Post-Career Old(er) Educator Finding His Way as a Full-Time (Publishable) Writer Makes a Case for When It’s Time to STOP WRITING!

Self-Critic Manny~ As a(n) old(er) writer, I’m always looking for ways to be kind to myself, to hang loose, to mute the voice of my haunting self-criticism that could easily paralyze my thinking if I let its nasty judgments fester and grow in my heart and mind. So familiar has that voice become, I’ve given it a gender and a name: Manny. When he appears, I talk to him —gently, kindly, welcoming him. Sound strange? Well, let me to tell you, befriending Manny rather than fighting him off makes it so much easier for me to send him on his way.

Writing-as-Teacher~ For years now whenever Manny stops by to rattle my confidence, I automatically draw on the wisdom found in, of all earthly powers, an Estonian proverb that I long ago memorized: “Let the work teach you how to do it.” What does that mean? How does it ward off my irritating friend, the speaker who would have me shut down? In truth, I’m not real sure how it works to help me maintain my equilibrium, but it does help. Maybe because those soothing words lead me past Manny and directly back to the writing, inviting me to concentrate only on the emerging text for these precious moments of truly listening to the writing —or whatever task or challenge is at hand for the time being. Maybe it’s a matter of being a thoughtful student of the writing, humbly allowing it to show me what I already know and need and want to learn. Ah, the dynamic of how that proverb settles me down and silences Manny remains a big mystery to me, but all I can say is that it puts me where I like to be: Making sense of the world I inhabit and my place within it by shaping aspects of it into story.

Writing Can Constrict Writing~ Do I then contradict myself when I suggest that sometimes a writer can work way too hard at the task, that struggling with the writing-as-teacher could very well exasperate the teacher, turning it away and silencing its helpful voice?

Well, I once again found myself caught up in this conflict when finishing the final draft of a story I’d been working on for well over a year. When I first happened onto the story, what I found was a fascinating Greek folk —not fairy— tale, curiously titled The Snake Tree, that my colleague Soula Mitakidou and I decided to include in our anthology of twenty Greek tales that bears the title, Folktales from Greece: A Treasury of Delights, (Libraries Unlimited, 2002).

I was no foreigner to the special effects that traditional tales are known for, starting with the rhythmic language, repetitive phrases, and interesting refrains —“the poetics of oral literature,” claims Richard Bauman, created by storytellers who passed the tale along by word of mouth, the intention of teller upon teller upon teller down through the ages being to entertain and edify an audience of one or many (Story, Performance, and Event, Cambridge U, 1986). We like and remember folktales for their stock characters that represent obvious traits or ideas and never reveal subtle personal characteristics; crystal clear themes that rise to the surface with no hidden agenda to be uncovered; and storylines that develop, as renown fantasy writer Philip Pullman puts it, “with a dreamlike speed from even to event” (Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, Viking, 2012).

When I revisited The Snake Tree some years later I was one again intrigued by its concern for fate, destiny, and loyalty. The tale stayed with me, inviting me to reimagine it as a full-bodied fantasy. Some 15,000 words later, I have a story I will soon let go and send out hopefully to find an audience.

Trying Too Hard Hurts~ Recently, though, I almost lost the tale’s ability to teach me how to write it when I became fiercely tied up in describing my main character. Trying way too hard to make the description “perfect,” I was nearly on the brink of abandoning the entire writing enterprise. Forever.

Flash back. The dilemma that confounded me began the day Donald, my friend and colleague, and the tale’s illustrator and I were navigating our way through the manuscript looking for scenes that would be enlivened with illustration. “By the way,” Donald asked in passing, “have you described what [the main character] Loukas looks like?”

Gasp! Clutch! While I hope I had revealed Loukas through his actions, his temperament, his kindness, and his nearly tragic flaw, never once in the course of this 15,000-word story do I attend to his appearance, neither as a child nor as an adult.

I pondered. I fretted. As though chiding me for my negligence, Loukas refused to make his unique features known to me. I’m not talking here about a writer’s block. No, I’m talking about attempt after attempt after attempt at nurturing into existence an image I could believe in. Loukas is Greek. He lives on an island in the Aegan Sea. He’s a part-time fisherman, and an accomplished flute player. He’s friendly. Does he wear a smile? What else does he wear?

You see, every time I formed him into being, I felt I was creating an unappealing stereotype. Black-haired, bronze-tanned, broad shouldered, mustached Greek fisherman. A Zorba kin. Sigh!

STOP WRITING~ Then, early one morning, I’m reading Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living by Pema Chrödrön, a Buddhist writer whose sound advice has become a guiding light for me as I move through each day. This morning Pema stops me in my writerly tracks with this bolt of advice: “…look at everything and appreciate it. Even if you don’t feel appreciation, just look. Feel what you feel; take an interest and be curious. Write less; don’t try to capture it all on paper. Sometimes writing instead of being a fresh take, is like trying to catch something and nail it down. This capturing blinds us and there’s no fresh look, no wide-open eyes, no curiosity.”

That did it for me. Hang loose. Relax. Take more than a few deep breaths in and out. Step back from the task (whatever it might be). Go for a walk, Pema advises. Sing out loud in the woods, she urges. Release yourself from the temptation to control the writing.

STOP WRITING! ~~for the time being …

RELEASE, RELIEF, RETURN~And then when you return, refreshed, to that divine process of composing, “Let the writing teach you how to do it.”

Now, whenever I step away from my fear of Loukas, he appears from the shadows and let’s me know what he wants to look like. By allowing him to teach me, he’s being much more cooperative. He’s almost fully formed, but only according to his clever suggestions for how he intends to appear before all who will hopefully meet him someday soon.

                        And thank you for stopping by to read my post today.


Post-Career Old(er) Guy Finding His Way as a Full-Time (Publishable) Writer                Reveals Why the Words “Retelling/Reteller” Applied to Reinventing a Folk- or Fairy Tale Fails at Acknowledging a Complex Process


“The Orphan: A Cinderella Story from Greece”

Browse your local library shelves where you find folk- and fairy tales and you’’ll soon discover that the majority of such stories are, according to book covers, “retold” by their authors. Now I don’t mean to sound like some fussy old nitpicker, but I’m here to tell you that to call me a “reteller” in my role as an oral storyteller and folklore author and to label what I labor to write a “retelling” surely misses the mark when it comes to describing the effort, awareness, and technique that I must draw on when the goal is to tell a story that entertains as much as it reveals human joys and sorrows, fears and courage, defeats and triumphs. This notion of “retelling” makes it seem that the folklore author or oral teller is taking the traditional tale or legend or verse and simply repeating most or all of it just as it was found. Not much work there. Maybe a little tidying up. Perhaps adding some drama to a conflict to make the story more appealing. What about letting those characters talk to one another when they meet up on that highway. And then there’s tightening the storyline with a little less description to move the tale along more quickly. Now, while any constructive alteration is bound to upgrade the tale or legend’s power, deep organic changes are what’s needed to build a good story. As it turns out, the act of breathing new life into these ancient narratives is not so much a matter of retelling them as it is of transforming them, or if a “re” must be in the equation, of “reinventing” whether as a writer or performer.

The process always starts with wandering around the tale. Spend a good amount of time getting to know the characters and you soon discover that however one-dimensional they seem given their folklore nature, they still trade in motivations, desires, challenges, and conflicts. Follow the events that carry these characters from here to there and beyond and you find that however quickly a tale moves along —by its folklore nature— free of the kind of details found in a novel or short story or, for that matter, a picture book, stuff does happen to keep the narrative moving and the characters suffering, learning, failing, surviving, and more often than not, living happily ever after. Linger awhile inside the tale and catch its rhythm, which sometimes suggests the cadence of an oral storyteller who fills the tale with traces of an earnest resonating voice. To bring that voice —the teller’s performance— to the page for the sake of keeping vibrant the tale’s long-standing oral heritage is one of the most pressing challenges for the folk- or fairy tale writer.

My coauthor Soula Mitakidou and I faced this challenge and my others when we wrote “The Orphan, A Cinderella Story from Greece,” which Schwartz & Wade Books/Random House published as a picture book with illustrations by Giselle Potter. The tale features a beloved daughter who becomes an orphan when her mother suddenly dies, for as people in Greece believe, “A child becomes an orphan when she loses her mother.” This quietly shrewd kid draws on her ingenuity and the gracious help of Mother Nature to free herself from a nasty stepmother and win back fortune’s blessings which sets her on a path to a happy future. In an early episode, the orphan becomes so upset over her predicament, she flees to her mother’s grave one moon-lit night to plead for release from the stepmother’s cruelty. In our very first reading of the tale, we translated into English the rhymed couplets the writer had used in the Greek version on which we roughly based our telling.

Our translation of the graveyard episode took this form:

In her despair one night, to her mother’s grave she fled

And in her darkest hour clawed the earth until her fingers bled.

“Oh mother dear, get up, get up and listen to my plea,

I have a stranger for a mother, I beg you, comfort me!

And strangers have I for sisters too whose harsh words burn my heart.

So, mother dear, take pity on me, a victim of cruel art”


At these cries the mother’s grave did tremble and quake

Startled, the girl stood breathless, and not a sound did make


“Go, my child, go to good, don’t cry and don’t complain!

Your sorrow weighs heavily on me; your pain is my pain.

Go, my child, go to good, keep your heart pure and kind

Soon your every wish will be yours to find.”

While we abandoned our early attempt to write the tale in rhymed couplets because we felt the repetitive musical cadence made our writing monotonous, we liked the dramatic tension and mystical aura the verse gave the graveyard episode and decided to work up a verse rendition of it, hoping the verse style would amp up the intensity of the orphan’s passionate encounter with her mother.

Many revisions later and with crucial guidance offered by Anne Schwartz, editor extraordinaire, the graveyard episode morphed into this interpretation that made it into the published picture book:

One night, the poor orphan fled to her mother’s grave. Throwing herself on the ground, she cried:

“Oh, Mother, dear Mother,

Listen to my plea!

A stranger tries to take your place,

But does not care for me.

Her daughters call me ‘sister’ now,

But are heartless as can be.

Oh, Mother, dear Mother,

I beg you, set me free!”


At once, the grave trembled, and the mother’s voice rose from the earth:


“Go, my child, go to good,

With all my blessings, go!

Your sorrow weighs upon my heart,

Your pain, it wounds me so.

Go, my child, go to good,

Don’t cry and don’t despair.

Go home, my soul, and wait to find

True fortune’s blessings there.”

And so, holding close her mother’s words, the orphan followed the moon’s path home.

If our revised episode demonstrates anything of value about the process of reimagining a tale, it concerns the risk that went into taking raw material that meandered across the page in erratic verse and breathing into it a sensible rhythm that attempted to capture something of the oral teller’s presence.

Even riskier was our characterization of the orphan. We decided to give her the option to step out of the traditional role in which she waits patiently to be rescued by a prince. Many of the Greek Cinderellas we met stayed in their place at home submissive to their destiny as women and unable to take the initiative to decide their fate. Unlike these characters, our orphan emerges as a self-determined young woman who takes it upon herself to go and find her rescuer.

We keep discovering that the joy of our work with the tales comes from taking each step along the way determined to allow the source tale to teach us how to reinvent it. That’s the joy alright, but it’s also the challenge we love to take up.

Today’s writing prompt: He hadn’t seen her since the day they left high school.

  Post-Career Old(er) Guy Finding His Way as a Full-Time (Publishable) Writer Describes the Process of Retelling Greek Folktales

dsafThere’s no way I would have come close to retelling or writing culturally authentic Greek folk- and fairy tales without the guidance of Soula Mitakidou, my Greek colleague, who led me through the inner sanctum of Greek culture. As we searched through hundreds of tales, looking for ones that attracted us and held promise for readers in the English-speaking world, we often sat at the same desk or computer in Thessaloniki, Greece, with Soula interpreting the tales we were translating into English, providing cultural contexts for them, showing how they expressed past and present cultural values and beliefs, and demonstrating how traditions still to this day serve as bonds uniting the Greek people.

You need a few examples of the cultural characteristics I took hold of once Soula and I were deep into the process of working through a batch of tales, don’t you? Take “Mirsina,” a tale in our anthology of twenty stories, Folktales from Greece: A Treasury of Delights (Linworth/Libraries Unlimited). “Mirsina” is a good example of a supernatural tale that is both universal in its themes and specific to its culture. In this story, the personification of the sun demonstrates a distinctive feature of Greek folktales, namely, the use of celestial elements to assist a character encountering life’s predicaments. What I learned from Soula is that the close relationship between mortals and celestial bodies in Greek tales can be explained by the fascinating folk belief that every individual is assigned a star that accompanied him or her throughout life. A person’s life begins and ends at this star, which means that every individual is guaranteed a preordained origin and a destination. You meet up with celestial characters that come to the aid of the young protagonist in our most recent picture book, The Orphan: A Cinderella Story from Greece (schwartz & wade/Random House).

Ah, here’s another distinct characteristic of Greek tales I learned along the way. It’s this: The harmonious blend of the ancient and the contemporary, the secular and the religious. For instance, the reference to the number forty in several stories in our anthology, namely, “Anthousa, Xanthousa, Chrisomalousa,” “The Crab,” and “Brother and Sister,” can be tied to the Biblical story of Noah or Christ’s test in the desert for forty days and nights. In contemporary Greece, it is customary for folks to fast for forty days before Christmas and Easter, and families take their newborns to church to be blessed forty days after they are born.

A similar element that is a remnant of ancient tradition is the reference to a loved one as “my soul,” which, in the anthology, appears in “The Axe and Yannis,” and “The Goat Girl.” This, I discovered, is a very common expression in everyday conversations in contemporary Greece and can be traced to the ancient story of Cupid and Psyche, the literary form of which first appeared in The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius in the second century, C. E. Today, Cupid, representing love, and Psyche, representing the soul —as they did in ancient times— still symbolize everlasting love —yes, indeed, as can be seen by the numerous images of the couple that appear, for instance, in Valentine’s Day paraphernalia.

Okay, so there you have a few cultural elements that keep the cultural integrity of Greek tales intact. And now you see that anytime you or I, the foreigner, come across tales you love in a culture not your own, then the telling/writing of these tales begins with the challenge of vigorously navigating your way into the beliefs, rituals, ceremonies, that is, the ancient and contemporary contexts, that make that culture tick.

What more is there to say about the process of translating raw folk narratives into acceptable stories that make sense? Stay tuned …

Today’s writing prompt: Weave a tale that begins, “Once upon a bygone time, there lived a king and his three sons, and all three wanted …”