Tag Archives: storytelling

Setting Memoir Parameters

Tiger sleeps in a cat cave on the couch

Now that I have your attention with that cutie-face, I want to pick your brain.

I’ve got a problem I haven’t yet figured out. What keeps me from finishing my memoir is that the arc of my story takes place over too long a period of time. It’s about my relationship with my father, and that is a lifetime relationship, of course, because it continues even after his death a year and a half ago. But even if I put a cap on it with his death, it still covers a lot of ground.

The other day I read Sherrey Meyer’s post Five Ingredients Memoir Writers Must Have and realized that I should write a post about my problem–just in case anybody has any advice. So advise away.

I know that there is great benefit in finding a defining year or particular experience because the more discrete the chunk of real life a memoir needs to cover the easier it is to write. Excusez-moi if this sounds insulting to writers with a project that fits that description, but those are the stories that perhaps beg to be written. My story doesn’t beg; it mocks me.

But how to find a discrete story where the protagonist takes decades to learn something? Or some things?

My son used to have a picture book called Leo the Late Bloomer, and although my son was meant to relate to it, in truth I related to it. I’m a late bloomer in a lot of ways.

In the case of my memoir story, an additional reason it took me so long was that there was certain key information that I didn’t learn until 2008. More new information continued to come to me through 2015.

Checking out my half shelf of writing technique books, I soon discovered that most of the books don’t deal with this problem. But then I noticed a book I have mostly ignored (because I didn’t read it for class): Writing & Selling Your Memoir by Paula Balzer. (Who wouldn’t like that bit about “& Selling” added to the title?!)  A chapter called “Setting Your Parameters” caught my eye. Yes, that is exactly what I need to do. Figure out HOW to set my parameters.

Balzer argues that the place to begin the memoir is at the moment of discovery. I like the way my book opens with an incident that sets up the initial mystery in my life. It’s a somewhat shocking event, at least to the mind of an 11-year-old. And it created the mindset by which I lived in ignorance for many many years. Is it a moment of discovery? For me, it felt that way. It was the discovery that a big secret existed in my family–and that the secret carried great emotional power for my father.

My full first draft has now been read by four people. Three of them were a group package, so to speak, so I lump them together because they could have influenced each other. I will call them group B. The other reader was my Stanford mentor/tutor. I will call her group A. Both groups are memoir “experts” who teach and write memoir. The advice of group A and group B completely contradicted each other. I mean completely. They want me to revise the book in opposite directions.  Actually, I did revise to somewhat follow the advice of Group A before sending the manuscript to Group B. And everything I did for Group A, Group B didn’t like. They argued for the way I had originally been planning my story before I even started the program at Stanford.

Neither group addressed the problem with the big humongous fruit tree of life I’ve had to pick from for the book.

So I’m reeling from the contradictory advice, but that is all just spinning on the surface because the underlying problem is how to handle the parameter setting.

Or is it? I’m getting confused. Maybe I’m imagining the parameter setting as a problem since neither group even mentioned the problem. Maybe the real problem is one I can’t identify–a problem that caused two completely different readings. Maybe my tale just sucks.

The way I ended up shaping the story (taking into account a lot of advice haha) to send to Group B was to feature that moment of discovery scene as a prologue and then jump forward 40 years and begin the story itself in present day, using a back and forth movement between present and past by chunks of chapters (a few chapters in present, a few in past, like that). Maybe I should start with that moment of discovery and proceed in chronological order and tell the story in a more classic storytelling structure.

Whatcha think, peeps? More whine wine?


Shanah Tovah (Happy New Year) to my Jewish readers! A good week to everyone.


Filed under #AmWriting, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing Talk

Red in the Words

I decided to leap back into prose by taking a look at the drafts I wrote for the flash nonfiction course I took in July. While I was searching for those in my closet, I ran across a few of my Red Riding Hood books.

As a fictional character, she’s been quite an influence on me and my writing.

But who is she?

There are hundreds of versions of the story and they come from many different countries. Some are old versions from traditional literature and some are contemporary retellings of the tale. Some are children’s stories; some, such as those that spring from the oral tradition, are for the general public; and some, usually feminist or sexualized versions, are for adults.

I’m guessing that most of us are steeped in the European tradition of red hooded cloak, little girl, wolf, grandmother, and woods. We might or might not think of a huntsman. Our Little Red might get a warning from her mother–or she might not. She might get eaten up just before the reader is left with a strong “moral.” She might kill the wolf in a gruesome manner. Or the wolf might run into the woods, never to return. Pinterest is full of images that resonate, so I started collecting them onto a “Red in the Woods” board. I’ve only got 35 pins so far, but there are some beauties. Many of the classic book illustrators have created Little Red art.

Arthur Rackham’s Little Red Riding Hood

Every culture incorporates some of these elements in their little red stories, but the most important part is that a little girl is threatened by a dangerous animal (usually a wolf, but in Asian countries, sometimes a tiger) and either she becomes a victim, is rescued by someone else, or she is victorious over the “bad guy.” The undercurrents involve a girl going out into a threatening world on her own for the first time and the possibility of sexual violation. But those are adult readings, of course.

Sometimes Little Red is a bad ass. Those are the best versions! One of my favorite picture books for children is Ed Young’s Lon PoPo where the Little Red protagonist is a smart, strong oldest sister who outwits the wolf and protects her siblings.

Have you ever seen Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods? In this version, Little Red is definitely a sexual target for the wolf, but the question becomes: is she complicit? Does she  in some way lead on the wolf? Is the red hood to draw attention? (And where does the red garment come from? Not from the girl herself). Or is that an adult male (pervert) reading–a Humbert version of Lolita? Another adult reading is that the red hood is a metaphor for Red’s vagina/clitoris/youpick.

In this clip of the 1991 Broadway show, the lyrics say a lot about our culture’s interpretation. It becomes clear that this version is about the loss of innocence.

In the Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ song, the wolf leers at Red.

There are other strange bits and pieces that show up in some Little Red stories. The wolf tricks Red into eating her Granny’s flesh. Red tries to get out of bed with the wolf by telling him she has to go pee. At that point he tells her to pee in the bed, but she says she can’t and he lets her go outside tied to a long rope. Some of these elements that seem vulgar  or creepy have been edited out of the most popular versions published in the last few hundred years. The confusion between wolf and grandmother is still with us, though. And that alone is pretty strange. Dangerous wolf looks like beloved grandmother? Beyond strange.

Is the wolf a perv or is Red a Lolita? Or is that a red herring (sorry)? Is the story really about something else?


Filed under Books, Characterization, Children's Literature, Fairy Tales, Fiction, History, Inspiration, Writing

Christmas from the Dumpster

When I was five, Mom had a few days off work over Christmas. She rolled out sugar cookie dough and let me cut out Christmas trees and reindeer with little tin cookie cutters. I sprinkled them with colored sugar before she slipped the trays into the oven.

She led me before the cardboard fireplace hung with our Christmas stockings and pulled out a Bible, which she had marked with scraps of paper tucked here and there. She read the Christmas story to me, but it was one she created herself by mixing the versions in a way that was pleasing to her. The story of the baby Jesus brought tears to Mom’s eyes. We bowed our heads and clasped our hands together and prayed a prayer from my Little Golden Book.

Dad walked in the door, carrying a box. I thought it would be a Christmas present he planned to wrap downstairs on the ping pong table which he had set up with all his gift wrapping materials and tools. But it turned out to be a box he had discovered in a school dumpster.

“I had to get out of my truck because the dumpster was so full they had boxes spilling out all over. That’s when I spotted this.” Dad crooked his index finger for me to follow and then glanced back at me. “It’s books. Maybe you can use them now that you’re in school.” Although I had only started school in September, I already knew how to read.Recently I asked my mother if she taught me to read with flashcards, the way she did my younger brother, but she didn’t remember. When I was a toddler I knew how to spell ice cream and by age 5 I could read children’s series books, but how I got from point A to B, I don’t know.

I skipped down the hall behind Dad. Peeking into the box, I saw outdated textbooks from the forties. I couldn’t wait to open them and was glad when my father left the room. When I lifted the books out of the box, they smelled like real school, not like kindergarten where you have to take a nap and can’t read. I was glad Dad drove a garbage truck and could find presents for me.

The second-grade reader had a story where the porridge left unattended on the stove poured onto the floor, out the door, and down the hill. I tried to skim and sample each book. Some of the books had poems, and they were all illustrated with water colors. Some, in the manner of Walter Crane illustrations, featured black, white, and orange.

At the bottom of the box, missing its paper jacket and like a lot of old books covered in a plain green fabric, was a fairy tale book. The stories of witches and poor sons and goblins in this book opened my mind to the world of possibilities. I would only have the book for a year because eventually it would disappear (care of my mother). Some of the stories had a habit of giving me nightmares (thank you, Brothers Grimm). Nevertheless, I am forever grateful that I had the book long enough for the fire of my imagination to be lit.


Filed under Books, Children's Literature, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing

Vintage Trick-or-Treating, circa 1961: A Ghost Story

Tess Trueheart

Tess Trueheart

I’d been waiting at the door for the bell to ring, but I heard the scuffle of their shoes on the porch first and opened the door. Cindy and Judy, the big girls who lived next door, were taking me trick-or-treating. I recognized them because their costumes only slightly altered their everyday appearance.

“Oh don’t you look cute! I’m going to a hootenanny,” Cindy said, adjusting the bandana around her neck.

“What a cute gypsy outfit,” Judy tugged on my gold hoop earring. “I’m Tess Trueheart.” She loved comic book characters and could draw comic strip girls with curvy silhouettes just like a professional. “Are you ready? Let’s go.”

Mom kissed me goodbye. “Be careful, girls.”

“We’ll take good care of her, don’t worry!” Cindy smiled reassuringly at my mother. I wondered if Mom had paid the girls to babysit me. That took a little shine off the night. My hand moved to the scarf tied gypsy style on top of my head as if to make sure it was still there.

On our small front porch–a 4×4 foot cement block–we scanned the neighborhood, debating which route to take. The sky gleamed black as a witch’s cape and glittered its spangle of stars. I figured there would be a full moon grinning above us, but the stars and the porch lamps were the only light which broke up the vast blackness.

“Let’s go to Mark’s first and up and around Gull Road and then back into the neighborhood.” Cindy decided because she was the oldest.

As we began to walk, the black chow which patrolled the boundaries of the yard across the street ran along his property line, yapping and growling, until the man called him into the house.

In the dark, the houses looked like jack-o-lanterns with their dark opaque walls and windows lit up like cut-out eyes and noses. The ripe smell of decaying leaves hung in the crisp air.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Mark’s front door had a cardboard black cat silhouette taped up, and his mother gave us each a Tootsie roll. Their house looked like mine, with a front living room window and one bedroom window facing street side, and a one car garage set back at the end of the driveway.

The Smiths’ house was next. Mr. Smith let us choose hard candy from a bowl because Pam’s mom was busy with the baby. We each grabbed two pieces, not daring to take three. Mrs. Smith would have handed us one piece each.

At the top of the street, the only two-story house in our neighborhood sat waiting for us. Last year a fire had destroyed the furniture and some of the interior walls. One of the kids had set the fire by playing with matches, or so Mom had explained to me. “That’s why you NEVER play with matches!”

The rumor I heard was that a child had died in the fire, but I wasn’t sure if it was true. Nobody seemed to know the family. Now the house sat vacant and was said to be haunted.

When we got near the house, the girls stopped and Cindy said, “Who’s going to ring the doorbell?”

“Not me,” said Judy.

At six, I was too young to question why we were trick-or-treating at an abandoned house.

Cindy looked at me. “I’m not going to either because I have to be in charge. But we have to see if the spirits answer the bell. Maybe Luanne should do it.” At a tall eleven, Cindy’s form threatened from the shadows.

I glanced at the high, skinny house. Unlike our houses, this one was from before the war. The once-white paint glowed in the dark a smoky ghostlike color. The porch slanted down on one side. It gave the appearance of a building about to fall down to the ground.

Mainly I scanned the dark windows. Then I glanced behind me. Across the street, the only house I could see was the one bedroom bungalow rented by the divorced beautician who wore a big Madge ‘do and had a toy poodle that smelled of perm chemicals. Her porch light was not on. No backup support from over there.

As I looked back up at the second story of the haunted house, I saw a flash of movement. I didn’t wait to see what it was; I took off running.

Within moments, I heard a loud crash and the tinkling sound of glass breaking, then two sets of feet running behind and then alongside me. I held my long skirt tautly to the side so it didn’t wrap around my legs and trip me.

We didn’t stop until we reached Gull Road. Judy and Cindy panted on both sides of me as we leaned over and caught our breaths. I thought Judy was starting to throw up as she revved up her breathing, but then she coughed and spit up some phlegm.

“What in the heck was that?” Judy said.

“I don’t know, but we are going to be killed,” Cindy answered. “Did you see it, Luanne? Is that why you ran?”

“I did! I saw something.” My insides started twittering in fear that Cindy thought we would be killed.

“What was it?” Cindy said. I started to tell her that it looked like a kid that flickered like a candle, but she turned to Judy and grabbed her arm, shaking her. “You’re in so much trouble, you idiot! I can’t believe you did that.”

We walked into the lighted National parking lot. “I want a monster charm!” Judy said.

She put a nickel into the fancy gumball machine and pulled out a monster ring with glowing eyes which she promptly stuck on her finger. She shoved her hand in my face so I could see its smug face.

I had no money and didn’t understand wasting a nickel when it was Halloween. However, Cindy and Judy were my elders, so I held my tongue and watched in jealousy while they compared shiny charms. Sighing, I ripped open my tootsie roll and popped it into my mouth.

Eventually I realized that Cindy said we were going to be killed because Judy had broken the window and we would be punished, but that epiphany came many years later. Until then I lived in terror of the house up the street.

Have you ever lived by a haunted house? I’d love to read your story about it!


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing, Writing prompt

Honorable Mention: “The Story of the Water Droplets”

The Story of the Water Droplets

by Enrique Guerra-Pujol

Whenever my wife and I return to Jamaica to visit our family and friends, we like to begin our day by waking up early to see the sunrise and walking on the beach. As the soft sun appears above the horizon, I will wade into the warm tropical waters and perform a peculiar and private ritual. In brief, I lunge into the gentle waves, clasp together the palms of my hands, and splash the ocean waters as high as I possibly can.

This motion produces hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of tiny water droplets, flying every which way. Each airborne droplet sparkles under the rising Caribbean sun, yet the duration of this chaotic ballet of droplets is but short- lived. This transitory constellation of water droplets falls back into ocean in the blink of an eye.

I confess that I never tired of performing this strange aquatic sacrament. But why?

Perhaps the ephemeral droplets are a poetic reminder of my mortality, for on a geological time scale, the life of one man is like the lifespan of a single, fleeting droplet.

In the alternative, maybe I am attracted to the unruly geometry of the airborne droplets, for with each splash of the waters, I produce a unique and inimitable choreography of dancing droplets.

Or perhaps the flying droplets are a collective symbol of the inherent limitations of our knowledge, for just as I am unable to take a precise census of the innumerable droplets, we may never be able to fully understand the unceasing dynamics of human conflict and the role of law in promoting cooperation.

But, often times, knowing our limitations is a good place to start. I may not be able to count the entire constellation of droplets at any one time, but perhaps, by narrowing my gaze to one droplet, I could develop a simple and testable model to find an approximate measure of her trajectory and lifespan.

There is no moral to this story. It’s just about one man’s sense wonderment amid the beauty of the water droplets.



Enrique Guerra-Pujol is a law professor, an indiscriminate reader, and a struggling writer. His main areas of research are the evolution of conflict and cooperation and the application of Bayes’ Rule and other mathematical ideas to law. In addition, his extracurricular interests include bird-watching, rafting, star-gazing, and the arts, especially literature and the cinema.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, WordPress, Writing, Writing contest

Honorable Mention: “The Relaxation Group”

The Relaxation Group

by Jackie Dinnis   

My arrival at the group will be a minor miracle. Venturing out of my four walls into unfamiliar territory is like asking me to fly to the moon. The past few days have been spent rehearsing in my mind as an actor would walk through a forthcoming scene in a play. Being a glass half-empty type of person I spend my life constantly expecting the worst, but it still came as a slap in the face when the worst actually happened. I won’t bore you with the details because I no longer feel the need to tell everyone about my catastrophic life. Finally things all caught up with me and I am receiving treatment for anxiety. I hope the relaxation group will play a major part.

I am on the number 5 bus, after many hours of pondering, poring over bus timetables, taking practice rides in the car, and walking to the hospital. So many decisions to be made, and I feel incapable of even deciding whether to drink tea or coffee at the moment. My mind tries to think logically; if I walk, I am more in control of things. I know how long it takes me to make the journey, so there is no doubt what time I need to leave the house. The bus trip needs to be taken in two parts and will take just as long as walking, but I will be able to sit on the buses and not get hot. I could drive. I know where to park when I get there and it is only a ten minute drive on major roads with no tricky right hand turns into busy traffic.  Everything is such a worry; there’s no rest for my mind at all. Who would have thought the treatment for anxiety would be so scary? In the end my decision is made for me. Since I find my car boxed in by visitors to the local park, there’s not enough time to walk and the bus is my only option.

I rush to the bus stop and sit by the window, then mentally count off the number of stops as we progress along the tree-lined avenue. No one sits beside me, so I can ignore the worry of having to ask them to move as I get off the bus by the town hall. That was the shorter journey, and I change to the number 5 bus to complete it. There are fewer people on this bus, the sun shines through the windows and I try to remember to keep breathing. As the bus slowly progresses through the town centre to the outskirts, I take the official looking letter out of my handbag, noting again the time of the appointment and where I am to enter the building. Somehow the actual going in is on my mind more than anything else, as once I am inside there will be no turning back. All the time I am still outside, I can decide to turn around and go back to the safety of my home. I have control.

I recognise the road we are on; it leads into the hospital grounds. I prepare to leave the comparative safety of the bus.

Going into the hospital is, in the end, no problem at all. Everywhere is clearly labelled and signposted. I am gently shown into the relaxation room and told where to sit. Did I really think they would make it difficult to gain entrance to a group designed for people suffering from anxiety?

On entering the relaxation room a quiet, steady background sound permeates the interior–the constant low sounds of water flowing and birds gently singing. It comes from a CD player on a shelf by the window. Panic rises along with my temperature. This sound of water might make me need the loo, and I have no idea where it is. I sit there, unsure whether or not to remove my coat, and if I do, where should I put it?

Welcome to my mind, the place of constant turmoil, one decision after another, worry piled on worry until it all topples over like a pile of laundry constantly overfilling the basket.

The sweat trickles down my top lip, and casually my tongue pops out from the corner of my mouth, mopping up the salty liquid. It’s no good, my coat will have to be removed, and I can feel everyone’s eyes on me as I struggle to get my arms out of the sleeves while remaining seated. Standing up would be one step too far at this stage; it would make me fill more space in the room and draw even more attention to myself.

Suddenly I notice a bubbling sound coming from the corner of the room, a kettle is having its own little panic attack on the table as it reaches boiling point. I want to rush over and switch it off, allowing it to calm down, but it automatically stops itself after a while. I wish I had one of those switches inside me.

I risk lifting my eyes, noting with some relief that the other occupants of the room all seem as mad as me. We’re all wearing clothes that could have come from a dressing up box at a nursery or the reject pile at a charity shop.

Worry, worry, worry. When will this group start? Looking around the room out of the corner of my eye, I see: twitching limbs; fingers scratching naked arms; tapping feet; crossed legs flapping uncontrollable; a horrible sense of loss of control.

‘Hello everyone, here we are then, and first it would be good to introduce ourselves–just our first names. I’m Tom.’

I don’t hear anyone else’s name, struggling to remember my own, saying it under my breath again and again until it comes to be my turn to speak. What is my name anyway, and who am I?

Jackie lives with her son in Brighton, England. After leaving school at 16 in 1974, she continued her education recently, studying at the University of Sussex and gaining a degree in Community Development. She now does what she wants to do which includes writing, researching her family history, watching Brighton & Hove Albion and enjoying her life.

Watch for another Honorable Mention story on Friday!


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, WordPress, Writing, Writing contest

What’s the Place of Capitalism in Book Publishing?

This past weekend we had house guests. A friend I hadn’t seen in a long time visited with her new husband. I hadn’t met him yet, but I knew he was a scientist who has been writing a children’s fantasy chapter book.

We ended up discussing writing over breakfast. The scientist-writer said that at a writing conference he attended writers were asked if they wanted to write timeless novels or if they wanted to be marketable.

The idea is that, as a writer, you can aim for the highest quality writing or you can focus on writing what will sell. The implication is that these two goals rarely, if ever, overlap.

My friend’s husband thought a lot of writers want to be marketable because they need to make money from their writing. He argued that this goal is a manifestation of capitalism (which he favors), and that the market should determine which are the best books, the most deserving of being read. I would add he is also talking about democracy (although he didn’t say that) and that the vote of the reader will shape what will be read and published.

But should the number of readers be the main or only consideration for which books ultimately succeed?

Maybe if I look at the subject through visual art, I can see the issue more clearly. I love the old and new masters at the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the Uffizi, and the Courtauld. To be able to see a piece anew every time one sees it (or a representation of it) truly reveals the depth of the artistry.

But I admit that I love cels of Disney cartoon art. I love them for their imagination and because they resonate with the popular culture I grew up in. No way do I think they are art of the quality of a Renoir or a Picasso. And I don’t want to live in a world with only Disney cels. Or pictures of babies with angel wings (as cute as they are).

Autobiography for children and adults of one of Disney's great illustrators, Bill Peet

Autobiography for children and adults of one of Disney’s great illustrators, Bill Peet

So I think the idea of capitalism determining the books that are published and that we read can be carried too far because we still need deeper, more complex, and finely crafted literature, not just books that sell well.

Do you agree that capitalism should or will determine which books are published or do you think that high quality writing should be nurtured in other ways?

One of my favorite paintings at the Chicago Art Institute: Gustave Caillebotte - Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877

One of my favorite paintings at the Chicago Art Institute: Gustave Caillebotte – Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877


Filed under Books, Vintage American culture, Writing, Writing goals

Day 2 of My Story Sitting Up There

Yes, today is Day 2 of my story sitting up there on the Midlife Collage contest! 

As I mentioned yesterday, one of my stories is in the Midlife Collage contest this week. It’s called “Still Photo” and is up against four other very short stories.

  1. Please leave a Facebook “like” for my story!  click the Facebook link at the bottom of the story.
  2. If you have time please leave one of your thoughtful comments at the end of the story.
  3. If you can please go to “closing arguments” and tell them which story should win this week.

Go here to find my story:

Midlife Collage.  “Still Photo” by Luanne Castle.

What follows is a repeat of information in yesterday’s post:

If my story were to win, I would like to use my award to design a contest for Writer Site–something you all can participate in. What do you think about that idea? I got the idea from the Paying It Forward segment on our local TV station.


Why is the story called "Still Photo" if the photo is of a camcorder?

Why is the story called “Still Photo” if the photo is of a camcorder?




Filed under Blogging, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Photographs, Writing

Does Anne Sexton Still Deliver A Fairy Tale Punch?

Fairy tales serve as powerful archetypes for me.

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.

That story.

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?

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

by Anne Sexton

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.
Her stepmother,
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,
they said.
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,
they said.
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.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry, Vintage American culture, Writing

Can Bad Girls Just Stay Bad, OK?

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

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.




Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing