My daughter, Kristine, reads constantly. The day I originally wrote this little essay, she was, in fact, sitting in the living room reading Lord of the Rings with a stack of history books and Jane Austen-related material next to her chair. She got her exercise by walking to the library and lugging home books. This makes her My Hero.
On one of her library safaris, she introduced me to another writer who has also become My Hero. She bagged a library a book about a very particular publishing phenomenon—series children’s books. There were a number of writers who gave their talents to this effort, but the paragon that stood out in my reading of the book was Mildred A. Wirt, the original Carolyn Keene. (The title, for anyone who’s interested is Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak.)
I expect that most women reading this know that byline. Carolyn Keene was the author of record for the Nancy Drew Mystery series that most of us grew up with—that girls are still growing up with and which, after repeated tries to bring Nancy into the new age or to make her adhere to modern assumptions about what girls want to read, has reverted back to the character she was when the inestimable Ms. Wirt was writing her.
So, why is Mildred Wirt My Hero? It’s not just that she wrote 23 volumes of the Nancy Drew series. It was that she also wrote:
Kay Tracey (as Frances K. Judd)
Penny Parker (as Mildred A. Wirt)
Dana Girls (as Carolyn Keene)
Penny Nichols (as Joan Clark)
Connie Carl (as Joan Clark)
Madge Sterling (as Ann Wirt)
It was that in her most prolific year, 1939, she wrote nine novels. She wrote when she was pregnant, raising a child, caring for a sick husband and sustaining his loss, dealing with her own health problems.
She wrote from spartan outlines and from very detailed ones—both of which can be a blessing or a curse for a writer.
She dealt with editors who were disengaged from her issues and who were jealous of their creations.
She worked under wraps—sworn to secrecy about her involvement with the books she wrote—and reacted with measured calm when others took credit for her work. (Since I also ghostwrite for a living, I understand what this feels like better than I’d like to).
Millie Wirt could fly a plane, climb a mountain, and paddle the Amazon. She could be self-confident yet self-effacing, assertive yet measured, bold yet polite—even in the face of unjust criticism. She was a journalist, too, who worked until the age of 96, using a magnifying lens so as to be able to see the computer display. She turned in her last column one evening in May of 2002, went home and died that night. If that’s not dying in harness, I don’t know what is.
All of that is why she is My Hero. She exemplified something science fiction writer and fellow MAFIA (Making Appearances Frequently In Analog) member Michael Flynn wrote years ago about how writers deal with the changes and chances of the material world. I can’t quote him verbatim, but I can paraphrase and condense his comments thusly: If the world around you seems to be going mad, keep writing. If the sky is falling and you have no means to prop it up, keep writing. If things are splodey-sploding all around you, keep writing.
It’s what writers do.