I met Mary Ann before she published her first book (it actually took me a while to realize she was an author). Her comments and blog posts are touching and insightful, and she can wear hipster glasses without looking like she's trying too hard.
Heroine First by Mary Ann Rivers
I’m a practiced, lifelong, devoted daydreamer, but it’s this half hour or so, sometimes much longer, after I’ve put the book I’m reading away, after I’ve put most of the day away, that I am able to see new characters for books most vividly.
Hear them, too, small verses lifted from their story. As if I enter this space where I am the Studs Terkel of my own imagination, my microphone light glowing green on a table between us, an author and her character, and I’m not asking questions, not exactly, maybe I’ve suggested a prompt, and then she’ll talk to me, at least a little, and that’s the first time, then, I’ll pick up on some mannerism – maybe it’s tucking her flyaway hair behind her ears, or a tendency towards a stray tear when she talks about her mom, or how she taps out the salient points of her story on the table with her index finger.
It’s always a woman, for me.
In the dark, sunk into my mind’s eye, asking myself who? It’s a woman that shows up to tell me her story and answer my questions. My friend Susan, who very seriously practices meditation, would tell me that what I’m doing when I look for these women, listen for them, is meditating. She has told me this, in fact. That this is my mind, emptied of myself except, Susan would argue, some part of myself I never knew, or understood well. That their voices were my own voices, the ones that haven’t been heard, that the different shapes and sizes of their bodies were simply my own body’s recognition of change, that they appear and sound so different from each other and so different from me is, likewise, my own acknowledgement of myself in all women.
That the time I spend listening to and observing these women is pleasurable, is my own contentment with myself.
That’s how meditation works, by focusing on your own respiration and pulse, the basic motor of the body, the mind becomes passively watchful for your true self. If I am meditating for those long moments in the dark, it would seem my true self isn’t some singular thing, and can, in fact, be embodied with great complexity and difference, and also, when I write a heroine, I am actually writing about myself.
Which is different from autobiography, and I’m still uncertain that what I am doing when I daydream about my women is meditation, but it does feel like a kind of long think about what it is that makes a woman awesome. In this sense, when I write a heroine, I am writing about myself, because I am writing about what I believe it is that make women strong and fierce and interesting, and because I write romance novels, what it is that makes women receptive to love, which is always her own perspective on her life and how it is that perspective contributes to choice. To choosing love, right now, at this moment in her life given everything she has traveled through and where it is she would like to go. My heroine should have a sense of her own gravity, what it is that pulls the object of her affection into her orbit.
I’ve chosen love, too. When I am daydreaming in the dark, I think of that love first—maybe it is like checking in with my pulse, or my respirations. I didn’t have a life, you see, that should have made choosing love possible. There was darkness that I carefully, and not always successfully, protected myself from. Sometimes protection means to escape, and I did that, too; I took books into my closet and I anchored a flashlight under my hairband and I ran away.
The books I loved most were books that fixed a voice in my ear, right away, the ones I read just a few lines of and could listen easily, like the character was sitting with me in the dark. “Well I’m going to be a writer,” Harriet the Spy told Sport, “and when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.”
I’m going to be a writer, too, I whispered back to Harriet.
Meg Chalmers, (Lois Lowry, A Summer to Die), I remember, was loud in my ear, her voice low and urgent, sometimes tripping over itself. She talked to me in one of the way back library carrels at Havencroft Elementary School, she told me that “being both determined and unsure at the same time is what makes me the way I am, I think: hasty, impetuous, sometimes angry over nothing, often miserable about everything.”
I know, I know that all of us have been in our secret corners with our books and that it was just like this, a whisper, then a full voice inside our ear, impossible to turn away from. I said that I start with my own love first, when I am listening in the dark, and I do. Though I don’t think of the time when, like so many girls and women, I had finally escaped, in actual geographic and physical terms, what it was that had been harming me as a girl, a young woman, in a house with too many dark corners. I don’t even think of the times, later, when I exchanged breaths in a perfect shadow with a perfect mouth on mine, hands everywhere, my heart warm, my skin hot, my life free, my work nothing but to learn and learn and learn.
I don’t even think of the first time my love, before he was my love, teased me with a choice, made me think of how my life had come to bear on a date that made my heart slow down and speed up in turns, a year that made everything matter, then, a moment where he told me, urgently told me, I’ve fallen. I choose you.
I would like to say, since I am the heroine of this particular story, and it is my voice I am sharing with you, that this was when I found my voice and I returned with something, something. Even me, too, a solidarity of feeling I had found with the characters in books that could surely be shared with a man who would appear on my doorstep with his heart, stopped, in his hand.
What is it that makes a woman, a heroine, receptive to love? I told you that it is her perspective on her own life. Not the facts of her life, which may suggest a place for love to fit, but how she would tell her own story. What she sounds like, when she does, when it is just her and her chance to speak and the green light is glowing and the only question that has been asked is who are you?
It’s a dangerous question to ask a woman, to ask a heroine. She might not know. She might know and not be ready to say. She might know and tell the world and change or destroy it in some way. She might not know and start asking questions that are more and more dangerous. Like what do I want? What makes me happy? How strong am I?
It’s not enough to be in receipt of love, it’s an offer that reveals more about who’s offering than the object.
I’ve been in receipt of some bad love, you see, and that complicates the offer, forces scrutiny, prompts dangerous questions. For me. For every heroine I write.
Meg Chalmers was determined and unsure at the same time, miserable about everything, and that’s what makes her voice so loud. Faced with the green light, nothing but her voice filling the room, she isn’t trying to please anyone or make anyone love her or is even in the immediate business of accepting any love, she is recklessly uncharitable with herself so that we may know her. Who are you, Meg Chalmers? Hasty, impetuous, sometimes angry over nothing.
She is telling the story from the perspective of her sister’s death, the overwhelming loss, but even harder, even worse, what her sister’s death gave to her, Meg Chalmers. What she gained from it. And that, that is what made me cry in the library carrel all those years ago, not the death of a beautiful girl but what the dark corners of grief and pain gave to the girl that lived.
So when a man came to me with his heart in his hand I needed to know what it is he heard. I didn’t want to know what he saw, I didn’t want to know what he needed, not yet. I didn’t want his love because it was supposed to be a good love, or because he was giving it to me. I didn’t want to know what it was for. I wanted to know who he thought it was for, and if I recognized myself in those thoughts.
In the dark, with the shape and voice of a woman in my imagination, it’s just her. That’s how it always starts, for me. I don’t have any idea who it is that she will meet or who it is that will hear her besides me. Maybe it’s because I’d like to think that my own voice is so singular in the mind of another. Maybe this woman, like Susan says, is just me, in some appealing apparition, so that I might know myself better. I do know that until I’ve spent time with her, visited her again and again, I have no idea who it is that I can trust, that she can trust to hear her so well that she would recognize herself in her lover’s recitation.
Because, that’s how I knew, of course. When he, heart in hand, answered my question, who are you? And asked me the same and anticipated some of my answers and was interested in the surprise of others. I knew that I could receive this love, that it could fit, that I knew my own gravity. I wish I could say, too, that it didn’t take very long, this knowing. It did. We laid together in the dark, so many nights, just listening to each other, until I knew.
A heroine, then, that I know so well, who I have lived with for so long, who has told me so much about love, about what it is I want to tell the world, will think of her own hero. Her voice will conjure him, in a way, will conjure from me what I have learned about love so far, the good love, and what it is to be in receipt of good love.
What it means to live, after the choice of love.
When I say it is a heroine first, I am saying that when I write a story, I put myself first. I invest in the act of make believe, making beliefs, making arguments, making something that I can live on, something women can live on when they are still in the dark, still in dangerous places, still getting hurt, still without escape.
Heroine first is an act of defiance, a protest against the idea that a heroine doesn’t have her own gravity, her own pull, her own universe in an orbit. And yes, I write love stories, so I write the their love stories, but I write the story they have told me because the story they know is the whole universe, after all. When I falter in a story, I think, I just have to let her be awesome, and I never worry about her hero because, as I’ve said before, if I let my heroine be awesome then her hero will have to bring it. Bring to her, his heart, his questions, his willingness to stay in the dark and listen, listen to her.
When I say that’s a mountain, that’s mountain. I can make you believe what it is you’re hearing, which is the voice of a woman who has already spoken to me, and now must speak to you. She’s been through something; she has to go through more. She’s carried people with her, or she’s alone. When I first thought of her, some night before I slept, maybe she was a little bit me. If I do my job, she is a little bit you.
She’s your heroine.
You’re a heroine.
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