Into the Woods

My family went to go see the film version of Into the Woods the last day it was showing in our local movie theater. Turns out Christmas is actually a really inconvenient time to try to catch a movie. Between get-togethers and parties and trips and new semesters, there just wasn’t a good time. But we desperately wanted to see it. At least, my little sister and I. Katherine was in the show in high school. I’d loved it since I first listened to the soundtrack.

I’ve always loved fairy tales. Not necessarily the Disney ones. I loved the original ones, dripping in gore as they might be. I remember my dad telling me “One Eye, Two Eye, Three Eye”, a grittier version of “Cinderella”, the excitement as I realized these were stories meant to be retold, changed each time in the telling. Into the Woods caught this love by telling the Grimm versions first, complete with bloody shoes, and then pulling them apart, shaping a new story out of the ashes.

But that wasn’t the real reason I threw together the outing on the last day the movie was in theaters. The real reason was hidden in my purse. A bottle of prenatal vitamins, the means by which I was going to tell my parents about their new grandchild. The movie was a convenient excuse. Albeit a much anticipated and enjoyable excuse.

One of my favorite things about this show has always been it’s discussion of the relationships between parenting and storytelling. Stories are the means by which we understand the world. Parents help deliver that, for good or ill. I love the tradition of one actor playing both the Baker’s father and the Narrator.  The movie keeps this alive by having the Baker narrate. Father tells us stories, even if those stories trip us up in the end.

Even though Caleb and I had known that I was pregnant for almost two days, our new identities as parents still felt like arbitrary titles. I was fighting against despair to claim the name “Mother”, trying to imagine the joy of seeing a little face in the rear-view mirror, of holding Epiphany in my arms. I kept trying to talk about it, as though words would make it real. It didn’t hit Caleb until we sat in that theater, holding hands, watching the Baker struggle his way into fatherhood. He was going to go through that struggle, to welcome a child into the world and become a good storyteller. We walked out of the theater glowing.

A little over a week later, I sobbed in Caleb’s arms, our shattered hopes holding us together. The words fell away from us. I tried to tell him what was happening in  my soul, the fracturing death of so many dreams. I didn’t have the words.

“I wish…” I said, choking

The lyrics filled my head. “More than anything… / More than life… / More than jewels…

“I know,” Caleb whispered.

As I brushed my teeth the next morning, trying to hold onto sanity, I thought about Into the Woods and, for the first time, understood the second act. It’s about the transition into adulthood, I realized. In the first act, the characters learn things that shape their view of how the world works. But in act two, all the familiar paths are gone. The woods are new and strange and the rules are all wrong. They literally kill the Narrator, throwing him to a giant. I thought about the first time I saw the show and felt completely unsettled as a normal plot disappeared in a howling mob. I understand that fear in real life now.

Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. So what do you do after? How do you go on?

Last month, I auditioned for a community theatre production of Into the Woods. Our first rehearsal is on Sunday. I’ll be playing Cinderella. There are a lot of good things about this opportunity. It’s a great cast. It’s a hobby to fill my often empty evenings. It’s a chance to act and sing, both of which I’ve really missed. But it’s also an opportunity to safely step back into the woods, to re-trace my steps, to try to understand everything we’ve lost. And maybe discover what we’ve gained. Stories change in the telling. Why shouldn’t we, too?

The Story Thus Far

I played imaginary games in my front yard much longer than is culturally acceptable. I used to pace the walkway of my parents’ house or the ridge on our hill, imagining action in my head, talking in characters voices. Of course I was writing. It took me a while to put words to my madness. I call it “talking out a story”. Nowadays, I don’t have a yard (or woods) to hide in, so the madness is temporarily on hold. But back then it was the best part about summer. That and all the prizes from out-reading everyone in the summer reading program. But I digress.

The summer after eighth grade was particularly exciting. I couldn’t wait to get outside every morning, walking barefoot over the bricks in the walkway in the dewy air. I was doing something new, taking old stories and piecing them together, weaving them into a coherent narrative. I discovered three spurting narratives that lived as soon as they came together. I talked out each part, playing every character. To my surprise, I had a book.

I started writing in July, the weekend after the Fourth, on the computer in my aunt and uncle’s basement. I knew the story I wanted to tell. After lots of attempts, I really I hoped I could see this one through.

I worked on the first draft through freshman and sophomore year. Sometimes I would write before school. Mostly I would write after. I got in fights with my mom when I wanted to write instead of do chores. She wanted me to learn discipline. I think I did.

I finished the first draft on July 3, 2007, almost two years exactly since I’d started. I could hardly believe it. I had written a book. A BOOK! 163 pages, roughly 80,000 words, a legitimate book! Now I could tell people I was a writer, instead of saying I wanted to be one. Of course it wasn’t ready to be published, but I had time for that. I knew I  had plenty to learn. And as I learned I would rewrite.

I started reading more great works: Hamlet, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby. I started thinking about how I put sentences together. Something Wicked This Way ComesI, Robot, Seamus Heaney’s BeowulfMacbeth. I thought about where my fantasy novel fit in the world of speculative fiction. What was I doing others weren’t?

The summer before college I started a complete overhaul of everything I’d done. I realized I need to do more than change a sentence here or there. I needed to scrape down to the bones and re-sculpt the flesh. And then classes actually started. My intellectual energy flew away. I couldn’t revise. But I kept reading. The Tenant of Wildfell HallCrime and Punishment. Oh, to write like the greats, explaining the world in such a way that the world weeps.

I chugged through chapters during the summer or when I had time. I re-imagined scene after scene. I listened in all of my classes. Everything had something about writing. Literature taught me what good writing looked like. Musical Theatre taught me how to holistically tell a story. Psychology taught me how people become the way they are. Theology made me ask questions about why I wrote. I kept thinking. I kept learning. I kept working.

I graduated with half of a second draft. I got married. I struggled with adulthood, exhausted and disillusioned. I spent a year trying to plow through a single chapter. Our dreams died. We were exiled to my in-laws. And suddenly I could revise again. It became my escape, the one place I felt like I could exist. When I wanted to end it all, I would remind myself that I still had a draft to finish. I had to keep going. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read, but I could revise, goddammit.

Our life suddenly became functional. Caleb had a job. We moved into our own place. I could write every day for as long as I wanted.

Today, May 7, 2015, ten years after I started dreaming through this story, I finished my second draft.

I’m still not ready to seek publication, but who cares. I revised a book!! 180 pages. About 74,000 words, every single one mine.

I’ve grown and changed so much since I started as a fourteen year old dreamer. I’m a different person with a different place in life: a college graduate, an adult, a wife, a grieving mom. But I’m still a writer.

And that’s not going away.