Mars and Venus among Memoir Writers

I have more questions than answers. 
A man at his computer.

I briefly searched the World Wide Web and found links to hundreds of memoir-writing workshops. Only three were specifically for men (I didn’t view all 1.5 million hits.) Send me the links if you find some for men. I estimate thousands of websites, blogs and forums are devoted to helping women understand and write about their memories. I found none specifically for men. The number of workshops, membership associations, forums, and individual coaches and trainers catering to men and women were more than I could count.

“It does seem that out there in the blogosphere there's a lot of pink and purple and flowers on sites devoted to writing,” Tracy Seeley, author of My Ruby Slippers, told me. “Outside the rarified world of well-known male writers who've published memoirs, there's not a lot of space or encouragement for other men to be writing their stories.” She directed me to the Men’s Story Project; helpful, but the project is not for memoir writing as such, although it could lead to that.

Do the experiences of men and women differ significantly enough to cause support for male memoirists to be minuscule, or is there something inherent in the genders?

Differences that persist
“I prefer to read memoirs by women because they are honest and often spiritual, I can relate to them better and they always teach me something,” says Isabelle Allende, whose novels have sold more than fifty million copies. “Men’s memoirs are about answers; women’s memoirs are about questions. Most male authors want to look good in their memoirs and have a place in posterity, while most women know that posterity is what happens when you no longer care. Women want to connect with others here and now, they couldn’t care less about legacy!”

The matter of questions and answers was taken up by John Gray in his Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. He theorizes (I’m not sure he proves) that men complain about problems because they want solutions, while women complain about problems because they want to be acknowledged.

The Mars-and-Venus effect gives rise to questions regarding Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, a book of fictional confessions rather than a true memoir: Do Japanese men view geisha differently than women they might marry? Do geisha view men differently than ordinary women view men? How well does Golden pull off writing from a female perspective? How would a female have written this novel differently?

Scientific studies, many of which are controversial, declare innate differences between men and women when it comes to long-term memory, food, fashion, children, animals, emotions, communications, and health (how many men’s doctors and clinics for men are you aware?), to name a few.

Stereotypes galore
Perhaps our stereotypes of Mars and Venus have contributed to a lop-sided leaning toward Venus coaches, instructors, and workshop presenters of memoirs. Women are soft and emotional. Can men be soft and emotional? Men are tough and destructive. Can women be tough and destructive? Men are assertive and dominant. Can women be assertive and dominant? Women share and discuss problems, while men want to solve problems alone. Can those roles be switched? Where are the Mr. Moms?

Here is another stereotype: "Men tell stories of how they changed the world. Women tell stories of how the world changed them," quoted by Matilda Butler of biographer and memoirist Jill Ker Conway, the first woman president of Smith College and a Time Woman of the Year in 1975.

Butler believes women have more layers than men: “When you read women’s memoirs you see these wonderfully multi-faceted lives with more texture to write about.” Do you suppose those limitations were known by Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life), or Dinty Moore (Between Panic and Desire)? Butler instructs women on writing memoirs and is the author of Rosie’s Daughters, a book about the first women to achieve distinctive status after WWII. The title is a reference to the Rosie the Riveter character.

I’m sure you noticed I quoted only women. Send me the links if you find quotes from men on this topic.

Maybe there is a dearth of instructional support for male memoirists because the techniques for writing memoirs are the same for men and women: A good story, well-told, structurally sound, that in the end changes the writer. Maybe that’s the answer to my questions. Maybe not.

Photo courtesy Neilon Márcio Batista da Silva

How do you feel about memoir-writing support for men? Leave your comments.


  1. Congratulations for taking on the gender issue, Wayne. When I was in high school in the 60s, virtually all the books we read were by males, and to make matters worse, we weren't consciously paying attention to this fact, so without even realizing it, I was developing the notion that the writing voice is masculine. Take a look at the article I wrote about my realization of this fact.

    Flash forward 40 years. Most writing workshops of any kind that I attend are 70 to 90 percent female. I'm not sure why that is, but it seems pretty consistent. If we males want more participation, we simply have to participate more!

    Please be sure to stop by Memory Writers Network for one man's take on the vast variety of introspective voices available through memoirs.

    Best wishes,

  2. Yes, I was wondering if you asked Jerry about this. I'm wondering if the Mars guy writers just aren't interested in writing memoirs rather action stories and history, and whether men embracing their Venus side are the ones really interested in lifewriting. Also, aren't men notorious for not wanting to ask for help? I'm wondering if there are more women-only groups because women feel safer exposing their inner thoughts and writings to other women. (BTW I try to consider men in my memoir blog.)

  3. Of course, men as well as women write memoirs. Yet a quick glance at Amazon books reveals that out of the first 38 single-authored memoirs (I stopped at that point) about 84% were written by women.

    In the same small viewing of Amazon listings, I found an almost equal number of books about writing memoirs authored by females and males (Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, Sue William Silverman’s Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, Lisa Dale Norton’s Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir in one camp and Russell Baker’s Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir and Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs in the other camp.)

    So I suppose this implies that there is an almost equal number of book authors providing guidance for men as for women.

    I, on the other hand, only feel professionally honest when I coach women. In memoir, versus math or geography or a myriad of other subjects, the coach or teacher is looking at the most intimate details of another person's life turning points, moments that a woman is more likely to discover and share with other women. As a woman, I don’t pretend to understand the male perspective or male life pressures. I don’t even understand all the female perspectives. But I share more similar life experiences with other women than I do men.

    On our website, , both women and men sign up for our free ebooks and purchase the DVD writing workshop that Kendra Bonnett and I provide. And while most of our blog posts are appropriate for women or men, they are written by women and hence have an inherent bias toward the female perspective.

    So, for me, it works better to coach and teach women. Can men teach women about memoir? Absolutely. Can women teach men about memoir? Yes. But when I teach mixed classes, as I sometimes do, there is a difference in the types of stories that come out. We posture when in the presence of the opposite sex, a literary version of sucking in the stomach.

    But in the end, independent of sex of writers and sex of teachers and coaches, it is important to pass on our life stories to the next generation. Nothing should get in the way of that and each person needs to find a coach that she or he feels comfortable with.

    Wayne, your blog and teaching brings one more important perspective to the field of memoir writing. Thanks for discussing this aspect of gender and memoir.

    --Matilda Butler

    PS One can find an interesting discussion of how brain differences influence our perspectives on the male/female experience in Marianne J. Legato's book, Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget.

  4. I've been teaching life story and memoir writing classes for a dozen years, and except for the very occasional one sponsored by a women's organization, my classes and groups are always open to anyone. Enrollment generally features a slight average preponderance of women, in keeping with the senior age group I generally attract.

    Quite frankly, in spite of the fact that I personally review written copies of every story shared by students, I have failed to find predictable evidence of gender-specific differences in the writing or the topics people select. Many women write macho stories, and many men write tender ones. A surprising number of women have gone into grim details of touchy topics like rape, spousal abuse or forced abortions, hardly evidence of constraint. Many men have written intimate and revealing stories of abuse, humiliation, fear or defeat, revealing high levels of insight. I have never encoutered disrespectful or insensitive class members of either gender, and quite often I hear appreciation for the opportunity to learn more about the other point of view. Well over half my students repeat the class several times, and when I occasionally ask if anyone would prefer a single-sex class, they vehemently object. "We like things the way they are," they always say.

    Moving on to the typical differences you cite, I'm sad that BRAIN SEX: The Real Difference Between Men and Women, a book published in 1992 in England by BBC journalists Anne Moir and David Jessel, never made it big on this side of the pond. The book cites scientific evidence that blows away the theory that there are "typical" male and female brains. A significant percentage of females have brains wired by the male diagram and vice-versa, and most fall somewhere along a continuum. Our brain structure is as unique as everything else about us. The mother's hormonal state at critical stages of gestation plays a huge role in the brain structure of the developing fetus. Research has necessarily been limited to animals, but enough inadvertent evidence, i.e. hormone treatment for prevention of miscarriages in the 1940s, has clearly demonstrated that the results are equally applicable to humans. The book also addresses the related variables of gender preference, gender identiy, and physical gender characterisitics. It's a fascinating read!

    I can't speak for the leadership of current women's organizations, but I do know the challenging decision Toastmasters made to open their membership to women was a fortuituous one for me as well as the organization. My membership in Toastmasters changed my life, and membership and enthusiasm in the reportedly stagnant organization took off like a skyrocket once the gates were unlocked.

    Bravo for airing a hot topic. These discussions will ultimately form part of the historical record, so it's important to include them in our memoir writing.

  5. Wayne,
    On behalf of all women, I apologize for the snubbing you men are experiencing. We should know better. We've been through it on the other side, and it's inexcusable that we have reversed the process.

    I'm always sad when people start citing generalities about anyone. I've had remarkable male teachers throughout my life as well as living through plenty of experiences that make feminism real for me. But still, I don't enjoy women's groups. They usually turn into male bashing sessions or gabfests about movies and tv and grandkids. Ugh! Wayne, if I had a class or group, or a website or organization, you'd be welcome in it along with any other men. I refuse to join any organization that discriminates, even if it one I might benefit or learn from. There are plenty of other ways to learn.

  6. I just realized that this very afternoon I led the first session of a new writing group for breast cancer survivors, attended only by women. The only difference I noticed from a typical mixed gender class was that I had to be firm with them to quit indulging in self-deprecation before they began reading the stories they wrote in class. That's rare from either men or women in the mixed classes. Nobody wrote about cancer. These were stories about ordinary topics, some humorous, one poignantly painful, a couple unfinished ... all beautifully dashed off by women who swore they don't know how to write.

    I'm amused that I had not noticed until just now that it was all women.

  7. One more thing--by that rebalancing comment at the end, I meant that you, Wayne, are rebalancing the rebalancing! Bringing men and their memoirs, memories, and voice to the forefront helps with that.

  8. Here, here! Great discussion! And it is great that men want to write their memoirs. I sure wish my dad did! ;-) <3