Safety in Half-Truths

Every memoir writer knows that if and when our story gets read, the reliability of our truths will be called into question—be it by family members who contest our version, or by engaged and disbelieving readers. But the truth of any story is always the truth of the writer. By using fairy tales, this fiction-nature is held up openly, showed without shame, and illustrated to be a simple baseline for what will turn out to be, if nothing else, a good story.

In other words, writing a life story with the constructs of fairy tales is a way to take refuge in the language that comforts us. And if this is the case, then retelling fairy tales is by definition a hopeful practice. In From the Beast to the Blonde (1994), Marina Warner observes, “The genre is characterized by ‘heroic optimism,’ as if to say, ‘one day, we might be happy, even if it won’t last’.”

All traditional fairy tales stories require both the listener and the teller to be part of the story: in written fairy tales this translates into the writer and the reader, and each reader becomes a possible re-writer in this cycle, using the truths of his or her life and circumstances to flavor the adaptation. For example, many cultures have their own version of Little Red Riding Hood, each made up of its own historical, culinary, psychological and linguistic details. In this way, all fairy tales are half-true.

Try this: Rewrite a fairy tale that you love, changing the generic details into your specific life’s details, adapting the stock characters into the characters from your life.