Writing Is/as Work

Confession: last night I was up until 3:30 a.m. working on a novel. Was that good for me? Well no, probably not. But it was good for the novel, because I wrote a scene that I really like. Today I’m tired, but I have that scene on my typing stand. Tonight I’ll revise and add to it, although I can’t stay up that late again because tomorrow I have to teach. Why do I push myself in this way? Because writing is part of my job. I have deadlines to meet, novels to write and get out there into the world. I’m a writer . . . so I write.

Recently, there was an article published, somewhere or other, making the argument that writing is not a job. Well, I guess that depends on how you define a job. I mean, if you define it as something that provides you with steady income, health benefits, and a retirement plan, then no, writing isn’t a job. But then, a lot of other freelance work doesn’t qualify either.

I like the idea of writing as a job, because that’s what it feels like when I’m actually doing it. When I started thinking about this subject, I remembered two quotations that have always bothered me. Here’s the first one:

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” –Ernest Hemingway

I don’t know if Hemingway actually said this — it’s simply one of the things attributed to him on the internet. And it sounds good, doesn’t it? It’s pithy, and truthy . . . it feels true. We often think of writing as self-expression, so it feels true to say that writing is like bleeding. Why don’t I like the quotation? Because I’ve written before, and I’ve bled before, and bleeding is a lot easier. More painful, but easier in that you’re not sitting there bleeding for hours at a time, mentally engaged in bleeding, trying to bleed well, bleed so the reader can follow along, so she doesn’t put the book down and say, “What boring blood. I think I’ll go see what’s on Netflix.”

Of course the quotation isn’t talking about actually bleeding, but what it implies is that writing involves sitting down at your typewriter/keyboard and letting your emotions pour forth, as though you were bleeding. That attitude is expressed in the second quotation I dislike:

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” — Robert Frost

Maybe Frost really did say that? What I dislike about it is that it assumes the writer is a sort of emotional conduit. He or she must feel something, so the reader can later feel it. If you want your reader to cry, you must first cry . . . But that’s not true. Writing is an art, but it’s also a craft, and I can make a reader cry without, while I am writing, feeling anything in particular myself. All I have to do is describe something likely to make a reader cry, and then hopefully the reader will respond.  But the reading experience exists independently of the writing experience. The reader and writer are not in a symbiotic relationship. The reader may well decide that the scene I wrote so emotionally myself is really quite funny. If I’m a good writer, I should be able to make most readers cry, depending on my knowledge of what makes most people cry. Hemingway supposedly wrote a devastating six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” I read that, and it makes me tear up. He supposedly wrote it on a restaurant napkin in response to a bet. I don’t think he was tearing up as he wrote it.  If he did write it, I think he did so feeling rather smug that he could pull it off.

My point here is that writing takes craft and skill, and the writer is like any other artist: a painter, a composer. A Monet may well make you cry, but I don’t think Monet was crying as he painted it — he was painting. Yes, he may well have drawn on moments he had cried in the past, and writers do that — sometimes, when I’m stuck on an emotional scene, I’ll think about how I felt at an analogous moment and remember that. I’ll try to reproduce the emotion inside myself, based on memories.  But it’s in the service of description, and I know that if I don’t describe whatever it is I’m describing well, it’s not going to raise any sort of emotional response in the reader. That depends on my craft and skill.

Writing is a job, and it feels like a job — there are deadlines, there is work to be done. Sometimes I love doing it, sometimes I don’t, but I do it anyway because it’s my job to finish that particular story, that novel.  And honestly, I find the idea of writing as a job reassuring. If I woke up in the morning thinking, “I need to be an artist today,” I would probably go hide under the covers again. But if I think, “I need to get out of bed and write a chapter,” I will go do my job, using everything I have learned, all my intellect, whatever techniques I have. Because that’s how it’s done.


(I don’t know where this image is from, but I love that it’s of a girl writing.)

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A Birthday Present: Blanchefleur

Recently, I put together a PDF of my fairy tale “Blanchefleur,” based very loosely on Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat,” for a fairy tale class taught by a friend of mine. She said the class went well, and that the students liked my fairy tale, which is of course the best compliment any author can receive! Yesterday was my birthday, and I like to give presents on my birthday, so I thought I would give you (if you’re interested) a present . . .

This is the PDF of the story I prepared for her — it’s the story of Idiot (the boy no one trusted or cared about), Blanchefleur (the somewhat sarcastic white cat), and the mysterious Lady of the Forest. If you’d like to see whether or not you’re interested in the story, I’ve copied the first section below.

Here it is, with all best wishes:


They called him Idiot.

He was the miller’s son, and he had never been good for much. At least not since his mother’s death, when he was twelve years old. He had found her floating, face-down, in the millpond, and his cries had brought his father’s men. When they had turned her over, he had seen her face, pale and bloated, before someone had said, “Not in front of the child!” and they had hurried him away. He had never seen her again, just the wooden coffin going into the ground, and after that, the gray stone in the churchyard where, every Sunday, he and his father left whatever was in season — a bunch of violets, sprays of the wild roses that grew by the forest edge, tall lilies from beside the mill stream. In winter, they left holly branches red with berries.

Before her death, he had been a laughing, affectionate child. After her death, he became solitary. He would no longer play with his friends from school, and eventually they began to ignore him. He would no longer speak even to his father, and anyway the miller was a quiet man who, after his wife’s death, grew more silent. He was so broken, so bereft, by the loss of his wife that he could barely look at the son who had her golden hair, her eyes the color of spring leaves. Often they would go a whole day, saying no more than a few sentences to each other.

He went to school, but he never seemed to learn — he would stare out the window or, if called upon, shake his head and refuse to answer. Once, the teacher rapped his knuckles for it, but he simply looked at her with those eyes, which were so much like his mother’s. The teacher turned away, ashamed of herself, and after that she left him alone, telling herself that at least he was sitting in the schoolroom rather than loafing about the fields.

He learned nothing, he did nothing. When his father told him to do the work of the mill, he did it so badly that the water flowing through the sluice gates was either too fast or slow, or the large millstones that grind the grain were too close together or far apart, or he took the wrong amount of grain in payment from the farmers who came to grind their wheat. Finally, the miller hired another man, and his son wandered about the countryside, sometimes sleeping under the stars, eating berries from the hedges when he could find them. He would come home dirty, with scratches on his arms and brambles in his hair. And his father, rather than scolding him, would look away.

If anyone had looked closely, they would have seen that he was clever at carving pieces of wood into whistles, and that he seemed to know how to call all the birds. Also, that he knew the paths through the countryside and could tell the time by the position of the sun and moon on each day of the year, his direction by the stars. He knew the track and spoor of every animal, what tree each leaf came from by its shape. He knew which mushrooms were poisonous and how to find water under the ground. But no one did look closely.

It was the other schoolboys, most of whom had once been his friends, who started calling him Idiot. At first it was Idiot Ivan, but soon it was simply Idiot, and it spread through the village until people forgot that he had ever been called Ivan. Farmers would call to him, cheerfully enough, “Good morning, Idiot!” They meant no insult by it. In villages, people like knowing who you are. The boy was clearly an idiot, so let him be called that. And so he was.

No one noticed that under the dirt, and despite the rags he wore, he had grown into a large, handsome boy. He should have had sweethearts, but the village girls assumed he was slow and had no prospects, even though he was the miller’s son. So he was always alone, and the truth was, he seemed to prefer it.

The miller was the only one who still called him Ivan, although he had given his son up as hopeless, and even he secretly believed that the boy was slow and stupid.

This was how things stood when the miller rode to market to buy a new horse. The market was held in the nearest town, on a fine summer day that was also the feast-day of Saint Ivan, so the town was filled with stalls selling livestock, vegetables from the local farms, leather and rope harnesses, embroidered linen, woven baskets. Men and women in smocks lined up to hire themselves for the coming harvest. There were strolling players with fiddles or pipes, dancers on a wooden platform, and a great deal of beer — which the miller drank from a tankard.

The market went well for him. He found a horse for less money than he thought he would have to spend, and while he was paying for his beer, one of the maids from the tavern winked at him. She was plump, with sunburnt cheeks, and she poured his beer neatly, leaving a head of foam that just reached the top of the tankard. He had not thought of women, not in that way, since his wife had drowned. She had been one of those magical women, beautiful as the dawn, as slight as a willow-bough and with a voice like birds singing, that are perhaps too delicate for this world. That kind of woman gets into a man’s blood. But lately he had started to notice once again that other women existed, and that there were other things in the world than running a mill. Like his son, who was a great worry to him. What would the idiot — Ivan, he reminded himself — what would he do when the his father was gone, as we must all go someday? Would he be able to take care of himself?

He had saddled his horse and was fastening a rope to his saddle so the new horse could be led, when he heard a voice he recognized from many years ago. “Hello, Stephen Miller,” it said.

He turned around and bowed. “Hello, Lady.”

She was tall and pale, with long gray hair that hung to the backs of her knees, although she did not look older than when he had last seen her, at his wedding. She wore a gray linen dress that, although it was midsummer, reminded him of winter.

“How is my nephew? This is his name’s day, is it not?”

“It is, Lady. As to how he is –” The miller told her. He might not have, if the beer had not loosened his tongue, for he was a proud man and he did not want his sister-in-law to think that his son was doing badly. But with the beer and his worries, it all came out — the days Ivan spent staring out of windows or walking through the countryside, how the local farmers thought of him, even that name — Idiot.

“I warned you that no good comes of a mortal marrying a fairy woman,” said the Lady. “But those in love never listen. Send my nephew to me. I will make him my apprentice for three years, and at the end of that time we shall see. For his wages, you may take this.”

She handed him a purse. He bowed in acknowledgment, saying, “I thank you for your generosity –” but when he straightened again, she was already walking away from him. Just before leaving the inn yard, she turned back for a moment and said, “The Castle in the Forest, remember. I will expect him in three days’ time.”

The miller nodded, although she had already turned away again. As he rode home, he looked into the purse she had given him — in it was a handful of leaves. He wondered how he was going to tell his son about the bargain he had made. But when he reached home, the boy was sitting at the kitchen table whittling something out of wood, and he simply said, “I have apprenticed you for three years to your aunt, the Lady of the Forest. She expects you in three days’ time.”

The boy did not say a word. But the next morning, he put all of his possessions — they were few enough — into a satchel, which he slung over his shoulder. And he set out.

In three days’ time, Ivan walked through the forest, blowing on the whistle he had carved. He could hear birds calling to each other in the forest. He whistled to them, and they whistled back. He did not know how long his journey would take — if you set out for the Castle in the Forest, it can take you a day, or a week, or the rest of your life. But the Lady had said she expected him in three days, so he thought he would reach the Castle by the end of the day at the latest.

Before he left, his father had looked again in the purse that the Lady had given him. In it was a pile of gold coins — as the miller had expected, for that is the way fairy money works. “I will keep this for you,” his father had said. “When you come back, you will be old enough to marry, and with such a fortune, any of the local girls will take you. I do not know what you will do as the Lady’s apprentice, but I hope you will come back fit to run a mill.”

Ivan had simply nodded, slung his satchel over his shoulder, and gone.

Just as he was wondering if he would indeed find the castle that day, for the sun was beginning to set, he saw it through the trees, its turrets rising above a high stone wall.

He went up to the wall and knocked at the wooden door that was the only way in. It opened, seemingly by itself. In the doorway stood a white cat.

“Are you the Idiot?” she asked.

“I suppose so,” he said, speaking for the first time in three days.

“That’s what I thought,” she said. “You certainly look the part. Well, come in then, and follow me.”

He followed her through the doorway and along a path that led through the castle gardens. He had never seen such gardens, although in school his teacher had once described the gardens that surrounded the King’s castle, which she had visited on holiday. There were fountains set in green lawns, with stone fish spouting water. There were box hedges, and topiaries carved into the shapes of birds, rabbits, mice. There were pools filled with waterlilies, in which he could see real fish, silver and orange. There were arched trellises from which roses hung down in profusion, and an orchard with fruit trees. He could even see a kitchen garden, with vegetables in neat rows. And all through the gardens, he could see cats, pruning the hedges, tying back the roses, raking the earth in the flower beds.

It was the strangest sight he had ever seen, and for the first time it occurred to him that being the Lady’s apprentice would be an adventure — the first of his life.

The path took them to the door of the castle, which swung open as they approached. An orange tabby walked out and stood waiting at the top of the steps.

“Hello, Marmalade,” said the white cat.

“Good evening, Miss Blanchefleur,” he replied. “Is this the young man her Ladyship is expecting?”

“As far as I can tell,” she said. “Although what my mother would want with such an unprepossessing specimen, I don’t know.”

Marmalade bowed to Ivan and said, “Welcome, Ivan Miller. Her Ladyship is waiting in the solar.”

Ivan expected the white cat, whose name seemed to be Blanchefleur, to leave him with Marmalade, but instead she followed them through the doorway, then through a great hall whose walls were hung with tapestries showing cats sitting in gardens, climbing trees, hunting rabbits, catching fish. Here too there were cats, setting out bowls on two long wooden tables, and on a shorter table set on a dais at the end of the room. As Marmalade passed, they nodded, and a gray cat who seemed to be directing their activities said, “We’re almost ready, Mr. Marmalade. The birds are nicely roasted, and the mint sauce is really a treat if I say so myself.”

“Excellent, Mrs. Pebbles. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to those birds. Tailcatcher said that he caught them himself.”

“Well, with a little help!” said Mrs. Pebbles, acerbically. “He doesn’t go on the hunt alone, does he now, Mr. Marmalade? Oh, begging your pardon, Miss,” she said when she saw Blanchefleur. “I didn’t know you were there.”

“I couldn’t care less what you say about him,” said Blanchefleur, which a sniff and a twitch of her tail. “He’s nothing to me.”
“As you say, Miss,” said Mrs. Pebbles, not sounding particularly convinced.

At the back of the great hall was another, smaller door that led to a long hallway. Ivan was startled when, at the end of the hallway, which had been rather dark, they emerged into a room filled with sunlight. It had several windows looking out onto a green lawn, and scattered around the room were low cushions, on which cats sat engaged in various tasks. Some were carding wool, some were spinning it on drop spindles, some were plying the yarn or winding it into skeins. In a chair by one of the windows sat the Lady, with a piece of embroidery in her lap. One of the cats was reading a book aloud, but stopped when they entered.

“My Lady, this is Ivan Miller, your new apprentice,” said Marmalade.

“Otherwise known as the Idiot,” said Blanchefleur. “And he seems to deserve the name. He’s said nothing for himself all this time.”

“My dear, you should be polite to your cousin,” said the Lady. “Ivan, you’ve already met my daughter, Blanchefleur, and Marmalade, who takes such marvelous care of us all. These are my ladies in waiting: Elderberry, Twilight, Snowy, Whiskers, and Fluff. My daughter tells me you have nothing to say for yourself. Is that true?”

Ivan stared at her, sitting in her chair, surrounded by cats. She had green eyes, and although her gray hair hung down to the floor, she reminded him of his mother. “Yes, Ma’am,” he said.

She looked at him for a moment, appraisingly. Then she said, “Very well. I will send you where you need not say anything. Just this morning I received a letter from an old friend of mine, Professor Owl. He is compiling an Encyclopedia of All Knowledge, but he is old and feels arthritis terribly in his legs. He can no longer write the entries himself. For the first year of your apprenticeship, you will go to Professor Owl in the Eastern Waste and help him with his Encyclopedia. Do you think you can do that, nephew?”

“It’s all the same to me,” said Ivan. It was obvious that no one wanted him here, just as no one had wanted him at the mill. What did it matter where he went?

“Then you shall set out tomorrow morning,” said the Lady. “Tonight you shall join us for dinner. Are the preparations ready, Marmalade?”

“Almost, my Lady,” said the orange cat.

“How will I find this Professor Owl?” asked Ivan.

“Blanchefleur will take you,” said the Lady.

“You can’t be serious!” said Blanchefleur. “He’s an idiot, and he stinks like a pigsty.”

“Then show him the bathroom, where he can draw himself a bath,” said the Lady. “And give him new clothes to wear. Those are too ragged even for Professor Owl, I think.”

“Come on, you,” said Blanchefleur, clearly disgusted. He followed her out of the room and up a flight of stairs, to a bathroom with a large tub on four clawed legs. He had never seen anything quite like it before. At the mill, he had often washed under the kitchen spigot. After she had left, he filled it with hot water that came out of a tap and slipped into it until the water was up to his chin.

What a strange day it had been. Three days ago he had left his father’s house and the life he had always lived, a life that required almost nothing of him: no thought, no effort. And now here he was, in a castle filled with talking cats. And tomorrow he would start for another place, one that might be even stranger. When Blanchefleur had taunted him by telling the Lady that he had nothing to say for himself, he had wanted to say — what? Something that would have made her less disdainful. But what could he say for himself, after all?

With the piece of soap, he washed himself more carefully than he had ever before in his life. She had said that he smelled like a pigsty, and he had spent the night before last sleeping on a haystack that was, indeed, near a pen where several pigs had grunted in their dreams. Last night, he had slept in the forest, but he supposed that the smell still lingered — particularly to a cat’s nose. For the first time in years, he felt a sense of shame.

He dried himself and put on the clothes she had left for him. He went back down the stairs, toward the sound of music, and found his way to the great hall. It was lit with torches, and sitting at the two long tables were cats of all colors: black and brindled and tortoiseshell and piebald, with short hair and long. Sitting on the dais were the Lady, with Blanchefleur beside her, and a large yellow and brown cat who was striped like a tiger. He stood in the doorway, feeling self-conscious.

The Lady saw him across the room and motioned for him to come over. He walked to the dais and bowed before it, because that seemed the appropriate thing to do. She said, “That was courteous, nephew. Now come sit with us. Tailcatcher, you will not mind giving your seat to Ivan, will you?”

“Of course not, my Lady,” said the striped cat in a tone that indicated he did indeed mind, very much.

Ivan took his place, and Marmalade brought him a dish of roast starlings, with a green sauce that smelled like catmint. It was good, although relatively flavorless. The cats, evidently, did not use salt in their cooking. Halfway through the meal, he was startled to realize that the cats were conversing with one another and nodding politely, as though they were a roomful of ordinary people. He was probably the only silent one in the entire room. Several times he noticed Blanchefleur giving him exasperated looks.

When he had finished eating, the Lady said, “I think it’s time to dance.” She clapped her hands, and suddenly Ivan heard music. He wondered where it was coming from, then noticed that a group of cats at the far end of the room were playing, more skillfully than he had supposed possible, a fife, a viol, a tabor, and other instruments he could not identify, one of which curved like a long snake. The cats that had been sitting at the long tables moved them to the sides of the room, then formed two lines in the center. He had seen a line dance before, at one of the village fairs, but he had never seen one danced as gracefully as it was by the cats. They wove in and out, each line breaking and reforming in intricate patterns.

“Aren’t you going to ask your cousin to dance?” said the Lady, leaning over to him.

“What? Oh,” he said, feeling foolish. How could he dance with a cat? But the Lady was looking at him, waiting. “Would you like to dance?” he asked Blanchefleur.

“Not particularly,” she said, looking at him with disdain. “Oh, all right, Mother! You don’t have to pull my tail.”

He wiped his mouth and hands on a napkin, then followed Blanchefleur to the dance floor and joined at the end of the line, feeling large and clumsy, trying to follow the steps and not tread on any paws. It did not help that, just when he was beginning to feel as though he was learning the steps, he saw Tailcatcher glaring at him from across the room. He danced several times, once with Blanchefleur, once with Mrs. Pebbles, who must have taken pity on him, and once with Fluff, who told him that it was a pleasure to dance with such a handsome young man and seemed to mean it. He managed to step on only one set of paws, belonging to a tabby tomcat who said, “Do that again, Sir, and I’ll send you my second in the morning,” but was mollified when Ivan apologized sincerely and at length. After that, he insisted on sitting down until the feast was over and he could go to bed.

The next morning, he woke and wondered if it was all a dream, but no — there he was, lying in a curtained bed in the Lady’s castle. And there was Blanchefleur, sitting in a nearby chair, saying, “About time you woke up. We need to get started if we’re going to make the Eastern Waste by nightfall.”

Ivan got out of bed, vaguely embarrassed to be seen in his nightshirt, then reminded himself that she was just a cat. He put on the clothes he had been given last night, then found his satchel on a dresser. All of his old clothes were gone, replaced by new ones. In the satchel he also found a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, a flask of wine, and a shiny new knife with a horn handle.

“I should thank the Lady for all these things,” he said.

“That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said since you got here,” said Blanchefleur. “But she’s gone to see my father, and won’t be back for three days. And we have to get going. So hurry up already!”

To read the rest, download the PDF:



(The illustration is from Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book.)

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Heroine’s Journey: Vasilisa the Beautiful

In my last post, I included the article I had written for Faerie Magazine on the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey. That article described the full journey, as I had finally worked it out in my head, with its twelve steps:

1. The heroine receives gifts.
2. The heroine leaves or loses her home.
3. The heroine enters the dark forest.
4. The heroine finds a temporary home.
5. The heroine meets friends and helpers.
6. The heroine learns to work.
7. The heroine endures temptations and trials.
8. The heroine dies or is in disguise.
9. The heroine is revived or recognized.
10. The heroine finds her true partner.
11. The heroine enters her permanent home.
12. The heroine’s tormentors are punished.

Now what I’m going to do is write about specific stories that fit the “fairy tale heroine’s journey” pattern. Remember, I’m not saying this occurs in all fairy tales: far from it! It actually occurs in only a small number, but it’s nevertheless important to pay attention to, for two reasons. First, because it’s the underlying pattern of a disproportionate number of the fairy tales we still read or watch (“Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Beauty and the Beast” — you can immediately visualize the Disney versions, can’t you?). And second, this pattern is about women’s lives — even though our lives have changed, it still applies to us, hundreds of years after these tales came into being.  Today, I’m going to write about a Russian fairy tale called “Vasilisa the Beautiful.”


(The image is an illustration for “Vasilisa the Beautiful” by Ivan Bilbin.)

So, what am I going to write about this fairy tale? First, I’m looking at the tale in Russian Fairy Tales, collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev, which actually contains three versions. The one we usually hear about (to the extent we hear about this tale — it’s a wonderful tale, but often fairy tale scholars have heard of it, and readers haven’t), is the version called “Vasilisa the Beautiful.” Here’s what happens:

Vasilisa is the daughter of a merchant. Her mother dies when she is eight years old. As she is dying, she gives Vasilisa a doll and says to Vasilisa, “Always keep it with you and do not show it to anyone; if you get into trouble, give the doll food, and ask its advice. When it has eaten, it will tell you what to do in your trouble.” The mother kisses her child and dies (literally — this being a fairy tale, that happens in one sentence). Of course the merchant marries again. Vasilisa’s stepmother has two daughters, and she and her daughters torment Vasilisa, making her do all the work. Already you can see a pattern developing that we associate with “Cinderella,” right?

What has happened so far?

1. The heroine receives gifts.
2. The heroine leaves or loses her home.

The doll is the gift. Losing her mother and then being treated like a servant is losing her home — Vasilisa no longer has the home she was a child in, even though she’s still in the same physical location. Her relationship to it has changed. This loss of home is literalized when her father leaves on a journey and her stepmother moves them all into a new home, next to a . . . dark forest, of course! The dark forest is always there, isn’t it? Just around the corner, in this case. And in this forest lives Baba Yaga.

Who is Baba Yaga? She’s a terrible witch with iron teeth! Except of course it’s more complicated than that, because in some stories there are three Baba Yagas, sisters — which reminds us of the Fates. Three of her servants are the White Horseman, Red Horseman, and Black Horseman — dawn, the sun, and the night. In other words, Baba Yaga looks very much like an ancient pagan figure of some sort, who became a witch in the Christian tradition. She lives in the dark forest in her hut on chicken legs, surrounded by human skulls.

Once Vasilisa’s family moves near the dark forest, her stepmother keeps sending her into the dark forest, but her doll keeps her safe. Then one night, the candles go out so that the three girls can’t finish some tasks the stepmother has set for them, and the stepsisters tell Vasilisa that she must go into the forest to get light from Baba Yaga. So Vasilisa goes into the dark forest.

3. The heroine enters the dark forest.

Finally, she comes to Baba Yaga’s hut: the fence is made of human bones, and on the spikes are human skulls. She sees Baba Yaga’s three horsemen pass by. Then Baba Yaga arrives, riding in her mortar, which she moves with a pestle, sweeping behind her with a broom to eradicate the traces of her passing. She sees Vasilisa, who asks for a light, and tells her that to get the light, she must first work — or Baba Yaga will eat her up!

4. The heroine finds a temporary home.
5. The heroine meets friends and helpers.
6. The heroine learns to work.

Vasilisa’s had two temporary homes at this point: the house her stepmother moved them into, and Baba Yaga’s hut. (This happened to Beauty as well: the house her merchant father moved the family into after they lost all their money, and the Beast’s house.) Her friend and helper is the doll, who was also the gift. The doll does most of the housework Baba Yaga assigned to Vasilisa — but not all. She still cooks the dinner. Unlike some of our other fairy tale heroines, Vasilisa is actually a worker from the beginning. It’s clear from the fairy tale that she knows how to cook and spin.

Baba Yaga asks Vasilisa how she managed to do everything, and Vasilisa says with her mother’s blessing. Well! That won’t do — Baba Yaga doesn’t want anyone blessed in her house, so she kicks Vasilisa out, but she gives her a skull with burning eyes to take back with her. That is the light she will return with to her stepmother’s house.

7. The heroine endures temptations and trials.
8. The heroine dies or is in disguise.
9. The heroine is revived or recognized.

Vasilisa endures trials, not temptations — her trial is that she must do an impossible amount of work in Baba Yaga’s house. And how does she die? Well, I’m going to argue that Baba Yaga’s house is itself the house of death. That’s why her stepsisters sent her there in the first place. It’s the equivalent of the Wicked Queen in Snow White trying to kill her daughter/stepdaughter. The bones and skulls should clue us into its character. Vasilisa is sent there to die. Of course she escapes death, but when she brings the skull light back to her stepmother’s house, its light burns her stepmother and stepsisters. In other words,

12. The heroine’s tormentors are punished.

Now that her stepmother is dead, Vasilisa moves in with another old woman in town — we are not told whom. That’s her third temporary home. There, she gets bored and asks for some flax. Out of the flax she spins the most beautiful linen thread, weaves it, and bleaches the resulting cloth. She tells the old woman to sell the cloth and keep the money for herself. The woman says it is only good enough for the tsar, so rather than selling it, she gives it as a gift to the tsar himself. The tsar wants some shirts made of it, but cannot find a seamstress to sew such find cloth, so he brings it back to the old woman and says if she knows how to spin it, she must know how to sew it. Of course she says it was all Vasilisa’s doing, and Vasilisa is given the task of sewing a dozen shirts. And here we are back at the sixth step:

6. The heroine learns to work.

It’s almost as though, since Vasilisa had the help of her doll in Baba Yaga’s hut, the storyteller wants to make sure we know Vasilisa can work — that she deserves the happy ending she’s about to get. Remember that these tales originated among the peasantry, where a girl had to prove herself by how well she could do the work of a household, including cooking, cleaning, and making clothes.

Vasilisa brings the shirts to the tsar herself, and of course he falls in love with her. He marries her, she moves into his palace, and she brings the old woman with her. When her father finally returns, he moves in too, and of course she still has the doll (who did not help make the shirts, notice!) in her pocket. In other words,

10. The heroine finds her true partner.
11. The heroine enters her permanent home

Here we find the complete journey of the fairy tale heroine, from childhood to marriage. And this is what the “fairy tale heroine’s journey” tales tend to look like: this is the common pattern. Notice that it’s also the pattern of Jane Eyre! Many tales of young girls growing up and finally getting married fit this pattern — not intentionally, I think, but because it’s been so deeply woven into our consciousness by reading fairy tales. It’s become a deep narrative pattern, both in literature and in our lives. We tend to live out this pattern in various ways because it’s the pattern the culture has given us for women. When we rebel against it, this is the narrative we’re rebelling against.

What about the other two Vasilisa stories in Afanas’ev? Interestingly, they’re both called “Baba Yaga.” In the first one, the father is a peasant, not a merchant. Because his second wife dislikes his daughter (who is not named), he brings her to Baba Yaga and offers her as a servant. She does well, with the help of some mice she has fed — here the mice replace the doll. The stepmother finds out that Baba Yaga is rewarding the girl for her hard work, so she sends her own daughter instead. She does not help the mice, so they don’t help her, and she is unable to complete Baba Yaga’s tasks. So Baba Yaga breaks her in pieces and sends her bones back to her stepmother, end of story. Here we see some of the same elements, but also a different pattern, which appears in a number of fairy tales: the good sister versus bad sister. That story pattern is almost an instruction manual in how to be a fairy tale heroine . . . Rule #1 is “be kind to animals.”

In the third story, the girl is again not named. The stepmother sends her to Baba Yaga, who is actually the stepmother’s sister. But the girl goes to her own aunt first, and her own aunt tells her how to defeat Baba Yaga. At Baba Yaga’s hut, she is helped by a birch tree, a gate, the dog, and the cat, all of whom she has benefited in some way. She runs away from Baba Yaga, first flinging down a towel that turns into a river, then flinging down a comb that grows into a forest. Finally she makes it home and tells her father what happened. He shoots the stepmother (I know, but fairy tales are violent — remember the Wicked Queen in Snow White . . .), and he and his daughter live happily ever after. This is also another pattern: the magical pursuit, with the heroine throwing items behind her that change into barriers for the pursuer.

So what have we learned today? That oral storytellers combined narrative elements, which are like small chunks of story: kindness to animals, the magical pursuit, the meeting with the tsar, etc. That’s how oral storytelling works. And some of those elements add up to the fairy tale heroine’s journey. It’s not the only journey: there are others. But this particular one has become deeply enmeshed in our cultural narratives.


(The image is an illustration for “Vasilisa the Beautiful” by Ivan Bilbin.)

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Into the Dark Forest: The Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey

Into the Dark Forest: The Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey
by Theodora Goss

“Ladies. Has it ever occurred to you that fairy tales aren’t easy on the feet?” –Kelly Link, “Travels with the Snow Queen”

Once upon a time, there was a teacher who taught a class on fairy tales. She taught all the fairy tales you’ve probably read, and ones you probably haven’t. At some point during the semester, she started noticing an underlying pattern that she called “the fairy tale heroine’s journey.”

That teacher was me. I’d been teaching the class for several years. We always started with “Little Red Riding Hood,” then went on to “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Bluebeard,” and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde. For each tale, we read older versions as well as modern rewritings, trying to understand their histories and the various ways they had been interpreted by scholars. We went in depth . . . and as we did, I started to notice that some of the tales followed a particular pattern. I was familiar with Joseph Campbell’s idea of a “hero’s journey,” but this seemed different. It seemed to be a pattern specifically for heroines of fairy tales, and reflected the pattern of women’s lives: particularly during the eras when many of the fairy tales were written down, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.

Of course, I was also familiar with the folklorist Antti Aarne’s idea of tale types. Faced with the large number and variety of fairy tales, Aarne had tried to organize them based on important narrative events. For example, the “Snow White” tale type (ATU 709 in the classification system he created and that has since been revised) includes the following events: (a) Snow White’s stepmother orders a hunter to kill her, but he spares her and brings back an animal’s heart as proof of her death; (b) Snow White flees to the house of the dwarves, who adopt her as a sister; and (c) her stepmother, realizing Snow White has survived, attempts to kill her again using poisoned laces, a poisoned comb, and finally a poisoned apple. What I was noticing looked like more than a tale type, because it occurred in a number of fairy tales, specifically ones that were about a young woman maturing into adulthood — fairy tales that focused on women’s lives and destinies. I came to think of it as a “meta tale-type,” and started mapping that particularly female journey.

And here I have to confess that this was more than a scholarly endeavor. I noticed an underlying pattern not just because I was teaching a class on fairy tales, but also because it seemed to reflect my own life, and the lives of my female friends. We too had been through dark forests. We too had lived in dwarves’ cottages, at least metaphorically. That’s why I started trying to understand it, looking specifically at fairy tales that focused on heroines, such as “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty,” as well as less familiar tales such as “Donkeyskin” and “The Goose-Girl.” Fairy tales are very old — they were oral wisdom before they were written down by literary figures such as Charles Perrault and Madame de Beaumont, or folklorists such as the Brothers Grimm. They still have a great deal to teach us. I wanted to know what that pattern could teach me . . .

I’m going to tell you what I think that map looks like, showing you the journey and its various steps. Of course, not every fairy tale I studied contains all the steps, and they can occur in different order. That’s true for tale types as well: not every “Snow White”-type story has the same plot. Nevertheless, the tale type describes a central narrative pattern, which is what I’m trying to define here. So what are the steps of the fairy tale heroine’s journey? I think they look something like this:

1. The heroine receives gifts.

At some point in the fairy tale, the heroine receives gifts. These gifts can be physical objects or personal attributes. Most famously, Sleeping Beauty receives gifts such as beauty, grace, and wit from the fairies at her christening. Cinderella receives three dresses and magical shoes, either from her fairy godmother or from a hazel tree that represents her mother’s spirit, depending on whether you’re reading the Perrault or Grimm versions. In “Donkeyskin,” a fairy tale related to the “Cinderella” tale-type, the heroine also receives three dresses, this time from the father who wants to marry her, as well as the donkey skin that will disguise her so she can escape. In “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon,” which is a “Beauty and the Beast”-type tale, the heroine receives a golden apple, comb, and spinning wheel from three wise women. She uses these items to save her husband from the troll princess he’s betrothed to marry.

In all the tales, gifts are important: they help the heroine complete her journey and achieve a happy ending. Which is true for us too, isn’t it? We also receive gifts. Some of them we are born with, as though they were given to us by the fairies: a talent for drawing, the ability to memorize obscure facts, naturally curly hair. Some of them we are given by friends and helpers: our parents may pay our college tuition, friends may let us stay in their apartment or give us their old clothes. Fairy tales teach us to be grateful for gifts and use them well. We don’t want to be like the heroine of “The Goose-Girl,” who loses a handkerchief spotted with her mother’s blood and with it, her mother’s protection.

2. The heroine leaves or loses her home.

Sometimes the heroine leaves her home, like Donkeyskin or the heroine of “The Goose-Girl,” who sets out to meet her destined husband with her maid and a talking horse named Falada. Sometimes she is driven out, like Snow White. But some heroines stay right where they are and nevertheless lose the homes they’ve known all their lives. Cinderella’s home changes fundamentally when her stepmother moves in and she must live as a servant in her own house. Sleeping Beauty stays in her castle, but when she wakes up her parents are long dead and her kingdom is gone. Eventually, her husband takes her to his castle, where his mother, who is an ogress, almost eats her and her two children. (If you’re asking where this happens in “Sleeping Beauty,” read the Perrault version!)

The heroine must leave or lose her home in order for the story to happen. And this is true for us as well: in our lives, we usually leave the homes we were born or grew up in. We go to college or move for our careers. We get married and form new families. Fairy tales tells us that leaving home is an important and necessary step. That’s when the adventure starts.

3. The heroine enters the dark forest.

Remember Snow White running away from the huntsman, deeper into the dark forest? The dark forest is a continually recurring element in fairy tales, probably because it was a real and important element in the lives of the people who told them. The dark forest was where you could lose your way, where you could meet wolves or worse. But it was also where you could find adventure. The heroine often has to venture into the dark forest. In “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon,” the heroine tries to see her bear-husband’s human face and is punished when he and his castle disappear, leaving her in the dark forest. She must seek him east o’ the sun and west o’ the moon, surely a confusing set of directions. Vasilisa the Beautiful is sent into the dark forest to bring back light from Baba Yaga’s hut, surrounded by its fence of bones topped with human skulls. Sleeping Beauty’s forest grows up around her, and it is the princes who must venture into it, often to their deaths. She lies at the heart of the dark forest, lost in it as she is lost in sleep.

We too have our dark forests, where we get lost: illness, misfortune, depression. The most important thing fairy tales have taught me about the dark forest is that the heroine never dies there. It’s where she feels lost and alone, where she is frightened. It’s dark, and there are mysterious noises. But the dark forest itself is not dangerous: the worst it can do is scare her for a while. And she will get out again. It’s just a step on the journey.

4. The heroine finds a temporary home.

Rapunzel’s tower, the cottage in which Snow White lives with the dwarves, Baba Yaga’s hut: these are all temporary homes for the heroines. After they leave their own homes, fairy tale heroines must often find a temporary place to live and learn what they need to before they move on. For Cinderella, her own kitchen becomes a temporary home, and Donkeyskin must stay in the kitchen of the prince’s castle before he discovers who she is and makes her his queen. “Beauty and the Beast” begins with Beauty’s family losing its home and moving to a small house in the country, where Beauty must rise early in the morning to do household chores. She does not find her true, final home until Beast summons her to his castle.

Think about your temporary homes: college dorm rooms, cities that seemed like good places to live for a while although you knew they weren’t your final destination. These are places to learn in, perhaps take refuge in. Most of us inhabit a series of temporary homes, trying to figure out where we fit, how to become the selves we want to be.

5. The heroine finds friends and helpers.

Fairy tale heroines always seem to find friends and helpers: Snow White’s dwarves, Cinderella’s doves in the Grimm version (called “Aschenputtel”), Falada the horse in “The Goose Girl.” Even after Falada’s head is cut off, he continues to speak, advising and advocating for his mistress. Vasilisa is helped by a magical doll that her mother gave her before she died. In “Yeh-hsien,” a Chinese “Cinderella”-type tale, the heroine feeds and cares for a fish with golden eyes until her stepmother finds out, kills it, and serves it for supper. However, Yeh-hsien gathers the fish bones and puts them under her pillow. Whenever she prays to them, they give her food and clothes, including a cloak of kingfisher feathers so she can attend the cave-festival.

In fairy tales, you never know who will be a friend and helper: it’s always best to be kind to old women by the side of the road, and of course to all animals. One of the most important lessons fairy tales teach is that when you’re in trouble, your friends and helpers will be there for you. If you treat them well, they will treat you well in return, whether they are old women, birds and fish, or even a doll.

6. The heroine learns to work.

When I started researching the fairy tale heroine’s journey, I was struck by how often it includes the heroine learning or performing some sort of household task, even when she starts out as a princess. Cinderella must cook and clean for her stepmother and stepsisters. Snow White, who probably never cleaned in her own castle, keeps house for the dwarves. Donkeyskin serves in the kitchen, and the goose-girl tends her geese. Vasilisa must cook for Baba Yaga. Perhaps the most important task is performed by the princess in “Six Swans”: while she is in the dark forest, she sews her brothers six shirts made of asters, a small star-shaped flower, to break the spell that has turned them into swans. “Sleeping Beauty” shows us a variation on this step: the princess does not learn a domestic task, but falls asleep as soon as her finger touches the spindle. However, the message that a domestic task may be dangerous is unusual in fairy tales: in most tales, particularly those coming from an oral peasant tradition, it’s important for the heroine to work so she can sustain herself and help others.

This step could be seen as sending a negative message to young girls: while fairy tale heroes fight dragons, heroines are relegated to domestic tasks. However, these stories come from a time when women’s roles were in fact circumscribed. Under those historical conditions, they make the case that women’s work is valuable and even magical. I think we can learn an important lesson from this particular step: we too must learn to work so we can sustain ourselves and help others. When we think of fairy tales, we tend to focus on the happy ending, but what happens along the way is just as important: the Tsar marries Vasilisa because the linen she weaves is so fine that it fits through a needle as though it were thread.

7. The heroine endures temptations and trials.

Temptations and trials are at the heart of fairy tales. Snow White is tempted by the corset laces, comb, and apple offered by the old peddler woman, who is of course the Wicked Queen in disguise. Sleeping Beauty is tempted by the spinning wheel and its dangerous spindle. Rapunzel is tempted by the prince who visits her, so handsome and different from the witch who has locked her in the tower. These heroines give in to temptation and pay the price for doing so. Yet the story could not proceed otherwise: temptations and trials are part of the journey. The heroine’s trials include living with a Beast to save her father, as Beauty does; or traveling far to find her husband, as the heroine does in “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon”; or sewing six shirts while staying perfectly silent for six years to save your swan brothers.

There are two lessons here. First, you will be tempted, and sometimes you will give in to temptation. That’s all right: it’s human and natural. But it may create trials, and anyway trials are part of the journey. I once said to a friend, “If you want to live in a fairy tale, you have to be willing to climb the glass mountains in iron shoes.” There are always hardships between “once upon a time” and “happily ever after,” but without those hardships, the story would not exist. So if you’re experiencing trials, remember that spelled differently, a “trial” is an “adventure.” Fairy tales promise us that through patience and persistence, the heroine will eventually find what she is looking for and become who she should be.

8. The heroine dies or is in disguise.

This is perhaps the strangest step in the fairy tale heroine’s journey. We all know of Sleeping Beauty’s death-like sleep. Snow White dies three times: twice the dwarves revive her, and the third time she is awakened when her coffin is jostled by the prince’s servants. However, some heroines die not literally but metaphorically: they are disguised for part of the story, like Cinderella in her rags or Donkeyskin under the donkey skin. This loss of identity is a symbolic death. In “The Goose-Girl,” once the princess has ridden into the dark forest, her maid forces her to switch places and promise not to reveal who she truly is, on pain of death. She must serve as goose-girl until she is finally recognized. In “Six Swans,” the heroine must also remain silent: she cannot reveal her identity until the six shirts are sewn, even when accused of murdering her own children. Like the dead, these princesses cannot speak. Not even Cinderella and Donkeyskin can speak up for themselves until they are identified by the magical shoe or ring.

Why must heroines die in these fairy tales? The anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep, who studied rites of passage in many cultures, showed that such rites often involve a symbolic death: the participant symbolically dies in one social state before being reborn in another. Before our modern era, rites of passage were more common in women’s lives: during the teenage years, they would mark when a girl became marriageable. I suspect these fairy tales reflect ancient rites of passage that occurred in the peasant societies from which they sprang. Recently, fairy tales have been criticizes for showing us passive, silent heroines. But in these tales, passivity and silence are temporary, and serve an important purpose. They are transformative, like the chrysalis stage during which the caterpillar turns into a butterfly, and show us that the story goes on even when nothing seems to be happening.

9. The heroine is revived or recognized.

This step is the logical corollary to the previous one. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty wake up from their death-like sleep. Donkeyskin and the goose-girl are restored to their rightful places. Cinderella’s slipper fits and identifies her as the woman from the ball. The heroine of “Six Swans” can finally speak and defend herself. “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon” shows us a variation on the pattern: here it is the prince who falls into a deep sleep each night, drugged by the troll princess, and the heroine who must revive him. Only then can he recognize her and trick the trolls into letting them go. In this step, the fairy tales seem to be telling us that although it’s all right to sleep for a while, eventually you must wake up. You must become who you truly are. There is no other way to “happily ever after.”

10. The heroine finds her true partner.

In fairy tales, the heroine’s true partner is usually a prince or king. In some stories, he finds her: the prince simply happens upon Snow White. In others, she must make an effort to find him: Aschenputtel asks her hazel tree for a dress and shoes so she can go to the ball, and when Donkeyskin bakes a cake for the prince, she drops her ring into the dough so he can later identify her. Vasilisa is equally crafty: when the linen she wove is given to the Tsar, she knows he will come for her, because she is the only one skillful enough to sew it into a shirt. In other stories, the heroine leaves or loses her true partner and must find him again. Beauty must return to the Beast, who has almost died of grief in her absence, and the heroine of “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon” must travel to the ends of the earth to free her husband from the trolls.

Certainly, this step reflects a time when women were expected to marry, and when marriage determined a woman’s material circumstances. We no longer live in that world, but the idea of finding a true partner still resonates. We still want to find the person who will recognize us for who we truly are: who will see the woman covered in ashes or hiding under the donkey skin. Fairy tales tell us that we can find such a partner in a number of ways: by accident or through deliberate action. It also tells us that we may not initially recognize a true partner, who may seem like a frog, pig, or bear. We have to look beyond external appearances. The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim believed that fairy tale characters represent parts of the self, and that the stories dramatized our psychological processes. If so, then perhaps the true partner can also be a part of us, the part that recognizes our worth even when we can’t acknowledge it ourselves.

11. The heroine enters her permanent home.

At the end of the fairy tale, the heroine finds the home she will remain in “happily ever after.” In this permanent home, she can finally rest. The temporary home she found earlier in the tale was a place of danger: Snow White was menaced by the Wicked Queen while she lived with the dwarves, Rapunzel was imprisoned in her tower, and Vasilisa had to do Baba Yaga’s housework — or be eaten! But once she reaches her permanent home, the heroine is safe. Why is it so often a castle? Because in the societies where fairy tales originated, the castle represented wealth and safety. We can think of these terms symbolically as well as literally: wealth can mean having what you truly need, and safety can mean finding a refuge from the world in which you can be your true self, without censure or criticism. Just as we long for a partner who understands us, we also long for a home where we can rest from our adventures, even if our castle is a one-room apartment in a big city or a split-level ranch in the suburbs.

12. The heroine’s tormentor is punished.

Sometimes, writers remove this aspect of a fairy tale. In “Aschenputtel,” the stepsisters cut off heels and toes so their feet will fit in the gold shoe, which fills with blood. At the end of the story, doves peck out their eyes for their deception and cruelty. However, in the Perrault version, Cinderella forgives her stepsters and even finds them aristocratic husbands. Perrault may have decided that a gruesome ending would be inappropriate for his aristocratic audience, but it’s an important part of most versions. In “Snow White,” the Wicked Queen is given red hot iron shoes, in which she dances herself to death. At the end of “Beauty and the Beast,” Beauty’s jealous sisters are turned to stone statues until they learn the error of their ways, whenever that might be. One of the worst punishments occurs in “The Goose-Girl,” in which the goose-girl’s maid is put in a barrel filled with nails and dragged along the street by two white horses. Ironically, this is the penalty she herself recommended when the king asked how a false maid should be punished.

Fairy tales imply that we punish ourselves, and many of the punishments are metaphors for the villains’ emotional states. The Wicked Queen’s jealousy burns her up, as though she were dancing in iron shoes. Beauty’s sisters have always been emotional statues: they are turned into literal versions of what they truly are. Aschenputtel’s stepsisters mutilate their own feet, and their blindness reminds us that they refused to see the girl who was dressed in rags, sleeping among the ashes. When she appeared at the ball, they could not recognize their own sister. In these punitive endings, fairy tales provide an ancient warning with a very modern message: don’t be a troll.

The “fairy tale heroine’s journey” can teach us important lessons about our own journeys. After all, our society isn’t as different as we sometimes think from the societies in which fairy tales were told or written. And women’s lives aren’t as different, either. We may be CEOs and university professors and artists, but we still leave our homes, enter dark forests, find temporary places of shelter. We must still learn to use the gifts we were given, find friends and helpers along the way. We must certainly still learn to work, so we can make our way in the world. And we still long for true partnership, for a home where we can rest. Unlike fairy tale heroines, we will probably make this journey not once, but many times during our lives. Fairy tales can help us understand where we are going and the steps along the way.

Fairy tales endure both because they teach us about ourselves and because they can be endlessly rewritten. Writers such as Angela Carter, Emma Donoghue, and Kelly Link have rewritten the old tales for a modern audience, and that’s all right — fairy tales are continually being retold, revised, made new. We are all on the journey, and it can take new forms as well as old, appropriate to the continuing journeys of women’s lives.

A Fairy Tale by Arthur Wardle

(This essay was originally published in Faerie Magazine 30, Spring 2015. The painting is A Fairy Tale by Arthur Wardle.)

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Me and Edna and May

On my last day in Brunswick, Maine, I walked into a second-hand bookstore and bought several books. One of them was The House by the Sea by May Sarton. I started to read it — she has such a beautifully lucid style. That’s what I look for when I read — lucidity, a sense of light shining through the words. That and wisdom.

As I flipped through it, on one page I noticed a passage marked with green pen, placed in parentheses and part of it underlined. You can see it in the photograph below. But here is the passage, in case it’s difficult to read in the photograph:

“How does one handle it? The greatest danger, as I see it in myself, is the danger of withdrawal into private worlds. We have to keep the channels in ourselves open to pain. At the same time it is essential that true joys be experienced, that the sunrise not leave us unmoved, for civilization depends on the true joys, all those that have nothing to do with money or affluence — nature, the arts, human love. Maybe that is why the pandas in the London Zoo brought me back to poetry for the first time in two years.”

What an interesting passage this is! It’s about leaving yourself open to the pain of the world, because that is the only way in which you can also experience its joys. It starts with a question: “How does one handle it?” How indeed? There is so much wrong, and painful, and to be wounded by. And yet Sarton says that withdrawal is dangerous, because it’s necessary to experience pain — probably because that’s the only way we can sympathize with it. But at the same time she warns us that we have to experience the joys also, or we are only partially living. Civilization, both our own (being “civilized”) and civilization as a whole, depend on the things that money can’t purchase: nature, the arts, love. If we can’t experience those things, we are poor indeed.

And then she mentions the pandas. I have no idea what that means. I haven’t gotten to that part yet. I’m looking forward to finding out what pandas have to do with poetry.

But there is another mystery here. The entire passage is in parentheses, but a particular sentence is both placed in additional parentheses and underlined: We have to keep the channels in ourselves open to pain. Whoever underlined that sentence did so for a reason: it meant something to her. If I were to play detective, I would speculate that she underlined it because she was in pain, and it was a reminder to herself that the pain was necessary, not to close the channels. Another part of a sentence is underlined, but not placed in parentheses: true joys be experienced. I think that was a reminder to herself too, that you don’t get the joys without the pain. And she was reminding herself that the joys were there, even if she might not be noticing them at that particular moment.

It’s funny, what a little underlining in green pen can tell you. The underlining is light: she did not want to mark up the book, and indeed, there are very few marks in it. This is the first, and the only one in pen — after this, she marked in pencil. The passage was important to her, so important that she marked it. I think she did not want to lose it.

Why do I say she? Partly because the delicacy of the lines makes me think of a woman. But also partly because on the inside back cover, there is a name and address. The first name is Edna. I won’t tell you her last name or where she lives, because who knows, she may be out there, somewhere. Throughout the book, there are a few other passages underlined:

. . . “at some point one has to make choices, one has to shut out the critical self and take the leap.”

“We are lonely when there is perfect communion. In solitude one can achieve a good relationship with oneself.”

“I am simply too isolated and starved.”

“For one person who would focus this beautiful world for me” . . .

. . . “loneliness like starvation” . . .

. . . “a rainstorm to blow off in time” . . .

Under the handwritten (in cursive) word “gardens” (and again this looks to me like a woman’s writing):

“Do I spend too much time at this ephemeral task? In spring, summer, and autumn I work harder at it than at waiting, and I expect that looks crazy, but what it does is balance all the anxieties and tensions and keep me sane. Sanity (plus flowers) does make sense.”

. . . “create the space necessary for achievement, little by little” . . .

What you can see here is a mind moving, selecting, the particular things that feel pertinent. You can see an intellect, you can see thought and even growth. The later passages are more hopeful than the earlier ones, although I don’t know if that has to do with the reader or Sarton. As I read this book, I am not only reading Sarton, I am also reading the previous reader’s reading of it. May is filtered for me through Edna.

And what I want to say about that is, I like you, May. And I like you, Edna. We are a chain of three women, writing and reading and annotating. Living and feeling and thinking. It’s as though we form a small community, right here in the pages of this book. That is the sort of joy, the sort of art, the sort of love that will save the world. Slowly, eventually . . .

May Sarton 1 1000

May Sarton 2 1000

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Sabotaging Yourself

I was thinking about this recently: ways you can sabotage yourself as a writer. I’ve done some of these myself, and I’ve also seen other writers doing them. I thought I would make a list of ways to sabotage yourself, as much for me as for anyone else. So here goes. (I’m sure this applies to the other arts as well, so adjust the wording as necessary.) Instructions for how to sabotage yourself:

1. Stop writing.

A lot of people just stop writing. I know this sounds so simple, so elementary, almost insultingly so. But if you want to be a writer, someone who writes and hopefully eventually gets published, you have to actually write stuff. You have to write a lot of stuff, because especially at first, a lot of it isn’t going to be very good, so it’s not going to get published.

Writing means writing. It doesn’t mean creating a website or social media presence. It doesn’t mean thinking about writing. It means butt in chair, hands on a pen or the keyboard. It means the actual hard work of making stuff up and putting that stuff down in words.

Recently, I talked to the Clarion Writing Workshop students, and I told them something that could sound depressing, but that I actually find heartening. Of the people I went to Clarion with, the ones who kept writing now have writing careers. There weren’t many. Most people don’t actually want to spend the next fifteen years of their lives butt in chair, writing. It’s fun to put stories down on paper, not so much fun to do it day after day after day, and then submit, and then maybe revise, and then certainly copyedit. And then do it again from scratch. But if you want to be a writer, that’s what it takes.

2. Stop growing as a writer.

This one is a little more subjective — I at least think it’s important to keep growing as a writer, to push yourself. If you write short stories, and you gain a reputation as a short story writer, write poems. If you’re a poet, write memoir. If you’re a memoirist, try a novel. Push yourself, do what you haven’t done before. I sometimes take on writing tasks simply because I haven’t done them before. This year, I wrote an academic review and an introduction to a short story collection. I’d never done either of those things before . . . I did them specifically because they were new to me, because they required me saying “yes” and then figuring out how to do it.

I think you have to scare yourself a little, as a writer. You have to move out of that comfortable space, go where you’re afraid of failing. That’s how you learn . . .

And there’s more to it than that. You have to read books you haven’t read, look at art you haven’t seen before, maybe even travel to countries where you’re never been. Learn a new language. Those are all ways of growing as a writer.

3. Don’t listen to advice.

I ran across this quotation the other day: “The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice.” –William Faulkner

I thought, Oh Faulkner, you were such a good writer, and such a basket case! I’m certainly not going to give you advice (I mean, you’re dead . . .), but for other writers, I would say, listen. Listen judiciously, of course, and reject anything that doesn’t apply to you. But really do listen. And by advice I mean a lot of things: when your teacher tells you the plot isn’t working, when your writing group tells you a character needs to behave differently, when an editor says she can’t see your setting. When your agent shakes his head as you describe a project. Listen, disagree if you need to, argue if you need to. But listen.

4. Be jealous of other writers.

You will be jealous of other writers. You just will be. I am, Anne Lamott is, maybe Stephen King isn’t I don’t know, but most of us are. How can we not be? We want so much to be heard, to have others understand. Writing is such a personal endeavor. We want publication and prizes and more than either of those, attention attention attention. We want people to listen to us.

But jealousy’s not going to get you that. Only writing is: writing well, writing true, writing strong.

And the only way to get there is to practice, practice, practice. I have a trick I may have mentioned before. I tell myself that I’m allowed to be jealous of another writer if I’m willing to be jealous of everything, the good and the bad. So I can be jealous that another writer is a bestseller, if I’m also jealous of the fact that a year ago, she couldn’t make rent. I can envy another writer’s advance if I’m also jealous of the fact that before he received it, he was trying to figure out how to afford health insurance for the year. When you do that, you get over being jealous pretty quickly, because there’s always something in someone else’s life that you wouldn’t want in your own.

In the end, I always decide that I would rather be myself, with my own flaws, my own failures.

5. Be angry or mean to others.

Anger only helps if it’s the righteous anger that makes you reject an unfair contract. Mean is never helpful. Firm, on the other hand, is sometimes called for. Firm-and-polite is more powerful than mean.

6. Always expect the worst.

This is my own example of magical thinking: I’ve come to believe that your expectations can in fact determine what happens to you. I know a woman who always expects the worst, and it always seems to happen. Planes develop engine trouble, plumbing leaks, checks go astray. I also know people who generally expect life to go well, despite some setbacks, and for them it does. I don’t know, perhaps I’m imagining it, but it seems to me that somehow, magically, what you expect life to be like does determine what your life is like.

It’s the opposite of a magnet: negativity seems to attract more negativity . . .

I can’t always be positive. I’m human, after all. But I do mostly try not to complain. If something is wrong, of course I try to set it right (see firm-and-polite, above). But just complaining . . . if I started doing that, I would get bored with myself! And after all, being a writer is what I want to do. I’m doing it because I chose to — no one forced me into this. No one forced me to write books, go to conventions, even teach. This is the life I chose for myself, and even when it’s difficult, I’m grateful for it.

So there you have it, six ways that I believe writers can sabotage themselves . . . Do the opposite!

Steps to the Sea 1

Steps to the Sea 2

(Both of these photographs are from Casco Bay in Maine. I was there for the Stonecoast summer residency . . .)

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Health and Happiness for Writers

At the Stonecoast MFA Program residency this summer, I led a seminar that I called Health and Happiness for Writers. The seminar was in the form of a panel, with five of us on it — five writers who were trying to maintain their health and happiness, which can be difficult when you’re writing intensively. I know, because I’ve been writing that way all week: I have a novel to finish by the end of the summer, and three weeks before things get busy again, so I’m trying to do as much as I can now. I get up in the morning and write, and then I just keep writing. When I do that, when I’m so completely in the narrative, the rest of the world seems to fade away. I’ve come out of an intensive period of writing to realize that I don’t remember the date, or even the year . . .

And writing comes with so many other issues that aren’t directly related to the writing itself: financial problems, the stress of trying to do something intensely difficult in the face of the world’s indifference to it, continual rejection . . . I’ve been lucky, I write and get published, I even make money at it. But it’s taken a long time to get here, and I could not support myself financially if I did not teach. And yes, I too get rejections. I always will. We all do.

For the seminar, I put together a handout of quotations from the four books I’d assigned (students were supposed to read any one of them): Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Stephen King’s On Writing, Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I really wanted students to think about not just the craft, for once, but also the life: how to create a good writing life, how to keep it going. Because you know, a writing career isn’t a sprint, and it isn’t a marathon. It’s just running. You start running and you keep on going, as hard, as far, as well as you are able. For a lot of people, it’s just too hard: I think it’s fair to say that most people who want to be writers stop once they realize there’s no ribbon at the end, and in fact no end. The people who stick with it are the people who love to run . . . I mean write.

So, let’s look at a few of those quotations (there were a lot more on the handout, of course):

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.” –Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I think this is so true! What I’ve found, with other things (eating heathy meals, exercising daily, even making my bed in the morning) is that once you create a routine, and once that routine becomes ingrained, you tend to stick to it. We are such creatures of habit. We tend to follow a routine because it’s easier than not. So find your writing routine, stick to it until it becomes ingrained, and then keep going.

“If I waited to be in the mood to write, I’d barely have a chapbook of material to my name. Who would ever be in the mood to write? Do marathon runners get in the mood to run? Do teachers wake up with the urge to lecture? I don’t know, but I doubt it. My guess is that it’s the very act that is generative.” –Dani Shapiro, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

I could have put this quotation up with the last one, because writing when you’re in the mood or inspired is the opposite of having a routine. But I wanted to point to something here specifically: the act is generative. It’s the sitting down to write that makes you come up with ideas. And if you create a routine, you’re telling your brain that when you sit down to write, it’s expected to come up with ideas. What I’ve found is that it does, inevitably. There is no idea bag with a limited number of ideas in it. The more I write, the more ideas I have. It’s like one of those magical bags in fairy tales: the more you pull out of it, the more you find inside.

“Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark. When I furnished this study seven years ago, I pushed the long desk against a blank wall, so I could not see from either window.” –Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

“You should have a bulletin board above your desk, if at all possible. Some place where you can tack images, quotes, postcards, scraps of thoughts and ideas that will help remind you of who you are and what you’re doing.” –Dani Shapiro, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

I actually disagree with the Dillard quote above, but then I’m one of those people who can hyperfocus. Once I start on something, I’m actually quite hard to distract. In fact, you’ll talk to me and I won’t hear you — I’ll be completely unaware of your existence. I would not be bothered by a lovely view; in fact, it would inspire me and make me happy. On the other hand, I do agree with Shapiro that a bulletin board is a good idea, and I have one over my desk. I have all sorts of things tacked to it, mostly inspiring quotations. I rarely actually look at it, but it’s there, just in case I need a little push . . .

“The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. . . . Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull the finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons.” –Stephen King, On Writing

This was kind of the whole point of the seminar: that writers do their work best when they’re healthy and happy. So they need to actually take the time to make themselves healthy and happy.  Whatever your addictions, get help, get clean.  Create your best non-writing life to create your best writing life.

“Those writers will get the place on the best-seller list, the movie sales, the huge advances, and the nice big glossy pictures in the national magazines where the photo editors have airbrushed out the excessively long eyeteeth, the wrinkles, and the horns. The writer you most admire in the world will give them rave reviews in the Times or blurbs for the paperback edition. They will buy houses, big houses, or second houses that are actually as nice, or nicer, than the first ones. And you are going to want to throw yourself down the back stairs, especially if the person is a friend.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Ah yes, jealously! It’s so easy to be jealous of another person’s success! I told the students that I have two things I do, to deal with jealousy and also those times when your work is criticized or reviewed badly. (a) I tell myself that I’m only allowed to be jealous of someone if I’m willing to take the bad with the good. There are writers I know who became successful, but only after going through serious financial crises. There are writers I know who have won prizes, but are also dealing with difficult medical conditions. Would I be wiling to be them? If not, then I’m not allowed to be jealous of them. I have to take my own bad, with my own good. (b) I read famous writers’ bad reviews. The one-star reviews, the ones that are critical or just plain mean. Especially when they are writers I admire! And I think, if he or she can take such criticism, well, so can I . . .

“Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong. It is no wonder if we sometimes tend to take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

This is the hardest part, isn’t it? We tend to pour our hearts and souls into writing, perhaps to be met with criticism . . . or what may be worse, indifference. The world will not stop spinning if you don’t write. But I do believe that if you are compelled to write, or to create any other kind of art, and if that art isn’t created, the great human tapestry is less rich for that one missing thread. Imagine our great tapestry, the tapestry of human life. Woven into it are the music we make, the dances we dance, the paintings we paint. The poems we write. The gardens we plant, the children we raise, anything that involves creativity, love, joy. When we write, we add to that tapestry.

I believe, fervently, that it matters. Even if no one else reads what you’re writing, it matters.

“I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.” –Stephen King, On Writing

Don’t listen to those people. Just don’t. Or write despite them, even to spite them . . .

“Learning what you need to do your best work is a big step forward in the life of any writer. We all have different requirements, different ways of working.” –Dani Shapiro, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

In the end, all of this advice is just for you to consider, to think about. What in it applies to you? What helps you? You need to create your own writing life, a life that enables your writing. You need to make it as healthy and happy as possible. One of the last things we did in the seminar was create a list. I said to the students, write down five things you can do to create a good writing life for yourself (some of them you may be doing already). If you, reader, want to do that? This is as good a time as any . . .

I’ll send with four photos of beautiful Casco Bay, at the final dinner we all have together at the residency.

Casco Bay 1 1000

The bay . . .

Casco Bay 2 1000

And rocks, covered with seaweed.

Casco Bay 3 1000

And me on the rocks, at the edge of the land, which is one of my favorite places to be.

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