Living With Grace

I’m in the middle of trying to prepare for the university semester, but I’m also in the middle of trying to arrange my life after a very busy summer. I spent part of it in Eugene, Oregon doing research, and part of it in Brunswick, Maine teaching, and part of it in Budapest, Hungary with my daughter. I returned home from Budapest and went through the usual week of jetlag. It always hits me particularly hard coming back from Budapest, I’m not sure why. It’s more than the time difference: I think my body is adjusting to less sunlight and higher humidity, which is a difficult physical adjustment. And of course now I need to prepare for teaching, so my unregimented days need to become quite regimented again. I need to get used to being places on schedule, producing work on schedule — and to fitting the rest of my life in where I can. That is also a difficult adjustment.

I always find that when I need to adjust something mentally, the best way is to adjust my physical world, so I’ve been cleaning and arranging, with the goal of making my life graceful — that is, easy, pleasant, intuitive. I want to be able to move around my life as though I were dancing. I may need to move within a schedule or regiment, but at least I can dance through it, with as few stumbles as possible.

How do you do that, exactly? It occurred to me that there were three rules or principles I could give myself. Here they are:

1. Have what you need.
2. Have only what you need.
3. Put what you have in its place.

So how do these rules or principles work?

1. Have what you need.

One of the things I realized, traveling this summer, was that I needed very little to be happy. A place to live, where I could eat and sleep, whether that was a cottage I was renting, a hotel room, or my grandparents’ apartment. As long as it was clean, quiet, and had a place for me to work, I was fine. An environment for me to explore and walk or bike around in, whether that was Eugene, Brunswick, or Budapest. Healthy food I could buy or make for myself. Enough clothes to get me through a week, and a way to wash them. Things to read (I never travel without books, sometimes too many), things to write with and on. My laptop, my phone, and an internet connection — because with those three things, I have resources that would be unimaginable to people just thirty years ago. I mean, if I wanted to, I could spend an entire day doing research on my phone! That is still a miracle to me. And finally, people to see and spend time with. With just those things around me, plus an insurance card in case I get sick and a connection to my bank account in case I need money (let’s be realistic about the conditions that allow me to travel), I’m set.

I have a lot more than that here, back in Boston! Even in this small apartment, I have more than most people had a hundred years ago — shelves filled with books, a closet filled with clothes, cabinets filled with plates, bowls, far too many teacups . . . Art and music, and more art and music when I venture out into the city. I’m rich in things.

I do think that in order to live gracefully, it’s important to have what you need — both the basic necessities of life, and what you psychologically need. Under basic necessities I would put food and clothes. Under psychological needs, I would put books, art, music. If you have what you need, then you can go on to the second rule or principle . . .

2. Have only what you need.

Having too much is like eating a very large dinner, getting to the place where you’re satisfied and happy, and then continuing to eat. Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? Americans are probably most familiar with it from Thanksgiving. You’ve eaten enough, you feel full, and yet there’s so much more — apple pie! pumpkin pie! pecan pie! You have a slice of each, with ice cream, and by that time you’re starting to feel uncomfortable and a little sick. (The pecan pie does it for me. I can’t even eat it anymore. No matter how little I have, it’s always too rich.)

My problem, here in Boston, isn’t that I need more — I have everything I need. But I also have too much. So I’ve been going through the closets and shelves systematically. Which are the clothes I haven’t worn in a year? They can go to Goodwill. Maybe they’ll fit someone else, make that person’s life easier — and raise money for a charity at the same time. Which are the books I have because I thought I would like them, and then I didn’t? They can go to Goodwill as well. Do I have old documents I don’t need anymore — that perhaps I don’t even remember having? Old electronics that I’ve since replaced? Anything that is no longer contributing to my life and could be passed on?

I am by no means a minimalist. Books and television shows about paring down to the minimum, of living with bare walls and two soup bowls, hold no interest for me. I have too many teacups — I really should have a tea party — but I would never, ever get rid of them. Those teacups make me happy, even when they’re sitting in a kitchen cabinet. I believe in having a little extra just in case, and in having things that make your soul happy. So, I have extra rolls of toilet paper and a lot more teacups than I need.

But when you have the sort of excess that makes you feel a little sick and anxious, that’s when you need to put things in a large bag and take them to the Goodwill store. In a way, it’s the opposite of Marie Kondo. Kondo says, keep only what you love, and I agree with that — it’s an emotional way of deciding what belongs in your life, which I think is a good, solid way to make decisions. But you can also feel when something doesn’t belong in your life any longer, when it no longer fits. If it gives you a sense of stress and anxiety, that’s when it should go.

3. Put what you have in its place.

Of course this is the hardest part! Organize, organize, organize. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, bit by bit, step by step. Today’s step, if I can get to it, is to mend some clothes that have been sitting in my closet, waiting for a stitch here or there — a hem sewn up, a button replaced. I want to go through my books and make sure they’re in more or less the right places. In the last few days, I’ve been going through the closets — fall is a good time for that. I’ve been trying to make sure that everything is where it should be so I can find it easily, so I’m not stressed about where things are. That’s what will allow me to live gracefully in this particular space.

Do you have what you need? If so, what is its place? Decide where it should go, where it fits best, where you can access it easily. And then make sure it’s there — when you’re done with it, put it back. That’s part of the process I’m going through now.

If my apartment is organized, I can move through it easily, fluidly, as though I were dancing. Sure, I’ll stumble and fall sometimes. Don’t we all? But I have a lot to do — the rest of the year is going to be very busy! I may as well live it as gracefully as possible.

I thought about what sort of image to include with this post, and decided that the most graceful being I know is this lovely lady: Cordelia the cat. Sure, she stumbles sometimes. Sometimes she chews on a houseplant and throws up on the rug, which is not a very graceful thing to do. But in her motions, her stillness, her general attitude toward life, she is the embodiment of grace.

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Writing Without a Net

It probably sounds as though this is going to be a blog post about taking risks in writing. After all, look at the title: “Writing Without a Net.” But it’s not. It’s going to be a post about writing without financial security, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot and want to address.

What do I mean by financial security? It’s when you’re not really worried about finances, because you know that there’s a safety net underneath you. Like the circus performer balancing on her rope or swinging on her trapeze — she knows that if she falls, she’s going to bounce right into that net. It’s going to catch her. There are different kinds of safety net you can have. A very strong one is having an inheritance of some sort. More writers than you would expect do in fact rely on money inherited from parents or grandparents. Having an inheritance, something in the bank or more likely a trust, makes it much easier to focus simply on writing. You don’t necessarily need to have a job, you don’t need to worry about whether or not you can afford rent or food . . . That’s probably the best kind of security you can have. Another way of having familial security involves having parents or grandparents you can rely on in an emergency. If you need money, they will help you out. That’s not quite as liberating as an inheritance, but it does allow the writer to take risks. If she fails, well, there’s still a family net under her.

And then there’s relying on a spouse or partner. I think this is a much larger category: many writers have a spouse or partner who is the primary breadwinner — this can be someone who makes all the money the family relies on, or a significant part of that money. Again, it’s a safety net. As I said, there are different kinds of safety net, but basically, the idea is that the writer is free to take risks, to make decisions that don’t respond to immediate financial needs. My guess — and it’s just a guess based on personal experience– is that many, perhaps most, professional writers do have a safety net of some sort. It’s always been hard being a professional writer without one, which is why many writers we know from previous centuries came from the upper classes. Yes, they were the educated, the ones who had been taught literary techniques and conventions, but they also had the time and security to write.

Nevertheless, there are still a lot of writers who write without a net. I know, because many of my friends do. They rely solely on themselves. Sometimes they have other people relying on them — spouses, partners, children. And if they fail, no one is going to come bail them out.

Honestly? That’s a hard position to be in. I’ve known friends of mine who’ve had trouble making rent because a royalty check did not arrive, who’ve put off taking life-saving medications. What you have to do, if you’re relying solely on yourself, is create your own safety net, to the extent you can. Mine, for example, consists in part of a PhD that allows me to teach. The income from teaching pays my rent and buys me food. It pays for my healthcare. If I didn’t have the security of a steady job, I don’t think I could write at all. There are other ways — freelance work, for example. But it’s always a balancing act.

I think about these sorts of things because I grew up without much money. We were certainly not poor, and I had access to libraries, museums, a good public education. But I never had a sense of financial security. I did not have savings until after I finished graduate school and started to write — the savings are actually from the writing. I live in Boston, one of the most expensive cities in the country — my salary covers necessities. It’s writing that has put money into my savings account and given me the sense, for the first time, that if there were some sort of emergency, I could deal with it. And it allows me to pay for some luxuries (flowers, chocolate) without a sense of guilt.

I’m writing this post because I imagine there are many of you out there who are writing without a net, and what I want to say is that it’s harder. I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that. There are decisions I make about my writing life that are determined directly by financial concerns. For example, I envy writers who can afford to attend all the conventions. I can’t. For one thing, I have to work, so most conventions during the university semesters are out. For another, I simply don’t have the money. Let’s face it, taking into account airfare and a hotel room (even when shared), most conventions cost around a thousand dollars to attend. That’s a thousand dollars for four, maybe five days. A wonderful four or five days that you can spend catching up with friends, meeting fans, talking to people in the industry — I do love conventions! But it’s a lot of money. And there are other things I could do to advance my career that are harder because I’m writing without a net. Did you know that many, maybe most, authors organize and pay for their own book tours? Only the best selling authors get book tours organized by their publishing companies. Some authors have their own publicists and arrange for at least some of their own advertising. Those sorts of things cost money — they’re more difficult to do when you’re writing without a net and you need that money for other things, like necessities or, if you’re lucky, building up savings.

I wish I could do the things that writers with more financial resources can, but I can’t. What I can do instead is live my life, in the way that fits my particularly circumstances. First, I can think about how to create my own net, my own security. Second, I can focus on what is possible for me, what I can accomplish with the resources I have. Like, for example, writing this blog, which costs me only $99 dollars a year for web hosting. (Yes, even the small things cost money.) I can focus on the writing itself — I can try to become the very best writer I can be. And finally, I can try to live my life as gracefully as possible. The people I know who live graceful lives are not the ones with a lot of money, the ones with the strongest nets. They are the ones who create beauty wherever they are, under almost any circumstances. All of us can do that . . .

(These photographs are of me revising the sequel to The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter in Budapest, where I spent parts of July and August. One of the things writing has allowed me to do recently is travel back home to Hungary once a year. Ironically, a five-week trip to Hungary costs about as much as a single five-day convention . . .)

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The Path of Most Resistance

I read an article recently that made an interesting claim: if you looked at people in the 1980s, and people now, who ate the same amount of food and exercised the same amount, the people now would still be about ten pounds heavier. The article didn’t give any particular cause for this phenomenon — instead, it left an implication hanging in the air: there is something going on. Chemicals in the food we eat? Greater use of prescription drugs, which cause weight gain? Changes in gut bacteria? The article didn’t recommend any sort of solution either, other than body positivity.

Now, I’m all for body positivity, but I don’t think tacking it on to the end of this particular article is useful. Body image is a separate issue, and one that needs to be discussed separately — mentioning it does not erase the problems with the study itself. In general, I’m extremely skeptical of articles and studies like this one. The studies tend to rely on self-reporting, which is notoriously inaccurate. And the articles don’t go into the details of whichever study they’re reporting on, so it’s difficult to judge the underlying data. If you’re curious, however, this particular study is here. It’s only accessible if you’re associated with a university or scientific body. I am, and I can tell you that the study did use “24-h dietary recall questionnaires.” I don’t know if you can recall what you ate over a 24-hour period, but I actually track calories, and unless I write what I ate down right away, I forget I ate it about half an hour later. Caloric intake was estimated based on self-reporting. Sorry, but that’s shoddy data right there. Exercise was also self-reported, based on questionnaires that assessed “if participants engaged in physical activity in the past month” (hello, can you remember your physical activity level in the past month)? But here’s the thing I really want to focus on: the physical activity assessed took place “during their leisure time.” It did include time running errands and doing yard work, which I think is good — more on that below — but it focused on leisure activities.

By the way, the study did broadly conclude that people both ate a lot more (total caloric intake rose 10-14%) and exercised more. That right there — the eating more part — can probably account for all the weight gain that the study noticed. People are heavier now because we eat more: portions and plates are both much larger than I remember in the 1980s. And various studies have shown that exercise doesn’t really help you lose weight (I know, I know, I’m skeptical about those too). Exercise keeps you fit and healthy, but weight loss seems to be largely a matter of what and how much you eat. (As well as the interplay of hormones, which is a whole other issue. No, it’s not as simple as calories in, calories out. But calories are a significant part of it.)

However, let me get to what I really want to say. What the study did not account for is the changes in how we live since the 1980s. Life is much, much easier now than it used to be. If you were around in the 1980s, you’ll remember having to dial the phone, which involved pushing buttons rather than tapping on glass. Maybe even getting up to change the television channel, or at least hunting among the various remotes. But let’s go back farther in time. Once, there were rotary phones that made dialing even harder. Once, dishes needed to be washed by hand. You used to have to walk to different stores for meat, bread, vegetables. I started thinking about this recently because I was in Eugene, Oregon, doing some research for a book I’m writing, and I stayed in an AirBnB with a microwave. It was so easy! I just put my dinner in the microwave, pushed a button, and there it was — cooked food! Granted, I did have to clean the splatters off the microwave until I figured out how to do it properly. But at home I don’t have a microwave — I have to actually cook, which at a minimum means turning on the stove and stirring. What I realized is that a microwave reduced the physical resistance involved in making dinner. Just as a computer reduces the physical resistance of typing on a typewriter. Getting a plastic bag at the grocery store reduces the physical resistance of hunting around for your bag, taking it with you, and maybe having to wash it afterward.

Technological progress has involved reducing the amount of resistance in our lives. Our lives nowadays can be so much easier than they were in the 1980s. We don’t even need to get out of the house and go to the video store . . . This has good aspects: it increases accessibility. But it also has bad aspects. If you go all the way back to the 1950s, people got a lot of exercise simply from the ordinary daily activities of living. Cleaning house took a lot more energy than it does nowadays. So did shopping. One problem with this study is that it took into account what people did in their leisure time — in other words, did you go bike riding for fun? (Which is why the inclusion of errands and yard work is a plus — those aren’t actually leisure activities.)  But it did not account for the fact that our daily physical lives are so much easier. If we want to talk about weight, I think we have to take into account not exercise, but activity — overall activity, including all the things we do on a daily basis. And I suspect — no, I have not done a study to prove this, my hypothesis is based on having lived in the 1980s, but also having seen my grandmother, who lived in the 1950s, and the way she conducted her life — that even though we exercise more, we move a lot less than we used to.

I’m not a scientist, so I want to offer not a conclusion, but a suggestion. When you can, to the extent you can, take the path of most resistance. If modern technology has reduced resistance in our lives, so that we move easily (from our cars to the mall, for example), then actively seek out things that add motion to your day. Write by hand. Cook a meal. Walk to the grocery store carrying your own bag. Ride a bicycle to work. Read a physical book that forces you to flip the pages rather than just scrolling. Mail a letter (yes, with a stamp, in a mail box). Sew on a button. These are small, sometimes tiny, motions. My hypothesis is that they add up. I believe (and I have no evidence, so someone do the study please — just not with self-reported data) that adding resistance to your daily life will make you healthier both physically and psychologically. (Remember, to the extent you are able — technology has been very important for increasing access, and people should use it to whatever extent it helps them.)

I’ve tried to do this myself. I write by hand, I cook and wash the dishes, I walk to three different stores to buy my groceries. It’s a way of, not exercising, but building movement into my day. I don’t know for sure whether it makes me healthier, but it feels as though it does. And that’s my self-report . . .

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Trying to Recover

I’m still trying to recover from this academic year.

It’s been the hardest academic year I’ve had since the one in which I finished my doctoral dissertation (when I went to see a therapist every Thursday, like clockwork). The strange thing is, I’m not sure why it’s been so hard — this time, there’s no particular reason, no single thing that has made the year difficult. It’s just been the workload. Somehow, I’ve felt like a machine, producing producing producing, always for other people. Producing lesson plans, assignment sheets, comments on finished work. Even the work I love to do, whether writing a paper about fairy-tale heroines or a book on girl monsters, has often felt like a chore, something I needed to complete. There has been very little joy this year.

I should not complain, because I’m incredibly lucky. I have a job I mostly love and that gives me a lot of freedom. I have a lovely apartment in a city I like living in. I’m healthy, and when I’m not, I have healthcare. I have a book coming out, which is of course a dream come true. I have a smart, creative, wonderful daughter. I’m deeply, truly grateful for all those things.

At the same time, there is an underlying problem. I can see it when I look at my files: this year, I’ve written one very short story and eight poems. Granted, I’ve been writing the sequel to my first book, and at the moment that’s 200K words long. When I sent it to my editor, months late and much longer than it was supposed to be, my only comment was, “Is this actually two books?” But this is a year in which I’ve written very little for the sheer joy of it, simply because I wanted to. (I love that second book, but I’m not naturally a writer who goes to that length — my comfort zone for a novel is 80K to 120K words.) And perhaps most importantly, I’ve been consistently, persistently tired. I never get enough sleep — that’s partly a function of having so much to do that I keep pushing myself, staying up late and getting up early, and partly being so anxious about all the deadlines and obligations that I don’t sleep well.

Not getting enough sleep is the worst. It’s the thing that throws everything else off. Last night I didn’t mean to stay up until 4 a.m. finishing some work, and yet there I was, yet again. I was awake by 8:30 this morning. I don’t care what CEO boasts about getting four hours of sleep a night — it’s not enough, not for me, not anyone, and yet all year I’ve been getting by on four to six hours a night. No wonder I feel sick . . .

So I need to recover. The question is, how? Get more sleep, obviously, but that’s also a symptom of deeper problems. Eat well, exercise. I’m actively working on those. Above my desk, tacked to my corkboard, I have inspirational quotations, because that’s who I am, inspirational-quotation-girl. Well, some of them are admonitory, there to remind me of things I tend to forget. Among them is a picture I drew of a pyramid with three levels. The bottom level is sleep, the next one up is diet and exercise in equal measure, and the top of the pyramid, the peaky hat, is joy. You need the things in the bottom two layers, but you need joy as well: it filters down from that top layer and affects whether you can keep up with the things we assume are more basic. I, too, tend to assume that joy is a sort of extra, something you can get once you fulfill the duties (sleep, diet, exercise). But that’s wrong. if you attend to the joy, it makes everything else easier.

(The pendant to the side was given to me by a graduate student of mine whose book is coming out this year. I’m so proud of her!)

So, where to find joy? Or how to create it? I think different people find or create joy differently. For me, it comes easily as long as I have time to do things that are of no use at all. That have no monetary value, that are not attempts to learn anything, gain anything, accomplish anything of value. That are just messing around. Writing this blog post gives me joy. (Blog posts have been pretty sparse lately, as you may have noticed.) Walking around in a garden or park gives me joy. Reading purely for pleasure. Watching movies in which people in a small English village murder each other. (That sounds gruesome, but a good murder mystery makes me intensely happy.) Learning about things when I don’t have to (like poisons or bird species). Anything that does not involve duty or obligation or deadlines. In other words, I’m one of the people for whom joy is easy — I just need to get out of my own way.

So recovery is going to take more than getting a bit of sleep. It’s going to take me thinking about what sort of work I take on. I do need to take on a lot of work: I have a job, and a job on top of that, and then there’s the writing. None of that works without my doing a lot. But somehow, I have to carve out spaces for myself. I have to not get overwhelmed with the amount I need to do. I have to fit in time for goofing off, because that goofing is actually healthy. It’s joyful.

I’m going to be working on it. Meanwhile, I have things to do, but sometime today I’m going to start reading that book on poisons . . .

(This is me, looking tired, as I have all semester. But it’s summer, and there are roses . . .)

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Writing Girl Monsters

I have a novel coming out this summer. It’s called The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, and it’s about Mary Jekyll, daughter of the infamous Dr. Jekyll, who discovers that her father belonged to a secret society of alchemists . . . a society whose members were creating girl monsters. As the novel progresses, she meets Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein, all created through strange experimentation. I’m not giving you any spoilers, by the way. All of this is right on the book jacket!

Since the book is coming out this summer, I’ve started to see some mentions of it online, on various blogs or websites. There was one in particular that made me smile: a blogger listed books she would never, ever read, and mine was on it. Why would she never read it? Because I was rewriting stories written by others, rather than creating stories that were uniquely my own. You know what I would say to that blogger? You’re doing it exactly right. You know what you do and don’t want to read, and you’re not going to read books that don’t interest you. That’s exactly what readers should do. Read what you’re interested in — what makes you laugh, and cry, and happy to be alive. That’s what really matters. That’s what I would tell her.

But I do want to say something, to anyone else who might be interested in this book, about why I’ve written it — why, specifically, I’ve written a book about girl monsters, or in some cases monstrous young women (they range in age from fourteen to twenty-one). Let me tell you their stories, as they originally appeared:

Mary Jekyll:
Of course, Mary does not appear in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I made her up entirely. But I made her up for a reason. Stevenson’s book has almost no women in it — a couple of maids, a little girl who is trampled, that’s about all. This semester, I’m teaching a course called The Modern Monster, and we’ve talked about why there is a dearth of female characters in the novella. (If you’ve seen the stage or musical versions, you’ll know they both add female characters — predictably, a fiancée and a prostitute.) My hypothesis is that the book is specifically about late Victorian masculinity. Several times, Hyde is presented as symbolically female: he is in part, although not entirely, the female traits inside Jekyll that have to be suppressed for Jekyll to be a proper Victorian man.

Diana Hyde: Diana is entirely made up as well, and for the same reason. Mary and Diana both come out of what is not there, what does not appear, in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’m adding women where there were none — and not a fiancée and prostitute!

Justine Frankenstein: There is no Bride of Frankenstein, not in the novel. Frankenstein never creates a female monster because he’s afraid she would mate with his male monster and their offspring would outcompete humanity. He gathers body parts to create her, starts the process of making a second monster, then disassembles her and throws her body parts into the sea.

Catherine Moreau: Dr. Moreau does create a female monster in The Island of Dr. Moreau. He makes a woman by vivisecting a puma. Guess how many speaking lines she gets? Zero. She does exactly one thing: she kills Moreau. And then she, herself, is killed. Are you starting to see a pattern?

Beatrice Rappaccini: Beatrice is made, and she does get to speak! And then she dies. You can read all about it in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” By the way, calling my novel The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter incorporates two references: to Stevenson’s novel, of course, but also to all the “X’s Daughter” novels. So you see, the references are deliberate, and they’re meant to be at least partly ironic. Although in this case, it really does matter whose daughter Mary is, and the whole issue of being a daughter, what it means to be a daughter, who is a daughter . . . well, the novel should raise some questions about that. But the thing is, all the characters I’m writing about, either they don’t exist or they die. Because that’s what female monsters do, in late nineteenth-century fiction.

That’s why I wrote this book, and that’s why it’s structured the way it is. Some readers aren’t going to like that structure — I already know that. It makes the book a little harder to read, because the central narrative is continually being interrupted. But what is it being interrupted by? Women’s voices. This is a book that, if I’ve done my job right, or at least accomplished what I meant to do, is filled with women’s voices, telling their own stories.

That’s why I rewrote the stories. Because they had no, or little, place in them for female characters. So I decided the stories were wrong, had been told incorrectly. I decided the women had their own stories to tell, their own perspectives. And I wanted to let them speak.

I don’t know how people will respond to what I’ve done — the book is totally out of my hands now. For months, I’ve been working on the sequel, which will take Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine deep into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s so much fun to write about late nineteenth-century Vienna and Budapest! Although you have to know pesky things like how to get a passport, the timetables for various trains on the European continent, the exchange rate from pounds to francs to krone — all in the late 1800s! I can’t tell you what the sequel will be called yet, because we haven’t made a final decision about the title, but in my mind I think of it as Monsters Abroad. (No, it definitely won’t be called that.)

So why am I rewriting stories? Because the original versions killed and/or silenced women. I think stories need to be rewritten, just as social institutions like the university, the church, and the workplace need to be reconfigured, to include women and their voices. I listened to the original stories — I read them, I taught them, for goodness’ sake I wrote a whole doctoral dissertation on them. And I heard voices that were not on the page. So I told the stories those voices were telling me . . .

I think that’s pretty such always the way writing happens, whether the voices come from other works of fiction, history, the writer’s own family . . . You hear voices, and then you write down what they’re saying.

(Here is the book cover! Isn’t it beautiful? I can say that because I had nothing to do with its beauty . . . All the credit goes to the artist, Kate Forrester, and the art director, Krista Vossen.)

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Template Stories

There are certain stories that are written over and over again. I call them “template stories.”

“Snow White” is a template story. So is Dracula. There are many, many versions of “Snow White”: there’s the Grimms’ fairy tale, of course, but also book versions, movie versions . . . And each version is a reinterpretation of earlier versions, a conversation with those versions. Each version can be very different from the others. It’s the same with Dracula. How is this different from non-template stories? Well, take for instance a novel by Edith Wharton. There may be a movie version, but it will be a version of that particular novel–it will attempt to represent that novel, its plot and characters, in their time period. Same with novels by Henry James, Virginia Woolf, most other novelists . . . But “Snow White” gets turned into Snow White and the Huntsman, which is almost nothing like the original fairy tale. Dracula becomes Count von Count from Sesame Street.

Template stories are a little like vampires, in that they live on and on . . . And they keep transforming themselves. Most myths are template stories. So are many fairy tales, but certain modern stories have taken on this particular quality of fairy tales. They have become modern myths. Hamlet is a template story, as is Murder on the Orient Express. Jane Austen novels are not quite template stories, but are in the process of becoming so as we keep rewriting them — Clueless is one example of how an Austen novel can function as a template. Interestingly, Emma is the novel of hers most often turned to other uses.

I’ve been trying to figure out what turns a story into a template story. I think character is central: you need something that serves as a still point around which the rest of the story can pivot. That’s usually a character: Snow White, Dracula, Hamlet, Hercules Poirot, Emma Woodhouse, Sherlock Holmes, Batman. But the still point can also be something else: the House of Usher or Wonderland, for example. The story needs to have something that lives outside the story, and I think also something that reaches deep into our minds, below the level of consciousness. There’s something in these stories that resonates deeply with us — the stories stay with us, or at least certain components of them do. And if we are creative, we feel the compulsion to engage with them, reimagine them. So we get more stories set in Oz, or stories about Tarzan . . .

I don’t think you can know ahead of time what will become a template story. I don’t think you can set out to write one. Although it does, I suspect, take thinking about story a little differently. Instead of thinking about what issue you want to tackle, what style you want to write in, how you want to engage with the contemporary literary world (and yes, there are writers who think about all those things), you want to pursue your subject a little differently. You want to dip down into the deep well, into the dark water of story, and draw something out — you’re not entirely sure what, at first. Or maybe you’re never sure. But it takes going deep into a mysterious place where you’re not sure entirely what you’re doing. Template stories partake of the structure or substance of myth. Mary Poppins is one of the old gods . . .

Template stories are often not the stories we validate culturally: they are not the intellectual novels, ones that win prizes. They come, more often I think, from popular fiction, children’s literature, comic books . . . Perhaps because those sources are closer to the deep well. They are not trying so hard to be relevant. They usually don’t tell us about social conditions at a particular time and place, although literary critics can analyze Peter Pan in the context of the Victorian concept of childhood or J.M. Barrie’s life. But of course they are relevant, in a different way. They keep getting rewritten. Every generation gets its own Peter Pan, its own Miss Marple. King Lear is always fresh and new.

And template stories are not necessarily the best stories in literary terms. Dracula is a fascinating novel, but it’s not as well-written as anything by Thomas Hardy. Nevertheless, Dracula has a continuing life that Bathsheba Everdene does not. There are movies made of Far from the Madding Crowd, but she’s not a muppet. Maybe you don’t want your characters to become muppets? As for me, I would be thrilled to write a story that turned into a template, that turned into something other people wanted to reconfigure in various ways. I think that would be fascinating. But it does mean I think about story in a slightly different way. I try to go deeper, to send my bucket down into the well that exists in my head, and your head, and all of our heads. And sometimes it means I play with other templates, that I retell the old stories in my own way. Not for any particular conscious reason, but because that’s the sort of writer I am. Perhaps it’s fair to say that I am a teller of tales, that what I’m writing are tales of various lengths rather than short stories or novels? Isak Dinesen makes that distinction, and I think she’s certainly writing tales, which is why I like them so much.

At any rate, there are different ways to tell stories . . . and this is one of mine.

(The image is an illustration for “Snow White” by Hanna Boerke.)

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Mapping the Fairy-Tale Heroine’s Journey: Quotations

Into the Dark Forest: Mapping the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey
by Theodora Goss, PhD

The tales that feature a fairy-tale heroine’s journey:

ATU 310: “Petrosinella” (Basile), “Persinette” (de la Force), “Rapunzel” (Grimm)
ATU 410: “Sun, Moon, and Talia” (Basile), “The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods” (Perrault), “Briar Rose” (Grimm)
ATU 425A: “East o’the Sun and West o’the Moon” (Asbjørnsen and Moe)
ATU 425C: “Beauty and the Beast” (de Beaumont)
ATU 450: “Brother and Sister” (Grimm)
ATU 451: “The Seven Doves” (Basile), “Six Swans” (Grimm), “The Seven Ravens” (Grimm), “The Twelve Brothers” (Grimm)
ATU 480: “The Fairies” (Perrault), “Mother Holle” (Grimm)
ATU 510A: “The Cat Cinderella” (Basile), “Cinderella” (Perrault), “Aschenputtel” (Grimm),
ATU 510A: “Vasilisa the Fair” (Afanas’ev)
ATU 510B: “Donkeyskin” (Perrault), “All Fur” (Grimm), “Catskin” (Jacobs)
ATU 533: “The Goose Girl” (Grimm)
ATU 709: “The Young Slave” (Basile), “Snow White” (Grimm)

The steps of the fairy-tale heroine’s journey as they appear in the tales:

Step 1: The heroine receives gifts.

Meanwhile, the fairies could be heard presenting their gifts to the princess. The youngest declared, “She will be the most beautiful person in the world.” The next added, “She will have the disposition of an angel.” The third decreed, “Her every movement will be marked by gracefulness.” The fourth, “She will dance beyond compare.” The fifth, “She will sing like a nightingale.” The sixth, “She will play every instrument with consummate skill.” — Perrault, “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood.”

So the old queen packet up a great many precious items and ornaments and goblets and jewels, all made with silver and gold. Indeed, she gave her everything that suited a royal dowery, for she loved her child with all her heart. . . . Then she placed a white handkerchief underneath her finger, let three drops of blood fall on it, and gave it to her daughter. — Grimm, “The Goose Girl”

Step 2: The heroine leaves or loses her home.

When the king’s daughter saw that there was no hope whatsoever of changing her father’s inclinations, she decided to run away. That night, while everyone was asleep, she got up and took three of her precious possessions: a golden ring, a tiny gold spinning wheel, and a little golden reel. She packed the dresses of the sun, the moon, and the stars into a nutshell, put on the cloak of all kinds of fur, and blackened her face and hands with soot. Then she commended herself to God and departed. — Grimm, “All Fur”

She slept on the top floor of the house in the attic on a pathetic straw mattress, while her sisters had bedrooms with parquet floors, the most fashionable style of bed, and mirrors in which they could look at themselves from head to toe. — Perrault, “Cinderella”

Step 3: The heroine enters the dark forest.

The poor child was left alone in the vast forest. She was so frightened that she just stared at all the leaves on the trees and had no idea what to do next. She started running and raced over sharp stones and through thornbushes. Wild beasts darted near her at times, but they did her no harm. She ran as fast as her legs could carry her. When night fell, she saw a little cottage and went inside. — Grimm, “Snow White”

So the next morning, when she woke up, both the Prince and castle were gone, and then she lay on a little green patch, in the midst of a gloomy thick wood, and by her side lay the same bundle of rags she had brought with her from her old home. — Asbjørnsen and Moe, “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon”

Cinderella thanked him, went to her mother’s grave, and planted a hazel sprig on it. She cried so hard that her tears fell to the ground and watered it. It grew and became a beautiful tree. — Grimm, “Aschenputtel”

Step 4: The heroine finds a temporary home.

The stepmother moved to another house near the edge of the deep forest. In the glade of that forest was a hut, and in the hut lived Baba Yaga. She never allowed anyone to come near her and ate human beings just as if they were chickens. The merchant’s wife hated Vasilisa so much that, at the new house, she would send her stepdaughter into the woods for one thing and another. — Afanas’ev, “Vasilisa the Fair”

Since he now feared that the stepmother might not treat them well and might even harm them, he brought them to a solitary castle in the middle of a forest. It lay so well concealed and the way to it was so hard to find that he himself would not have found it if a wise woman had not give him a ball of yarn with magic powers. — Grimm, “Six Swans”

Step 5: The heroine meets friends and helpers.

The bird tossed down a dress more splendid and radiant than anything she had ever had, and the slippers were covered with gold. — Grimm, “Aschenputtel”

The dwarfs told her: “If you will keep house for us, cook, make the beds, wash, sew, knit, and keep everything neat and tidy, then you can stay with us, and we’ll give you everything you need.” — Grimm, “Snow White”

How did this all come about? Things would have been different without the doll. Without her aid the girl could never have managed all the work. — Afanas’ev, “Vasilisa the Fair”

Step 6: The heroine learns to work.

She left the hut, went into the middle of the forest, climbed a tree, and spent the night there. The next morning she got down, gathered asters, and began to sew. She could not talk to anyone, nor did she have a desire to laugh: she just sat there and concentrated on her work. — Grimm, “The Six Swans”

“Stay with me, and if you do all the housework properly, everything will turn out well for you. Only you must make my bed nicely and carefully and give it a good shaking so the feathers fly. Then it will snow on earth, for I am Mother Holle.” — Grimm, “Mother Holle”

Since she had never seen a distaff or a spindle and was greatly pleased by all that winding, she became so curious that she had the woman come up and, taking the distaff in her hand, she began to draw the thread. But then, by accident, a little piece of flax got under her fingernail and she fell dead to the ground. — Basile, “Sun, Moon, and Talia”

Step 7: The heroine endures temptations and trials.

Snow White felt a craving for the beautiful apple, and when she saw that the peasant woman was eating it, she could no longer resist She put her hand out the window and took the poisoned half. But no sooner had she taken a bite when she fell down on the ground dead. — Grimm, “Snow White”

Vasilisa was the fairest girl in the village, and her stepmother and stepsisters were jealous of her beauty. They tormented her by giving her all kinds of work to do, hoping that she would grow bony from toil and weatherbeaten from exposure to the wind and the sun. And indeed, her life was miserable.” — Afanas’ev, “Vasilisa the Fair”

“No,” the woman said. “That is–there’s only one way in the entire world, but it’s so hard, you won’t be able to free them. You see, you would have to remain silent for seven years and neither speak nor laugh. If you utter but a single word and there is just an hour to go in the seven years, everything will be in vain, and your brothers will be killed by that one word.” — Grimm, “The Twelve Brothers”

Step 8: The heroine dies or is in disguise. (Sometimes this is the true partner.)

No sooner had she touched the spindle than she pricked her hand with its point and fainted. . . . Nothing could revive her. — Grimm, “Briar Rose”

“The hide of the donkey will be the perfect disguise to make you unrecognizable. Conceal yourself carefully under that skin. It is so hideous that no one will ever believe it covers anything beautiful.”
— Perrault, “Donkeyskin”

All that was in the room was gold or silver; but when she had gone to bed, and put out the light, a man came and laid himself alongside her. That was the White Bear, who threw off his beast shape at night; but she had never seen him, for he always came after she had put out the light, and before the day dawned he was up and off again. — Asbjørnsen and Moe, “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon”

Step 9: The heroine is revived or recognized. (Sometimes she must do this to the true partner.)

She sat down on a stool, took her foot out of the heavy wooden shoe, and put it into the slipper. It fit perfectly. And when she stood up and the prince looked her straight in the face, he recognized the beautiful girl with whom he had danced and exclaimed: “She is the true bride.” — Grimm, “Aschenputtel”

The king could no longer restrain himself. He sprang forward and said, “You can be no one else but my dear wife!”

At that very moment life was restored to her by the grace of God. — Grimm, “Brother and Sister”

How great was her surprise when she discovered that Beast had disappeared and that a young prince more beautiful than the day was bright was lying at her feet, thanking her for having broken the magic spell. — de Beaumont, “Beauty and the Beast”

Step 10: The heroine finds her true partner.

No sooner had her precious tears fallen on the prince’s eyes than he regained his full vision. Now he could see just as clearly as he had seen before, and all this was due to the tenderness of the impassioned Persinette, who took him into her arms. He responded with endless hugs, more than he had ever given her before. — de la Force, “Persinette”

The king’s son, who was returning from a hunt, encountered her, and observing how beautiful she was, he asked her what she was doing there all alone and what had caused her to weep. . . . She told him the entire story, and the king’s son fell in love with her. — Perrault, “The Fairies”

When the sentence had been carried out, the young king married his true bride, and they both reigned over their kingdom in peace and bliss. — Grimm, “The Goose Girl”

Step 11: The heroine enters her permanent home.

When the king saw this, he ran and took Zezolla in his arms and led her to sit on the throne beneath the canopy, where he put the crown on her head and ordered everyone to bow and curtsey to her as their queen. — Basile, “The Cat Cinderella”

The fairy waved her wand, and everyone there was transported to the great hall of the prince’s realm, where the subjects were overjoyed to see him. The prince married Beauty, who lived with him for a long time in perfect happiness, for their marriage was founded on virtue. — de Beaumont, “Beauty and the Beast”

Step 12: The heroine’s tormentors are punished.

“The ogress, enraged at the sight of the king, flung herself headfirst into the vat and was devoured by the repulsive reptiles she had ordered put in there.” — Perrault, “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood.”

“She deserves nothing better,” said the false bride, “than to be stripped completely naked and put inside a barrel studded with sharp nails. Then two white horses should be harnessed to the barrel and made to drag her through the streets until she’s dead.”

“You’re the woman,” said the king, “and you’ve pronounced your own sentence. All this shall happen to you.” — Grimm, “The Goose Girl”

When the couple went to church, the elder sister was on the right, the younger on the left side: the doves pecked one eye from each one. Later, when they left the church, the elder sister was on the left, the younger on the right. The doves pecked the other eye from each one. And so they were punished for their wickedness and malice with blindness for the rest of their lives. — Grimm, “Aschenputtel”

Sources for these tales:

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Translated by Jack Zipes, 3rd ed., Bantam, 2003.

Jones, Christine A. and Jennifer Schacker, editors. Marvelous Transformations: An Anthology of Fairy Tales and Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Broadview, 2013.

Tatar, Maria, editor. The Classic Fairy Tales. 2nd ed., Norton, 1999.

Zipes, Jack, editor. The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm. Norton, 2001.

Afanas’ev, Alexandr, editor. Russian Fairy Tales. Translated by Norbert Guterman, Pantheon, 2013.

(This information accompanied a paper originally given at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts 38, in March, 2017. The image is an illustration for “Vasilisa the Fair” by Ivan Bilibin.)

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