I’m a few weeks into teaching my first class at the jail, and everything has gone amazingly. Everyone is eager to learn. The students are engaged. Hands down, it’s the smoothest class I’ve ever taught. But one thing bothers me that I had never noticed before: men and women approach writing differently.

I haven’t had an opportunity to teach women through Words Without Walls yet, but I’ve taught women in other capacities before. I’ve been talking with my fellow WWW teachers who have taught women in the jail and I’ve observed the class at the Sojourner House. I wasn’t planning to write about this until I had more experience teaching men and women in jails, but I feel that this needs to be said in light of recent discussions such as Jennifer Lawrence’s comments on wage inequality or the trending “Famous quotes, the way women would have to say them in a meeting” by Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post. (If you haven’t read this yet, go read it. Now.) As her post points out, woman apologize for their work. Women, especially women who have had hard lives such as women in the WWW classes, need convincing that their stories are important. They’re quick to criticize their work before reading it out loud saying things like, “I don’t think this is good…” or “I’m sorry, I don’t know much about writing…” I’m not surprised that the women in the WWW classes are apologetic. As a woman myself, I know that we have been brought up to doubt ourselves. I just didn’t know that men generally live without this self-criticism. Until I started teaching an all-male class at the jail.

I went into my first class at the jail with a lesson plan that centered on getting the men to open up. I thought I was going to have to spend the first few classes convincing them that their own experiences are important and worth writing about. After all, the women I’ve taught in the past have been this way, and I thought surely men will have a harder time opening up than women. Instead, I found that most of the men in my class are talkative and assertive. Most of them don’t need to be told that their story has value; they believe it already. They assume that everyone wants to hear their thoughts, publish them, maybe even make a movie out of them. This is because, unlike women, men are brought up being told that their thoughts and experiences matter.

I’m speaking in broad generalizations, of course. Not all the men in my class are this way. Some are shy. But still, there is an obvious discrepancy between men and women that I can’t ignore. I’m saddened for us women who live apologetic lives. All this discussion about how women need to be more assertive is wonderful and necessary. Keep talking about it. But I’m not teaching women right now. I’m teaching men. And I’m also saddened for men. What I don’t hear being talked about is how this male “confidence” hurts men in their lives and in their writing.  

I put “confidence” in quotations because this is not true confidence. True confidence means writing with humility. We tend to think that confidence and humility are opposites, but we’re confusing “humility” with “humiliation.” Meaningful writing comes when we say, “I know I am one person out of seven billion. I know my voice is small. I know there are thousands of writers before me who have searched for truth. But I still have something to add to the conversation. So I’m going to say it firmly and assuredly, but also humbly because I know I am not the center of the universe.” Many men don’t write this way.

Empathy goes hand in hand with humility, because when we lay aside our own egos we can understand how others are hurting. Although as women, we might not be taught confidence as men are, we are more likely to be taught to be considerate of other’s feelings. In this aspect, I think we have it much better than men. Last year while teaching first grade at an all-boys school, I was horrified when I read that parents stop reading to their sons at a much, much younger age than they stop reading to their daughters. This should scare us because reading at a young age is the best way to build empathy, and without empathy people become psychopaths and all kind of things we don’t want our children to become. Teary-eyed, I thought of my sweet six-year-old students and how someday they would become men, husbands, fathers, and community-members faced with choices that could lead them many places, potentially jail. The next day in class we read a book about a caterpillar and his tumultuous coming-of-age butterfly story. I was filled with teacher zeal and thought telepathically at my boys, “You will sympathize with this caterpillar. You will imagine how scary it must be to become a butterfly. And you will grow up to be emotionally healthy, empathizing men, damn it.”

But I don’t know how to encourage empathy and humility in grown men in my class at the jail now. Obviously, over-criticizing their writing isn’t the answer. That would be humiliating them, not humbling them. Like I said, I’ve only taught a few classes in the jail so I’m still learning, but I have a hunch that the answer lies in revision. All new writers, including myself, have thought that a first draft is brilliant, that we are the new Hemingway, and that everyone will be blown away by our insight. Revision is the painful process of realizing that, no, we are not geniuses and good writing only comes through plain, old-fashioned hard work. I think another key is to read a lot. We may think we’ve come up with a fresh truth…until we read more and realize that a dozen other writers have had the same idea, and have said it much better. This is humbling. And it is good for us. And I say, “us” because as a new writer, I need to learn this too.

I don’t just want my students to share their work, I want them to listen when another guy shares his work. I want them to be part of a literary conversation, not just yelling their own thoughts. I want to read confident writing built on humility and empathy, not just in women’s classes, but men’s too. And I want to write this way myself.

 Rachel Kaufman, Teacher