I just finished Caitlin Moran’s new book, How to Build a Girl. Just finished as in I turned the last page less than two minutes ago and I’m still trying to clear the tears and mucus from my face. I haven’t done a book review in a very long time. Yes, it’s true, I haven’t even written here for a very long time, and I’m not going to do a review this time, either. There is a moment in this book where Johanna Morrigan is told that she is a critic, not a fan, and to write like one. There is no way that a review of How to Build a Girl would be anything but an overly lauding piece of work, full of insanely supportive adjectives and professions of love.
Instead I want to share here a chapter in the book that I read twice so far and will likely go back to again and again. It is the cause of the tears and mucus and is something I wish I had five, ten, fifteen years ago. It is a short chapter that contains so much wisdom, one that should be shared with every daughter, mother, aunt and grandmother.
“So what do you do when you build yourself – only to realize you built yourself with the wrong things?
You rip it up and start again. That is the work of your teenage years – to build up and tear down and build up again, over and over, endlessly, like speeded-up film of cities during boom times and wars. To be fearless, and endless, in your reinventions – to keep twisting on nineteen, going bust, and dealing in again, and again. Invent, invent, invent.
They do not tell you this when you are fourteen, because the people who would tell you – your parents – are the very ones who built the thing you’re so dissatisfied with. They made you how they want you. They made you how they need you. They built you with all they know, and love – and so they can’t see what you’re not: all the gaps you feel leave you vulnerable. All the new possibilities only imagined by your generation, and nonexistent to theirs. They have done their best, with the technology they had to hand at the time – but now it’s up to you, small, brave future, to do your best with what you have. As Rabindranath Tagore advised parents, “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.”
And so you go out into your world, and try to find the things that will be useful to you. Your weapons. Your tools. Your charms. You find a record, or a poem, or a picture of a girl that you pin to the wall and go, “Her. I’ll try and be her. I’ll try and be her – but here.” You observe the way others walk, and talk, and you steal little bits of them – you collage yourself out of whatever you can get your hands on. You are like the robot Johnny 5 in Short Circuit, crying, “More input! More input for Johnny 5!” as you rifle through books and watch films and sit in front of the television, trying to guess which of these things that you are watching – Alexis Carrington Colby walking down a marble staircase; Anne of Green Gables holding her shoddy suitcase; Cathy wailing on the moors; Courtney Love wailing in her petticoat; Dorothy Parker gunning people down; Grace Jones singing “Slave to the Rhythm” – you will need when you get out there. What will be useful. What will be, eventually, you?
And you will be quite on your own when you do all this. There is no academy where you can learn to be yourself; there is no line manager slowly urging you toward the correct answer. You are midwife to yourself, and will give birth to yourself, over and over, in dark rooms, alone.
And some versions of you will end in dismal failure – many prototypes won’t even get out of the front door, as you suddenly realize that no, you can’t style-out an all-in-one gold bodysuit and a massive attitude problem in Wolverhampton. Others will achieve temporary success – hitting new land-speed records, and amazing all around you, and then suddenly, unexpectedly exploding, like the Bluebird on Coniston Water.
But one day you’ll find a version of you that will get you kissed, or befriended, or inspired, and you will make your notes accordingly, staying up all night to hone and improvise upon a tiny snatch of melody that worked.
Until – slowly, slowly – you make a viable version of you, one you can hum every day. You’ll find the tiny, right piece of grit you can pearl around, until nature kicks in, and your shell will just quietly fill with magic, even while you’re busy doing other things. What your nurture began, nature will take over, and start completing, until you stop having to think about who you’ll be entirely – as you’re too busy doing, now. And ten years will pass without you even noticing.
And later, over a glass of wine – because you drink wine now, because you are grown – you will marvel over what you did. Marvel that, at the time, you kept so many secrets. Tried to keep the secret of yourself. Tried to metamorphose in the dark. The loud, drunken, fucking, eyeliner-smeared, laughing, cutting, panicking, unbearably present secret of yourself. When really you were about as secret as the moon. And as luminous, under all those clothes.”
I suppose that what I’m trying to say is a huge, warm, and absolutely heartfelt thank you to Caitlin Moran. Thank you for writing what you do, how you do, and without shying away from what needs to be said. Thank you for making girls and women everywhere see worth, beauty, and independence in every single one of us. And thank you for making me love you too much to properly review anything you write.