A Suitcase Full of Stories

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I want my mom to be proud of me. That’s not a feeling I’ve had since I was in elementary school.

My mom was a writer, who gave up college and her dreams to raise her kids. She had an old suitcase where she kept her story about the homeless hippie kid who was really a millionaire, her notebooks, her beautiful poems, comments and encouragement from her teachers.

As a teenager and a college student, I was too busy trying to prove that I wasn’t her to dream of making her proud. But now I want to – as a writer. I want to one day look back, and think how proud she must be of me for not having given up.

Rules for Writing Fairy Tales

In case you don’t know yet, I absolutely love fairy tales, and have often dreamed of writing my own fairy tales in the traditional language and style of Grimm’s. And yet this is something I really struggle with – something that seems like it should be so easy and is yet so hard – especially combining traditional fairy tale elements and language in a way that is completely unique and original, and not just a mash-up of other tales.

For anyone else who’s struggling with writing fairy tales of their own, I highly recommend Philip Pullman’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It’s not meant as an instructional book or a writing guide – it’s just editions of the stories researched and rewritten in Pullman’s language – but at the end of every story Pullman includes at least one short paragraph about how and why the tale works, and the choices he made in rewriting it. He breaks the tales down and analyzes them in a way that’s really accessible, and his book has helped me a lot in finally buckling down and writing a traditional fairy tale of my own.

Before getting down to work, I drew upon Pullman’s analyses to write down some quick rules of my own to follow as I wrote. Some of these are contradictory, and many go against everything we’re taught about writing, which are two more things that make writing a traditional fairy tale so hard. Here they are, in case they may be helpful to someone else:

1. Plot is love, plot is life

2. Move fast – don’t pause to explain, reflect, or describe

3. Everymen/women and princes/princesses are one and the same, eventually

4. Good things come in threes, or multiples there-of, except when they come in sevens

5. Dues-ex-machinas are fine, especially when they are gifted by wise women or witches

6. Animals can talk

7. Listen and obey, or don’t and face the consequences

8. Youngest sons/daughters are lucky and make the best protagonist

9. The season and the turning there-of is always important and can be used as a metaphor

The Wolves

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At Edgewood, upstate, night held no terrors; the woods were tame, smiling, comfortable… No, it was on the streets that you saw wolves, real and imagined; here you barricaded your door against whatever fearful thing might be Out There, as once the doors of woodsman’s huts were barred… Here you had adventures, won the prizes, lost your way and were swallowed up without a trace… this, this was the Wild Wood now, and Auberon was a woodsman.

– John Crowley, Little, Big

I absolutely love Central Park, especially on days when it feels like spring. In the mornings, Central Park is all manicured, misty green lawns, meandering paths lined with sheltering trees and Narnian lamp posts, still pools and spun-sugar arches over little streams.

At yet the park can change in a second, one thing in one neighborhood and another five blocks up, one thing by day and another by night. At night, in it’s heart, Central Park is a dangerous forest.

My husband and I, not thinking, decided to walk through the Ramble on our way home from a concert late last night. We’d been in Central Park at night before, down in the tame lower end, climbed up onto the mountains of rock to stare up at the dazzling lights of the West Side. There were teenagers with sparklers, couples with picnics. Not so in the park’s heart.

We saw our first wolves last night. We left the lights and music of the West Side, left the broad, well-lighted path that runs beside the pond, to make our way across to the Upper East Side and home. We climbed up a narrow path and around a corner, and suddenly the friendly park was a dark forest, the sheltering trees so thick they may have stretched on forever, the next cute lamp post eerily far away.

Two men waited in the dark corners, separated by ten feet of path. They whistled to one another as we approached. One lit a cigarette, the whites of his eyes catching the glare of the lighter. We held hands, and, like true New Yorkers, we walked quickly past, our eyes facing forward, moving as fast as we could without running, and we didn’t look back until we had emerged again into the blindingly bright, noisy crowds of Midtown.

Central Park is like the rest of the city, beautiful and terrible, so many things in one small space. From now on, I’ll avoid it’s dark heart at night, and yet it’s so much more interesting to know that it’s there.

Sylvie and Bruno

grand central station zodiacLast week, my husband and I spent our first full week in New York, searching for an apartment. For those of you who don’t know, searching for an apartment in New York is not really like searching for an apartment anywhere else, and we spent four days looking at countless 500 square foot, hardwood-floored walk-ups on the Upper East Side, until they all started to blend together into a nightmare of 50 square foot kitchens and impossibly steep stairwells.

We stayed in Midtown, close to where my husband will be working, and after a few days the crowds and the noise and the pace became another headachey blur.

I was discouraged. I was exhausted. I’d started to think that maybe we should have stayed in Raleigh after all. I mean, there we could have bought a house with my husband’s salary, instead of worrying about making rent on a place smaller than we’d lived in when we were both in college.

And then something magical happened.

We’d taken a day off of apartment hunting, and made a trip to the Lower East Side’s famous bookstore, The Strand, on the suggestion of a friend. I was in heaven. The Strand boasts that they have “18 miles of books” – a floor for fiction, a floor for nonfiction, a floor of children’s fiction, and an entire floor dedicated to their amazing rare book room. Making my rounds through the room, I stumbled upon a copy of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno.

My favorite novel in the entire world, one which I lose myself in every single spring, is John Crowley’s Victorianesque (not a word, I know) Little, Big. Seriously, if I could live inside any novel ever, this would be the one I would choose. In Little, Big, Auberon, a young writer, leaves home and makes his way to New York City, where he meets Sylvie, his fairy queen. Sylvie has a little brother named Bruno, and two chapters of Little, Big are named “Sylvie and Bruno” and “Sylvie and Bruno Concluded” after Lewis Carroll’s two famously failed novels of the same name.

Auberon’s New York is a scary, sometimes even post-apocalyptic world, and yet it’s also a world full of magic and adventure, a world of prophetic hobos and secret gated parks, a world where the backwards zodiac watches over subway commuters, where love and loss, light and dark, hold hands. Finding that copy of Sylvie and Bruno felt like a reminder of everything I had come here for, a reminder of the magic waiting beneath the rush.

Of course I took it back to the hotel room with me.

Eventually, we did find an apartment, one with a beautiful marble fireplace and spiral stairs up to the bedroom, only four blocks from Central Park. Today we moved in. It’s different, here. Different from the tiny, rural town I grew up in, different from the magical, sheltered world of Auberon’s childhood. And I think I’m going to like that.

And Now

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“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

– John Steinbeck

As the daughter of a perfectionist, and a sometime perfectionist myself, this is the most freeing quote! It has really helped me to open up my writing, to get over the fear of beginning, and take risks!

Christmas, One Year Later

My grandmother was never “that kind” of grandmother. She wasn’t patient; she wasn’t sweet; she wasn’t given to strong, public displays of affection. The only thing she ever taught me was how to win at Gin Rummy. “Hold up your cards, Jordan!” I can still hear her snap. She cheated.

She may have been that grandmother for my cousin; I don’t know. My cousin was everything I was not as a child. At family gatherings, she wanted to help cook, to set the table. I wanted to sit in my dad’s lap and listen to the men talk, or hide in a corner with a book, or roam through the house, opening drawers.

Did Grandmother teach her all those things I didn’t learn? How to make her special sweet potato casserole and how to grow old elegantly and how to set the table, with forks on the left and knives on the right? How to keep the bottoms of the cookies from burning, and the trick to hiding your paperback romances in the top of the closet so that your curious granddaughter does not find them? When she died, I was surprised by how much I missed her.

It was only recently, as we both got older, as I became, in her eyes, an adult with thoughts and opinions of my own, and she became, in mine, someone with years and years of stories to tell, whom I suddenly realized that I barely knew, that we began to find ways that we met and meshed. We both liked our tea the English way, hot with milk and sugar. We both knew to make friends with the librarians so that they don’t care if you check out lots of books and keep them forever. We both loved to travel, both planned dream trips we were afraid we’d never get to take.

Holidays – family gatherings which she was once the center of – feel strange now. When the poetry book that I’m working through asked me to write a poem about loss, it was Christmas that I immediately thought of.

 

Christmas, One Year Later

And I pass back and forth
between kitchen and living room,
crowded with cousins, and aunts and uncles,
thinking you must always
just be missed in the other room.

I keep smelling your perfume,
Elizabeth Arden:
Red Door,
and someone made your sweet potato casserole
with the walnuts in,
and at first I assumed it was you.

Grandmother –
I keep listening for your laugh.

When we hand out the gifts,
there’s no pile of envelopes
with their creased fifty dollar bills,
and when we line up for photos by the tree
I almost tell them to wait for you.

When we say our goodbyes,
waves from the cousins,
Aunt Jennifer’s brittle hug,
Gail and Joe’s slaps on the back,
there’s no wet smack on my cheek,
no squeeze of my elbow,
and I can feel the lack of it
all the ride home.

I Want to Tell You a Story

My friend’s six year old daughter, Isabella, loves telling stories. Sometimes they’re a breathless sentence or two. Sometimes she rambles on all morning. This is her latest:

“I want to tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a princess who lost her favorite shoe in a spooky forest. And there were wishes. They weren’t people wishes, with eyes and hands and feet and skin. They were star wishes. And then, I got her shoe back. The end.”

They weren’t people wishes, with eyes and hands and feet and skin. They were…

I’ve been repeating this to myself over and over again for the past few days. It’s beautiful. What does it mean? Where did a six year old come up with this? What sort of wishes were they? What happened next?

It reminded me of a Phillip Pullman quote: “Fairy tales are too easy for children, and too hard for adults.” Sometimes, I would love to be able to tell stories like a child.

An Exercise from Hemingway and Bruce McAllister

In the latest issue of Writers Ask, Bruce McAllister writes: “Hemingway’s favorite exercise was to take a favorite scene from another writer’s novel, try to recreate it in words as close as possible to the original, and compare the two versions. Every writer I’ve ever known who’s tried this has been blown away by it. You learn instantly, among many other things, whether you’re an underwriter or overwriter, a visual writer or an audial one, have an ear for dialogue or prefer summarizing speech.”

I think this is a great idea for evaluating your own writing, and without a critique group at the moment, I’m always looking for help in looking critically at my writing. Though I haven’t tried this yet, I plan to soon!