Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Sound of Writing Gender

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The Sound of Writing Gender

How do you write a man or a woman or a trans-person? If you were to take a workshop on writing gender with me, I'd ask you how to do it. Is writing a female person different than writing a male person? Is writing a male person different than writing a trans-person? Is writing a trans-person different than...and so on. I know. I know.

Women characters are best expressed with long, flowy sentences, right?


You can tell a man if the sentences are short, brusque; like a slap on the back or a kick in the teeth, right?


A trans-person is, what, a little of both? What about all the people at other points on the gender continumum/sphere?

The way to write gender is don't. You can write action but not gender. You can write what people see (versus other people), but not their sex. You can write emotion, state of mind, response to an environment—but not gender.

You can tell much more abut that person with the long, flow-y sentences state of mind by looking through their eyes; by seeing what they see and following their actions. What's between their legs is what's between their legs. Hopefully, what's between their legs is not also what's where their heart should be. Hopefully, what's between their legs is not the same as what's between their ears. Hopefully, in a relaxed state, for example, the writer has given them lots of 'l's, 'm's as well as long vowels. We can write state of mind, point of view and all of that by focusing on sound.

If somebody's pissed, there's probably lots of hard consonants: 'p's, 'k's, 't's and so on. And short sentences. Unless they're raging, then it could be a torrent. Go ahead, try it. Repeat 'k' or 'f' over and over at least 25 times. What happens to your emotional state? You probably get a little pissed. Next time you're in a conversation, eavesdrop. Listen to the vowells: the 'e's, 'o's and 'a's. Check in with the person's emotional stake in what's being spoken about.

Vowel sounds are tonal and are pitched. Each has a different emotional resonance. Most poets know this. It's not my invention, you and I are hard-wired that way.

It's the oral/aural tradition that stretches back as far as humans go. Human bodies respond to human sound. Even when we are reading silently. This is a gift as a writer.

Humans use sounds, every single time we speak, usually unconsciously—but not always (think of whining)— to convey emotional state. Instead of focusing on what's between a character's legs, focus on the sounds they make given the state they're in.

Once you stop writing gender, you'll finally get yourself a trans, a man, a woman, or...

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Thom Vernon

Thom Vernon has worked in film, television and theatre since 1989. He has been the Actors’ Gang Youth Education Program director and has worked as an arts educator at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People. The Drifts (Coach House Books) is his first novel.

Go to Thom Vernon’s Author Page