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Once Upon a Time

This writing exercise was inspired by a story-telling workshop I did a few years ago for Kimball Library in Randolph, Vermont. We were learning about the elements of story structure by examining and retelling well-known children’s stories.


To begin the exercise, fill in the blanks in the following sentence:


“Once upon a time there was a little [blank], and [s]he was terrified of [blank].”


My choices, “tailor” and “flies,” were inspired by that ancient children’s story about a brave bloke who kills seven flies with one blow. But the story I wrote has nothing to do with the original, the details of which I barely remember.


Part I


Tell us about the fear. How afraid was your protagonist? What did this fear do to her? Physically, mentally, socially. Professionally. Did it isolate her? Turn her into a bully? Make her a people pleaser? Stunt her growth?


Part 2


What does she want, more than anything. Show us the little [blank] in a confrontation with her fear. Begin “One day . . . “ Be specifric as to the time and the place. Use the word “Suddenly.” Do not resolve the situation. Make it worse and worse, until it begins to look like the little [blank] is not going to win this battle. She is doomed. Here, I want to hear the voice of the little [blank].


Part 3


At the worst, the little [blank] remembers something—a memory is triggered. This memory leads to a resolution of the crisis. A new perspective. A realization.


Like this:


The Little Tailor

A Fable

Once upon a time there was a little tailor who was terrified of flies. Why flies? He couldn’t say. Ordinary house flies. They didn’t bite. They didn’t sting. They flew, and that was enough. They landed wherever they wanted, without fear. They landed on dog shit and mud and slime and ceilings and floors and then they landed on him, the little tailor, like he was a piece of dog shit, too. They were despicable, dirty, and mean.


The little tailor longed to be like his brother, who was brave and didn’t run from flies or anything scary. He was scared of nothing. He would chase flies and pluck them out of the air with his bare hands and put them in a jar. There was a buzzing jar of flies in his room, and when the little tailor made his brother mad, his brother would pin him down and hold the jar to his face and threaten to open the lid. He began to avoid his brother as much as possible.


The little tailor had a shop in town. Next door to the shop was a vacant store. One day a sign appeared in the window: “Grand Opening Saturday.” This was good news. Maybe the new store would generate some new business for him as well. As long as the new store wasn’t another tailor. Worrisome thought. What type of business was having its grand opening on Saturday? The sign didn’t say.


A butcher shop. Great slabs of meat hung in the open-air shop. Flies appeared. Hundreds of flies, thousands of flies. The little tailor could not go to work without passing through a cloud of flies. Flies with blood on their little fly feet.


He tried  sneaking past the flies. He tried making a decoy—a hunk of meat on a string—stinky meat—to attract them while he made a run for it. Nothing worked. It was as if the flies smelled his fear. Worse, his well-dressed customers began to complain about the flies. Business slowed to a crawl.


What am I going to do? thought the little tailor. Then, he remembered his brother with the jar of flies. His brother wasn’t afraid of flies. He wasn’t afraid of snakes or hornets or anything. He called his brother. “I need your help,” he said.


His brother said, “I dunno. You’ve been ignoring me for the past ten years.”


“It’s true,” said the little tailor. “I have. I’m sorry.”


“You’re just saying that because you need me. What about when I flunked out of college and ended up in rehab. You don’t even know about that, do you? Because you’ve been invisible for the past ten years.” And he hung up.


At first the little tailor was angry. His brother had tortured him, and now he was accusing him of neglect. Not fair. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that his neglect had also been cruel. He needed to make amends. This was no longer about the flies or his business or the nasty butcher shop. It was about something much more important.


Over time, the little tailor was able to reconcile with his brother. He changed in many ways. He grew in self-confidence and kindness, and he forgot all about the flies.


Above: Illustration from an Echte Wagner German trade card.




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