Erin Blakemore's Blog, page 2
November 5, 2014
I’m back from a pretty amazing trip to the 2014 Kansas Library Association Conference in Wichita, where I spoke to youth services and public librarians. The librarians of Kansas ROCK, people. They do something so important with so very little. Not only do they do that, but they greeted me at the airport like this. I mean, COME ON.
I came back really inspired and even more enthusiastic about libraries than before. Here’s the speech I gave to the librarians at a very early morning hour:
Thank you. My name is Erin Blakemore. I’m an author and a historian and I’m visiting from Boulder, Colorado. My first book, The Heroine’s Bookshelf, covers the lives of twelve kick-ass women and the literary heroines they gave to us, but it’s also a love letter to books and reading, because of course before I was a writer I was a reader, a hardcore one. Flashlights, closets, all that. I’m also a library school dropout, but we’ll get to that later.
I’m so nervous today, and so proud to speak to all of you. You’re my heroes and heroines, you see, and it’s not often an author gets to address her heroines. I couldn’t be more excited to be here, and to give you a reminder that you—the librarians—you’re so important. I say that as an author who’s so aware of the role libraries play in publishing, but I also say it as a historian who literally cannot do my job without you. And even deeper than that, I say it as a reader who has spent my entire life comforted and served so deeply by libraries.
Now, I could continue with the lovefest, and truly I’m tempted. But I’m here to talk about something specific this morning, something to perk you up along with your coffee. It’s the simplest idea in the world, but it couldn’t be more important. It’s the idea—the proclamation—the manifesto that out there in our vast, impatient world is a book for every reader, a story for every single one of us, that book that can change our lives.
I want you to raise your hand if you found YOUR book—the book that changed your life.
For once in my life I’m in a room where nobody is going to argue with me. Books change lives. If it’s trite, it’s because it’s true. There’s power in a book—potential. And there’s something different there for each reader who encounters it. I’ve always found that to be the most exhilarating part of being a writer—the knowledge that my work is only half the story. Because the best, biggest, most terrifying, most beautiful thing about a book is what it becomes when it meets its reader.
I want to tell you a story about a girl who grew up to be a prodigious reader. She’s not me, by the way. But she could have been me if I were born in England in 1816. Our little reader had terrible vision—she was nearsighted. She grew up in a time and a place where the modern library was literally not a thing. There were no libraries. The only way she could get a book was through a private library, or if a friend or family member lent it to her, or by buying it herself. Later in her life she may have subscribed to a library with her pocket money. She would have fallen on her knees and thanked God if she knew about our modern public library system.
Now, I wouldn’t call her a reluctant reader. More like a born one. She grew up in a family of prodigies, shall we say, and was one of those freaky little kids who reads way too much way too quickly in way too sophisticated a manner. But there was one book that was her book.
We might think it kind of run-of-the-mill these days, certainly not enough to inspire much of anything, but our little reader found it endlessly fascinating. She’d read the Arabian Nights, and plenty of novels, and was very well-versed in the politics of her day, but this book was different. It was called A History of British Birds, and it was a sort of field guide to the birds she saw around her near her home in Yorkshire. And it was stuffed full of engravings. Men hunting, country scenes, and of course birds galore. It was a kind of love letter to pre-Victorian England, and it fired her imagination. It was realistic and fantastical all at the same time, but it was a natural history book first and foremost. It was all about art, but it had to do with the things around her, familiar things. She began to read it obsessively, and then trace its engravings on paper, and then draw them from memory. It inspired her to become a visual artist. Nobody told her that she couldn’t because she was a girl. Nothing mattered when she was reading Bewick’s book. It was HER book.
And of course when you read Jane Eyre, you learn that Charlotte Brontë never stopped thinking of Bewick’s book. She didn’t go on to become a visual artist—she went on to become a verbal artist, in part because of Bewick’s British Birds. It’s in Jane Eyre, of course. Jane reads it when she is a little girl, curled up in the window all alone. But it also informs Jane Eyre. That realistic-but-somehow-better vision of life. That minute detail. Bewick’s Birds WAS Charlotte Brontë’s book. We might not have Jane Eyre without it.
This is just one of the ways that a book finding its reader can change the world.
We could name examples all day. The kid who can’t get into books but reads a psychological thriller and decides she wants to be a cop. My brother who dismissed all reading until Harry Potter reeled him in. Now he reads huge chunksters, you know, tomes, doorstops. The reluctant reader who opens up Captain Underpants and says WHOA. That’s more like it. We’re all readers in search of our book.
And that’s where you come in. You and your crazy rules and your laws of library science.
The first law: books are for use.
The second law: every reader her book.
The third law: every book its reader. And so on.
See, I told you I went to library school.
As librarians, you have the most exciting job in the world and the most daunting task in the world. You get to create libraries that are reader-centered, that are patron-focused. You get to open up options. You get to facilitate those connections.
And I want to talk for a minute about one of the best ways you can do that—a way you can bring your expertise and your education and your knowledge really deep into the work of helping readers find their books. You can fight book shame.
I kind of cursed myself by writing a book about classic literature. Whenever anyone looks at it and then looks at me I can see this look of horror come over their face and then the apologies start rolling. Oh my God, you’re going to think I’m so uneducated, but I just never got into To Kill A Mockingbird. Could never finish it. Or, don’t judge! I didn’t read any of Jane Austen’s books. You can see the self-censor just shut down the conversation and a book like mine becomes a symbol of shame instead of an entrée into one facet of the world, one kind of book.
I see this a lot when it comes to women’s fiction and YA as well. I was in a writers’ workshop a few weeks ago with about 30 other writers of different experience levels, different genres. One of the participants kept raising her hand to contribute, and she had some really excellent examples. But she prefaced every example with “Ugh, I hate to admit I even read this stuff, but in the latest Jodi Picoult book” or “You know, I shouldn’t use this as an example, but in The Help…” etc. etc. etc. She was truly embarrassed to have read and enjoyed and taken writing lessons from books written for women, by women. Books that, from a pure financial perspective, are undeniable successes. This book shame seems to be in full effect when it comes to books like Twilight and 50 Shades of everything. It extends over to genre fiction and books for young readers.
But you, the people with the most exciting and daunting jobs in the world—you can fight book shame. You can proudly acquire the books that people want to read and reread. You can put them on display in your library and you can talk about them with your patrons. You can create an atmosphere in which every book is a book to be read and enjoyed. After all, each book could be THE book for a reader. There’s no way of knowing.
We all know it’s a hard time for a librarian these days. Your library is expected to be more than it’s ever been. Some of your patrons are in turmoil and need more than you could ever give. Money’s tight. Books face challenges based on their content. (Captain Underpants, I’m looking at you.) There’s an MLS under every rock and around every corner. There are all sorts of questions hanging over us about the future of books and reading.
But what I don’t question—what I’d never question—is your ability to help every reader find his or her book. You can arm readers with the book that will open up a whole world to them—the story that helps them see what they could be and who they are now. It might not feel like it, but every day you go into work and do your job is another day of possibility and potential for your patrons.
And believe me, they’re noticing. In fact, despite all of the questions faced by authors like me and librarians like you, the thing almost no one questions is the importance of libraries and librarians. I’m a researcher, so of course I went hunting for some statistics before I spoke to you. I came across a Pew study called How Americans Value Public Libraries in their Communities. And what I found was so heartening. 95% of Americans ages 16 and older agree that the materials and resources at public libraries play an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed. 95% say that public libraries are important because they promote literacy and a love of reading. And women, lower-income adults, people who have attained a lower level of education, and African-Americans and Hispanics are all more likely to claim that library services are “very important.”
When I first encountered the library, I was a very small girl with a very troubled family. There wasn’t any extra money lying around. My mom was trying hard with very few resources, and she had a boisterous kid and a baby. We’d walk to the Oak Park Branch Library in San Diego and see Mrs. Walton. She was the children’s librarian and she was so. tall, tall enough to be the mom of a star basketball player. I found out later that she was a social worker and a really extraordinary woman, but to me, a little girl itching to get out of myself, she was a friendly soul. She was like the human equivalent of an air traffic controller. All I had to do was listen and go in the direction she suggested, and suddenly I was in Portland, Oregon, being annoyed by my sister Beezus. Or Concord, Massachusetts, complaining that Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents. Or in a covered wagon jostling across the prairie. Suddenly I was bigger than myself and better than myself and I had found MY books and been changed for life. And my story is so commonplace that it’s almost silly to tell. Remember how many of you found YOUR book?
I’m going to close with a quote from a man who’s probably inspired everyone in this room in one way or another: Mr. Rogers. If you’re part of my generation, you were probably partially raised by Fred Rogers, and if you’re of an older generation you probably watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with your kids. Mr. Rogers had many occasions to help parents learn how to talk to their kids about traumatic and scary situations and national disasters. And he had this to say about how he dealt with stress and trauma in emergency situations:
“My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
If I know nothing else, it is that life is a long emergency, whether the volume is turned up or down. You are our helpers in this emergency of life. You are the librarians, and you have the most exciting job in the world and the most important task in the world. Keep helping us. Keep throwing us our lifelines. Help every reader find her book.
September 17, 2014
Where on Earth am I?
You’ll most reliably find me at my keyboard, working hard and looking out at the yoga mat-carrying residents of my little neighborhood in Boulder. I suppose I leave breadcrumbs wherever I go in the form of checked-out and long-reserved library books, day trips to the library at the University of Colorado, visits to the gym or doctor’s office or select hiking trails, my continued shotgun stance in Mike’s car, trips to the garden, endless uber-specific Google searches and occasional appearances among friends.
Behind the scenes, something like Progress is happening. Many can’t-really-discuss-them projects are in various stages of completion. There is daily-bread work too dull and utilitarian to mention. I also seem to be carving out a little niche as the freelancer who would rather write about Things Bygone than the current day, which strikes me as one of the best things I’ve done in ages. To wit:
This Is What Anne Frank’s Arrest Looked Like
The Gibson Girls: The Kardashians of the Early 1900s
The Prison Special: One Last Push For Women’s Suffrage
5 Things You Might Not Know About the Mother of Nuclear Fissiona>
The Drug That Inspired Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
As German Bombs Fell on Paris, Marie Curie Decided to Go to War
What They Ate for Dinner While Washington Burned
Life has changed a lot this year, but I’m still here.
August 7, 2014
Despite my slow brain, my middling mood, my many insignificant problems, I’ve been writing a lot lately. My return to the world of freelancing has been halting and scattered. I’m going where my interests take me these days. Yes, I’m aware that “I’m a writer who writes about things that interest me” is not really an identity, but it’s a good way in. At the very least it leads me towards topics I find fascinating and personally resonant, and more often than not those topics are books (historical, bawdy and banned) and authors. Surprise!!!!!
I try not to be too invested in people’s reactions to my work. I mean, this Anne Frank piece was not written in reaction to what’s going on in Gaza, thankyouverymuch, but if people need to have that conversation, then so be it. I do notice, however, a certain flaming feeling of vocation in me when it comes to telling the story behind the story.
It’s not so much a need to topple our icons as a desire to know how they work/ed. It really bothers me that people are perfectly content to read the books, but never to look beyond them. Anne Frank is a great example because her story beyond the books is so agonizing. It’s way easier to read “people are good at heart” and be happy that the world gave us sparkling Anne (which I am) and be done with it. But the other Anne, the one who got carted across Eastern Europe in cattle cars, who got scabies and head lice, who was arrested for little reason and treated with little compassion and who is buried in a mass grave…it hurts and sickens and angers to know about that Anne, but there it is, the truth. It’s the other side of the story. I mean, damn, Anne’s words might never have found their way to us if she wasn’t arrested. That doesn’t mean her arrest was a good thing. Not at all; it was sickening. It hurts to write about, to look at. But there it is.
And so I cry my way through writing about Anne and laugh my way through writing about a quite feminist series of romantic novels in a post-50-Shades world and look for that which is human and relatable and funny and surprising and upsetting behind the things I love. It strikes me that this is a very inconvenient habit, and one that makes me a bit less easy to love. Who wants to live with someone who’s always poking everything with the stick of history? But there you have it. I’ve given up on duty in so many ways, but I feel it’s my duty to look at the shelf and the book alike. I’m not sure at this point if this compulsion is a hopeless tic or what. It could be an excuse to spend more time with people I love, even though I’ve never met them and they’ve been dead lo these many years. Then again, it could be why I’m here.
(Hat tip to Nathan Englander for the title.)
July 17, 2014
I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be speaking at the 2014 Kansas Library Association Conference this October.
The conference has a theme that’s close to my heart, indeed: Out of the Stacks: Engaging Communities, Promoting Learning. I’ll be doing two sessions…a breakfast session on finding a book for every reader and a workshop on how librarians can connect their young readers to the stories behind their favorite stories.
As a library school dropout and a passionate advocate for the good libraries do in our schools and our communities, I couldn’t be more honored. Even better, the invitation came from someone I met at LauraPalooza! Worlds collide.
Perhaps I’ll see you in October?
July 3, 2014
June 12, 2014
May 11, 2014
Oh, history. You have so many alluring details. There are soiled petticoats, angry letters, dramatic turns of phrase. And if you’re anything like me, you have a whole boatload of must-include details in every historical piece you write. Except there’s that whole word count thing. And that whole you have to write something people will actually want to read thing. Right. Something must be left out.
I tend to subscribe to the Iceberg Theory of detail in both non-fiction and fiction. (This description is altogether too long and ridiculous, but long story short is that you want your work to feel like an iceberg—the best bits up top, where they can be seen, the rest floating under the surface.) Fun fact: Over 90% of an iceberg is under the surface (find out why). We’ve all heard that Ibsen anecdote vis a vis Brenda Ueland in the fabulous If You Want to Write:
Someone once asked Ibsen how he happened to name the heroine of A Doll’s House Nora, and he said, “Well, her real name was Eleanora but they got to calling her Nora as a little girl.” You see, he knew her life, everything about her, from earliest childhood, though in the play only a few hours of her life were shown.
Of course, picking the bits that get to float up top is the hardest part of all. For me, details must reveal something the reader has to know: character, time period, context. They can’t just be there because OMG, did you know that in the late 1700s the petticoat was actually a part of the dress that people showed off, but that it was supposed to be snowy white to indicate the purity and cleanliness of the wearer? I repeat. Your personal obsession with petticoats does not mean your book about, say, poetry gets to become Petticoats: A Treatise or even Poetry: Now With Petticoats! Details are like petticoats: They’re not the main event, they’re undergirding, and they peek out a little bit on occasion for effect.
It strikes me that choosing what not to include is among the hardest parts. It’s akin to killing your darlings, ditching those little turns of phrase that seemed so good at the time but are now vestigial and out of place. It embodies “elegance is refusal” (OMG, did you know that Coco Chanel was a Nazi collaborator and that her sunburn started a craze for tanned skin?!). It also implies something that’s so critical to the fiction or non-fiction writer: command. Command is having a full arsenal…that you don’t need to use. Command is knowing exactly where you’re situated…but still being able to focus entirely on your story and take your readers along with you. Command is preparing for the worst, hoping for the best.
And so I try to face down the tragedy of the must-have detail that has now been consigned to the trash heap with at least a modicum of cheer. After all, I can always talk about the detail in a book talk, put it in a future article, create a “greatest misses” document that I return to in the future (or not), or just gush about my exquisite detail to a sympathetic friend.
What’s your favorite detail in a book?
May 5, 2014
Silly movie lover! The book is always better than the movie. Stupid reader! How can you possibly read (and enjoy) that blasphemous ebook? Quit wasting your time rereading and discover new authors! It’s your duty! Did you know you’re reading the wrong books? What? You like genre fiction? Embarrassing! The publishing industry is going to hell! You must singlehandedly save it!
Yeah. These are the messages gleaned from roughly two seconds of scanning book-related news this morning.
You guys: I am so over book guilt.
Remember back in the day when there wasn’t really an Internet and there wasn’t really a way to tell what other people read and enjoyed? On the one hand, it was a dark age. We couldn’t find our people. The bookworms among us were lonely pariahs, appreciated only by English teachers and the occasional nerdy friend. But there was an upside—fewer chances to shame people for their reading choices. Fewer ways to declaim their reading habits as all wrong, really. Fewer must-read lists, don’t-ever-read lists, and finger-wagging “experts” telling us how to enjoy our books. I’m no Luddite (in fact, I adore ebooks and use them extensively, both for my research and my fun reading). It just bums me out to see people using this amazing, connective, powerful Internet tool to crap all over one another. (Notable exceptions, like the #WeNeedDiverseBooksBecause campaign, make me smile.)
How about we just celebrate…reading? How about we show off our book selections (or rejections) with pride, knowing that though every single title we choose might not be someone else’s cup of tea, it’s valid and legitimate? How about we take a chance and try something new, or passé, or in a format that makes us uncomfortable? How about we encourage one another to read up a storm, whether we love periodicals, genre fiction, or High Literature?
This probably counts as a vagueblog, but who cares. I’m off to love the hell out of words and the people who love them back.
April 18, 2014
I used to play roller derby. As a blocker for the Denver Roller Dolls, my job was to crash into other people and remove them from the track so my jammer could skate through the pack and score points. I practiced the crashes day in and day out, learned to inure myself against the shock of running my body into another body at full speed. I became merciless. Huge, black bruises cropped up on my thighs, big ugly gorgeous flowers against my pale skin.
A few months ago, I was on vacation in San Diego when someone rear-ended my stopped rental car at full speed. Totaled. The bruises that resulted were truly monstrous to see. I went to the ER and followed my doctor’s instructions and called up the lawyers and did what I needed to do. This crash was not my job. It wasn’t welcome, or something I practiced for. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t get to study for that moment of impact or the bewildered silence that followed (the sound of coffee dripping off of the dashboard, little pieces of glass spilling out of the tail lights, a weird sound I realized later was my own sobbing).
I decided to recover. My injuries forced me to stop dead in my tracks and just be for a while. I took some time off of work, time to heal. I stepped away from everything and looked out the window a bunch. Bewildered silence turned into a self-imposed silence of a few months. In the space it created, I started to notice other bruises. Fear. Relief. Questions. What am I doing with my life, anyway? Why am I here? If my life were a novel, we’d be at a moment of crisis.
Turning point. See, it turns out that my crash smacked some of the bullshit out of me. A few months thinking and looking out the window will do that.
My worry that “I’m not an artist” because I love nonfiction and take a workmanlike view of my writing? Bullshit.
My insistence on stuffing writing into evenings and weekends because I don’t deserve not to have a day job? Bullshit.
My fear of telling people about my acceptances, awards, and accomplishments? Bullshit.
Ignoring the sense that I’m here for a reason and that reason is words and stories? Bullshit.
Telling myself that other people’s happiness and health is more important than my own? Bullshit.
Putting off my passion because I’m scared? Bullshit.
I’m relating this entire story (which I am now thoroughly sick of, thank you very much) not for sympathy. In fact, I’m kind of terrified to out myself as someone who has been so involved in The Writing Community for so long while personally feeling undeserving, un-belonging, and unaccomplished. I feel like I’ve put something over on everyone I’ve met at a reading, a conference, a talk I’ve given. I know by now that envy, rejection, impatience, and imposter syndrome are the lot of pretty much every author. But my big crash has taught me that not only is life way too fleeting to not use it living your passions out loud, but that nobody is going to show up and crown me Erin Blakemore, author. Nobody’s going to show up and tell me that my idea is great or that my voice is unique or that my work is saleable or that my labor is worth it…unless I claim it first. Nobody is going to show up for me unless I show up for myself, as a writer and as a person.
This is something I’ve spent a long time evading and avoiding. It’s a voice I wish I would have listened to so long ago. It’s something I wish I’d been given the day I first picked up a pen.
Last week, I quit my day job for what I hope is the last time. I sold my share of my beloved company and retired from marketing. I changed my LinkedIn profile to “Author.”
I suspect that the thing that crashed into me on that San Diego freeway was not a car, nor even what I want to be when I grow up, but who I already am.