I’m a list maker from way back. The only way I can get through life is to keep a daily to-do list. Actually, I keep two.
List A is a grid I make using Word’s “table” function. The items on the list rarely change. They include grooming my four cats, riding the stationery bike, and writing blog posts. These items get checked off when accomplished.
List B is written on a legal pad, and the contents change as work comes up. Sometimes the list has 50 or 60 items I need to handle. My goal is to keep it down to ten, but that rarely happens. Once in a blue moon I can scratch off the last item–and scratch I do because this is a scratch off list, not a check off list. Because I am constantly adding new chores and completing others, every few days I have to copy the “open items” to a new sheet of paper and throw away the old, messy one.
What do I like about living by these lists? The main benefit is that once I add something to my list, I relax just a little bit inside. Carrying around daily chores in my head is very difficult for me. I find it stressful. I certainly can’t think about writing if I keep my head filled with the mundane. So, instead, I put it all on my lists and then just pragmatically work my way through the lists.
The other benefit is that I love scratching off and checking off chores. As I check or scratch, I say to myself in a very satisfied tone, “Yes!”
For the past few weeks, I’ve had a lot of extra business work and personal work, so I haven’t been able to get in much writing. When I went to write yesterday, I found I couldn’t get one word on the screen–and that is really unusual for me. I need to prime the pump again . . . somehow.
I’m going to try using my list making to help me get started writing again.
Here’s a preliminary list:
Go through all my stories and scenes to sort for the book. I hope to find a few scenes I’ve forgotten that I wrote.
Find two poem exercises that inspire me and write two poems. One has to be a doll poem.
Finish the long play scene and do a first revision.
Write a CNF short story that doesn’t take place in my childhood or youth.
Like all my lists, there is no deadline on accomplishing most of these items.
Alaska native Caroline Goodwin’s first poetry book, Trapline (Jackleg Press), is set at the edge–of the sea, the swamp, the wilderness. To get a feel for her poetry, imagine yourself walking along the shore, encountering “rot and salt,” dragonflies, gnats, the quahog and cockle. Then imagine focusing in on each treasure, closer and closer until you see a wing or an eye and then inside the organism. Once you’re amongst the blood vessels with your magical microscope, Goodwin will connect what you see to the human you through a hand, a thigh, a boot. What you discover will be big and beautiful and brutal.
The first poem offers an invitation to the reader: “come to the end of the wharf / when the last of the tide releases / the harbor with its trollers / and rigging _ _ its lampshells / and speckled anemone _ _ come / after work when the mind / / has grown plumes.” [The double underscore represents a larger space in the line. Since WordPress isn’t friendly to poetry, I had to make do.]
You will want to take Goodwin up on this invitation. You can click on the book above to order from Amazon. I didn’t get a free book for recommending Goodwin’s poetry; I simply bought her book and fell in love with the poems.
Here is a sample poem for your enjoyment:
I can see how the termites
draw themselves through
the opening now
to rise out of the hive
in a flickering stream
every leg full of
sun every abdomen a
jewel and I let myself
think about the un-
born and the almost
born — eggs packed
in brittle shells
in the wings
scraping at the crumpled
his song a thin leg
. . . . . . . . . at the edge of the yard
[I had to add the ellipses to indicate a long space.]
What happened here yesterday? Every night in monsoon season my husband reads the weather online to see if we’re going to get a big thunderstorm. Usually we are supposed to get one, and then it doesn’t transpire. That happened again Saturday night. Instead of the rain, we got a red sky.
But then yesterday, mid-morning it began to rain. The rain rapidly quickened its pace, as if the sky had dissolved and the oceans the sky had been holding back poured down on my yard.
A wash runs by my house. Usually it’s dry, and the wildlife is abundant. But within three or four minutes of a downpour, the wash fills dramatically and “raging waters” rush right through my yard!
This fence goes across the wash. It’s intended to keep the javelinas from running through at will. You see the gate in the middle? That’s so that we can walk through it as we walk the wash. Notice how far apart the bars are so that the water can get through on these rare occasions.
Unfortunately, this time we got so much rain so fast that the force of the water was too much for this fence and gate. It ripped the gate open, then partially off the fence, and then pulled the fence out of its moorings.
Within 30 minutes the storm was over. The water receded immediately. And we were left with trash from as much as a mile or more away.
As the water departed, this image was left. At first glance, I thought it was a body brought to our yard by the storm.
Ten or fifteen years ago I learned not to take even basic assumptions for granted.
I used to teach a course called “Children’s Literature” at a public university. My students were future teachers–mainly K-8, but also secondary school. A large percentage of them were first and second generation and primarily from Mexico/Central America.
Children’s literature is divided into different genres of lit, just as is literature for adults. For children, the genres include picture books, young adult novels, poetry, traditional literature, and more. Traditional lit covers fairy tales, folk tales, and myths. Picture books based on “Hansel and Gretel” or “The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly” are both picture books and traditional lit.
I liked to teach stories from the different continents. I particularly enjoyed taking a tale, such as “Cinderella,” which is told in various parts of the world and looking at the cultural differences. Seven hundred folk (pre-picture books and movies) versions of this one tale exist.
One academic quarter, I got a flyer in my department mailbox about a play being put on by the drama department. It sounded ideal as it was coming at a time we were studying folk and fairy tales. The play was a spoof on some of the traditional tales. Since it occurred ten to fifteen years ago, I can’t remember for sure which tales were included or who wrote it, but they were very well-known tales–maybe “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “Goldilocks.” I brought a couple of my classes to a performance of the play. It was hilarious; I laughed all the way through.
At least, I thought it was hilarious. But most of my students sat there stone-faced. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
The next time class met, we discussed our responses to the play. It turned out that most of my students had never been exposed to these basic tales of the English-speaking and European worlds. Without knowing the originals, the parodies made no sense.
That showed me that we don’t all share as many of the same basic building blocks of culture, as I had imagined. I knew that these stories were widely available in Spanish, so that wasn’t the problem.
To accommodate my students, I thought, well then, we can spend more time integrating Mexican tales of La Llorona and Quetzalcoatl. Some students thought this was great.
But I had another disappointment when I discovered that so many students didn’t have knowledge of tales from the country of their birth or their parents’ birth either. And why? They said their parents didn’t tell them stories. They didn’t have time–too busy working and too tired when they weren’t.
It wasn’t too late, though. It might have been college, but we were in the luxurious world of Children’s Literature, so we read all the tales I could fit into the class. The parodies and revisions worked well together with the originals, but not on their own. That’s ok. It made us all better readers to look at them side-by-side.
So now my pedogogical and philosophical question is: do we all need to share the same building blocks of story?
I’ve written before how the Little Red Riding Hood image is at the center of the story I am shaping into a book-length memoir (link to post). The girl, the wolf, the grandmother, the danger, and the huntsman are all there. In my post which describes how I found out I am a Highly Sensitive Person, I wrote about the function of “The Princess and the Pea,” and how I go through my life-like the girl who feels the pea underneath all those mattresses and featherbeds. In my last post, I wrote about my terror at meeting Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty.
So it’s probably not a surprise that I love to read different versions of these tales. There are a lot of movies which remake the old stories. Ever After might be one of the most popular, but there have been many versions of the Snow White and Cinderella stories. If you want to watch a really creepy Red Riding Hood tale, check out Reese Witherspoon in Freeway.
Because the majority of these tales originated either from the ancient oral tradition of storytelling or from storytellers who lived hundreds of years ago, the cultural mores and expectations are different from those of today. That’s why seeing them through modern eyes, such as witnessing the Rapunzel character in Tangled showing herself to be the opposite of the helpless princess of days gone by, can be very satisfying.
Library shelves are jam-packed with picture book versions of these traditional stories which have been re-told, either by staying true to the original or by updating to conform to today’s viewpoints. There are also feminist versions for adults, such as are found side by side with the classic versions in Maria Tatar’s The Classic Fairy Tales.
Some of my favorites are the poems by Anne Sexton. She based each poem on a Grimm Brothers fairy tale. Note: these are not Disney versions.
Sexton passed away in 1974, and her book of fairy tale poems, titled Transformations, was published in 1972. So there are some dated references. At the very ending of “Cinderella,” Cindy and the prince are described this way:
Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle- aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
Clearly, to understand the reference, a reader needs to know who the Bobbsey Twins were. The Bobbsey Twins books were a series developed by the Stratemeyer Syndicate in the early 20th century. The twins were two sets of twins which comprised, with their parents, the Bobbsey family. They were a younger reader version of books like the Nancy Drew books, which were also Stratemeyer books. The term “Bobbsey Twins” has been used for decades to mean two people who are a lot alike, such as “two peas in a pod.”
For fun, here’s the full text of Sexton’s Snow White version. See what you think–is it still relevant?
No matter what life you lead
the virgin is a lovely number:
cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper,
arms and legs made of Limoges,
lips like Vin Du Rhône,
rolling her china-blue doll eyes
open and shut.
Open to say,
Good Day Mama,
and shut for the thrust
of the unicorn.
She is unsoiled.
She is as white as a bonefish.
Once there was a lovely virgin
called Snow White.
Say she was thirteen.
a beauty in her own right,
though eaten, of course, by age,
would hear of no beauty surpassing her own.
Beauty is a simple passion,
but, oh my friends, in the end
you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes.
The stepmother had a mirror to which she referred--
something like the weather forecast--
a mirror that proclaimed
the one beauty of the land.
She would ask,
Looking glass upon the wall,
who is fairest of us all?
And the mirror would reply,
You are the fairest of us all.
Pride pumped in her like poison.
Suddenly one day the mirror replied,
Queen, you are full fair, 'tis true,
but Snow White is fairer than you.
Until that moment Snow White
had been no more important
than a dust mouse under the bed.
But now the queen saw brown spots on her hand
and four whiskers over her lip
so she condemned Snow White
to be hacked to death.
Bring me her heart, she said to the hunter,
and I will salt it and eat it.
The hunter, however, let his prisoner go
and brought a boar's heart back to the castle.
The queen chewed it up like a cube steak.
Now I am fairest, she said,
lapping her slim white fingers.
Snow White walked in the wildwood
for weeks and weeks.
At each turn there were twenty doorways
and at each stood a hungry wolf,
his tongue lolling out like a worm.
The birds called out lewdly,
talking like pink parrots,
and the snakes hung down in loops,
each a noose for her sweet white neck.
On the seventh week
she came to the seventh mountain
and there she found the dwarf house.
It was as droll as a honeymoon cottage
and completely equipped with
seven beds, seven chairs, seven forks
and seven chamber pots.
Snow White ate seven chicken livers
and lay down, at last, to sleep.
The dwarfs, those little hot dogs,
walked three times around Snow White,
the sleeping virgin. They were wise
and wattled like small czars.
Yes. It's a good omen,
they said, and will bring us luck.
They stood on tiptoes to watch
Snow White wake up. She told them
about the mirror and the killer-queen
and they asked her to stay and keep house.
Beware of your stepmother,
Soon she will know you are here.
While we are away in the mines
during the day, you must not
open the door.
Looking glass upon the wall . . .
The mirror told
and so the queen dressed herself in rags
and went out like a peddler to trap Snow White.
She went across seven mountains.
She came to the dwarf house
and Snow White opened the door
and bought a bit of lacing.
The queen fastened it tightly
around her bodice,
as tight as an Ace bandage,
so tight that Snow White swooned.
She lay on the floor, a plucked daisy.
When the dwarfs came home they undid the lace
and she revived miraculously.
She was as full of life as soda pop.
Beware of your stepmother,
She will try once more.
Looking glass upon the wall. . .
Once more the mirror told
and once more the queen dressed in rags
and once more Snow White opened the door.
This time she bought a poison comb,
a curved eight-inch scorpion,
and put it in her hair and swooned again.
The dwarfs returned and took out the comb
and she revived miraculously.
She opened her eyes as wide as Orphan Annie.
Beware, beware, they said,
but the mirror told,
the queen came,
Snow White, the dumb bunny,
opened the door
and she bit into a poison apple
and fell down for the final time.
When the dwarfs returned
they undid her bodice,
they looked for a comb,
but it did no good.
Though they washed her with wine
and rubbed her with butter
it was to no avail.
She lay as still as a gold piece.The seven dwarfs could not bring themselves
to bury her in the black ground
so they made a glass coffin
and set it upon the seventh mountain
so that all who passed by
could peek in upon her beauty.
A prince came one June day
and would not budge.
He stayed so long his hair turned green
and still he would not leave.
The dwarfs took pity upon him
and gave him the glass Snow White--
its doll's eyes shut forever--
to keep in his far-off castle.
As the prince's men carried the coffin
they stumbled and dropped it
and the chunk of apple flew out
of her throat and she woke up miraculously.And thus Snow White became the prince's bride.
The wicked queen was invited to the wedding feast
and when she arrived there were
red-hot iron shoes,
in the manner of red-hot roller skates,
clamped upon her feet.
First your toes will smoke
and then your heels will turn black
and you will fry upward like a frog,
she was told.
And so she danced until she was dead,
a subterranean figure,
her tongue flicking in and out
like a gas jet.
Meanwhile Snow White held court,
rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut
and sometimes referring to her mirror
as women do.
When I was in kindergarten, Grandma picked me up from school every day at lunch time. We walked home and ate a hot meal she had cooked that morning. After Grandma did the dishes, she and I lay down head to toe on the couch and took our catnap. Grandma faced the little black and white television and turned on As the World Turns. Since the TV was above my head, I had to lie on my side and squinch my neck so I could watch the show, too. As far as I know, this show was my grandmother’s only “vice.”
Every few minutes, Grandma said, “Turn your head around and go to sleep,” but I couldn’t get enough of Lisa, the bad girl (to my young mind, the wicked queen) of the soap opera. She reminded me of Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. I kept expecting to see a long robe hem swirling around her ankles, turning into green flames. I never took an afternoon nap when I was with Grandma.
Eileen Fulton who played Lisa in As the World Turns for fifty years
I first met Maleficent before I started school, when I was a few months shy of four. My parents took me with them on a car trip to New Orleans. On the way, we stayed in a large Texas city with streets that reminded me of Chicago. It was there that my mother and I went to see my very first Disney movie, Sleeping Beauty. Unlike a regular flat movie screen, this movie was shown on a curved screen; I think this is called Cinerama, and the effect is that the viewer feels as if she has walked into the world depicted on screen.
As I entered Princess Aurora’s world, I left my own behind. Of all the characters, I particularly loved Flora, leader of the band of good fairies, who reminded me of Grandma. My terror of Maleficent, the evil fairy, was the most severe I had ever experienced. I’ve rarely been as terrified since then either. When we left the theater, rain poured onto the busy city sidewalks and the street out front of the theatre. Dad pulled up to the curb and we climbed into the car. “How was the show?” he said. My head was inside the movie, and I couldn’t answer–my body still filled with terror and awe.
Today I happened upon an article about the making of a new movie about Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie. Even after all these years, as I read that news, fear radiated through me. Something about the depth and breadth of evil coming from a powerful female character frightened me more than if Maleficent had been male. I don’t know why. Was it because in those days the bad guys were usually the men in the black cowboy hats? Or was it because I expected that bountiful nurturing would come from a female like my grandmother? Maleficent seemed to spring from some primeval source of horror that I could not understand.
Maybe I needed to see this evil so that by contrast I realized the power of nurturing women like Grandma and Flora. I’ve written about Grandma’s positive influence on me in other posts, including “Grandma and the Purple People Eaters.”
When the movie is released, I’m going to get a chance to see a modern, breathing version of the realization of my deepest fears. Since Jolie terrifies me anyway, I think she’s a great choice for this role.
The film purports to show the Sleeping Beauty story from the viewpoint of Maleficent. It sounds as if they took a “page” from the script of the Broadway musical Wicked, where Elphaba’s childhood allows us to like and feel compassion for the Wicked Witch of the West.
Can I just let the filmmakers know right up front that I’m not interested in hearing Maleficent’s sob story? Her power comes from her unabashed evil. I don’t want anything or anyone interfering with my fear. For some dumb reason.
From the time we learn the words abracadabra or open sesame, we know that words can be magic. When adults tell children to “say the magic word,” meaning please or thank you, children see the cause and effect of magic words.
Sometimes naming even seems to work some magic on the recipient of the name. When I called my orange cat Macavity, after the T.S.Eliot master criminal cat, I might have inadvertently caused him to steal all my earrings. One of my tuxedo cat’s middle names is Jellicle Jill, and like Eliot’s Jellicle cats, she dances all night. In the morning I find her toys strewn around the house.
Even one word can resonate with magic. For me a word which reverberates with magic is radiant–and all because of E.B. White and his children’s classic Charlotte’s Web. When I first read that Charlotte spun out that word in Wilbur’s pen and saw how Wilbur lived up (key word in this sentence is “up”) to it, I could never see that word the same again. Think of Wilbur who jumps and spins in the air to prove he’s radiant. He begins to feel radiant from the inside. Then Mrs. Arable gives him a buttermilk bath, so that he looks radiant to others. But he was always radiant–he just had to find that quality within himself and act upon it.
I’ve been reminded of Wilbur every morning by the label on my new face cleanser by Burt’s Bees: Radiance. I feel akin to Wilbur, being an average Jenny like most of us are (Average Joes and Jennies) and how nice it is to try to live up to the radiance that bottle offers. Then I think of how terrific Wilbur discovered he could be, but how humble he stayed. After all, it was Charlotte’s hard work that allowed him to discover all that he could be–all that he could live up to.
When Charlotte wrote that Wilbur was some pig she was saying Wilbur really was a good soul, and that all pigs can be such. Her description of Wilbur connects back with Mrs. Arable’s comment on the very first page: “‘Some pigs were born last night.'” [my italics] All those pigs had the potential when they were born to be more than they were, just as Wilbur did.
Although it’s nice to have a good friend like Charlotte as a helper, all of us average Joes and Jennies can live up to the magic words we find in our lives. You might find yours in the Bible or in a novel or a play. You might find yours from the mouth of a friend or stranger.
As you age, you might add more and more magic words to your treasury. For me, “That’ll do, pig,” from the movie Babe layered on “some pig” in my memory bank. These words resonate with appreciation for the effort we put into our daily lives. Our hard work makes our lives glow radiantly as we try to live up to our potential.
When I started writing my memoir, I floundered for the longest time. I had the memories, the writing style, and just enough grammar. But I could not figure out how to structure my story. Part of my story is the “child’s survival story” memoir like Mary Karr‘s The Liar’s Club and Tobias Wolff‘s This Boy’s Life. But another part of my story takes place in the present day and also involves family history which took place before I was born.
Cover of The Bill from My Father
Then I read a memoir which showed me a new possibility. Bernard Cooper‘s The Bill from My Father. In Cooper’s book, he sets the story in a very limited present-day, which covers his father’s aging and eventual death. Then he goes on excursions into the past through flashbacks, which are in some cases very lengthy.
His structure is a far cry from what my first memoir instructor insisted upon–complete chronology without flashback. And while I can understand that a story focused upon childhood or a coming-of-age story makes the most sense told chronologically, for my story it wasn’t working.
So I am trying to structure using a present-day framework which moves to the past and then comes back to the present again. It works a lot better than telling the story chronologically.
Nevertheless, I still have problems with my structure. That’s because I have to deal with excursions into the far past. Mine have to come near the end of my book. Frank McCourt’s family info is provided at the beginning of the book, and to me it’s the one structural flaw in Angela’s Ashes: the stylistically different section where we meet the parents before the narrator was born.
What creates the biggest problem for you in your writing?