I fell asleep last night musing about some of my earliest writing inspirations: fairy tales.
I am, of course, of the generation characterized by the Disney Princess. The first film I remember seeing in the theatre is Beauty and the Beast; this was quickly followed by Aladdin, which I absolutely adored, especially because the characters were brown, Princess Jasmine had long, shiny black hair, and her singing voice was done by Lea Salonga, the first (and so far, only) Filipina to win a Tony award. Being brown, half-Filipina, and extraordinarily proud of my waist-length black hair, my 6 year-old self was convinced that this meant that I was Princess Jasmine, and no one could convince me otherwise. (I was also convinced that Agrabah was just like the Philippines, and made my father tell me stories about princesses and fire-eaters and bazaars, but that’s another story for another time).
Before Disney, though, I had my trusted book of fairy tales. Before I could read, my mom would read one story a day before naptime, and I would gaze at the illustrations of exquisite women in beautiful gowns, and dream of being one of them (only brown — I was acutely aware of race and representation, even then, and the fact that all the beautiful women were fair-skinned wasn’t lost on me). The story behind the book was important as well, and woven into the magic that seemed to surround the book.
My mother told me that she had bought it, along with a copy of the children’s Bible (which was also intensely special to me, and which I read cover-to-cover more than once when I was in grade school), before I was born, when she was single and living alone and dreaming of the children that she would have one day. It was such a romantic idea, and it made me love the book all the more.
Today, the binding is frayed and falling apart, due to my younger sister throwing it around when she was a toddler (I rescued it and hid it from her; the kid just didn’t know how to appreciate anything). Going through it, though, reveals how deeply the book and its images managed to influence me.
A few years back, for example, I wrote a myth where a woman is born from a mysterious flower, one that dwells in the deepest, darkest part of an enchanted garden. She is a faerie-like creature, winged and precious. Flipping through my fairy tale book, however, I landed upon this illustration from the story, “Thumbelina,” which must have been stuck somewhere in my subconscious:
There are so many images that stay with me still, like Beauty playing the lute while living in the Beast’s magical castle:
Or Karen, the poor girl in “The Red Shoes,” who manages to snag a pair of beautiful red leather shoes, but then finds that she is doomed to dance in them forever:
Or my favorite, the Spanish princess about to be eaten by a terrible dragon:
I fell in love with the clothing, too, the old-fashioned, medieval-esque gowns. They served as the inspiration for my fashion sketching days, and even now, my characters dash about in period costume. Quite clearly, this was an incredibly formative book in my life.
Anyway, I woke up this morning with fairy tales still on the brain. There’s so much I want to do with them, from taking my favorites and twisting them into my own adult versions, Claiming of Sleeping Beauty style, to using them as a launching pad for something different and new, something that plays with gender norms and roles (’cause let’s face it, I’ll be damned if I am going to write yet another ‘damsel in distress’ tale), toys with conventions, and yet weaves some of those familiar elements into it as well.
I’m not out to reinvent the wheel, however. This sort of project has been done countless times before, and by authors more talented than me. But I’ve realized that I draw my joy, happiness, and energy from the process of writing, and not just from the lovely outcome. It’s the process of struggling to convey new ideas, of attempting to translate the images in my imagination to text on a page, of trying to shape and form prose into a form that has beauty and meaning, of giving life to characters and creatures and worlds — to me, this is what it means to be a writer.