Today’s guest blogger is Erin M. Blakemore, author of The Heroine’s Bookshelf, released on October 19th and now on shelves! As a huge fan of strong, plucky female characters (I count Anne Shirley as a kindred spirit), I can’t wait to read this book, which delves into the stories and qualities behind classic heroines and their female creators. Erin learned to drool over Darcy and cry over Little Women in suburban San Diego, California. These days, her inner heroine loves roller derby (yes, she’s a retired skater), running her own business (woman-powered, wonderfully independent), and hiking in her adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado (seasons, sunshine, and plenty of laid-back fun).You can also find Erin at her blog.
Let me be the first to break it to you: writing is ugly. I’m talking sitting in pajamas with holes in
them, popcorn shells all over your chest ugly. Bags under the eyes, woefully overdue haircut ugly. Unable to talk in coherent sentences ugly. I already knew this before I started writing The Heroine’s Bookshelf, at once my defense of rereading and an exploration of the real and fictitious lives of my favorite literary figures. But I never expected to find my own ugly truth reflected in the lives of women I was prepared to revere.
Like any good heroine, I got way more than I bargained for when I began researching and writing the book. I guess I figured the experience would be pretty routine. I would, I fantasized, learn that my favorite writers were incredible, inspiring women whose stories informed those of their literary creations; discover cool facts to add to my arsenal; get an excuse to re-read stories I loved; then move on.
But a strange thing happens when you’re writing about real people: they tend to fall off their pedestals. The women who brought us all tales of inspiration, light, and love were also cheating spouses, cranky and unrelentingly critical mothers, drug addicts, irritating drama queens, and hypochondriacs bent on making others suffer right along with them? (Take a look at my table of contents and assign these characteristics as you will!) Authors whose genius I felt was a given spent lifetimes putting down and hiding their own brilliant work (here’s looking at you, Margaret Mitchell). And here I thought I was writing a book about heroines.
Yeah. Not so much. Turns out my own heroines had plenty of their own ugly. Like Louisa May Alcott during an un-heroic moment in 1860:
I feel very moral to-day, having done a big wash alone, baked, swept the house, picked the hops, got dinner, and written a chapter…It is dreadfully dull, and I work so that I may not “brood….” If I think of my woes I fall into a vortex of debts, dish pans, and despondency awful to see….All very aggravating to a young woman with one dollar, no bonnet, half a gown, and a discontented mind.
Or Charlotte Brontë, the discontented governess:
But, alack-a-day! there is such a thing as seeing all beautiful around you and not having a free moment or a free thought left to enjoy them in. The children are constantly with me, and more riotous, perverse, unmanageable cubs never grew.
Cue countless other complaints, bitter laments, ridiculous rivalries, and tales of all-too-human frailty. In fact, I learned that the women I’d been taught to adore could range from annoying to downright wicked.
Okay…bubble burst. So did I lament my lack of material for the book?
No way. Instead, I breathed a sigh of relief. See, somewhere inside I’d worried that my own favorite authors were too untouchable to really enjoy. After all, where’s the fun in someone whose petticoats are unsoiled and unsullied by gossip, scandal, and lies? What’s to love about heroines who don’t have a trace of humanity?
If I’d learned that the women whose work I love so much were perfect to boot, I might have powered down my computer and put aside my pen for all time. For who can dare to create when perfection has already been attained?
Surprise! Like me, my literary heroines were not so heroic most of the time. My discovery came
just in time to help me meet my deadline, finish my book, and have a hell of a time writing it. Armed with my new knowledge, I pushed aside my uncut bangs for the fiftieth time, reached for another handful of popcorn, and got back to the business of meeting my heroines in all their ugly glory.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).