forth to the light of day. Or it could be seen as a logical tool, giving me, the woman writer, the vital but secondary assistance in my creative act.

Does that make it any easier for the woman writer if she's using a computer instead of a pen? Speaking from my own experience, I would say, technically, yes. But metaphorically? There are a lot of metaphorical obstacles confronting the woman writer, but personally, I have never had writer's block because of the shape of the pen in my hand. Actually, it could be very suggestive for me, whereas the male writer with a pen in his hand would definitely be a homoerotic image. Not that the image wouldn't be suggestive for some, but it wouldn't fit the metaphor either.

Admittedly, many of our metaphors betray a male slant, because the basic assumptions of our society are the creation of centuries-old male domination. But we are lucky enough to be living in an age of upheaval, and those metaphors no longer have the power they used to have. If it's the metaphors that are getting you down, change them. My computer and I are laboring on another baby. And when it's gone, I'll probably suffer from another case of postpartum depression.


This essay originally appeared in the newsletter Pen and Mouse in May 1994.


Other pages of mine:

Clarion West 98 | Cutting Edges: Or, A Web of Women | Joe's Heartbeat
in Budapest
| The Aphra Behn Page | ECHO

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Ruth Nestvold, 2001.