18 June 2012

craft tip monday 6/18: into the “jungle”--fairy tales

Welcome back to the lost jungle of writing. So far, we have defined the terrain into which we wander when we let words play and language speak for itself rather than us trying to force language into line. We have cleared some land and plowed word gardens to experiment with word play. This week, we wander further into the realm of the lost jungle. This is a deeper, somewhat darker corner. It is magical, full of wonder, and new ways of seeing that often defy sense—at least, the sense of the world we usually inhabit. This week, we are journeying into the corner of the jungle occupied by: fairy tales.

Entering the Lost Jungle: Exploring the Region of Fairy Tale

“once upon a time …”

From the time we are young onward, fairy tales have a special place in the landscape of our imaginations. Fairy tales are often our versions of myth and legend. As with the mythologies and oral narratives of old, fairy tales help us make sense of our world. They are symbolic. They are psychological. But above all else, they are unique realms of both individual and universal discovery.

Why are fairy tales so special? They are a place where we can discover those universal truths in a way that often seems less threatening than a self-focused or real-world-centric text or story. When you think about it, every story of our lives has been told before---we empathize because we know the truth behind the phrase “I’ve been there.” But take your life story---your sibling rivalries, your trouble with love, the loss of a parent, your struggle to understand an injustice--- and add a little imagination, and something wonderful and liberating can happen.  Your sister can be a witch. The love of your life might be under a curse that makes him see everyone but his true love (that would be you). Your lost love one becomes a bird. The familiar blends into the unfamiliar---even the magical---to create a new world of experience, and a new way to experience the world.

from cinderella’s seams

Just as we often rewrite the familiar stories of our lives with exaggerated details, substituted dialogues, and so forth, the rewriting of fairy tales is a work that seemingly never gets old. Think of some of the most popular fiction to have emerged in recent years. We’ve had so many classic stories reworked to pair Jane Austen’s most popular characters grapple with everything from sea monsters to zombies . We’ve had the classic story of The Wizard of Oz  turned on its head to grant sympathy to the "Wicked Witch." Abraham Lincoln is soon to make his silver screen debut as a vampire slayer . Snow White has had two cinematic makeovers this year. The fact of the matter is that for as long as there are stories, there will be new ways to engage and revise them to work them into our own stories---as long as there are fairy tales, we will be able to escape into them to rediscover truths previously lost to us, to see the world anew, and to regain perspective.

“bippity-boppity-” prompt

The prompt for this week is simply to give a classic story---be it "Cinderella" or The Odyssey---a makeover. What are the repercussions of Cinderella’s marriage based on footwear? How might you reframe the legend of the Trojan Horse to reflect on modern warfare? What if the wolves and bears and dragons and witches of the fairy tale kingdom formed an anti-defamation organization?

Here’s my (rather quick, semi-stream-of-consciousness) attempt:

After the ball

Queen Ella trains her girls
to stand precariously
in shoes of glass—to wipe
the tables and the floors
with ashes pressed
into their pores.

She teaches them to sing
and dance—the finer points
of (quote) “romance”—
how not to smoosh
the mouse’s tail
and shimmy down
a copper rail.

She learns her daughters
how to speak to princes Persian,
French, and Greek—to bend
not at the waist but knees
if that same prince
she longs to please.

This mother dearest,
so refined, teaches her children
how to dine on sweetened
breads and creamy puffs.
She teaches them
to take it rough.

She shows them how to trim
their heels as to a prince
each one appeals. How not
to slouch upon a chair
(and what it means
to bleed down there).

How not to scrape
a fork to dish and,
when in doubt,
to stop, and wish.

Your Turn: What are the myths and legends and fairy tales that speak most to you? How can you reshape, revise, and rewrite them to speak into your current experiences, problems, relationships, and so forth? This exercise can be quite lighthearted---it can also be rather dark and brooding. See where wandering into the landscape of myth, legend, allegory, and fairy tale takes you!


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Catch up on the "Lost Jungle" series on Our Lost Jungle:


  1. Interesting. I've been doing some of my flash fictions using some fairy tale characters - sort of with them in between stories. They're up with the others on my blog.

    1. I find that fairy tale characters lend themselves rather easily to all genres, which is another reason they make such a great leaping off point. Thanks for bringing up their particular use for flash fiction; that's something to think about when playing with them and seeing where they "lead."


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