There Once Was a Woman…

photo by Dimitri Castrique

by Jane Hayward

My aim in following the Creative Writing MA was to make progress on my novel, but, inspired by tutors Alison MacLeod and Dave Swann and the exercises they set during the Metaphor and the Imagination module, I decided to submit a short story.

I knew my story would be about love, in some sense, and sex – in any sense – was an imperative.  The setting had to be Italy, but the rest developed as I wrote.  Once the story was complete, I wrote a commentary following the usual pattern, discussing the story’s genesis and development.  Reading that first draft, I saw that inspiration had flown out of the window.  The writing was predictable and flat.  It engaged none of the five senses, no magic, and certainly no link with a story about metaphor, imagination and transformation.  I had a long think and reminded myself that this module had appealed to me because of my love of fairy tales.  I started again: ‘There was once a woman who devoured stories.’

I asked a colleague in my MA group to read this new commentary disguised as a story and he agreed it was a risk.  But what did I have to lose?  I did not have high enough marks for an overall distinction on the course.  So I risked it.  Here’s the story about writing my story.


There was once a woman who devoured stories.  She read to enjoy; she read to escape the humdrum of her life.  As a little girl, she had clapped her hands when Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into gold and she had screamed when the wolf gobbled up Red Riding Hood.  As an adult she went to a dramatisation of Angela Carter’s novel Nights at the Circus and was entranced by the young woman who grew feathers from her shoulder blades.  The magic and audacity of the story took her breath away and she was delighted. A performance of Kakfa’s Metamorphosis convinced her of the existence of the ‘man-beetle’ which clung to the ceiling and crawled across the walls so much that she cried when he was killed. Her early devotion to the fantastic was re-kindled and she journeyed through dark stories with the guidance of contemporary writers including Ian McEwan, A.L. Kennedy and Joyce Carol Oates.

One day, the woman’s lover told her he had to go abroad for a conference.

‘Come with me,’ he said.  ‘While I am busy you can swim in the hotel pool.’

Once in Italy, the man disappeared into a dense forest of men in suits.  The woman spent lonely hours waiting for her prince’s return.  In the mornings, she distracted herself with Ovid’s tale of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus and envied the easy way their bodies melted into one. She pictured Angela Carter’s Tiger’s Bride at the moment the girl’s skin peeled away to reveal her silky pelt. She lost herself in Jeanette Winterson’s novel Passion and truly believed that a pumping heart could survive in a jar to be thrust back into the human chest. The woman made notes of these happenings and discovered that, however uncanny or fantastic, she believed in them.

In the afternoons, the woman swam length after length in the pool.  The longer she swam, the more she revelled in the water lapping against her body and the easy way she cut through the surface.  With the courage to put her head under the surface, she imagined what it would be like to be a fish.  She didn’t want to leave the pool.  She was a fish and could swim for ever.  But a fish could be caught.  And then what would happen to her?  Fascinated by her idea, she ceased reading other people’s stories and created one of her own.

When she wrote she began, ‘Once upon a time there was a wife…’  but soon discovered the traditional structure and language of fairy stories limited what she wrote and how she expressed herself.  It was no use lifting structures from other stories.  She must be original.  The setting of her tale had to be Italy.  She only had to look around her to find water, a garden, terraces and, at dusk, grazing deer.  The magic of her surroundings invaded her writing and she gave the wife three changeling children.

Then she saw that the husband’s love for his wife could not be stolen by a mere business conference, nothing so feeble.  Since the wife was destined to become a fish, the man must covet a fish; he must fish morning, noon and night.  Fish were his obsession.  The wife’s obsession was her overwhelming desire to reclaim her husband’s love and this passion would effect her transformation.

The woman’s first draft, written in the third person, left her dissatisfied.  The story lacked atmosphere, dialogue and a dramatic finale.  What would happen to the wife once she was a fish?  The woman decided, since the husband desired to catch fish, he must catch his wife.  For this to make sense, her reader must believe that the wife had become a fish.  The woman saw that her re-drafting would be a journey backwards from the end of the story to the beginning.

Like the little girl asked to spin straw into gold, she had an impossible task.

Defeated, she returned to reading.  In the library she found guides to Italy, dictionaries of fables and myths, books about writing, more volumes of stories for adults and fairy stories for children.  She read them all.

In her notebook, she made lists of everything Italian: scenery, climate, religion, art, food and sex.  She listed all aspects of fantastic literature and fairy stories: desire for love, witchcraft, magic, spells, disappearing children and, finally, love rewarded.

Every idea, every detail from her notes went into her story.  Encouraged by the red wine in her blood, her sentences were as florid as a ducal palace.

‘Hell is what I find in the church; a place of high arches, few windows, damp air, Jesus still bloody on the cross and the walls decorated with devils gouging out eyes, cutting off tongues and burning infants.  Mary has been imprisoned in a glass case, Snow White style, except she has been condemned to stand upright for eternity, clasping her son to her bosom while he suckles day and night.  The image leeches energy from me as efficiently as a mediaeval doctor and I go home’.

The woman exploited her new found talent and went to sleep thinking her writing was superb.

The next morning she read her story and her enthusiasm died.  She was overwhelmed by her flamboyant vocabulary.  Indeed, in some places her phrases did not even make sense.  She counted her themes.  There were too many and they must be exorcised.  She plucked out superfluous scenes, stripped adverbs and adjectives and changed the viewpoint from third to first person.

Realising the children needed their own adventures, she let their imagination change them into fauna and released them to roam the countryside:

As I left the garden, I nodded to a baby moorhen in the pool, waved to a fawn roaming on the terraces and admired a white rabbit leaping across the meadow.’

The woman was intrigued to see she had, unwittingly, found a brash, inconsiderate voice for the husband as he thwarted his wife’s dreams:  

I tiptoed up and kissed his mouth. ‘‘What’s that for?’’ he said.  ‘I’m knackered and starving.  And before you ask, no I didn’t catch a fish.’ 

For this metamorphosis to be inevitable, the idea of a fish must be grounded in truth.  She led the wife to a fish stall but found that the wife could not bring herself to buy the fish because they looked so dead.  Appalled, the woman realised that, once the husband caught his fish-wife, he must kill her.

When the woman read her story again, she saw she was not writing what she believed in.  For the wife to be caught and killed by the husband suggested that however much a wife tried to please her husband, she would always fail.  The story was thus based on a premise which did not appeal to her, on the idea of sacrifice rather than triumph.  She wanted to promise that if a woman searched hard enough she would find her heart’s desire, although not necessarily as she expected.

But even if the wife could not reclaim her husband’s love, she must not become a useless sacrifice.

The woman investigated various aspects of ‘sacrifice’ and found new ideas: a procession to the altar, a high priest, the pouring of wine, the cutting of the throat and, the greatest taboo of all, cannibalism.  The shocking suggestion that the husband ate his wife both horrified and thrilled her.  The twist was an ironic play on the proverb ‘The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.’  And the proverb gave her a title.

When her lover rang to say he was going on to a nightclub she worked until four in the morning.  To clarify the wife’s desire, the woman added an early scene showing the wife envying sexual love:

‘At the sound of bells from the church tower, a bridal couple stepped into the street, waiting to be admired.  Then, swiftly, the man turned to his new wife and pressed his mouth to her lips.  He did not touch her, just fastened his kiss, giving her his promise of things to come.’

The woman involved the children in the sacrifice and made the wife realise what was going to happen to her.

However, reading the story in the small hours, the woman despaired.  There was a flaw in the plot.  Why should the wife desire to be eaten?  She longed to be loved and, if she couldn’t have love, she should have freedom.  The story didn’t work.  Tired out, the woman threw the manuscript onto the floor and took refuge in Marlowe:

‘If he forsake me not, I’ll never die,
For in his looks I see eternity
And he’ll make me immortal with a kiss.’

So that was all right then.  The husband would love eating the fish.  Love brought immortality.  As the wife was eaten, as she entered her husband’s body, she would find her escape.  The woman worked until she fell asleep.

At sunrise, her lover served her with a champagne breakfast.  The woman abandoned writing in favour of lovemaking.  It was only later, when she went for a swim, she remembered her story, scattered all over the bedroom floor.  The maids will have been in and, most horrible thought, thrown it away.  She felt as if she had abandoned her baby.  Racing up the stairs she burst into the room.  There, on the dressing table was her manuscript.  A post-it note was attached.

‘Bella signora’, it read.  ‘Mea culpa.  I do a bit of writing myself.  I enjoyed the beginning and the end of your story but the middle was a great muddle.  I took the liberty of making a few suggestions.  Your valet, Davide.’

The woman sighed.  Encouraged that she had something right, she re-drafted again, keeping the language simple, cutting and merging scenes to increase the pace.  To add urgency and elation to the finale, she re-wrote the scene in the present tense.

The woman read her story yet again.  Scenes she had feared stale had recovered their original energy.  At last, she believed in her own promise – she trusted her story.

Just as, when a child, she had found magic in a fairy tale, now, as an adult, she had made magic in writing one.


Previous post Illusions of the Self
Next post In the Limelight of the Lightship Prize

6 thoughts on “There Once Was a Woman…

  1. I am working on a short story that originally started as a take on fairy tales. The twists and turns you took to find the form that works best sound so similar to mine. I started it over 20 years ago. I didn’t quite know what to do with it until now. Wish me luck that it will be as successful as yours has been.

    Good luck with the rest of your writing.

  2. Hi Jane

    I really enjoyed your short story and found the telling of it via the voice of the actual writer quite an original take. It’s got great pace and rhythm and I particularly like the quirkiness /surreal element re fish metaphor.
    BTW I found your site by searching ‘mslexia novel shortlist’!!! I too entered and was also longlisted but haven’t heard squat. Can I just ask if they contacted you direct to say whether you’d progressed or not??
    Will go and check out your other stories and explore the site. I’m really glad I found it!

  3. Jane, I too love your commentary and I think you were touched by writer’s magic when you decided that the husband must ‘covet a fish’ – Brilliant!! Good luck with the racing. I wonder how fast you’ll let yourself go?

  4. Hello Jane,

    I like the entry, and the overall deliverance was quite splendid. This is the first short story that I have read by Jane Hayward. Let me reassure you of this, I will be reading 3 more articles that happen to be constructed by Hayward. Well done I am now stuffed with short story brilliance!!.
    Mike with Racing Suits

    1. Thank you for that, Mike. I read your comment on the day I heard my novel did not make the Mslexia short list, that’s the bad news. The goods is that now I can re-write the manuscript in peace. I really enjoy re-writing! I blog (when I do) as chiswickwriter, so do google that if you really want to read more.
      By the way, my son has bought me one of those days when I can race a race car round a track as fast as I like. He tells me that I have said that is my dream! If I did it was when I was drunk and I had in mind when I was 101. I am too young to die. Do you know anything about these days? (Not sure if I am allowed to ask this on Thresholds!)

  5. Hi Jane

    I enjoyed your account of producing a commentary in the style of a fairy-tale. I had some similar experiences on my MA course. Spending a semester on a novel-writing module drove me to write a short story, The Story-blind Princess (, which was undoubtedly an allusion to how I felt about the school of writerly thought which seemed to postulate that only particular types of plot and thematic vision were acceptable forms of creativity in fiction.

    I think that fairy-tale elements offer a rich vein for contemporary short stories. Angela Carter is the obvious exponent. I would also recommend Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s collection ‘There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby’ ( ) as an example of what can be done with the form.

    Incidentally, for my own commentary on the aforementioned novel-writing module I appear to have constructed a rather over-wrought allegory with Big Bang theory….as some sort attempt to rail against overly deterministic models of how fiction should be constructed and function. I asserted that my own writing could and should be full of dark matter. Hmmm….how very pretentious of me. Who knows why I passed!

Comments are closed.