This is going to be the last Friday Writing Experiment, as such. I’ve had various interruptions of late – a dog, a garden, other work – and my regular posts became irregular, but I’ve been thinking for a while that I’d draw things to an end when I reached a year’s worth of weekly writing exercises. And here we are, on the fifty-second. I might add others, perhaps in the contexts of different types of posts, and there is a list of all the other exercises elsewhere on this site (this will be updated). I shall continue to make posts about writing and publishing on this blog, but maybe they’ll take other forms, such as reviews of resources for writers, or craft essays. I’d like to say that would be weekly, but right now I can’t commit.
For this last writing experiment, though, I want to return to one of my (our) first influences in reading and writing, and also one of my first experiences of being a student in a writing workshop – in fact, this draws inspiration from the very first exercise in the very first week of my very first Summer Writing Program, back in a hot summer in Colorado in 2002.
It was a workshop on fairy tales, led by the very brilliant and very inspiring Rebecca Brown. Are there any literary forms more fun, more magical, more sparking of the imagination than fairy tales? We read and talked and wrote, and read and talked and wrote some more. We discussed the elements and structures of fairy tales: heroes and villains, and magic objects, and patterns of three (three wishes, three sisters, three little pigs).
We also talked about our own favourites, which is always so inspiring. It doesn’t matter if it’s Grimm or Disney; the Disney versions are the ones I grew up with most of all (had a fantastic bumper book of Disney stories largely based on fairy tales), and I don’t buy the idea they are sanitised (plenty of them had moments that scared the hell out of me as a kid), and at least back then they had yet to be commercialised the hell out of, or overanalysed by dry little sticks with PhDs.
And of course there are plenty of other types of reworkings, whether it’s Angela Carter’s ‘The Werewolf’ or one of Anne Sexton’s Transformations or The Glass Casket, the richly imaginative reblending of one of the Grimm Brothers’ tales published this year by my friend and Naropa peer McCormick Templeman.
But back to that workshop in 2002: we did lots of writing within the short span of a week. We retold fairy tales, we composed fairy tales of our own making, and then I had most fun of all with the exercise where we rewrote our own life histories in the terms of a fairy tale (I in fact read this at my first public reading).
It’s below. It was one of those pieces that came out pretty much just right, and it’s copied here with barely any editing since. Sometimes those unfiltered pieces come straight from the heart, and have a voice and a directness that shouldn’t be toyed with. This was another time and place, of course! Written from that time when I lived in the US as a student. And it’s selective of places and players and particular episodes, of certain love affairs. So, please, be forgiving …
It’s not hard to translate the people and places in your own life into the archetypes of a fairy tale: mean aunts become wicked witches, the love of your life a handsome prince or a beautiful princess, a career change a shapeshifting transformation.
So, for this week’s writing experiment: write a version of your own. Recast events of your own life into a fairy tale.
Happily Ever After
Once upon a time a little boy lived on a far northern isle of rolling hills and forests of oak. The little boy led a charmed childhood, gathering blackberries from brambly hedgerows and sailing paper boats in slowly treading rivers. Best of all he loved to read books, and he especially loved books in which people lived Happily Ever After. Many of these books were set in a Magic Kingdom across the ocean in the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers. The little boy believed he too would live Happily Ever After if he lived in that Magic Kingdom, whose king was a mouse with a permanent smile.
The little boy had a younger sister, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, many cousins, even a great-great-grandmother, but enough of them for now; they have their own stories, for another time. The little boy’s mother was a good seamstress: remember the mother. The little boy’s father was a good gamekeeper but a bad husband who abandoned his wife for an older woman who lived down a coal mine. Then he was a bad husband all over again when he abandoned his second wife for a much younger woman, who lived down a different coal mine. Then he abandoned his third wife for her even younger sister, who lived down the very same coal mine. The little boy was lucky, as he never had to live with any of his three wicked stepmothers. He never even met them, but his mother assured him they were wicked. They have their own sorry stories, which we can hear another day. The little boy was simply happy that his mother and father were no longer fighting all the time. He could read his books in peace now.
So, the mother was a good seamstress, and she was a good mother, but she was poor too, and the bad husband never sent her any money. The bad husband, however, had a father who was a High Priest in the Church of Many Prohibitions. And it came to pass that the High Priest had to visit the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers on a mission to spread the good word of Many Prohibitions, and he brought the little boy with him. And together they visited the Magic Kingdom, where a sleeping princess had woken from a dark spell, and where little boys never grew up. They danced with the mouse with the permanent smile, and a quarrelsome duck with a freakishly large head.
But magic of this illusory kind never lasts forever. The High Priest continued on his trip to the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers, and brought his grandson to the Gathering of the Missionaries of Many Prohibitions. The little boy discovered that the Church of Many Prohibitions outlawed the eating of shellfish and the practice of sodomy. He never liked to eat shellfish, anyway, and at that time he hadn’t the foggiest idea what the practice of sodomy could be. While the missionaries frothed and foamed and rolled around in their rules and regulations, he sat in a corner and read books about the Magic Kingdom. Maybe, one fine day, he could return and live Happily Ever After with the mouse with the permanent smile?
Despite his activities in the Church of Many Prohibitions, the grandfather was a kind grandfather, and before they returned to the far northern isle he took his grandson to visit many other wonders of the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers: a grand canyon hewn from orange rock, an immense waterfall carved into a horseshoe, a giant city of towering steel and glass. The little boy came to understand that magic could take many forms, that Happily Ever After resides in many different locations, and not just the Magic Kingdom where the mouse was king.
The little boy and his grandfather returned to the far northern isle. Years passed. The boy continued to read books, and when the time came to attend the Academy of Specialist Knowledge he focused his studies on the many marvels of the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers. He still loved the tales of the Magic Kingdom, but he came to understand the wider history and many great artforms of this fresh green breast of a new world: the adventures to be found on the roads of its rich and varied lands, the great discoveries of the best minds of its many generations. And he learned that the people of the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers were unique in the history of the world, for they had a collective contract with their leaders that guaranteed each and every one of them not only Life and Liberty, but the Pursuit of Happiness. The intangible glories of Happily Ever After made into an inalienable right. Dreamy Dreamers indeed.
And, for a while, the little boy returned to study in a small and modest corner of the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers called the Land of Enchantment, a desert kingdom of captivating sunsets and cities in the sky, where he lived happily. But not yet Happily Ever After.
For the little boy was now a man, and he had come to understand that Happily Ever After resides not in a place but in a state of body and mind. And though he still did not like shellfish – he was vegetarian, after all! – he now knew, and liked, the practice of sodomy. Loved it, in fact. So when he once again returned to the far northern isle he knew that the good word of the Church of Many Prohibitions was in fact, for him, a bad word. A very bad word.
And then the little boy – now a man – met a tall, handsome, dark-haired prince. That’s a tale for another time, but, for now, let’s just say they lived and ate and travelled together, and together they explored the healthy and hearty joys of sodomy, and their love for the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers.
For now they live in – of all places – the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers, in its western Land of Rocky Mountains. The little boy – now a man – is finding new Pursuits of Happiness, at an Academy of Mind, Body and Spirit, where a High Priestess of No Prohibitions But Many, Many Scarves holds a summer festival of poetry and storytelling. The little boy – now a man – is discovering that Happily Ever After is, for him, an ongoing journey into the world of books and the imagination. And sodomy and a dark-haired prince.
And lest we forget his mother, the seamstress, who is a quiet and unassuming woman, hence her minor role in this particular tale: she is coming to visit in October. Who knows, she too may find magic and happiness in the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers.