Quote of the Day – can you say ‘ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaah’?

“I don’t know where people got the idea that characters in books are supposed to be likeable. Books are not in the business of creating merely likeable characters with whom you can have some simple identification. Books are in the business of creating great stories that make your brain go all like ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaah.”

– John Green

Wanted: one standard imagination, please.

Writing; oh, how I love it. At school, I would very rarely have a firm grip on any of the content of my courses. Economic theory was a complete blur. Ancient history was facts read and then forgotten a millisecond later. Mathematics, quite frankly, was an alien concept to me. Somehow though, I managed to pass every subject with flying colours…miraculous! So, how did I ace my exams and assignments without ever really understanding the content? Written communication. A skill that so many people underestimate, written communication is what I believe to be the key to success in an academic environment. If you can write well, express yourself clearly and communicate in an effective and intelligent manner, you can take a very basic knowledge of a topic and spin it into a report that impresses the pants off whoever happens to read it! Or at least, that’s how I flew through high school.

Writing is my forte, you could say; a skill I have and would love to improve. Reports, essays, theses, persuasive speeches, expository writing, creative non-fiction…I have all of these things under my belt. (Good Lord, I sound like an arrogant, over-confidant teenager, don’t I?) But, there is one genre of English that lies just beyond the reach of my writing prowess: fiction. Perhaps it’s because I’m not really a story teller (though boy, would I love to be!) or perhaps it’s because my imagination has been thrust to the back of my mind (I blame school). Whatever the reason and in spite of my efforts, the ability to produce a quality work of fiction has eluded me. However, in grade eleven (junior year, for all you Americans), I was required to write a short story for my English class. Terror, horror, fear…all of the above. But, in spite of said disposition towards writing fiction, I managed to produce a passable piece of creativity.

Shall I share it with you all? Now, keep in mind that I was a wee sixteen year old at the time that I wrote this.

TIGERLILY

“Where is she?” the hysterical mother screamed into the telephone, unable to control the rising panic any longer. “Damn it, where is my daughter?”

“We’re working on it Ma’am. We’ll let you know as soon as we have any information as to her whereabouts. For now, just remain calm. Don’t panic until we know we have reason to.”

A sound of tormented exasperation involuntarily left her lips as she slammed the phone onto the receiver. The past forty-eight hours had been agony, when was it supposed to get better?

Tigerlily was a seventeen year old girl. She was the only child of Wendy and Peter Allen: an accountant and a solicitor respectively. The family of three, together with their Persian cat, Josephine, lived in a neat white house of wood with a neat front lawn on a neat suburban street in a neat, normal neighbourhood.

On the seventh of April 2003, the autumn sun allowed just enough warmth for the critters in the neat garden to scurry and nibble before hibernation. The song birds had quieted and the vibrant greenery behind the neat white house of wood had softened into a picturesque blend of browns, yellows and reds.

Tigerlily inhaled deeply as the crisp, autumn air ruffled her lacy curtains. Her bedroom did not resemble what one would consider to be a typical seventeen-year-old’s bedroom. As with the rest of the excessively neat household, Tigerlily’s bedroom was in perfect order. Where one would expect to find boy band posters and clothes strewn across the floor, there was a made bed and neat desk with a small stack of textbooks and assortment of carefully arranged pens and pencils.

Tigerlily leaned back from the window and gazed at her bedroom. It sickened her. The creativity and imagination that shaped her every thought felt smothered by the matching furniture and blue bedspread and plain beige walls. Josephine the cat even matched, with her creamy coloured fur nearly camouflaging her with the carpet. Tigerlily had tried once, to decorate her room with posters and photographs and purple lampshades and a rainbow bedspread.

Wendy Allen most certainly had not approved. “Tigerlily, why do you want to spoil our lovely home with awful clutter like that? Don’t you want our friends to think our home is beautiful? We have a beautiful home, Tigerlily, let’s not spoil it.”

The part inside of Tigerlily that was vibrant, adventurous and colourful was carefully locked away by Wendy Allen who would not stand for such frivolous nonsense. At age three, Tigerlily was enrolled in ballet. At age five she started piano lessons, tennis at age ten and deportment at age twelve. By eleven, after being continuously lectured and redirected by her parents, Tigerlily had given up any ideas of being allowed to pursue her own desires and passions while under their guardianship.

The sound of stones clanging against glass turned Tigerlily’s attention back to the window. Peering down over the sill at the ground a storey below, she felt relief well in her chest. The familiar dark-haired boy flashed the crooked smile that still sent her heart into palpitations. Picking up her rucksack and the small bundle of money, her life savings that she had been collecting and saving for as long as she could remember, Tigerlily graced her disgustingly tidy bedroom with one last glance before lifting her leg over the windowsill. Climbing down the lattice was second-nature to her now. Having perfected the art at age fourteen, the now seventeen-year-old Tigerlily swiftly made her way down to her favourite person in the world.

Oliver James opened his arms to Tigerlily and chivalrously relieved her of her rucksack. Her auburn hair shone magnificently in the autumn sunlight. How good it felt to be in the arms of he who was her soul mate. The pair danced across the browning lawn toward the white picket fence that separated the Allen premises from a park of expansive gardens and towering oak trees.

Tigerlily felt euphoria pulse through her veins as she skipped away from her perfect, neat home. Earlier that day, she had feigned illness, to avoid being dragged out for the mother-daughter bonding activities that Tigerlily despised so deeply. Instead, she had stayed home and packed her rucksack with the essentials and waited excitedly for Oliver to arrive. By the time her parents returned home, she would be many kilometres away.

Oliver clutched her hand and pulled her to face him. Her green eyes pierced his blue eyes and together they stood in silence, in awe at what they’d done. They hadn’t stolen a priceless painting or won a million dollars or run a marathon or anything quite that dramatic, but to them, the enormity of simply escaping the prison of parental expectations was overwhelming.

The setting sun cast deep pink and orange hues across the magnificent sky. Tigerlily and Oliver had walked ten kilometres within two and half hours and then taken the train to the airport. Twenty-three kilometres now stood between the liberated adolescents and their former abodes.

As the glowing oranges started to fade into impregnable navies, Wendy Allen impatiently waited for her daughter to answer her mobile phone. “She told me this morning she couldn’t join me for high tea because she wasn’t well. I’m telling you, if she is out partying, I will be extremely cross,” Wendy chided to her husband.

The blanket of darkness gradually peeled away to reveal a crisp blue morning. Wendy Allen, having fallen asleep on the couch before Tigerlily’s return, entered her daughter’s bedroom with bated breath and a cache of reprimands and disappointed looks. After a long, restless night of tossing and turning, the empty bed sent a piercing wave of maternal hysteria over Wendy.

By midday the next day, that wave had become a tsunami of panic and terror hovering above Wendy and Peter Allen. Don’t panic until we have reason to? My missing child isn’t reason enough to panic?

Wendy sat alone at the neat cream-coloured kitchen counter, head in hands, shaking uncontrollably. Her life was so neat, so tidy, so organised. Her home was her temple of perfection, boasting the same excessive neat and tidiness that shaped Wendy’s personality. Yet, in spite of her consistent efforts, she had never been able to neaten and tidy her daughter. Tigerlily Allen had been a free spirit and Wendy’s mere attempts to impose her own organised ideals on her daughter had placed distance between them that far outstretched the kilometres that now literally separated the two.

Since entering her daughter’s empty bedroom the day before, Wendy’s intuition had been pulsing like a metronome beneath the veil of sheer terror and desperate longing for Tigerlily’s return. At that moment, she would have given anything for the phone to have rung with good news. She knew though, with her intuition throbbing incessantly and painfully inside her core, her rigid body shaking as if in a seizure, that she would never get that chance.

Two thousand, five hundred and seventy-two kilometres away from the neat, white house of wood sat an auburn haired-girl and a black-haired boy, hand in hand, gazing up at the stars which littered the sky above this unfamiliar land. This strange land however, felt more like home to this seventeen-year-old girl than the suffocating perfection she had escaped from ever had. For the first time in her life, a sense of complete peace settled over her as she lay anonymously on a patch of grass in an unfamiliar place, not knowing what the next day held.

While writing this, I realised that I love writing for the beauty of language. For the way in which sentences can be strung to evoke fear, nostalgia, excitement or romance. The sheer poeticalness of words. You probably noticed that my short story focused very little on plot and tension but instead spent a great deal of time describing the scenery…and while I know that this makes for a very unexciting tale, it’s the description, the formation of beautiful sentences, the power of alliteration and metaphor that give me my writer’s buzz.

And this is how I came to the conclusion that I would like to write creative non-fiction. What a sublime genre! I don’t have to care about character and plot and tension…I can take facts and topics and exploit my vocabulary to the very best of my creative ability! Now, don’t get me wrong, I adore fiction. Novels of every genre make me dizzy with literary excitement. I lived at Hogwarts throughout my entire childhood. I fought the enemy with Ellie from Tomorrow, When the War Began. I drifted out at sea in a boat with a Bengal tiger and Pi. Yes, I’ve thrown myself head-first into the many magical worlds of fiction and would be blatantly lying if I claimed to enjoy reading non-fiction any more than I love to read stories. But when it comes to writing, my catharsis, nothing can quite compare to the very malleable genre of creative non-fiction.

Words, words, words. What do you love about words? What genres do you love to read and what genres do you love to write? Are you first and foremost a story teller or a writer? Are you an academic or a dreamer? Share your words with me!

The Fairy Tale Paradox

The Three Brothers

Parents, mentors, teachers, babysitters, older siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, older friends, friends’ parents…every ‘big person’ in a child’s life is seen as a fountain of knowledge, an enigma of misery and a protector. Teachers and parents instil their children with a fear of danger and the unknown: don’t talk to strangers, look before crossing the road, don’t touch the spider, don’t swing on your chair, don’t jump on the bed, etcetera. And of course, you’d say that all of these things are necessary aspects of a child’s initial life education. It doesn’t stop there, however. Protecting the babies of our society is instinctual and extends beyond the physical dangers of everyday life. We protect our children from profane language, from violent and frightening images, from the sexually explicit, from immoral themes, from displays of drug and alcohol use, from depressing ideas and just generally from the darker aspects of life. We do all that is in our power to preserve the innocence of childhood and shield our youngsters from anything outside of the exuberantly happy or perfectly safe.

However…when you think of your childhood, what do you remember? Personally, I remember my parents, my trampoline, the smell of birthday candles, feeling energetic constantly and the stories read to me at bedtime. Ahh…the stories read to me at bedtime! Those fantastical fairy tales of magic, witchery, princesses, fairies, goblins, ladders, treasure, talking animals and every other wonder of a child’s imagination. I don’t feel it to be too gross a generalisation to assume that most children are read fairy tales. They are wonderful, absorbing and can be read to you a thousand times without becoming boring. They define bedtime, they make bedtime bearable and they usually pepper children’s thoughts and dreams with wildly imaginative scenarios of otherworldly people and places.

The paradoxical thing is however, that most of the tales read to little boys and girls around the globe are embedded with the very themes that parents sprain their mental and emotional limbs to eradicate from their children’s lives. The books read to kids from birth through to primary school, more often than not, detail stories of dark worlds, evil monsters, promiscuous princesses, sly witches, prowling shadows, violent wars, abusive behaviour and gruesome games. Yes, if you seriously think about it, fairy tales are often less about fairies and more about fright.

Take, for example, the Grimm Brothers’ stories of Snow White, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin and Cinderella. As four of the most celebrated fairy tales, these books are among those that nearly every child is familiar with and that parents read to their offspring without a moment’s hesitation.

Snow White

Snow White

Rumelstiltskin

Rumelstiltskin

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel

Cinderella

Cinderella

It’s funny though, isn’t it, that each is its own expose of rebellion or promiscuity? I am, by no means whatsoever, suggesting that these books are inappropriate for children, but I do find it markedly comical that the majority of the world’s children’s books are, in actual fact, subtle illustrations of the dark, the dangerous and the dirty. Snow White is drugged, almost murdered and then runs off to live alone with seven strange men. Rapunzel blatantly defies the rules imposed on her by inviting a boy into her room and then running away with him. The young girl of the Rumpelstiltskin tale is cruelly locked in a room as a result of her father’s lies and is eventually asked to give up her first born child. Cinderella is neglected, abused and sneaks out of her stepmother’s house to meet a boy. Are these things not the epitome of what every parent attempts to shield from their babies? And yet…all around the world, children are drifting to sleep with images of glass slippers and the seven dwarfs swirling through their minds.

The Pied Piper is a story of vermin, deception, dishonesty, kidnapping, greed and violence, the original version of which results in the drowning of an entire village’s population of children. The modified version is less gruesome but instead features bribery and blackmail as the children are spared in exchange for money.

The Pied Piper

The Pied Piper

Sleeping Beauty, which may seem like a nice little tale of a cursed princess put to sleep for a hundred years and then kissed awake by a prince, was originally a heinously violent tale of a princess put to sleep by a prophecy and then raped by the king (not a prince) before giving birth to two children, one of which eventually wakes her by sucking a piece of flax from its mother’s finger.

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty

While many fairy tales have been modified over the years, it cannot be denied that most are still founded on underlying themes of darkness, evil, violence, deception and rebellion…

Yes, we are an enigmatic species, us humans, with our paradoxical ideas and methods of parenting. We read stories to our five-year-old children about girls running away with boys and find ourselves ten years later, wishing for bars on our daughters’ windows. We tell the tale of Snow White’s poisoned apple and find ourselves, a decade on, warning of the dangers of GHB and leaving drinks unattended. We tuck our babies in at night, tell them they’re safe, and then read them stories of Hansel and Gretel’s kidnapping. We shower our offspring with love, affection, light and play before sending them to sleep with bedtime stories of greed, deception, danger and death. What on earth are we thinking?

We are thinking that fairy tales are just that: tales of fairies, of the fantastical, of the magical. We are thinking that they don’t translate to reality and are harmless little stories with which to entertain our kiddies. We are thinking that life is life and stories and stories, the two realms never intermingling and therefore never infecting the other with one’s themes. But are we completely correct in assuming all of these things? Are there not a thousand blog pots and essays and expository papers about the power of the written word, of books, of fiction? Have we not seen and felt the impact that stories can have on our lives and on those of others? Perhaps not…perhaps most people have never consciously connected the world of fiction with that of reality…now there’s a scary thought.

My question is, are fairy tales just bedtime stories with the sole outcome being the amusement of children? I turned out relatively sane (or as sane as a writer can be) and I can attest to having been read a host of marvellously magical stories. But there are adults out there who do strange things, whose parents remain flabbergasted by their son’s or daughter’s behaviour and wonder whatever it was that they did wrong in raising their not-so-cute-any-more child. I know, I know; it’s completely and utterly ludicrous to at all insinuate that heinous behaviour could be connected with childhood fairy tales. But really, how will we ever know? If you’re like me, then you absolutely love the idea that words can change the world. But if this is true, then surely it applies to pieces of writing outside of the ‘inspirational speech’ genre. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech is still alive and active in the war against racialism. Are the dark little tales of Rapunzel and the Pied Piper still alive in our adult consciousnesses?

Now, there’s a conspiracy for the blogosphere!