How to Build a Girl

The other day, I finished reading ‘How to build a Girl’, by Caitlin Moran. Days later, I am still thinking about it.

First, I loved this book. I flagged so many quotes it now resembles the infamous photo of how many people have died in a Game of Thrones novel. I will reread this book and turn to it in dark times, I’m sure. What was surprising wasn’t how much I enjoyed it. I was surprised because of why I loved it.

At the onset, we find ourselves in England, in the very early 1990’s with our main character Johanna. She is in her early teens and is on a mission to find herself. After humiliating herself on a local TV program, she sets to reinvent herself and creates Dolly Wilde.

Dolly finds herself as a music reviewer for a small magazine and then finds herself in the middle of the blooming alternative, grunge rock scene. Antics is probably the only word to sum up her adventures in this wild music scene, and there are a ton of them. The writing is sharp and incredibly witty. There were paragraphs I read out loud to my husband, and many more laugh out loud funny moments.

It isn’t just the plot or the funny writing that made me fall in love with the book. I can completely relate to the character. While she is a few years older than I was at the time, I also remember the birth of alternative rock. It’s a love affair that I am still immersed in today. I also was a lost wayward youth, trying to find myself and my way through a turbulent adolescence.

Caitlin Moran has done a magnificent job of articulating what it is to be a lost teenage girl. She captures how painful it is to try on a personality, to find it lacking and to tear it up and start over again. She reminded me of how lost and clueless and adrift some girls are.

She also did an amazing job of summarizing how easy it is, as a girl and then a woman, to find yourself in situations or doing things that you don’t really want to do. In one scene in particular, she describes having sex not because she enjoyed it, but because the boy did. That was her job, to provide enjoyment to him. She didn’t even consider if she liked it, or wanted to be doing it.

Granted, not all teenage girls find themselves in these types of situations. Not all women do either. But, if we were all super honest with ourselves, I think maybe we do. Take sex out of the equation, how many of us found ourselves laughing at another girl, or even a boy because of some ridiculous reason. Maybe we even felt bad about it, but we still joined in. Or, maybe we shoplifted, or trespassed, or lied. I think everyone has probably found themselves in a situation during then teen years (and beyond), where they did something without really thinking about why, or if they wanted to. Personally, I can remember many moments like this.

Dolly does make a name for herself. She does it by never reviewing anyone she likes, (it makes her writing sound like a fan), and by tearing the music apart. Her reviews are vicious and surgical in her dissection of them. She finds out that bands are terrified of her, but even then she doesn’t stop. It takes her enduring humiliation of a boy she isn’t even sure she likes to force her to take a look at the girl she has built.

Dolly isn’t made up of all bad things. She finds that she was in fact, capable of stopping a situation she didn’t like. She found a friend tantamount to a soulmate. She discovered she can write.

Her biggest realization though, is that she can always tear the girl down and rebuild her when things go awry.

I wish this book had been written twenty years ago. I wish someone had helped me laugh and cry my way to these same realizations. To quote, “This is the work of your teenage years-to build up and tear down and build up again, over and over, endlessly.”

I would change that slightly to say, that this is the work of life. I wish someone had told me that too. We are never set in stone – built and meant to be unchanging. To live is to change. To grow old is to change. We are constantly changing. And yet, we live in a world where somehow the expectation is to ‘find yourself’ and be done. That’s that. It’s a wonder any of us are sane with that attitude.

This book found its way in my life, at the exact time I needed it. And somehow Caitlin Moran, knew that I didn’t just need the words of the novel itself, but the words she wrote in her acknowledgments.

I read the acknowledgements in nearly every book. I am constantly amazed at how many people support an author throughout the process. Partly, I look for agent names, editor names. People that I may want to send a synopsis to. Every time I read this section from a well known author though, I find myself on the dark side of despair.

It takes A LOT of people to write a novel. That is always the message I get. And, I don’t HAVE a lot of people. I have my people, but I don’t have a writing buddy that I can bounce ideas off of. I don’t have an agent who can give me a pep talk when I need it most. I don’t have an editor harassing me into productivity to meet a deadline. I have me. Most days, this is ok. But some days, I find myself wallowing in self-pity. I find myself thinking I’m ridiculous to even try this daunting endeavor. I think, I’ll never have THOSE people.

And then came Caitlin Moran’s acknowledgements. Where she talked about how utterly difficult it is to write a book. Painstakingly difficult. She too had days where she thought she made a horrific mistake and could never, ever finish a novel. She too had days where the entire thing seemed too big, too dumb, too much. She too had days where she was in tears while staring at a blinking cursor on a computer screen.

I found myself relating to this book and this author again, on a whole new level. So many times, it is so easy to look at the finished product and think how amazing these authors are. And they are. But, everyone has a first draft. And every author has a manuscript in their drawer that makes them cringe. And every author has days when it is all too much. I know this. I’ve read and listened to interviews. But there is something so raw and real about Caitlin’s writing that made me actually believe it this time.

Sometimes, I read those interviews or those quotes, and they seem like those wonderful inspirational posters we see everywhere. The words are pretty, but deep down I don’t believe them. This time I did.

I may actually make a copy of her acknowledgements and post it above my desk to remind me that I am not alone.

Writing can be solitary. An internal dive into our own brains. Sometimes, I may dive a bit too deep. Someday, I may find myself surrounded by those people. And I may not. Even getting published, there is no guarantee I will suddenly find myself in the middle of a gaggle of author friends. And that’s ok.

I found that I hadn’t quite finished building this girl. I am sure I will tear down parts and pieces, and add new parts and pieces many more times before I’m done. Maybe the secret is I’ll never actually be done. I’m glad to finally know the secret.

Any parent of a teenager in general, but especially girls, should read this book. If you can get over the language and the references to sex and drugs, (of which there are quite a lot), it’s a fantastic dive into that lost and lonely world. Adolescence is brutal. Being an adult, is also sometimes brutal. Life can be brutal. This book helped me realize that there is a light at the end of those brutal times.

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