On Writing: In and Out of Step
As a writer, my preferred genre is general fiction but with a woman as the protagonist and men in the supporting role, developed only as far as the role they played required. As a story teller, I like to explore character perspectives through experience, evoke an emotional response, provoke thought and discussion, and allow readers to conclude insights.
Since my teens, I’ve been interested in the position of women in modern Australia; their place in the modern world, the nature of relationships, gender politics and power, choice, and changing societal views about male and female relationships. When I entered the adult workforce, I became interested in bullying, sexual harassment, and the conditioned responses and culture that support overt and covert forms of it.
I first thought of using fiction to explore chauvinism, gender politics, the realm of sexual behaviour and the links to sexual harassment, bullying, and the line between appropriate and inappropriate humour and sexual innuendo when I lived in the United States. In 1991, I was glued to the television, fascinated by the United States Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. Hooked, I stayed tuned throughout the hearings, relocating as many household tasks as possible to that space, watching mesmerized until the early mornings for about a week.
The contradictions of that case and the questions that arose from it puzzled me for a long time. How could someone, who seemingly supported women’s rights and empowering legislation that could protect women, be accused of sexual harassment? In what circumstances could a man be a sexual harasser? Was the paradox possible? Could a man try to be ‘modern’ and yet be threatened by power shifts in society and the workplace? What was credible?
So began my research into the fabric of gender politics and the politics of power in the physical and social contexts in which I lived. Research focused me on gender patterns of action, interaction, and belief as well as the polarities in a variety of environments. As part of that research, a huge number of women shared their personal and workplace experiences in a world where sexual freedom was the order of the day.
Many women shared stories about their first sexual encounters, more often than not impromptu affairs where the boy was swept away in the passion of the moment and the girl caught up in that tidal pull. Those stories centred on private trauma, developing personal doubts about sexual identity, the need to resolve those doubts through further sexual experiences, and empowerment issues.
During the research phase, I found a lot of ‘ordinary’ women in the workforce felt caught in a dilemma. Was sex the only coinage for advancement in a male dominated workplace or could women achieve advancement as a result of their knowledge and skills set? Did so-called workplace femme fatales make it difficult for other women to advance? Did such women in part bear responsibility for sexually charged workplaces and undermining the status of women who wanted to be seen as a person first and a woman second?
At the same time, my love affair with dance continued. When watching newcomers to the ballroom in lessons, I was struck by the way traditional gender roles were reinforced during the process of learning ballroom dancing even though in non-dance environments there had been significant gains in gender equality. Students came to the dance floor as ‘equals in ignorance’ and the ritual of role was imposed on them. As dance novices, girls and women were drilled with ‘Whatever you do, do not lead! Be alert to your partner’s cues and submit to his intent’ even though boys and men seemed quite happy to let the female lead if that meant the male avoided the embarrassment of being visibly out of step on the dance floor.
The traditional gender perspective embedded in lessons seemed to be contrary to the reality of my own ballroom dance experiences where both male and female dancers responded to music, its rhythm, and relied on one another to know the options for steps and patterns. As skills developed, dance seemed to be more a conversation and dialogue about partnership than an act of submission.
Yet, in lessons, the traditional gender biased perspective about roles went unchallenged despite changing societal views. I observed that, in life and on the dance floor, attuned gender interaction was lost, especially as the complexity of the dance increased, when one person appropriated control and power of the dance and required blind following. In such instances, the dance broke down visibly as well as in a decline in the number of willing partners. As an aside, it is interesting that during the second wave of the women’s movement that dance styles broke away from male dominated lead.
Out of those experiences, the story line and central characters for my first novel manuscript, ‘Down Under’ developed. It took 12 months to draft the manuscript. Another year to work with an editing service to refine it. I spent my final year in USA in search of a publishing home for it. Feedback from publishing houses was American audiences were interested in home-grown stories not overseas ones and that I should write for the romance genre instead. In short, rejection letters said, ‘Put it in a bottom drawer and start a different project.’ I did both.
After studying the conventions for story telling in the romance genre, I decided that genre wasn’t for me for philosophical reasons. I believe there is more to a woman’s life than the getting of a partner, and while the heated sexual tension around that getting may be interesting, there is a lot more to life and the nature of love than the romance genre allows writers to explore. I realised I wanted to write women’s fiction that also had an appeal to men. For years, I played around with various plot lines and characters. Ultimately I drew inspiration from mythology: the story of Cassandra, Pandora’s Box, the Sword of Damocles, and the story of the phoenix. I was also influenced by a line from Tennyson: ‘I am part of everything I meet.’ I think the corollary is also true. That is, I am part of everything I meet, and it becomes part of me.
From that realisation, I wrote the poem ‘Stepping Back’ which became the organising motif for the story of ‘In and Out of Step’. I realised I wanted to explore the ripple effect of experiences and the impact that the people we meet have on us and how that impact defines the authentic version of self. My narrative came into focus and became a multi-threaded plot as I explored the contrasting perspectives, the culture, and the characters that shape Cassie Sleight as a person. That world and its people are an important part of Cassie’s story as well as her journey toward self-knowledge and recovery from trauma – a form of rebirth.
In closing, I agree with Margaret Culkin Banning who accurately described the art of writing fiction. Banning said:
‘Fiction is not a dream; nor is it guess work. It is imagining based on facts, and the facts must be accurate or the work of imagining will not stand up.’
The Australian Bicentennial occurred in 1988. The novel is set between 1988-1990.
anti-Metherell campaign: teachers’ union protests against the changes to the New South Wales (NSW) state school education system introduced by the then NSW Liberal Minister for Education, Terry Metherell.
arvo is Australian slang for afternoon.
BHP (today known as BHP Billiton) is a global mining group that includes steelworks such as those based in Wollongong south of Sydney. In Australia, it is the top producer of iron ore and coal (thermal and metallurgical).
bloke is Australian slang and means an ordinary man