Many of us have a number one cultural issue that causes sleep deprivation, countless battles with friends and family or even, in my case, compels you to take on the daunting task of writing a novel. Transgender is my #1.
Why transgender? As a kid, my favorite thing was hanging out with my cousin, Tommy. We liked all of the same things: riding motorbikes, hunting for Big Foot, attempting stunts to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. We traded clothes, guitars, and baseball mitts. When we were thirteen, our mothers sat us down together and said, “Tommy, since you’re a boy, you need to play with boys. Jennie, since you’re a girl, you need to play with girls.” Tommy and I sat in silence, staring down at our matching Pittsburgh Steelers tube socks. Because my body started to look a certain way and Tommy’s body started to look a certain way, we were pulled apart. Mom stopped driving me to his house. Tommy’s mother stopped bringing him to mine. Our mothers made us feel like there was something wrong with wanting to spend so much time together. I never got over being taken away from my best friend at the age of thirteen. My intense empathy for anyone forced to live a certain way because of what they looked like on the outside began in that moment with our mothers.
Deciding to write my first novel, A Boy Like Me, about a protagonist who is transgender was easy – I had to. Workshopping the novel was another matter, even though I tend to take all kinds of criticism well. I was fine when the Chicago Tribune gave my rock band a great review except for my lead vocals. When readers scratched their heads over an early first issue of my comic series, Flutter, I thanked them for their feedback and made revisions.
However, workshopping a novel with protagonist who is transgender in various pre-Incubator seminars was an entirely different experience for me. No matter how clearly I explained that the novel was about a boy trapped in a girl’s body, “she” was the pronoun almost always used by others in workshop discussions. Or, even worse, pronouns bounced from she to he and back to she. No matter what scene was being workshopped, the discussion always veered to penis envy or the idea that perhaps the protagonist was just a confused butch lesbian. Unlike my band and comic series, I couldn’t just thank them and revise. I saw it as a challenge to write his story so all readers would get him.
The cliché is true: you only need one person to get what you’re trying to do, and, for me, that person was Michelle Hoover. During a one-on-one manuscript consultation at Grub Street, Michelle zeroed in on what my book was about and throughout our entire meeting referred to my protagonist exclusively as he. Hallelujah!
A few months later, I received an invitation to apply for the pilot year of Grub Street’s Novel Incubator Program taught by Michelle Hoover and Lisa Borders. It was something I had to do despite doubts (what if I’m the worst writer in the class), excuses (my background’s not in prose), and fears (what if I don’t have valuable feedback to give to others). My biggest fear? Dealing with the transgender issue in a year-long class where the subject would come up repeatedly in class discussions. However, overriding all of my fears was the knowledge that my novel desperately needed help. Who better equipped to help than Lisa Borders and Michelle Hoover? No one. I also knew they’d select fellow classmates and strong writers from whom I could learn.
And learn I did. The draft I had of A Boy Like Me at the onset of the Novel Incubator spanned almost thirty years, starting off in a small North Carolina town, detouring into the Gulf War and ending up in Chicago – all distractions, plot devices taking me away from the heart of the story. In my final revision for the Incubator, the novel was set solely in the hometown, forcing my protagonist to deal with being transgender and the need to be accepted by the people he loved.
The intensely focused revision meant I had to deal with the issue of transgender, too, in what had become my hometown over that year, the Novel Incubator class. Dealing with the varied reactions to my protagonist being transgender was the most difficult, yet beneficial part of the class for me. The class helped me confront and accept the fact that no matter how clear my protagonist’s voice was, no matter how specific the writing got, no matter how much guidance I received from my wonderful instructors, some readers would always see my protagonist as a girl with penis envy or as a confused butch lesbian.
The class was an invaluable experience, a microcosm of what my novel would face out in “the real world.” The Novel Incubator prepared me in a way no other class could. It prepared me for whatever happens next.
You can read an excerpt of A Boy Like Me in the December 2013 issue of Provocateur, which you can purchase here: http://provocateurlitmagazine.org/subscribe.html.