I first met the delightful Lisa Ahn when she left a comment on this blog. As I explored her work, I discovered a gifted writer who loves the creative process and frequently goes down the “what if?” trail, which made her even more endearing.
Then last April (has it been that long?) she invited me to write a guest post on her blog, Tales of Quirk and Wonder, in her series called The Hatchery, where she features writers talking about inspiration and creativity. I have asked her to return the favor by writing a guest post here on the Judy Lee Dunn blog, on a topic of her choice.
What impresses me most about Lisa is that she is a writer of extraordinary talent, but at the same time a warm, humble and compassionate person. She has a PhD in English Literature and an excerpt of her novel, Grace Blinks, was nominated for a 2011 Pushcart Prize, a time-honored American literary award.
If you want more insight into who Lisa is and what makes her tick, read this interview with the editors of PANK Magazine.
Faith in Fairytales
by Lisa Ahn
“Terror seized him; he tried to say the Lord’s Prayer, but all he could remember was multiplication tables.”
~ Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”
I took the recommended childbirth class while pregnant with my oldest daughter. Always the diligent student, I scribbled notes, practiced the breathing exercise, asked about the risks of epidurals.
Inside the delivery room, I forgot everything I’d learned. Breathe? Pant? Scream? Argh! I did the best I could. Luckily, my daughter knew what she was doing. She came into the world, whole and healthy, regardless of my panic.
My fear in the delivery room was crippling — it’s a moment fairytales know well. In Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” the young boy Kai is “seized” by terror — captured and frozen both — as he flies behind the queen’s fast sledge. Numbed by the queen’s amnesiac kiss, he cannot remember anything that might sustain him — just the empty pegs of math facts. Though he has a chance to earn his freedom if he can spell “eternity” from shards of ice, he’s lost the knowledge that might guide him through that task.
Luckily, there is someone else inside the tale — someone like my daughter — who retains access to deep knowledge. Kai’s best friend Gerda walks barefoot through the world to bring him back. She braves enchanted gardens, talking crows, a feisty robber girl, the frozen north, and the Queen’s guard of whirling snowflakes. Even barefoot, Gerda doesn’t stumble. She rescues Kai, melts the ice inside his heart, dances shards into the word “eternity,” and leads her friend back home.
Happily ever after.
With such neat and tidy endings, fairytales often slip beneath the radar of serious readers and writers. Real life is messy, full of twists and turns we can’t predict. There is loss and grief and rage. There are wounds that do not heal, tragedies we can’t recover. Sometimes, there is no one searching to reclaim us.
Yet Einstein named fairytales as the source of true intelligence. What use are magic wands and talking birds in life or serious writing? I’ll admit to an attraction to the whimsical and quirky, but fairytales offer so much more than that. They cut to the essentials — fear and love, despair and longing, rivalry and hope. Ultimately, fairytales are maps. I would not get far without them.
Access to Deep Knowledge
For the most part, my life bubbles over with minutia. In an average day, I’m juggling homeschool lessons for my two daughters, trying to remember basic algebra, a list of common prepositions, and the definition of a polymer while I wash the dishes and forget to feed the dog. Swim lessons. Piano. Dance recital. Laundry. A phone call to the doctor. Did the baby get her eye drops? Summer camp. Mop the floor. And we’re out of dog food, once again.
My day is scattered out in scraps and shards. Like Kai, I forget the deeper truths of love and faith while stumbling through the knuckle bones of facts. It’s important to return my library books on time, of course — but schedules, charts and due dates can’t sustain me. For that, I need a deeper knowledge — the kind Gerda resurrects in Kai — the deep knowledge that I find in nature, in quiet meditation, in books and writing, or while laughing with my kids.
As a writer, I often use that tug-and-pull of loss and learning. What can this character not afford to lose? What burden, multiplied, will break her? What loss will drive him towards the journey for a deeper truth, a fuller knowledge? In fairytales, the stakes are always high. The conflicts are outrageous. What better fodder for our tales?
When the stakes are high, the cost of fear is brutal. Worry makes the day look crooked. The car breaks down. The bank account is slim. Can my daughters climb that high? What is that rash? Will I ever get my novel published? If I’m frozen in anxiety, I can’t act to make a change.
Fairytales restore me. Whether it’s “The Ugly Duckling,” “Hansel and Gretel,” or “Goldilocks,” they are journeys of recovery. Their pathways aren’t simple. They set perseverance against doubt, with twists and turns you can’t predict. There are obstacles. There is loss and grief and rage.
There are no easy choices, either. In the Russian tale, “The Firebird,” the prince reaches a crossroads where he must choose between hunger, the death of his horse, or his own demise. He takes the right hand turning, and a wolf devours his horse. Days later, the wolf returns to help the prince through a maze of bargains and mistakes. The wolf forgives the man’s avarice and ignorance, slays his enemies, even resurrects him. The path they ride is twisted, but, always, there’s another chance.
Fear twists any path, warps us out of knowing. Fairytales model ways to navigate the terror and the turnings, the loss and grief and rage. No matter how complex the path — in life, as well as writing — there’s always a way out.
We can’t predict where even simple moves will take us. Three years ago, I met Brenda Gottsabend here, on Judy’s site. Now, we’re collaborators in a photo story project, my fables spun out of Brenda’s stunning photographs. Each fable begins with the same question: What if? What if you had the recipe for love, and lost it? What if there was a city made of dreams? What if a star could cry? What if there were ghost trees, retired witches, and chess-playing lions?
There’s a “what if” at the root of every fairytale. What if you strayed from the forest path? What if you built a house of straw? What if you opened that forbidden door? From there, the story winds to its conclusion, through deliverance and devilry.
“What if?” doesn’t stop with words, though. It’s a powerful transformation, a re-configuration of thought and act. What if I homeschooled my kids? Became a vegetarian? Took this chance in London? Called myself a writer? These are the questions that have shaped my life. They are wrought of possibility and wonder. They are gifts of fairytales.
I’d like to say I conquered fear during the delivery of my second child, but . . . well, let’s just say I still need fairytales. I read them to my girls. I devour them myself. Each “once upon a time” is an invitation to adventure. The woods are tangled, and wolves lurk inside the shadows. Fear hovers. Knowledge waits. The obstacles are formidable, demanding great imagination. Just like life. And writing. I still have lots to learn.
Judy here: I promised to announce the winner in my book giveaway contest. It is Steve Olson! Steve, just go to the contact page on this blog (on the top navigation bar) and email me a shipping address. I’ll get your copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Writers to you.