How To Write Like a Woman

As a poet who is also a woman, writing in a space that has been historically dominated by men, I’m constantly trying to understand what it means to write like a woman. Is it the content of domesticity, chock-full of ironing boards, plated dinners, and brooms that make a poem “feminine”? Is it the language of the hyper-lyrical, the presence of the confessional “I,” or the omission of gender signifiers? Is women’s writing concerned only with the body and skin? Is women’s poetry political, or is it apolitical? Is it gurlesque, grotesque, or something else?

My dissertation on the feminine epic was one of those projects that sent me into a whirlwind of inquiry and self-doubt: Is there such thing as a female or feminine epic? What is an epic, anyway? What’s the difference between a hero and a heroine? Do either exist? Does this dissertation exist? Do I exist?

Naturally, after completing the dissertation, I put the manuscript down. But I haven’t stopped thinking about the questions spun from the project.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, so I took the hashtag reminder as an opportunity to take a break from thinking about the Ryan Bourdinots of the world. Instead, I took some of the prompts and lesson plans found on this 6-week Academy of American Poets “Women in Poetry” course and adapted five of them into my own writing and thinking exercises. I’ve posed each exercise as a question in my ongoing investigation to define “women’s writing” with some notes after each exercise.

1.) Do women compare themselves to other women?

Instead of writing a 300-500 word essay arguing whether Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” is about the anxieties of becoming a woman or becoming an adult, write a 30-50 word prose poem, with a line that begins, “Why should I be my aunt, /or me, or anyone?”

Why should I be my aunt, or me, or anyone? Like birds, we’ve lost our beaks. Like Styrofoam, we’ve lost our ability to be seen. But like bird and foam, scattered across mowed down lawns, we also have wings to take us somewhere, anywhere really. With no one, not anyone, really.

THEMES: air-born animal, garbage, nature, displacement, loneliness.

2.) Is a woman’s skin different than a man’s skin?

After reading “Hanging Fire,” by Audre Lorde, in one word from the poem, explain how can “skin betray” a teenager?


CONCLUSION: Skin is a numbers game.

3.) What does a woman’s biography sound like?


  • Go to The Academy of American Poets
  • Click on “Find a Poet”
  • Type in “Emily Dickinson” (or “Gwendolyn Brooks”)
  • When you get to the poet page, read the poet’s biography.
  • Go to your Microsoft Word page and write about the poet’s life.

An African American woman [picture, displayed to the right] born in Kansas in 1917. Raised in Chicago. [Missing information about family life in Chicago as a black woman in an era during the re-emergence of the KKK in industrialized areas of the American South and Midwest]. Award-winning author of prose and poetry and poet laureate of Illinois. Died in Chicago in 2000.

CONFESSION: A woman’s biography must include birth and death (beginnings and endings). Skip childhood, adolescence, relationships, and all other indications that woman has individual identity. Skip hardships based on gender and race (only focus on awards). Omit skin color (if picture is included). 

4.) Do all women have the same experiences?

Related to #3. Which poet’s life did you pick and why?

Gwendolyn, because she is in parentheses.

CONTENT: Some women are more invisible than other women.

5.) What form best represents women’s poetry?

You could not call Marge Piercy poem’s “Barbie Doll” a song of praise; what would you call it?

A death song.

FORMS: Elegy.