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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Research for Writers

I’m back from Budapest! This month will be very busy: first I’ll be attending Readercon, where I’m an author guest. I’ll have a reading, a kaffeeklatsch, and a whole bunch of panels. Then I’ll be teaching at the Stonecoast MFA Program summer residency. While I’m there, I’ll be on a panel about research for writers, which makes perfect sense considering that I just got back from five weeks of doing research in Europe. Well, not all of it was doing research — some of it was sleeping and eating. But otherwise? Yes, pretty much all research.

First I flew to Budapest, where I spent one day in my grandmother’s apartment before heading by train to Vienna. In Vienna, I stayed with wonderful and very generous friends who live within walking distance of the Ringstrasse, which semi-circles the center of the city. Every day I was there, I would set out in the morning and just walk, as long as my legs would carry me. I ended up so tired! But I did all the research I needed to, in order to write the central chapters of the book I’m working on now. Honestly, I don’t think I could have written this book without going to Vienna — I hadn’t been in so long, and Vienna has a completely different character than Budapest, although they are related. It’s like the relationship between the sensible older sister who became an investment banker and the rebellious younger sister who ended up a performing artist — she has a lot less money, but she makes up for it in style and individuality. That’s how I think of Budapest. I really needed to see Vienna, smell Vienna, taste Vienna. I needed to get a sense of her, to internalize her just a little, so I could capture her in my novel.

One of the things I want to say at Stonecoast is that research for writing is completely different from the sort of academic research most of us are taught. I was taught more academic research than most: my PhD dissertation was on late nineteenth-century gothic literature, and as you can imagine, it required a lot of research. Around two years’ worth. When I started to write my first novel, I thought, easy peasy. I’ve done the research for this. Ha! The first time my characters wanted to buy anything and I had to figure out how many shillings were in a pound, I realized my previous research had been a bare beginning. You can write a PhD dissertation about the late nineteenth century not knowing very much about the sewage system, or contagious diseases, or how an oven works. But not a novel! For a novel, you need to know all sorts of things so you can imagine even more, so your characters can walk around in a world that has the texture of reality. You need to know about mourning customs, and when indoor plumbing was introduced, and what your characters would have heard walking down the streets. What were the costermongers crying? How did carriage wheels sound on cobble stones? When your characters climbed onto an omnibus, how did they do that?

There are different places you can do that research: of course you can find some information online and in modern books about the time period. But in order to write the first book, I also read all the books I could from that time period, including every single Sherlock Holmes story, paying particular attention to things like when characters drew on their gloves, where they looked when they needed to consult the train timetables. I also used primary sources, such as nineteenth-century maps. That became particularly important while I was researching the second book, because in that one my characters travel, and I wanted to make sure I had the exact same Baedeker they would have used (although mine is a PDF). But nothing quite substitutes for actually going there. I realized that one day while I was researching the first book, two years ago. I was in London, standing in an alley behind a row of houses facing Lincoln’s Inn Fields. My characters needed to stand in that alley, and one of them needed to climb up to a window on the second floor of one of the houses. How was that to be accomplished? And then I saw it: the drain pipe. My character would climb up that drain pipe! Judging by its look, it had been there in the late nineteenth century. Even if it hadn’t, it could have been — an external drain pipe would have been entirely possible in 1897. It’s fair to say that the most important thing I saw on that trip to London was the drainpipe.

One of the most important things I saw on this trip to Vienna was the Freud Museum, and I’m including some pictures here so you can see what sorts of photographs I take when I’m doing research. I needed photographs of the museum because it’s actually where Freud’s apartment and consulting office were located. My characters go to that office, and I wanted to describe it accurately.

This first photo is the Freud Museum itself. You can see that it’s simply on an ordinary back street. I almost got lost going there. (It’s very easy to get turned around in Vienna, unlike in Budapest, where you can always orient yourself by the river.)

Freud 1 1000

You walk up two flights of stairs and there you are, at Freud’s apartment. If you walk to the right, you come to his waiting room, which is still furnished the way it would have been when he was seeing patients in Vienna.

Freud 6 1000

Here is a second photograph of his waiting room. I have several others: I wanted to make sure I captured it completely. I bet that settee was actually not very comfortable, for those waiting to see him . . .

Freud 7 1000

The rooms that used to be his office are now a museum, so they aren’t furnished the way they used to be, but you can still see photographs of them on the walls.  The surfaces were covered with ancient pottery and statues, since he was interested in archaeology.  The shelves were filled with books.  The famous couch stood in the center of the room.  Below is his custom-made reading chair.

Freud 18 1000

And below you can see the trunk he kept packed, not at the time of my novel but later.  It was packed in case he and his family had to flee the Nazis, and of course they did finally have to.  This was the trunk they fled with.

Freud 16 1000

He used to look at himself in this mirror.  You see, he had oral cancer from smoking, and several surgeries for that cancer.  In this mirror he could see how they affected his face.  It felt uncanny taking my own photograph in it — which is exactly why I did it, of course.

Freud 17 1000

And finally, here is an example of the sort of thing you just have to see for yourself: a late nineteenth-century intrauterine device, used for birth control.  I wonder how effective it was!

Freud 23 1000

Research for writers is always in the aid of imagination. What writers do is take bits and pieces of reality and build a credible world out of it, whether that world is New York or Middle Earth. What you’re doing when you research is, at its simplest, paying attention. What does it actually feel like to climb up into a carriage? To wear a wool walking suit? To fire a revolver? What does the city smell like? What vegetables would have been sold in the markets? And then, you put your characters there, and imagine . . .

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The Caretakers

The year I was finishing my PhD, I would go to a therapist once a week. I was trying to manage depression, which honestly I think is pretty normal when you’re finishing a PhD. That sort of intensive work, for that long, can be so difficult — you spend your days staring at a screen, trying to make the words and ideas fit together, and then you try to manage the rest of your life at the same time. It was one of the most difficult periods of my life.

Anyway, we talked about my childhood, and one thing she told me was that I was a “caretaker.” I think she said that partly because when I was about twelve years old, I became responsible for taking care not only of myself, but also my little brother. Then later I started babysitting, taking care of other children. Even later, I worked at summer camps. Almost all the jobs I had before going to law school involved taking care of people, in one way or another. But it started with taking care of my little brother.

There is another way of being a caretaker. Somewhere along the way, I was taught to do what we now call emotional work: that is, taking care of the emotional needs of other people. Being not only responsible, but also responsive. This is something a lot of women are taught, of course. I think I learned it because I was raised in a Hungarian family, where you were not only supposed to do the appropriate thing, you were also supposed to feel the appropriate thing. To respond in a way the family thought was appropriate. If you didn’t, you were called an ungrateful American child. Or spoiled. I’ve been called spoiled many times in my life. It’s an interesting word, with an implication of rottenness — if you don’t behave or feel the way you should, you are somehow rotten. I think a lot of people were raised this way, although it was starting to change when I was a child — there was already a sense that children should develop their own sense of self, should learn to stand up for themselves, to create their own boundaries. But that was not part of my upbringing.

So I became a caretaker, and for the most part I remained one. As I lawyer, I took care of clients. Later, as a teacher, I took care of students, and of course I still do. In some ways, it’s like taking care of your little brother. It doesn’t mean giving him everything he wants — it means making sure he heats a healthy dinner, does his homework, goes to bed at the right time. Taking care of students means sometimes giving them things they don’t want, like grades they will be unhappy about — because hopefully they’ll learn from getting a “bad” grade, and do better. It means doing what you believe is best for someone else.  It also means listening, intuiting what is not said, caring.

There are good things about being a caretaker: if you’re doing it well, it’s helpful to other people. It makes conversations and interactions better, smoother, easier. This would be a difficult world without nurses and teachers, the types of people who are tasked most directly with caring for someone else. I don’t just mean helping — a surgeon can help you without exchanging a word with you. But nurses do both the emotional and physical work of caring, and that’s really what I’m talking about.

The danger of being a caretaker is that it can consume you. Taking care of other people is one of the most exhausting things you can do, as anyone with small children knows — in that situation, you are responsible for all their needs, physical and emotional. When my daughter started daycare and I went back to work,  I was surprised by how much of a relief it was to do that sort of caretaking instead.  I loved being with my daughter, but taking care of undergraduates, even sixty of them, was so much easier than taking care of a single two-year-old! That was of course because two-year-old children have no boundaries at all, physical or emotional, whereas teaching creates boundaries as well as connections — the emotional work of interacting with students was much easier.

Most women will know what I’m taking about when I say that caretaking requires emotional work, different amounts depending on the situation. Women are usually taught to do that work as they grow up — they are taught to be caretakers, to make others feel comfortable. They are taught to agree, to be agreeable. To defer when they are told they are wrong, to respond when a response is asked for. They are taught to take care of homes, men, children — and anyone they are in conversation with. If you’re a woman reading this, you probably have an instinct, in conversation, to make sure the person you’re talking to feels comfortable. It’s like putting a pillow under someone’s head. Smoothing a coverlet.

There are good things about that kind of work — another word for it is politeness, and back in the nineteenth century, gentlemen, as well as ladies, were praised for their ability to do it. Somewhere along the way we stopped asking men to do that sort of emotional work, and in male discourse we began to value authenticity. Speaking your mind became a masculine trait, although in women we still valued the ability to soothe, to make comfortable, to take care. That’s changing, although we’re at the point where women are being given the advice to speak up and ask for what they want, then penalized for doing so. It’s a confusing time. The bad thing about it is that, once again, it’s exhausting. Have you ever been in a conversation with someone you disagree with, but that person is also someone you need to treat with respect and politeness — maybe an older relative? Nodding, smiling, saying the soothing thing? Not getting into an argument? And ended up with a splitting headache afterward? Yeah.

What I want to say here is that being a caretaker can be a good thing, but you can’t do it all the time. You lose too much — to much energy, too much of yourself. There are times when you have to draw boundaries, when you have to retreat behind your own walls. You have to take care of yourself. That’s a cliché, but it’s true. There are times when you have to prioritize your own work, your own needs and desires, or you will burn out from trying to provide heat and light to other people. And caretaking can become a place to hide.  A substitute for finding your own way, doing your personal work. It’s so easy to say “Everyone else needs me” and ignore yourself. It’s so easy to find emotional fulfillment in meeting everyone else’s needs, at least for a while. Parents sometimes realize that as their children grow older and they think, wait, what was I going to do with my life again?

Caretaking is not enough. Taking care of other people’s needs isn’t enough. Even saving the world isn’t enough if you lose yourself in the process. Although saving the world is a very good thing to do, of course. Society needs caretakers, and honestly we could probably use more of them. Some of the people who are supposed to be caretakers aren’t doing a very good job (politicians especially — anyone remember that they’re supposed to advance the common good?). But don’t let yourself be trapped in being a caretaker. That’s not good for you, or ultimately anyone else.

Take care of yourself too. It’s not new advice, but I think it’s good to be reminded of it every once in a while.

Image by Jessie Wilcox Smith

(The painting is by Jessie Wilcox Smith.)

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