I’ve never liked Cinderella. The idea that one must be patient and submissive even under the worst treatment and someday, someday you’ll be rewarded strikes me as damaging at best and a culturally approved way to groom people to be abuse victims at worse. I was always faintly uncomfortable with the endings of different versions–the stepsisters cutting parts of their own feet off, shoes full of blood, casks full of red-hot nails rolled down a hill with the stepmother inside. It wasn’t the violence that made me uneasy, I knew from a very early age the world is a brutal place and safety largely an illusion. It was the feeling of righteousness welling up when I read about abusers getting theirs that made me queasy. I often wondered if those feelings made me just as bad as the stepmother and sisters–or just as bad as the people who beat me.
So when I realized Ellie from Nameless needed her own story, it irked me. I didn’t have the trouble in choosing the tools to excavate it; they came easily to hand for once.
That should have been my first clue that the exorcisms weren’t over.
I wrote Wayfarer during the Great Casa to Chez situation. About halfway through, I deconstructed under the stress, and for only the second time in my life, the words refused to come. I had no emotional energy to spare and yet the urge to write tormented me with spurs under my skin. I would sit down, look at the files open on my desktop, and slide straight into a panic attack because I was too burnt out to feel my way from word to word. Having the urge and being unable to scrape together even a single syllable was a very special kind of hell.
Buying a house is not for the weak.
Anyway, that passed, and as if in payment for keeping the faith, I fell into Ellie’s story as soon as I turned on said desktop in the new house. It occurred to me, now that I’d achieved some distance from the story (not by my own will, but still) that I wasn’t really writing about someone else.
I was writing, in some ways, about myself.
The fairy godmother doesn’t show up when Cinderella is being beaten for not cleaning something properly, doesn’t show up when she sleeps in the cinders, doesn’t advocate with her when her inheritance is stolen. Instead, she arrives before a goddamn ball. Which has always seemed to me like she’s not really very invested in dear old Cindy-Rella, but has an agenda of her own. You find out when you survive a bad childhood that escaping carries a price and risks all its own. Those who offer to “help” you often have their own agendas, and your wellbeing may be only a small (or nonexistent) priority. A few harsh lessons from that quarter and the devil you grew up with starts looking like a marginally safer bet. Some kinds of help aren’t really helpful at all. In other variations of the tale, it’s the dead mother and a Giving Tree who step in to send Cinderella to the ball, and if that doesn’t make a false dichotomy between the dark and passive feminines, I don’t know what does.
Ellie understands very well she’s trapped because she’s a minor. She puts a brave face on at school and doesn’t invite her friends further into her problems than she is absolutely forced to. “Help” isn’t something she feels is possible, it isn’t something she feels she can ask for. When she is finally driven to a certain cottage, the “safety” there is just as perilous as “home.” She does well in school until she can no longer go, understanding it’s one of her few ways out. When you’re that young, and that under siege, isolation begins to feel like your only and safest bet. You cannot trust anyone else, even those who really do want to help you. You fight even the best support, because trust is a liability you can’t afford when you’re holding together your psychic integrity under assault 24-7.
Not only that, but one can often feel…corrupted. Being told over and over that you’re worthless, evil, the worst thing that ever happened to your parent, that it’s your fault they do these horrible things to you, fucks up every sense of priorities, perspective, and worth you might have. The effects go on for years, and even therapy cannot completely erase the stain or the sting.
It can take a long time to piece yourself back together. Therapy has helped me immensely, as well as medication to get the anxiety under control. (Just give me a stick!) I have found people who can be trusted, and I have allowed myself to trust. There was no fairy godmother, even though I wished for one. In the end, it’s Ellie’s own strength, and her bonds with people who are willing to give the right kind of help, that saves the day. The latter is never guaranteed, and the former isn’t either, but I’ve spent my life betting on the latter and am, incredibly, still breathing.
I found out I was stronger than I ever suspected. Ellie’s survival is in part mine too; this is part of why fairytales stick around. Even under the trappings I care very little for–the prince, the ball, the dresses pulled from a nutshell or bibbity-bobbity-booed into existence–there is a hard kernel of truth that can ignite the bonfire I burn all the pain and rage and helplessness in. I don’t sleep in those ashes anymore, I have difference sources of warmth.
But when I go into battle, I paint my face with them, because I’ve survived. That was the story I needed to write, and I think–I hope–I did.
One does not simply walk into fairytales. Not without an axe and a pocketful of breadcrumbs, anyway. And when you are inside, you must look carefully at every face, because it carries an echo of its opposite.
Nameless started with a single image: an injured little girl in the snow in front of a gleaming-black limousine. I was about sixteen when the image came to me, and it occurred periodically for years afterward. I didn’t write the book that went with that image for almost two decades. I wasn’t ready, and I knew I wasn’t ready. Still…the story stayed inside me, closed up on itself.
When I was ready to begin excavating, I chose a shovel. It broke, and I had to choose another. (As one does.) Over and over, every tool I wanted to use kept breaking, it took about six before I found the one that would work and settled into a rhythm. About a third of the way through–thankfully, the pickaxe was still holding up–I realized I’ve absorbed, by dint of sheer cultural saturation, the fairytale laws of twos and threes.
Snow White and the Queen are two sides of a coin, the Prince and the Huntsman (Nico and Tor) likewise reflect each other. Once I realized that, the structure of the book almost built itself. The difficulty was stepping into each character. Camille’s terror, and the abuse that robbed her of easy speech, was heartbreaking, but it was something I was familiar with. The White Queen’s fear of old age and death, and her selfishness, was arduous in different ways. It’s a lot harder to feel empathy towards a nasty, self-centered villain.
Actually, I take that back. The empathy is easy. The hard part is suspecting there’s some part of oneself that reflects the villain’s awfulness. We are large, we contain multitudes, and every archetype casts a shadow. To tell stories is to delve into those dark patches.
A character can function as a double more than once. For example, Papa Vultusino (the widowed king) and the White Queen express different conditions of authority. And the old Vultusino and the new (Papa and Nico) are in creative tension with each other, just as Cami’s own shadow-side is reflected in her acceptance, through most of the book, in her persistent feeling of being nameless.
When I was younger, the variations of Snow White filled me with a sort of antagonistic loathing. I hated that she was passive, that she bit the damn apple, that someone else had to save her. Then I went through a period of considering the entire story an allegory, with each character a part of the psyche. There was a time I thought it was about “found family” and how you could be helped by people you could trust when your own flesh and blood betrayed you.
Writing Nameless, though, became about something even more personal. I went into a jungle full of mirrors and shards of other things I’d thought the story meant, in order to answer a deep, almost-unarticulated question from my own childhood–how can a mother injure her own child? I didn’t understand it then, and as a mother myself I don’t really understand it now. It’s utterly foreign to me, but at least writing the story, with each character refracted through its double or split into threes, helped me achieve some sort of tenuous peace.
I have come to believe that retelling a fairytale is similar to performing an exorcism. If one isn’t prepared, it can go badly. The accumulated charge of these stories, told and retold, repeated in threes and sevens, is great to plug into but dangerous as well. Under each variation is a core of something halfway between emotion and truth, taking the strength of both and reflecting. Two mirrors facing each other, and a candle between them to light up the labyrinth. The glare can blind you if you don’t have a ball of thread, or pebbles to drop in each intersection, or…you get the idea.
I half suspect she was a dog in a past life, because her furry belly is not a trap. Despite having pitons for claws, she does not take blood after you give her tummy rubs. In fact, she throws herself on her back and demands Miss B give her belly-nosings every time we go downstairs. She would be on my heels, like Miss B, all damn day–if not for the fact that Odd Trundles is also at my heels all day, and he is far too Loud and Obnoxious for her taste.
One of these days, she’s just going to smack Odd in the face when he wiggles up demanding at top volume that she play with him, and from then she will rule him unmercifully. (At least, that’s what the Mad Tortie does.) Until that day, though, she heads for the stairs whenever she suspects he’s awake.
Anyway, here is our calico wonder. If you listen closely you can hear her purring.
So my reward for putting in a new villain scene in a finished zero draft yesterday was…3k words falling out of my head on the Redneck Zombie Apocalypse With Librarian story. I am seriously considering finishing that for the Selkie, mostly because it makes me giggle and I like having fun. (Such as it is.)
This morning, for various reasons, I landed on listening to Marvin Gaye. (This may have had something to do with it.)
I can feel the odd focus of less sleep and more high emotion tickling under my skin. I used to use it for book fuel, but now it just makes me feel unsettled and tired. Learning to lower my tolerance for that fuel–because though it’s high-octane, it’s also stressful as fuck–was one of the best gifts therapy ever gave me. It’s tempting to go back, because it’s reliable and familiar. I suppose this is the acid test of learning healthier ways of dealing with the world; the pinch comes when you feel the pull to go back to that bad old racetrack and fill up on that bad juice.
So there are things I’m doing today to interrupt the cycle. A hard run. Some chair-dancing to good music. Some stand-up dancing, too. (How can you be so old, and still not get it?) Plenty of fuzz therapy. Writing something fun for the hell of it. Narrating the guinea pig’s joy at fresh-plucked greens. (Today his accent is less Berlin and more Paris.) Leftover pesto pasta for lunch.
Ugh. Another one of those “everything is horrid and nothing helps” days. I know things are coming, they’ll be here soon, things will get better, la la la. It’s just hard to wait when you feel like everything around you is on fire and falling into a sea of relatively mild (for a chestburster) acid.
Of course, I could also have a teensy little lack of proportion due to two nights of uneven, restless, tossing sleep. The 3am Whatifs have been having a field day–or a series of field nights, so to speak–inside my skull.
Everything has always turned out all right before, I shouldn’t worry so much, there are plans in place.
Much of the problem is simply that I’ve been trying to dial back the anxiety meds. This is not helping, because whatever genetic disposition I had toward anxiety was triggered over and over again in the first thirty-odd years of my life and has become, as far as my body is concerned, the status quo. Generous soakings of adrenaline, cortisol, and the attendant chemicals are what my body and brain consider normal despite their bad effects on said body and brain. I can know, intellectually, that nothing is wrong and my body is simply doing something weird, but the physical sensations of terror are so strong it takes a lot of mental energy to keep reminding myself, over and over, that it’s FINE REALLY JUST CALM THE FUCK DOWN.
It irks me that I need medication in order to not have daily panic attacks. It upsets me that I can’t just will myself better, that I can’t just turn my reserves of stubbornness to the problem and force my body and brain to be closer to “normal.” Most other problems in my life have been solved by small (or not so small) and consistent applications of said stubbornness (for example, my career in publishing, ha ha) but this one…this one cannot be. It troubles me.
I’m off for my morning run now–another way to cope with and burn off all those damn stress chemicals. I’ve done a bunch of work already this morning, maybe, if I run hard enough, I’ll be able to sleep tonight.
Oh! Patreon folks, this month’s offerings are up! I hope you enjoy them. There will probably NOT be a reading this month, there’s just not enough interest and I am still struggling to catch up from Frau L’s visit and…several other things.
Okay. I really am heading out the door now. Maybe sweat will solve some of this. It will, at least, make Miss B stop nudging me with her nose whenever I shift in my chair. She can sense my worries, and they worry her, poor thing.
The Princess snapped this shot of Trundles chillin’ halfway down the deck stairs. Proud and rugged, and sitting sidesaddle (he says it proves he’s a Lady of Quality, and cannot understand why Miss B snickers every time) as he watches me weed a bit of the auld sod. This was after his Afternoon Constitutional and before the rains rolled in; it was a little too warm for Odd’s taste but he wasn’t about to go inside if I wasn’t. Goodness knows I might do something interesting, like suddenly produce some food. Or I might need protection from an ankle-biting zombie.