Writing Masculinity, writing expansively | Arvon

Writing Masculinity, writing expansively

25 Sep 2023 / My Arvon Week

Totleigh Barton exterior of house at sunset in summer

Writing Masculinity, writing expansively

Heading to Totleigh Barton for a writing week with tutors Andrew McMillan and Ashley Hickson-Lovence, I was intrigued. The last time I went on a writing retreat with Arvon was at The Hurst for an introductory week of writing fiction, but this time I had few bearings to guide me as I was set to read and write – it felt cryptic, this – about masculinity. I’d long been looking forward to the idea, writing as I am my memoir of the men on my father’s side of my family, our shared history of mental illness, diagnosed or otherwise, and what I feel I owe my newborn son as a first time Dad.

On the train from Paddington, I wondered what other writers attending would be moved by or motivated to write, and pondered whether women would be participating, hoping very much that they would. Knowing Andrew McMillan’s work from his collections physical and playtime, I was childishly inquisitive about how ironic we could be in tearing through clichés and convention about how to write about masculinity. I bought a text recommended in the joining notes, Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined, which whetted my appetite for other works on questions of male self-image. I questioned what I wanted out of the week — to recede after an intense first part of the year, or to enliven myself by writing.

It was a week where so much could have gone wrong. I openly reflected one night that we all engaged with the content quickly, and readily agreed with the premise of the course that ‘masculinity’ does indeed warrant inquiry. We discussed our writing projects with modesty and vulnerability. It wasn’t so inconceivable, and it wouldn’t have necessarily been wrong, had instead alternative group participants registered – bullish, defensive – determined on all counts to defend a masculinity they worry is being neutered. That didn’t materialise, to my good fortune, and I think the other writers also felt like this. With Andrew and Ashley’s steady and supportive guidance, we tenderly addressed masculinity as an abundance of different questions.

In our morning workshops, we anatomized masculinity. Day-by-day we probed and poked at it, savouring what was evasive about it, viewing it as an enigmatic beast. What do we even mean by masculinity and where do our first representations of it emerge from? It felt only fitting in a week of poetry and storytelling, that we played and experimented with our notions of this set of qualities and beliefs.

We studied the male gaze and sexuality, not least when we listened to Andrew McMillan’s poetry. Their hearts have grown too big for their chests he read, his crisp delivery imbuing his poem the men are weeping in the gym with notes of pity, and fellow feeling.

In works by Andrew Cowan, Sharon Olds, Lewis Buxton and Ocean Vuong we looked variously at the physicality, the promise, and even the threat of masculinity. Elsewhere in poems, fiction and essays we heard writers’ fearsome thoughts, the yearning for physical touch, the impatience characteristic in young boys and men.

We considered what we cling on to or cherish, and in works by Seamus Heaney and Joe Brainyard, what doesn’t diminish in old age. Works by Iggy London, JJ Bola and Derek Owusu opened new terrain, encouraging us to query archetypes of masculinity, including in our fathers. Ashley expanded on this theme, touching on questions of nostalgia and loss.

I was particularly struck by the work of JJ Bola who argues compellingly that in future we could use ‘language that fosters growth, and encourages and reinforces notions of positive and complex versions of masculinity,’ and that ‘we should try to pluralise the idea of masculinity, referring to it as ‘masculinities’, in order to portray that the male identity is not singular; that being a man happens in many ways.’

Thankfully, we weren’t all men, and a deliberate focus one day in workshops was to gaze back at men as objects of women’s scrutiny. One of the most chilling pieces in the absorbing selection of material to pore over was Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi. I’m pleased we paused to consider issues like shame, ego and lust.

There was also a part of me keen to celebrate masculinity a little bit more, to free it for a moment from heavy interpretation, perhaps even to rehabilitate it. But it was in gently querying it, the tutors and our guest speaker created a special ambience. Perhaps the stand-out moment, for me, was the Wednesday night reading in the barn by William Keohane, a poet. We were all encouraged to stay long after he read from Boxing Day, a work exploring time and transition. There were no taboos or topics off the table, as wine flowed, and we discussed gender, gender identity, culture wars and what it might mean to be a son. It was a fitting note on which to end my week that at the final breakfast I could breeze through his new memoir over a generously portioned breakfast of buttered toast, bacon and eggs.

After a few (uphill) walks to Sheepwash, a night of celebration at the pub, followed by another night of high spirits when we shared our work in progress, I did feel roused, by Andrew’s encouragement we pose questions of our writing – to forget solving things through our writing and insead, to revel in the process – and thanks to Ashley’s passion for language, encouraging us, as he did, to embrace the musicality of writing. I have. This greying, now not-so-tired bloke can return, at last, to my memoir.

Andrew Kauffmann is facilitating London Lit Lab’s Queer Storytelling course, which begins in November.


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