From the Dirt to the Sky

A funny thing has happened to my writing since taking a workshop on fairy tales back in January of 2011–my usual realist short fiction has become increasingly more magical. It seems as though for every short story about internal struggles and character development I’ve written, I’ve followed them with tales of talking animals and girls with magical gifts.

I don’t think this is a bad thing.

My last fairy tale involved a talking raven. I doubt Raymond Carver would ever write about a talking raven, but if he did, I bet the raven would have been one hell of a drunk.

In Kate Bernheimer’s essay “Fairy tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” she argues for the integrity of fairy tales as a classic structure for storytelling. I too believe that this field of writing can greatly inform our more realistic writing and enliven the otherwise mundane by injecting a new sense of magic into the everyday. Too often readers and writers scoff at fairy tales for being too simple or childish or cliche. I can only hope that they expand their horizons beyond what Disney has to offer and look to writers like Bernheimer for better examples of the genre.

Read this book for an example of contemporary literary fairy tales with an emphasis on female protagonists.

Fairy tales have a structured form. Even a novice reader can recognize the makings of a fairy tale. The characters are usually one-dimensional; sometimes they lack names. The realm of magic mixes freely with our world. Children are not shocked by talking animals. Human characters interact with magical creatures such as mermaids and fairies. Knowing what to expect out of fairy tales is part of why they work so well and why they are a literary tradition that has lasted for so long.

But how can they inform other literary genres? My usual style of “dirty realism” (I believe this is a term often attributed to Raymond Carver’s writing) focuses on little moments, on characters over plot, and often on internal struggles that can’t be fixed through magic, however much my characters may wish it were that easy. One thing I have discovered, through Kate Bernheimer’s writing and within my own, is that fairy tales are a great form through which to tell feminist stories, something that I often do through realist fiction. My fairy tale heroins who are empowered through magical incidents have become inspiration for my literary fiction protagonists struggling through bad marriages and broken family relationships.

Just because one story reaches for the sky doesn’t mean it cannot affect those stories stuck in the dirt.

Over the last few months I worked on two stories simultaneously. One story was a realist short fiction piece based on a real life “fact is stranger than fiction” news story about a man in Ohio who killed himself after releasing all the wild animals on his reserve. The exotic animals roamed through the small town’s neighborhood and most were killed by local police officers. This incident played out as the backdrop for a family drama about a young girl and her mother–and her mother’s boyfriend, a married man. This story explores the wild we bring knowingly or unknowingly into our family’s lives.

The second story I wrote was a fairy tale about a little girl living on a farm with her father. Her father refuses to let her help with the farm chores, tend the animals, or really lead any kind of life outside of her home. To supplement this oppression, the father gives his daughter pets to make her happy. The only problem is that she keeps accidentally killing them. Her wild instincts are too big for the cage her father tries to keep her in. The story ends with the opportunity for the child to leave her home behind and join the wild animals in the nearby forest. This is a story about the wild we try to keep out of our family’s lives.

My last fairy also included a peacock. If I could, I would find a way to add peacocks to all my stories. Here’s some literary trivia for you: Raymond Carver prominently featured a peacock in his story “Feathers.” See, I’m not alone.

I didn’t intend for these stories to overlap. It was something that happened naturally, as though they were puzzle pieces coming together to form a complete picture of children and their relationships with their parents–the give and take, the compromises, the mistakes we make. Once I realized these stories had intertwined, I decided to bring this coincidence to the forefront by naming the protagonist of each story “Lo.” This, of course, is a nod to the most famous of wild girl children, Nabokov’s Lolita.

Now that I have seen in my own work the interaction between fairy tales and realist fiction, I’d like to explore it further. This time I will consciously write two stories with similar plots, one as a fairy tale and one as more realistic fiction. Will the rigidity of its structure limit the character development in my fairy tale? Will the emphasis on character development in realist fiction make my literary fiction too internal? Or will these two forms help each other by lending to the other form what they do best? A little magic in exchange for a little reality, perhaps.

  1. […] a while back when I mentioned that I was playing with story structure? I decided I would take a similar character/plot/theme and explore one or all of these in two […]

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