Art, Love, Redemption Converge In Music Executive’s Poignant Novel Critiquing Masculinity And The Millennial Generation

By Tiffanie DeBartolo

While doing press for my new novel “Sorrow,” I’ve consistently been asked one question: How difficult was it to write from the point of view of a man? My initial reaction to this query is always, “Give me a break!” 

Did Flaubert constantly get asked how hard it was to write Emma Bovary? Moreover, people write from the points of view of vampires, monsters, wizards, ghosts, etc. Why is the idea that a woman can write from the point of view of a man so intriguing and fantastic? I don’t know. 

For me, literature has always been a pathway to exploring the human condition, female and male. And, while working on “Sorrow,” it also served as an avenue to understanding a rarely discussed aspect of the masculine/feminine mystiques — that is, not the differences between men and women, but the similarities. 

I have read numerous studies suggesting that reading fiction can make a person more empathetic. I’ll take that one step further and argue that writing fiction does the same. As someone who identifies as a woman, a proud feminist, and considers herself lucky enough, over the course of her life, to have been a friend, relative, and lover to admirable men—men who redeem, in my mind and heart, the lesser men in our society—writing “Sorrow,” from a masculine, first-person point of view was not only a study in empathy but an opportunity to understand the male experience in a richer and more nuanced way. It allowed me to discover that underneath all the masks and veils that society piles on top of us, deep down we all want the same things, and it’s the awareness of this truth that leads us to transformation. 

Hear me out on this: I don’t just dictate the thoughts, feelings and actions of my characters when I’m working on a novel; I inhabit them. During the writing of “Sorrow,” I spent two years standing in the shoes of my main character, Joe Harper. On the surface, Joe couldn’t be more different from me—a lonely man in his mid-30s dealing with trauma, loss and abandonment, with nothing but a guitar and a redwood forest as a support system. But, in seeing the world through Joe’s eyes, I felt his fears, his insecurities, his struggles, his desires, and the burden of his fragile ego. I lived through his overwhelming feelings of not being good enough, and the debilitating depression that came with forsaking everything that ever mattered to him. 

Furthermore, I could see how he’d been taught both implicitly and explicitly, by family and society, that the tools for sharing the emotional truth of his experiences weren’t made available to him. He had never learned vulnerability as a skill; he had never been granted permission to be vulnerable. This ultimately led him to betray himself and hurt everyone he loved.  

How an author portrays masculinity is important, and I didn’t undertake the task lightly. However, in all the hours I spent being Joe Harper, it was clear to me that his experiences were not unique to his sex or gender, they were unique to him. Writing this book showed me that the boundaries between what’s masculine and what’s feminine are not stark — they’re blurry, and individual. It’s a spectrum based on hundreds of factors, of which sex and gender are only parts. 

Joe is just as soft inside as is the female protagonist, October Danko; he simply internalizes his sensitivity, while October wears hers on her sleeve. Now, one could argue this kind of sensitivity is a feminine quality, but that would only prove my point. In my life, my mom is the internalizer in the family; my dad is the one who wears his heart on his sleeve. Sensitivity — in this case, the act of reacting emotionally to stimuli and being vulnerable — is not a trait mutually exclusive to women. It’s a human trait, one everyone experiences to some degree, whether they show it to the world or not. Believing otherwise is a societal construct that does nothing but marginalize, limit and oversimplify the complex experience of being a human. It also robs men of their right to openly accept and express their feelings, leading to depression, aggression, violence, and a much less fulfilling life experience.

In capturing and portraying the three-dimensional aspects of both the male and female main characters in “Sorrow,” I was able to understand and have empathy for the male perspective because I resonated with it on a human level. Validating the male experience, and thus deepening it, gives us permission to think about our own experience more deeply. It gives us all permission to feel what Joe feels, to express what Joe can’t, and without that, we can neither process our experiences nor evolve from them. It allows us all to question the walls we’ve put up around our own sensitivity and ask ourselves if we’d be happier or more fulfilled by letting them come down. It takes courage to show vulnerability, and it is essential to forming real connections between people. 

My hope is that this novel will deepen the dialogue about the masculine and feminine relationship, soften the distinction between the two, and cut through stale gender expectations because in the end, it’s our similarities, not our differences, that unite us. 

Tiffanie DeBartolo grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, where she insists there was nothing to do but read books and listen to music. It’s no surprise that after graduating high school a year early to study philosophy at UC Berkeley, she became a writer and founded a record label. Tiffanie’s most recent novel is “Sorrow.” Her previous works include “God Shaped Hole” (2002), “How To Kill a Rock Star” (2005), the graphic novel “Grace: Based on the Jeff Buckley Story” (2019), and the film “Dream for an Insomniac” (1996), which she wrote and directed. Tiffanie is the founder and Chief Executive Super Goddess of Bright Antenna Records, whose roster includes The Wombats, Sports Team, Wilderado, Prep, and more. STiffanie lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband Scott Schumaker and two dogs.

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