Fabulous fairy tales

A lady knight drawn for my friend J's birthday

A fairy-tale-ish lady knight I drew for my friend J's birthday

Fairy tales are some of my favorite stories, and I feel like a fairy tale sensibility persists through much of my work.

This fall I have been immersed in fairy tales. In early September, I got the chance to host BroadUniverse’s BroadPod episode fairy tales for Grown Ups. Then I got lost in the Ghost World sequence books, Ghost Drum, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance. (I absolutely adore these three books; they are truly new fairy tales, set in a world that draws from the old traditions and weaves them into a rich new tale. And like the fairy tales of old, things are not simple or pat, nor do they have Disney-happy-endings necessarily, even though they’re techically children’s fantasy. Like my favorite fairy tales, The Ghost World sequence books have something for young or old readers, and don’t shy from difficult or complex themes.)

And then I picked up My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, which is a fascinating contrast to The Ghost World sequence books. I’m not sure I’d call all of the stories in this anthology fairy tales; but it is definitely a very interesting collection of fairy-tale-inspired short fiction.

After reading the anthology, and while writing a fairy tale-inspired story of my own, I started thinking about what makes a fairy tale a fairy tale. Is it magic? (Maybe? Or a sense of magic?) A certain atmosphere? A happy ending? (I’d say not necessarily?) A certain kind of language? A world where things function by certain curious rules? What makes something a fairy tale versus a fantasy story? Repetition? The power of belief or words?

What do you think?

(Tangentally: fairy tale or fairytale? I prefer the latter, and I can find both in the dictionary, but some sites seem to insist on two words…)

My issue with issues

I have a problem with overthinking things when I write. But I’ve seen other writer friends of mine grappling with similar issues, so I don’t think I’m alone in this. Maybe it’s just part and parcel of being a writer–my brain tends to gnaw on things, and if it’s not gnawing on the story proper, it seizes the nearest thing, be it news, worry, political concern, or nonsense, and gnaws on that. Which is fine… except when it cripples my ability to write a story properly, or affects my ability to later judge it.

Something long important to me is the portrayal of women in media. You could say it’s been a “cause” of mine since childhood, when I made sure, in second grade, that my persian-cat heroine rode a motorcycle, solved mysteries, and fought spiders. (Yes, that was very tough and kickass in my seven-year-old mind.) Maybe she wore a bow but she was no wilting flower. That’s not to say I sneer at women who are stay-at-home moms or more traditional or simply not superheroines in blue jeans. Some of my favorite women characters are ones who find a way to make the most of the situations they are in. They may not rise up against the situations crushing them down with swords in hand, but they endure with a quiet strength that impresses. Women come in an infinite variation, are good, bad, weak, strong, miserable, pitiable, and awesome; ultimately I want them to be fully realized people in my stories, more than anything else, and not sketches.

That said… I have always had great difficulty with female characters in my fiction. In fact, for a while, I shied entirely away from writing women at all. I wrote all men. This may sound totally against what I just said but it made sense to me at the time. If I just wrote guys, there was no pressure. There were no built-in prejudices, no gender imbalances, no biased cultural expectations to be dealt with. (Ok, that’s black-and-white-ing it a bit, but at least, there was LESS pressure.)

Once I write a woman in, I worry. I worry constantly that she’s coming off unrealistically. That she’s too spineless. That she’s too tough and just a guy with boobs. That by her choices she’s making some statement on womankind, or that I’m shoving my feminist agenda in everyone’s face, or that I’m just reinforcing the gender-stereotypes.

(It occurs to me that I’ve written on that very phenomenon before. Clearly something I need to deal with.)

Which brings me back to my first paragraph. It’s not just what I’m saying about women that can trip me up. It’s anything I care about. What I’m saying about race, about the world, about sexual orientation, what I’m saying about how I feel about something like love or freedom or war or riches.

Those things concern me, but how much they ought to concern me while writing… that’s where I just can’t sort it out. On the one hand, some things are legitimate concerns. On the other hand, shouldn’t the story be given free rein until revisions stage, at the very least? And if you find you’ve spread a message you didn’t mean to–do you trunk the story? Put it out even though you feel a bit ill that you’ve written yet another woman who can’t think of anything but men? Or hide it because you’ve glorified war and killing and death and you’re afraid your reader can’t draw that line–won’t realize that for you, it’s just a story, just an exploration, an adventure, a look through eyes not your own…?