Author’s Note on Once Again Upon a Time

For this week’s Friday Fictioneers prompt, I wrote a spin off the classic fairytale “Little Red Riding Hood.” Within hours, the compliments from my wonderful readers (some of whom are happy to let me know when I miss the mark) began pouring in, both on my blog directly and in other places where I have shared links to the story.

I love fairytales and mythology, so readers will find several of these “twice told” tales on my blog. This particular story, however, is being received better than any other, which caused me to ask myself, “Why? What is different about Little Red?” The question seemed especially urgent since, while I was composing it, it seemed to be a far-too-familiar, almost cliché response to this week’s photo prompt. Then the answer presented itself in the story’s familiarity. I am Little Red. I am Ruby from my story. This story was easy for me to write because it is my own, and it rings true to my readers who may not be familiar with the layers of history behind the “Little Red Riding Hood” myth because they are not Ruby.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

“Little Red Riding Hood” has frightened me and intrigued me from my earliest memories. When I was still preschool aged, my Grandma Stratford gave me a “Little Red Riding Hood” doll made of soft cloth and accessorized with a scarlet hood and a basket of baked goods to carry to Grandmother’s house. When Grandma held the doll upside down, it became the grandmother, complete with a calico nightgown and nightcap. But horror of horrors, when that nightcap was flipped up, the grandmother was transformed into the big bad wolf. Ingenious and terrifying—especially to little Marie.

A Much Worse Place to Start

As it happened, my doll and Grandma’s colorful telling of “Little Red Riding Hood” are not the reasons I was plagued with nightmares of wolves and other snarling beasts into my 30s. Before Grandma gave me that doll and before I ever heard the original fairytale, I was treated for club feet by an abusive orthopedic surgeon who just happened to be a man with a beard. (At this point, I feel compelled to tell my readers that not all men with beards and not all orthopedic surgeons are abusive, just as not all wolves are big and bad.)

When I was born, the toes on each of my feet were turned in to touch my calves. At six weeks old, my doctors began the treatment, which involves repeated breaking and resetting of the bones in the legs and ankles. Rather than give me proper sedatives or even providing safe pain medications commonly used at the time for babies and young children, the orthopedic surgeon conducted these procedures over the course of several months without the use of any medication or calming implements. Instead, he insisted that my father, a young man in his mid-20s, hold his screaming little baby girl down while my mother, a frightened first-time mother, was asked to force-feed me a bottle as the doctor carried out the procedure.

As if this were not bad enough, while removing the casts each week, the doctor or his staff, regularly managed to cut my legs with the plaster saw. When I learned that by flexing my leg muscles during the procedure I could easily kick the casts off my legs, the doctor decided to glue the plaster directly to my sensitive skin.

When I was two years old, months after the experiences related here, another event shed clear light on the malicious nature of that particular orthopedic surgeon, and my regular pediatrician was able to help my parents find good, nurturing medical treatment for me. My body healed, and my legs became more useful than anyone ever expected. In my 20s, I even began performing as an interpretive dancer, and I later became a dance instructor. The emotional scars, however, remained.

When Memories Begin

Naturally, I don’t remember everything as I have related it here. For me, the images of scary predatory animals and nightmares that almost always ended in my waking with cramps in my legs and fear in my heart were the only traces of these early traumas that remained in my conscious mind. The psychological scarring went deeper. By age 10, the emotional scars from that trauma began causing what we now understand to have been pseudo seizures. Although this type of issue is common in trauma survivors, it would be more than 20 years before a medical professional would finally recognize these “spells” for what they were.

As with many survivors of childhood trauma, my PTSD symptoms seldom emerged before I turned 30. Occasionally, I would experience a panic attack or an extended crying jag. The nightmares happened fairly often, but all of this was manageable. Until upheaval in my adult life accompanied by the death of my paternal grandfather dealt a blow that sent me spinning into darkness.

Ray, a Drop of Golden Hope

Someday I hope to share more about my healing process—how I emerged from a quivering pile of pain and tears into the hopeful, happy and somewhat successful writer and business owner I am today. This particular sunny February Wednesday is not that day. Just writing this portion of my story has left me feeling vulnerable and a bit weepy. But there is hope.

To all those Little Red Riding Hoods and Snow Whites and Cinderellas, to all the Beauties tormented by Beasts—I promise you there is hope beyond your nightmares (and far beyond Stockholm Syndrome—don’t make Belle your role model). Someday, you too will be able to close your eyes without fearing the nightmares. It won’t happen without professional help, and it won’t happen without faith in a Power much greater than yourself. But most important, it won’t happen without faith in yourself—the true you, the you that is still inside and untainted by anything any abuser has tried to put on you, the you that the Divine Being dreamed before time began.

Your happily ever after awaits. It won’t be free of trouble or of the cares of this life, but it is waiting there for you, there on the other side of your nightmares. And you can find it. If today that happy ending seems too far away for comfort, take a deep breath and say a prayer of thanksgiving—thanksgiving for your inner strength and thanks for the strength of others who will be there to support you when your own strength gives out.

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Blog Tour

Shortly after I reuinted with my friend Rochelle Wisoff Fields, she asked me to participate in this blog tour. Sounds fun, so thanks to Rochelle and her fine blog Addicted to Purple, here I am.

 What am I working on?

I’ve been working primarily as a freelance writer for over two years. Recently, I’ve begun working on more short fiction writing. I have a collection of jazz poetry that might be picked up shortly by a publisher. Meanwhile, I am also growing my collection of short stories. Who knows what the future holds? Given my adventures thus far, I’m certain it will involve healthy doses of creativity. Beyond that, I look forward to being surprised.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My poetry relies heavily on the rhythms of jazz and American roots music, a quality that I haven’t seen frequently in modern poetry. I’ve been asked if I count syllables. That’s a definite “no.” Instead, I often listen to music for hours before beginning to compose.

My short stories come from my life experiences and family stories that have become legend. Of course, I’m always careful to take my dad’s sister’s advice and “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Why do I write what I do?

I write because if I stopped my heart would stop beating. Writing is to me as important as breathing, and it has been since I first picked up a pencil to write a Chronicles of Narnia fan fiction in the second grade.

 How does my writing process work?

I’ve mentioned how music inspires my poetry. For short stories, I often jump from a prompt given in a forum or writers’ group. Getting cold or taking a walk for some fresh air often prompts my muse when I have writers’ block. Most of my best work comes out all at once because I usually write the first few drafts in my head before putting pen to paper or fingers on a keyboard.

The end of my post is supposed to introduce three new bloggers who will be doing the tour next week. Unfortunately, I’ve had some difficulty locating participants, and my computer also died (a sad death) while I was preparing for this tour. Since I’ve managed to retrieve my file, I’m posting before I get the next three bloggers lined up. Stay tuned for more.

On Being Sincerely Me

Earlier this month I attended a writers’ workshop that was actually the impetus for me starting this blog. Among the many things that were discussed was the idea of being yourself in online exchanges. Our host for the day, the amazing and inimitable Rachel Ellyn, mentioned that one of her guests had gotten to know her on Facebook and then exclaimed with glee upon meeting her, “You’re exactly the same in person as you are on Facebook.”

The discussion that followed was rather uncomfortable to me. No, I don’t tell outlandish tales or blatantly lie in Facebook statuses, but I’m certainly not comfortable enough to really be myself there. Now an expert in social media networking was telling me that the key to online success, particularly in business and in the business of writing in particular, was to be genuine.

I realize that the act of being genuine doesn’t have to include deep personal revelations or the airing of things none of my 500 Facebook friends want to know. Rachel Ellyn doesn’t charm people with details of her bowel habits. Being genuine does, however, bring with it a level of vulnerability I’m not sure I’m comfortable experiencing. As a people-pleaser, I know that my genuine self won’t make all 500 people that follow me on Facebook happy. In fact, my genuine self probably won’t make any of them happy all the time. My points of view contain something to offend everyone.

While I personally have no problem sharing ideas and spending time with those whose views differ from mine, I haven’t found that place in my soul where I am comfortable enough with myself to be okay when others get offended by me. For example, last night I responded to a question from one of my in-laws about a letter supposedly written by the CEO of Hobby Lobby that has been making the rounds on Facebook. He, an extreme conservative, mentioned that he didn’t know if the letter was or was not a hoax. I responded genuinely but from a factual stand point with details about incorrect information within the letter. Since I was simply pointing out facts, I figured there might be a few responses from conservatives using other facts to counter my point, but I was not prepared for the crushing emotion of what actually happened. Another relative of mine came online and posted, “You are wrong, Marie Gail Stratford.” How insulting! She didn’t give any reasons for why she was declaring my wrongness. She didn’t give me what she thought was the right answer. She simply called me out in the world’s most public forum as being wrong, and I was crushed. Then I got angry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to sit her down and make her give me answers based on facts. I did not want to be told I was wrong, especially not without the “right” answer, based in facts, being given to me.

If I can’t even handle my facts being attacked online, how on earth will I cope with the fallout of being genuine? The good news is that I did manage to sleep last night, after I calmed down a bit. The bad news is that being human I will always feel a twinge of pain when someone attacks me for being wrong. The best news is that even after that experience, here I am today writing genuinely about my experience in social media last night.

A Little Bit About Me

I suppose every writer, poet, artist and fragrance diva wants to consider herself somewhat offbeat. Of course, as the old adage warns us, “Just because nobody understands you, doesn’t mean you’re an artist.” So who am I? Well, I am a writer, a poet, an artist and a fragrance diva with a past and a family and life experiences that make me unique if not particularly special. I love a lot, I get angry sometimes, and like the rest of you, I want my voice to be heard.

Recently, after losing a few jobs and having been unsuccessful in finding permanent employment, I decided to try writing for a living. Since I hold a degree in English from Olivet Nazarene University, this isn’t the first time I’ve thought about or even tried becoming a full-time writer. It is, however, the first time I got serious enough to do it with some success. In the past, I stuck to poetry and a little fiction, some of which has been published, none of which made me any money. This time, I’ve hit the internet with determination to make a living, and a foray into non-fiction writing found me making a few hundred dollars a month throughout most of 2012. It’s no cash cow yet, but things are improving.

This past month I began reconnecting with local authors in the Kansas City area. A workshop on the business of writing pumped new life into my ambitions in a way that only in-person connections can, and now I have a little more motivation to increase my online presence as well. So here I am at WordPress, developing a blog. Stay tuned. The future looks bright.