This is a writing experiment for someone who wants a boost of energy to take their revising deeper, or anyone who’s come to a bit of a halt in their drafting. It could also be a valuable exercise in the early stages of planning a book.
Writing experiment: Reread a favourite book of your childhood, or a favourite fairy story or myth you first encountered as a child. Perhaps choose something that was once important to you, but that you have not read in ages. You might have even forgotten most of its details, or there might be several variations – in which case it could be interesting to compare them.
It’s also good to listen to audio versions, or maybe to get someone to read them to you. Sometimes listening can arouse memories and deep feelings in a way that reading a printed page cannot. (Though audiobooks were not an option back then, I now am remembering my vinyl 45 Read Alongs of Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat and Disney’s It’s A Small World …)
As you read/listen, jot down any details that strike your attention. Characters, objects, settings. Turning points, emotional shifts, inexplicable but enthralling twists and reversals. Look out for powerful archetypes, or currents and themes that have played a role in your future life. Also jot down any particular lines or scenes that really pop out to you, or things you didn’t notice before.
Now: consider how these striking ingredients can serve as vectors for your work-in-progress in some way. VECTOR: a quantity that possesses weight and momentum as well as direction. How can these new ingredients add ballast and depth and forward-moving energy to your story?
You could add details in a literal way: the Little House books invite you to trap your characters in a snowstorm, or Alice in Wonderland gives you a disorganised tea party. Or you could translate more deeply, if indirectly, e.g., developing a character’s princess complex (remember that men can be princesses too). Or rereading The Secret Garden might help you see how a clearer focus could be built around the loneliness of a protagonist. Or you could introduce, however loosely, three wishes into a story to help give it some shape and pacing through repetition and progression.
I recently reread ‘The Pomegranate Seeds’ from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales. I was reading an edition originally read aloud to us at primary school; my teacher gave it to me on her retirement – yes, I was teacher’s pet – so this particular volume already had magic powers.
Hawthorne’s retelling is forty pages long, more fleshed out and fictionalised than some of the sketchy renditions I would later encounter in other contexts. It uses the names Proserpina and Pluto from the Roman version, which in turn is based on the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades; there are always retellings.
There are plenty of archetypes: innocents and predators, and mothers – in this reading, Ceres (Demeter) figures more strongly as the protagonist, and this time I felt this story more deeply as one of loss and reconciliation and compromise.
I found myself latching on to a few details in this read too. The number six of the pomegranate seeds. The dryads and naiads: I’ve always been fascinated with these spirits of woods and water, and I realise that this was probably the first time I encountered them, at the age of seven.
I was also intrigued by the line that tells us that Pluto pats Proserpine’s cheek, ‘for he really wished to be kind, if he had only known how’ – an oddly human (or inhuman) detail.
I also noted that the seven-year-old me had no idea he’d be reading Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter as an American Studies undergraduate some eleven years later, or buying the collected novels of Hawthorne in a used bookstore in Provincetown at the turn of the century.
And rereading this little red Tanglewood I was whisked back to Mrs Bentley’s classroom. I remembered the nature table, and the portable shelf of library books. I remembered listening to her read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Wind in the Willows.
And I also remembered the time I played Rumpelstiltskin in a school play. I had to wear green tights and a green crepe paper tunic, and spin a polystyrene spinning wheel and sing a song, and I still know all its lyrics OFF BY HEART. Spin wheel, spin / Turn wheel, turn / And every straw / Upon the floor / Turn to shining god. I probably need a therapist to unpack all this! A Jungian, please.
And Rumpelstiltskin is not only a story of hiding your name, your truth, but also the story of HAVING A FUNNY NAME. Duh, I only just saw that one! Seriously: I’ve only recently realised the burden and trauma of GROWING UP WITH A FUNNY NAME. Millions of words have been devoted to critiques of white male heterosexual privilege and the inequalities of economic class, but has anyone ever studied the psychosocial effects of the name you inherit?!
But: we all come to live with our truths, and I’d never change being a Wille.
All these triggers, all these elemental details. All these haunting and defining motifs – these themes of a life. It’s rich stuff that wakes something inside us that brings our writing to life. Many of these stories from childhood are so deeply part of who we are. The flying carpet, the magic wardrobe, the talking animals, the little details we’ve forgotten or read differently as adults: they captured our imaginations as children, and they trigger our imaginations today.
I guess we could worry about copyright and the use of other people’s ideas, but hey: the school for wizards existed before Harry Potter, right?! So many of these stories are retellings, based on archetypes. The important thing is to make these ingredients our own, and to shape and express them in our own way.
Later you might want to explore this rich field further, but for now don’t overthink this task. Just reread the magical texts of your childhood with a notebook to hand, and see how you can relate various themes and details to your work today.
Where do your eyes and heart and mind take you, and how do you bring your findings back into your writing? How do they give you details or currents to work through in your drafting and revisions?
Further resources on archetypal stories, childhood reads and fairy tales
Library of Congress, Classic Children’s Books
Folktexts: A Library of Folktales, Folklore, Fairy Tales, and Mythology
Maria Tatar, ed., The Classic Fairy Tales
Jack Zipes, ed., The Great Fairy Tale Tradition
Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
Victoria Lynn Schmidt, 45 Master Characters (my go-to reference for frameworks for balancing masculine vs feminine journeys in story)
Marie-Louise von Franz, The Interpretation of Fairy Tales
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With The Wolves
Liz Greene and Juliet Sharman-Burke, The Mythic Journey
Maureen Murdock, The Heroine’s Journey
Ursula Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction
If you are looking to buy any children’s books, I *highly* recommend The Alligator’s Mouth in Richmond (now able to fulfil online order requests in the UK). SUPPORT YOUR INDIE BOOKSHOPS! The book world relies on them.
Also check out Zoe Gilbert’s London Lit Lab workshops based on analysis of fairy tales and folklore.