How to kill a wolf with your bare hands

My pen pal Seth Godin is right: I spread stories of my fellow storytellers simply because I’m in awe of their art and the only way I can repay them is to share their art with others.

Remarkable. That’s what I first thought when I finished reading Stuck (I highly recommend it), by Anneli Rufus, as she is a master storyteller with a gift for discussing life’s challenges in marvellously authentic & amusing ways.

What’s Stuck about? How much time do I have? Not much? Okay… Stuck is a book that gets us to look closely at our behaviors to decide for ourselves why we find ourselves stuck and why we can’t (or won’t) move on. After I finished reading it, I had the pleasure of exchanging a few words with Anneli, and she graciously agreed to let me share a short story from her book Stuck with you my dear reader. The story is about Hans Christian Andersen, the famous Danish author noted for his children’s stories such as “The Snow Queen”, “The Little Mermaid”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” “The Little Match Girl”, and “The Ugly Duckling” to name but a few. Here it is:

Hans Christian Andersen was the Ugly Duckling.

With his bony frame, beaky nose, and big jack-o’-lantern mouth, little Hans was chased down the streets of his Danish hometown by jeering boys who reviled his refusal to join their raucous games. He far preferred the dreamy solitude of his homemade puppet theatre. Already difficult, his young life shattered when his father died.

To help his mother, eleven-year-old Hans found a factory job. As he described it many years later in his memoirs, one day at the factory he broke into song to cheers himself up. Hearing his high-pitched voice, adult male coworkers up and down the factory lines joked that surely little Hans was a girl, not a boy. Surrounding him, they yanked down his pants.”I screamed and wailed.” he wrote in his memoirs, as the guffawing men “held me by the arms and legs. I shrieked, wild with fear, and… dashed out of the building and home to my mother.”

Battling suicidal urges, he moved from Odense to Copenhagen at age fourteen, enrolling in theatrical courses in hopes that his creativity could earn him a living onstage. But when his lack of social graces made him “an object of derision” among his teachers and classmates, “I hid myself at home in a corner, wept, and prayed to God.” Starving and penniless, he realized the stage held no future for him. “Agonized with this thought, I stood as if crushed to the earth. Yet, precisely amid this apparently great unhappiness lay the stepping-stones of a better future.”

Poor as he was, Andersen literally couldn’t afford to stay stuck on his shattered hopes, his fears–or anything. As the world now knows, his “stepping-stones” were stories: fanciful tales such as those he had nurtured as a lad playing with puppets. Unable to become an actor, he started writing and selling plays, poems, novels, and travelogues. At age thirty, in 1835, he issued his first volume of fairly tales.

It’s hard for us to imagine now that such a book could ever be radical. Yet it was. Critics trashed Andersen–not for writing badly, as all agreed that he wrote well. Rather, they assailed him for “wasting” his skills on stories meant for kids. It was an era in which children were not yet taken seriously, were still almost universally considered “best see and not heard.” Andersen challenged these conceits, insisting that children were fully human and deserved their own literature, a literature lush with memorable characters, dialogue, sound effects, and scenery.

“I’ve written them exactly as I would tell them to a child,” Andersen explained at the time. To him, that was a good thing, and he proved his critics wrong. Immortal even when they were about mortality, his tales were his own traumas, transformed: He was the misunderstood, misplaced Ugly Duckling, the famished Little Match Girl, the hypersensitive princes injured by a pea. He was the Little Mermaid: a fish out of water. He was the brave boy who announced that the emperor was nude.

Once upon a time, when he was a child, men pulled down his pants in a factory and made him wild with fear. What if that was the only story that Hans Christian Andersen ever told?
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Parting suggestion:
Hans Christian Andersen didn’t just keep the wolf from the door.
He killed it with his bare hands.