The Witch-Girls

The Witch-Girls
by Theodora Goss

The witch-girls go to school just down the street.
I see them pass each morning with their brooms
and uniforms: black dresses, peaked black hats.
They giggle just like ordinary girls,
except that as they walk, their brindled cats
twine around their ankles. One will stop
and say, “You’ll trip me, Malkin,” scoldingly.
Then Malkin will look up and answer back,
“Carry me then.” The witch-girl will bend down,
scooping the cat into her arms, and perch
him on her shoulder. So the witch-girls pass.

I wish I could be one of them. Alas,
I don’t know how to fly on windy nights
or talk to bats, or brew a magic potion.
Although I think I could be good at witching.
I’d learn to curse and never comb my hair.
I’m pretty good at scaring passers-by
by making goblin faces through the window.
I’d trade white cotton dresses for black wool,
no matter how it itched. I’d fly my broom
up to the witches’ garden on the moon
where they dance nightly, kicking up their heels
with sylphs and fauns and ghouls. At least I think
that’s what they do. I don’t think witches go
to bed at nine, or even make their beds
each morning. No. Instead, they marry toads,
or live alone and read old books. They paint
landscapes in Germany, or climb the Alps,
or sit in Paris cafés eating chocolate
for lunch and maybe dinner. They get drunk
on elderberry cordial, speak with bears
on earnest topics like philology.
I wonder what the witch-girls learn in school?
Geometry that helps them walk through walls,
and how to turn a poem into a spell . . .

I wish that I could go to school with them.
I’d giggle and be wicked too, if they
would only let me.

The Little Witch by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

(This image is “The Little Witch” by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.)

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The Gold-Spinner

The Gold-Spinner
by Theodora Goss

There was a little man, I told him.

I gave the little man my rosary,
I gave the little man my ring,
my mother’s ring, which she had given me
as she lay dying. A thin circlet of gold
with a garnet, fit for a commoner.

As I was a commoner, I reminded him.
Nothing magical about me.

Very well, he said. You may go
back to your father’s mill. I have no use
for a miller’s daughter without magic in her fingers.
I’ll keep the three roomfuls of gold.

I walked away from the palace, still barefoot,
still dressed in rags, looking behind me
surreptitiously, afraid he would change his mind.
Afraid he would realize he’d been tricked.
I mean, what kind of name
is Rumpelstiltskin?

But he would have kept me spinning
in a succession of rooms, forever.

I passed my father’s mill without entering,
either to greet or berate. I wanted you to be queen,
he had told me, after I said how could you
betray me like this?
You deserve that, you deserve better
than your mother. What kind of life
did I give her?

No, I wasn’t going back there.

By mid-afternoon I had left the town,
I had forded the river, I had come
to unfamiliar fields. I sat me down
by a hedge on which a few late roses bloomed
and from a thorn I plucked a tuft of wool
left by a passing sheep. I spun,
twisting it between my fingers
as my mother had taught me.
She, too, had the gift.

I coiled the resulting thread
of thin, soft gold
around my wrist. Somewhere along the road
it would buy me bread.

Until then, there were crabapples
and blackberries to share with the birds.
And the road ahead of me,
leading I knew not where, but somewhere different
than the road behind.

Rumpelstiltskin by Anne Anderson

(The illustration is by Anne Andersen. Except in my poem, of course, there is no little man . . .)

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The Stepsister’s Tale

The Stepsister’s Tale
by Theodora Goss

It isn’t easy, cutting into your feet.

Years later, when I had become a podiatrist,
I learned the parts of the feet. Did you know your feet
contain a quarter of your bones? Calcaneus, talus, cuboid, navicular.
Lateral, intermediate, and medial cuneiform.
Metatarsals and then the phalanges, proximal, middle, distal.
They’re beautiful on the tongue, these words from a foreign language.

My sister cut into her heels, which are in the hindfoot.
I cut into my big toes, called the halluces.
She cut into flesh and tendon and sinew.
I cut into bone, between the phalanges,
through the interphalangeal joint.
That’s in the forefoot, which bears half the body’s weight.
To this day, both of us walk with a slight limp.

The problem is you do desperate things for love.
We loved her, the woman who wanted us to be perfect:
unblemished skin, waist like a corsetier’s dream,
feet that would fit even the tiniest slipper.
And so we played the aristocratic game
of identify-the-princess.

Sometimes it’s a slipper, sometimes a ring.
Oh mother, love me without asking me to scrape
my fingers like carrots, cut off my heels and toes.
Eventually, she became your favorite daughter,
the cinder-girl, the princess-designate.
She was the best at being perfect, but abuse
will do that to you.

A woman comes into my office, asking me
to cut off her little toes so she can wear
the latest fashion. I sit her down and say
did you know your feet provide the body
with balance, mobility, support?
Come, let me show you a model: here’s the toe,
metatarsal and phalanges. You can see
how elegantly they move, as in a waltz,
surrounded by your blood vessels and nerves,
the ball gown of your soft tissue,
a protective coat of skin, the delicate nail.

Look, underneath, how beautiful you are . . .

Illustration for Cinderella by Charles Folkard 2

(This illustration is by Charles Folkard, for an edition of Grimms’ fairy tales.)

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The Morning After

The Morning After
by Theodora Goss

Even on the morning after
a great tragedy, the world is still beautiful.
Should it be?  I don’t know.

Perhaps after the slaughter, after
the bodies lying in a field, the houses burning,
the clouds should no longer continue intermittently
concealing and revealing the sky.  Perhaps the leaves
should stop turning orange and yellow and red.
Perhaps they too should honor the dead.
But they don’t.

If anything, the world says to us:
my strange, impermanent children,
look at my mountains.  Learn to breath, as they do.
Look at my forests, at the trunks of trees that have grown
over a century.  Or the grasses, renewed annually.
They live and die, yet are no less important than the rocks.
The moth that lives for a day is as precious
as the tortoise.

Learn to love what you are: a part
of the whole.  Do not divide yourself.
Do not think you are alone, or you alone
walk this earth. The wolves slip through the forest
and above you, the wild geese are calling.
You are part of the family: let that be
not frightening but reassuring.

This morning, the river will not mourn with you.
It will continue to flow, as it has since before
you were born.  But as you memorialize the dead
again, for this has happened before, it will remind you
that beyond strife and sorrow and anger,
the leaves are turning.  That it is autumn,
and the swallows are preparing
once again to fly south.

Morning After 1

Morning After 2

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Beauty to the Beast

Beauty to the Beast
by Theodora Goss

When I dare walk in fields, barefoot and tender,
trace thorns with my finger, swallow amber,
crawl into the badger’s chamber, comb
lightning’s loose hair in a crashing storm,
walk in a wolf’s eye, lie
naked on granite, ignore the curse
on the castle door, drive a tooth into the boar’s hide,
ride adders, tangle the horned horse,
when I dare watch the east
with unprotected eyes, then I dare love you, Beast.

Beauty and the Beast by Anne Anderson

This image of Beauty and the Beast is by the Scottish painter and illustrator Anne Anderson. I particularly like it because it shows a beast that is genuinely beastly — not handsomely leonine. And it shows Beauty’s reluctance, in the half-turned body. But the Beast also looks gentle and concerned, as he is in the story by Madame de Beaumont.

I wrote this poem a long,long time ago — when I was in law school. It’s still a favorite of mine. If you would like, you can hear me read it:

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Heroine’s Journey: Meeting Friends and Helpers

It’s been a while since I posted on the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey. What I’ve decided, in the last week, is that after I finish the book I’m currently writing, I’m going to write a book that brings together all the elements of the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey, and see if I can find a publisher for it. But in the meantime, I’m going to keep blogging about it, trying to generate the material from which I will write the book. That will allow me to think aloud, and also, if you want to, allow you to come on the journey with me.

Today I want to write about the fifth step in the process: The Heroine Meets Friends and Helpers.

In fairy tales that contains a heroine’s journey (not all of them do, of course), we usually find friends and helpers. Vasilisa the Beautiful has her doll, who helps her do the required chores in Baba Yaga’s hut. Snow White is most famous for the dwarves who help her out: in the Grimm version, they are simply seven dwarves, but Disney gives them names and personalities. He also adds the forest animals who help Snow White do housework in the dwarves’ house, and comfort her in the dark forest. (As we have seen, entering the dark forest is step three in the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey). In the Grimm’s version of “Cinderella,” Aschenputtel is helped by the birds that perch in the hazel tree growing on her mother’s grave. They help her sort lentils from the ashes, they give her dresses and shoes for the ball, and in the end, they peck out the stepsisters’ eyes. (Yes, I know, that’s such a harsh conclusion — why would friends and helpers do that? We’ll have to discuss the harsh conclusions of fairy tales later in the series.) In a Chinese Cinderella-type story, “Yeh-hsien,” the heroine is helped by a fish that she has fed and nurtured.

One thing we’re seeing so far is relationships of reciprocity: the dwarves take care of Snow White, and she keeps house for them. Aschenputtel cares for the hazel tree growing on her mother’s grave, and the birds in the tree help her. Yeh-hsien takes care of the fish, and even after her stepmother kills it, its bones give her clothes for the festival. The other thing we’re seeing is the power of a protective parent. Vasilisa’s doll was a gift from her mother. The hazel tree grows from Aschenputtel’s mother’s grave, and it’s clear that the gifts and protection come from her. In Perrault’s version of “Cinderella,” the fairy godmother has a parental relationship with the cinder-girl. She is, in a sense, a substitute mother figure. (Godparents did, indeed, have important roles in seventeenth-century France. They often provided what the parents could not, including financial help.) In “The Goose-Girl,” the heroine’s friend and helper is the horse Falala, whose head continues to speak even after it has been cut off. What that head does is confirm her identity: it’s the only entity that knows she is still a princess, not a goose-girl. And it’s also linked to her mother: as she passes the head each morning and evening, it says,

“Alas, young Queen, how ill you fare!
If this your tender mother knew,
Her heart would surely break in two.”

There’s a sense in which Falala speaks for the mother, who is not there to protect her daughter.

In “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon,” the heroine is helped by the three old women who give her golden objects, with which she can rescue her bear husband. She is also helped by the winds, who take her to that impossible place, where he is being kept by a troll queen and princess. In “Sleeping Beauty” we have the fairy who mitigates the curse of death. In the Basile and Perrault versions, we also have the cook who saves Sleeping Beauty and her children. In the Basile version, “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” a king finds and impregnates Talia (the Sleeping Beauty) while she is still asleep. She has two children, Sun and Moon. She wakes when the two children, seeking her breasts to suck, instead suck on her fingers and draw out the piece of flax that has been lodged under a nail. Once the flax is out, she wakes up again. The king’s wife (yes, he has a wife) finds out about Talia and is understandably jealous. She summons Sun and Moon to the palace, where she has them killed and served up to the king. Then she summons Talia, whom she plans to burn in a fire. At the last moment, the king finds out what has been happening and saves Talia. Then the cook confesses that he has saved Sun and Moon, who were not killed after all, and served the king ordinary meat instead. The queen is burned instead of Talia, and the king, Talia, Sun and Moon live . . . happily ever after? I don’t know, this is a depressing version, isn’t it? It’s very much of Basile’s time, the Renaissance: a tale of power struggle, violence and violation, cannibalism. Its basic structure resembles Greek tragedy or Jacobean drama, not what we’re used to in a fairy tale. For me, it’s a useful reminder that the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey, as it has come down to us, does not have a simple or purely positive history. That history contains messages about women’s lives that we will want to both examine carefully and potentially reject. That is why the journey is continually being rewritten. Perrault, making his version of “Sleeping Beauty” more respectable for a French aristocratic audience, turns the king’s wife into his mother, who is an ogress. She wants to eat the princess and her two children, simply because ogresses enjoy human meat. In this version, the cook saves all three of them. The Grimms take out this entire episode, ending with the kiss of true love and the marriage of prince and princess. Their version, “Briar Rose,” was revised specifically for children, so rape and cannibalism had to be taken out. (Although other tales in their collection are dark enough!)

In “Beauty and the Beast” we also have a fairy: no surprise, since it’s a French fairy tale. The French fairy tales are chock full of fairies, whereas the Grimms tried to take them out, deeming them too French . . . So in French versions, helpers are often fairies, whereas in other traditions, closer to the oral folktales, they are more likely to be animals or old women who are actually witches. (Lesson of the fairy tale: always be kind to old women or animals, because you never know what power they might have.) I don’t remember friends and helpers in “Rapunzel” or “Six Swans,” so they don’t necessarily appear in every story.  But the pattern is clear enough that I think we can conclude finding friends and helpers is part of the pattern. And this is important: when these elements of the journey don’t appear in one version, they often appear in another. In Andersen’s “The Wild Swans,” the queen of the fairies helps Eliza, the girl whose brothers were turned into swans. She appears first as an old woman and then in her own beautiful form and tells Eliza how to break the spell. It’s as though this pattern is imprinted in us somewhere, and later storytellers will often add what is missing in earlier versions. So, for example, Disney added the three helpful fairies to his animated version of “Sleeping Beauty,” and he sent his Princess Aurora into the dark forest, although the only dark forest in earlier versions is the one that grows up around her.

I’ve spent a lot of time here talking about the tales, and not what they mean to use. But I think the lesson is that we need to find our own friends and helpers. Often, we find them when we need them most, in the dark forest, as Snow White did. If we can take some lessons from this portion of the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey, I would suggest the following:

1. When you’re lost and alone, in the dark forest (even if it’s a dark forest of the soul), look around for your friends and helpers. You might be surprised to find they’re there with you. Let them help you . . .

2. Give back, be a friend and helper yourself. Even if you’re the heroine, clean the dwarves’ house, take care of the magical fish. Reciprocate for the care and friendship you receive.

3. Never discount the friendship of animals or old women. They may help you when everyone else has turned away . . .  And they might be a lot more powerful than you expect.

Cinderella by Margaret Tarrant

This illustration for “Cinderella” is by Margaret Tarrant.

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Writers and Money

This year, my writing income will exceed my expenses. Last year, it was the other way around.

That’s how it is with writing when you’re trying to build a career. I should explain what I mean by a career, because I have a job that gives me a regular income, in addition to which I have writing income (sometimes). It’s not a “day job,” which usually refers to a job unconnected with writing that you intend to do only until the writing works out . . . until writing itself can become a career. For one thing, I don’t just do it during the day. I teach, which means that I’m often up late at night, grading papers or preparing for classes. But I chose it specifically because it was about writing; it immersed me in writing and thinking about writing. My job is to teach writing: both academic writing at the undergraduate level, and creative writing at the graduate level to MFA students. I’m very, very lucky: I get to work on and think about what I love, every day. Oh, sometimes it’s tedious grading student papers. But grading papers, even at the most elementary level of marking the missing commas, makes me think about writing. It makes me consider what good writing is, why certain voices are lively and engaging. And of course it provides me with an income.

Because the thing I’ve learned about writing, over the years, is that it’s very, very difficult to make a living at it. Oh, people certainly do, but it’s a very small percentage of the people who actually write. Most of the people I know who make a living at writing have certain characteristics in common: (1) It took them a long time to get where they are, making a living at writing. Usually, you need several successful books in print before you can make anywhere near enough money from them to live on. (2) In the meantime, they had to rely on regular jobs, or on spouses who could support them. If they did not have those things, they went through a period of terrible struggle, and by terrible I mean not knowing where rent or food was coming from. (3) They write a lot, and they write fiction that is popular, that sells. As writers, they are both popular and prolific. (4) They are generally out there, at conferences or on social media, marketing their books. It’s certainly possible to be a wildly successful reclusive writer, but it’s rare. (5) They continue to supplement their income, with part-time teaching or freelancing or writing tie-ins.

If you want to be a writer, it’s best to confront the realities of writing income. First, you’ll have to write novels. The average short story sale will make you several hundred dollars, which is very useful when you’re trying to buy groceries or pay rent, but won’t sustain you over the long term. And poetry only pays for coffee. So you’ll have to write novels, and you’ll have to write them fairly consistently. The second reality is that writing income is itself inconsistent. I recently received half of the advance for my first and second novels. It was more money than I have ever put into my bank account at one time — I’m pretty sure my bank now thinks I’m money-laundering. But it was also the most money I’ll receive for these novels at once, unless they do every well indeed. I’ll receive more money when each of the final manuscripts are delivered, but it will be a smaller amount. And then of course when the film deal is made . . . Ah, but we’re just dreaming at this point. That happens, but not often, so what I have to count on right now is my advance. For which I am very grateful, but whether I’ll get this much money again from these books is up to the publishing gods. The only thing I can do about it is make these books the absolute best they can be, and then go on to write the next book.

The third reality is that publishing advances sound a lot more impressive than they actually are. For example, think of a writer who gets a quarter million dollar advance for a five-book series. A quarter million dollars! That’s an enormous sum of money. Until you break it down: that’s $50,000 per book. If each of those books takes about six months of work total, to write and revise, then revise again when the edit letter comes, then revise in response to the copyedits, the writer is making about $100,000 per year. That’s still a lot of money! But out of that, the writer is paying all the things that are invisible to regular employees. For example, I cost my employer, the university, about twice what I actually make. Among other things, the university pays for part of my medical insurance and matches any retirement fund contributions. The self-employed writer must pay for medical insurance and fund her own retirement, plus there’s a small thing called self-employment tax. I have to pay it on the writing portion of my income. So that advance isn’t the same as making $100,000 per year at a job. It’s like making $100,000 a year from a business, and then having it reduced by business expenses. If you’re a writer, you’re a business. So sayeth the IRS.  And think about all the marketing for those books.  It takes time to publicize a book, and even if the publisher pays travel expenses for readings and signings, that’s time the writer could be making more money by writing.  It’s unpaid time, or time paid for by the advance.  Finally, it can take considerably longer than six months to write a book.  If it takes a year total, that income goes down to $50,000 per year, minus business expenses.  And that’s on the high end of a novel advance . . . (The average novel advance is well under $20,000 per book.)

When I finished my PhD and started working full-time, I had to confront all this myself. I had to ask myself, are you going to treat writing as a hobby, or are you going to make it your career? Of course the answer was, a career. That’s what I’ve always wanted, to be a professional writer. That doesn’t mean I want to write full-time: I love teaching. It does mean I want to write every day, and produce on a regular schedule. I want to have novels and short stories and poems coming out regularly. I want to be known as a writer. So how, I had to ask myself, was I going to think about money? I had already spent a lot of money on my writing career: I had gone to Odyssey and then Clarion, I had been to any number of conventions. And those were all worth it, because they gave me the training and the contacts I needed. But now, I really wanted to think about my expenses as investments. Was a particular convention worthwhile? Would I learn from it, would I meet people I wanted to meet — writers I admired, editors I would love to work with? It’s wasn’t enough that I would have fun, because let’s face it, conventions are expensive. Did I want to spend $1000 on an industry convention where I wouldn’t necessarily meet readers, or should I put that money toward a research trip to Europe for the second novel? (That was an actual decision I had to make recently.) I haven’t been to as many conventions recently, because of such calculations. I’ll be going to more next year, because I’ll have a novel coming out in 2017 . . . So the investment will make sense.

I also had to do one more thing: I had to confront my own issues with money. My issues come partly out of the fact that I grew up in a household where money was always uncertain. We always had just enough money to get by, although sometimes the bills were paid late. But there was no concept of savings. My mother had grown up in communist Hungary, where if you had anything extra, it was taken away from you. My grandparents could not buy the apartment they had lived in since World War II until after the fall of communism. I was used to money coming and going, but never staying . . . that was my normal. I hated it — it made me feel uncertain, as though I were always standing on ground that could be shaken by an earthquake. But it was still how I, unconsciously, thought about and dealt with money. (It did not help that for years I had been a graduate student living on fellowships.) I had to consciously reevaluate my unconscious attitude toward finances, to make having savings a goal. To tell myself that money in the bank was normal, not an aberration. That it was not all right for me, who was lucky enough to have a stable job (when so many don’t), to get to the end of the month and worry about whether I was going to make it. I had to consciously build better habits. I’m still working on that.

If you want to be a writer, what I would advise is something like the following: (1) Be realistic about what it will mean financially. You may write a best-seller and never have to worry about money again for the rest of your life. That’s very, very unlikely. Even people who write best-sellers have to keep working, keep producing. I know, I’ve met them. They’re sitting with their butts in chairs, just like the writers who are starting out. (2) Deal with your money issues, because in a field as uncertain as writing, they will undo you. If you’re not used to saving and budgeting, start practicing now. (3) Make a plan, revise your plan. How are you going to support yourself? What will your sources of income be, while you write? How will you create a good life for yourself, a life you want to live, that also supports your writing? You don’t have to have a writing career . . . no one does. Writing can be a wonderful, fulfilling hobby. But if you want it to be a career, you need to treat is like a business (you know the IRS will!), even if you’re only making coffee money for right now.

(I should say here that I don’t budget, not formally, although I did while I was in graduate school. What I do now is know, at the beginning of each month, that I will have a number of recurring expenses, such as my electricity bill. On top of that, I will have necessary expenses, like groceries. I don’t worry about those. A certain number of small treats go in with those necessary expenses, like buying cupcakes for myself and my daughter — it’s a weekly ritual.  I know what those recurring and necessary expenses will be, and I know that I can afford them — for those, I don’t need to budget.  Beyond that, I have to think about how much I’m spending and why I’m spending it. I have to justify the expense.  But perhaps that’s a subject for another blog post?  And my taxes have gotten complicated enough that I would not tackle them without an accountant, which is another expense of doing business . . .)

Coming to terms with money, getting to the point where I could handle money with only a moderate amount of trepidation and anxiety, has been an important part of my adult life. But I’ve had to, because if you want to be a writer, and at the same time you want to eat and have a roof over your head, you have to address the money issue. Hopefully this post will help, a little . . .

Writer Dora

This was me recently, in my novel-writing uniform. Sweat pants and fuzzy slippers. The fuzzy slippers are particularly important . . .

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