First Drafts Suck

Adapted from: http://professorkateclancy.blogspot.com/2011/03/on-bad-first-drafts.html

My blogging mojo has been channeled almost entirely towards a book project I’ve undertaken withJulienne Rutherford of UIC and Katie Hinde of UCLA (though shortly to be of Harvard). The book is calledBuilding Babies: Primate Development in Proximate and Ultimate Perspective and it will be published by Springer in 2012. Each co-editor has a chapter in there, and then we have a number of other rather fancy-pants contributors as well.

The first drafts of the chapters were due yesterday. I did not submit my chapter (er, to myself). I’m running about a week late. I thought I would come clean with this, because there are a number of elements of the writing process that I think remain obscure for students and other junior scholars. And after I share a few thoughts about academic writing, I thought I would show you some of the draft I’m working on.

First drafts suck

They really, really do. If you think your first draft is amazing, give it to someone else, and that someone else can’t be a pet, spouse or parent. First drafts suck because we write the most obvious things in them, the most vague. First drafts don’t have enough context. First drafts are where you use cliches because you haven’t figured out how to say what you’re saying in a sophisticated way. They are often under-cited. They are out of order. And, they aren’t that compelling.

This is why so much student writing is bad — but it’s not their fault. Close together deadlines, ones that align with other projects, and little teaching of time management means most students start writing projects just before they are due. So they essentially submit first drafts of papers, with a little copyediting if you’re lucky. Plus, somehow a lot of students have picked up this idea that first drafts are better or more authentic than revisions. This is patently false. They are simply the place our favorite worst stuff goes to die (this is why revision is so often called killing our darlings, to use a term from scio11, though its origin is much older).

But everyone has bad first drafts, so it is absolutely useless to feel bad about them. Give them to your advisor or your colleague if they have said they will read a first draft (otherwise, revise it after consulting with someone else first). They write bad first drafts too. You have to write a first draft in order to get to the revision, and to me, this was a liberating realization. Get it all out now! Don’t worry about using the right word! Just get the words on the page, get about the right content in about the right order, and if something is repetitive, just leave it for now. Because after a little breather away from it, or a look from a trusted colleague or advisor, you will hack it up and remake it into something far better.

Revising only sucks sometimes

Revising sucks when you get your first comments back from a colleague, because it is terrifying to share that vulnerable, bad first draft with another person (ever had that moment after you print it out or hit send when you realize your prized metaphor was a trembling nod to your failed attempt as a fiction writer?). It sucks at those moments when you feel at cross-purposes with the thesis of your paper. And it’s frustrating, also, that revising is the most important yet under-taught skill in academic writing.

But here’s the thing. Revising can be glorious. If you abandon any sense that you own your words, and remember only to own your mind, it allows you to be merciless in cutting out all the badness of that first draft: the cliches, the vague repetition, the jargon. If you return again and again to your outline, or abstract, or data, or whatever materials you keep to help you remember what the paper is about, you will start to see the right shape of the piece. And then you can also build in the context.

The best moments of revision are when you remember why you were writing the piece in the first place. Do you want to produce a fundamental review that will be useful to other practitioners in your field? Do you have an amazing piece of data to share? A well-grounded hypothesis that you want to articulate? What was surprising or compelling about that work when you first set fingers to keyboard?

One last thing I’ll say about revising is that owning your mind is not the same as owning your ideas. You need to be willing to let go of being right, and you need to be willing to change if the evidence is against you. Accepting reality and working with it in an interesting way is the mark of a good scientist, and a good revision.

My first drafts suck

The title of my chapter is: “Inflammatory factors that produce variation in ovarian and endometrial functioning” (eventually, I think, I will need to change the title to better reflect the manuscript). I thought this would be an easy piece for me, since I have been doing a lot of work on C-reactive protein, a biomarker for systemic inflammation, and I have been studying the endometrium and ovaries for many years.

I was wrong. Oh, so wrong.

A few quick searches pulled up an embarrassingly large number of citations for chemokines and cytokines, for toll-like receptors, natural killer cells, and other immunological terms I barely remembered from high school and college. So I re-drafted my outline, set aside a lot of time for reading (as in, several days straight), and then finally set to work.

The problem with the literature on this topic is that it is wholly mechanistic. I can now tell you what interleukins are expressed in the periovulatory phase versus the implantation window, or which ones are suppressed or overexpressed for certain pathologies, but I can’t tell you what that means in a broader sense, or what produces variation in any of these immunological factors in a systemic way that might impact local inflammation in the female reproductive system.

Here is my section on normal endometrial functioning (alas, given the literature, the section on pathology in the endometrium is far, far longer). First draft ahead! Remember, I am sharing this embarrassingly bad prose for the good of SCIENCE.

The endometrium is composed of the functionalis and basalis layers; the functionalis comprises two thirds of the endometrium and is the part that proliferates and sheds each reproductive cycle. The basalis is adjacent to the myometrium, and is the place from which the endometrium regenerates after menses. The proliferative (also known as follicular) phase is when estradiol promotes proliferation of endometrial tissue, where the secretory (also known as luteal) phase is characterized by progesterone control of decidualization and menstruation. The endometrium typically proliferates with narrow, straight glands and a thin surface epithelium, and angiongenesis continues as ovulation nears (King and Critchley 2010). After ovulation and during the secretory phase, the endometrium differentiates: endometrial glands become increasingly secretory, and by the late secretory phase spiral arterioles form. If implantation does not occur, the corpus luteum degrades, progesterone declines, and this triggers a cascade of events to produce menstruation.

Menstruation is a key inflammatory process of the endometrium. Menstruation is when the functionalis are shed at the end of the human reproductive cycle. The basalis regenerates over the course of the next cycle. The demise of the corpus luteum and the associated withdrawal of progesterone precipitate inflammatory mediators that cause tissue degradation. For instance, progesterone inhibits nuclear factor κ B (NF-κB), which increases the expression of inflammatory cytokines like IL-1 and IL-6 (Maybin et al. 2011). The withdrawal of progesterone is also associated with an increase in endometrial leukocytes and IL-8, which regulate the repair process (Maybin et al. 2011). At this time other inflammatory factors promote MMP production to break down endometrial tissue (Maybin et al. 2011). Further, it is thought that progesterone withdrawal, not an increase in estradiol concentrations, leads to the repair of the endometrium so that it can resume activity for the next cycle (Maybin et al. 2011). Thus, variation in progesterone concentrations may lead to variation in inflammatory activity, degradation, repair and cycling in the endometrium.

First question: why should I care about any of the above? So what if any of this happens? Then, you might not know this, but I do: the only two citations in these two paragraphs are both review papers, and one of the authors overlap between them. Therefore, it’s quite under-cited. To be fair, in this section it is less important that I demonstrate the depth of the literature, but a review that only cites two other reviews isn’t doing its job.

Do I inspire excitement in my field? No. Do I provide an appropriate context for this material in order to situate the reader? Not so much. Right now, these two paragraphs contain the exact information I wanted them to contain, based on what was in my outline. That is, I’ve described the basic functioning of the endometrium, and menstruation. It’s flat because that’s all that I did.

My job in this chapter is to take this vast reproductive immunological literature, pair it with what little we have in anthropology and ecology that helps us understand the way genes and environment might produce this variation, and then describe the necessary context in future work to understand these mechanisms. In some places, a lack of context may help me make my case, because it will demonstrate why anthropologists need to be in the field. But if my whole manuscript looks like the two paragraphs above, it will be an unreadable yawnfest that doesn’t contribute a thing to anthropology.

So, I guess I would expand the “kill your darlings” advice. First, accept your darlings. Accept that you have them like everyone else, and that darlings aren’t just turns of phrase but entire ideas, hypotheses, fields of thought. Then, once you have accepted that your darlings make you just like every other academic writer out there, from the middle schooler to the full professor, kill them. With fire. Finally, make sure you provide what is left with context or else there is no reason to read what you wrote.

And now, I have been sufficiently inspired to go finish my bad first draft.

References

King, A., & Critchley, H. (2010). Oestrogen and progesterone regulation of inflammatory processes in the human endometrium The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 120 (2-3), 116-126 DOI:10.1016/j.jsbmb.2010.01.003

Maybin JA, Critchley HO, & Jabbour HN (2011). Inflammatory pathways in endometrial disorders.Molecular and cellular endocrinology, 335 (1), 42-51 PMID: 20723578

She Must Be the “囧est” Girl You Ever Met

1. In one morning after I got up two hours later than originally planned, I told my advisor to meet at lab “hmn”. Thanks God my polite advisor still asked me where “hmn” refers to instead of just punching me in the face. I told him that this is an encoding — I typed “609” on my Nokia phone and forgot to switch the alphabet/numeric tab.

2. I wake up early this morning, only to pick up the passport that has been left in the department’s copy machine yesterday afternoon.

3. “这篇文章“不折手断”,其使用任意矩阵胡乱相乘以及对结果进行向量拼接的做法完全无根无据。”Because I am not sure how to properly translate the above into English, I will just reply a mediocre email.

4. For a while I need to go to the AI Lab for printing, which is located on the 6th floor. The first time I’ve been there, I left my key-card and have to go back and let the colleague working there open the door for me. The second time, I left my key-card together with the wallet… Hence on the third time, I carefully checked over and left after making sure I’ve taken everything with me.  When I got back to my office on the fourth floor, I receive an email saying “you dropped your card in the hallway outside the AI lab”… … …

5. People who have lost their way usually don’t realize what a bad idea it is to come up to me for routing information. One Sunday when I was shopping in the U village, a lady with her son came up to me and asked how to take the bus to the campus. I carefully described the route to them (in Chinese = =), making sure no silly mistakes like missing a xing is made. They left happily, and 30s later I realized the bus I’ve showed them doesn’t operate on Sundays! Yeah, I must have lost a lot of “RP” by routing others.

6. LH is coming to study in Seattle in September and she’s been wildly looking for housing. There happened to be a beautifully painted building opposite to the place I live, which is warm-colored, big but cozy. The neighborhood is surrounded by trees and looks very clean. The entrance looks secure and the management seems to be extremely well… However, by the time I mentioned the place to her, LH already picked my place — which turns out to be a smart choice. One week later when I walked by that cute building again, I saw a sign board in front of it which I have ignored previously, saying “Senior Housing”. Oh yea, I am happy that LH didn’t find out this herself.

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7. I am a lazy person. And lazy person always take short cuts. Last Sunday I feel it is too wasteful to take a long detour around the hill to reach the favorite Chinese restaurant from my home. Therefore I started an experiment of walking straightly to that restaurant by climbing over the hill @@.  I met some small troubles getting down: I followed a small trail which leads me to a deserted backyard of someone’s house. It is really deserted because my hand hit a spider web. That seems to be the first warning. However, I am still excited when I saw something cement-like. I thought it was a pathway from which I could get out. Yet I ran over only to find out that it was the roof of another house! I dare not to take short cuts over mountains again!

8. I joined my friends to play the frisbee while we were having a fantastic BBQ at the beach. It was actually the first time I’ve got my hands on a frisbee. And 5min later we had to say goodbye to it forever because it flew into a rodent blackberry bush once it escaped from my hands.

This is a list of jokes. This is also a list that records what a lucky kid I used to be — those tons of silly mistakes that I had been forgiven for. One day I suddenly realized that … for me to kick off my career, and to survive with my dreams, that careless, forever-17, girl shall disappear.  There is too much to come in, and some obsolete stuff has to go away🙂. 

有比耶路撒冷更好听的外国城市名字吗?

不管“耶路撒冷”知不知道,它在中国的确有很多脑残粉。耶路撒冷(Jerusalem;ירושלים )是位于近东黎凡特地区的一座历史悠久的城市,在地理上位于犹大山地,介于地中海死海之间,被誉为三大宗教的圣城(犹太教基督教伊斯兰教[2]。是古代宗教活动中心之一。犹太教、基督教和伊斯兰教,分别根据自己的宗教传说,都奉该城为圣地 【百度百科】。在近代中东历史上,耶鲁撒冷一直是巴以两国争夺的重要对象。因此,这座城市在中文的互联网和书籍报刊上有很高的曝光度,甚至被作为流行歌曲的关键词。然而,我们绝大多数炎黄子孙并不信奉上述三大宗教,对这座宗教名城的来龙去脉也知之甚少,它的美名远扬——尤其实在十几岁的青少年之间——可能要大大归功于当年音译着选取的这几个汉字。

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汉语有一个非常美好的特性——“朗朗上口”,这是很多语言(至少英语)所不具备的。“耶路撒冷”的 音调抑扬顿挫,音节分隔清晰 (A)。拆开来看四个字分别意境抽象(其中”耶”为音译专用字),词频居中(我觉得可以做个统计,让人觉得高雅顺口的汉字应该是具有较高的perplexity,但又不至于落入生僻的范畴)(B)。倘若写做“耶陆撒冷”则意境锐减,而要是直白的译做“杰鲁撒勒姆”就更是意境全无了。

至于“有比耶路撒冷更好听的外国城市名字吗?这个问题是我从TBBT的百度贴吧力帆出来的。我的答案是——”I don’t know. 因为发现左思右想从这个标准来说想找一个与和平之城平起平坐的都不容易。但此外,姑娘我忽然想在自己知道的城市里面列这样一个排名,记录一下那些我听过的、到过的、走过的wonderlands.

No.10 马尔代夫 (Maldives)

3-5-Star-Taj-Exotica-Resort-and-Spa-Maldives这张图片是马尔代夫的一个度假景点Taj Exotica。当年姑娘我选中它作为桌面背景的时候还不知道这就在大名鼎鼎的马尔代夫,只是觉得建在水上的房子(从陆地延伸出来)非常美。某次开会的时候老板问我这是哪里,去过没有,我只好说恐怕会成为计划的目的地之一。马尔代夫放在第十是因为它具备(A)(B)两个特点,但是近几年它快要被说烂了。“夏威夷”单凭字面是有实力上榜的,但是它早在马尔代夫之前被说烂了,也烂得更彻底。

No. 9 温哥华 (Vancouver)

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No. 8 圣地亚哥 (San Diego)

看来我是比较喜欢带有“哥”字的城市名字,还认识它的一个兄弟——“格拉斯哥”,想想还是上不来。

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No. 7  布鲁塞尔 (Brussels)

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No.6 奈良 (なら)

其实在奈良之前,日本的“东京”和“京都”都是挺好听的名字,可惜在perplexity上惨败。

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No. 5 圣托里尼 (Santorini, Σαντορίνη)

我没有去圣托里尼,但是就整体的向往程度来说,圣托里尼在我心目当中的地位是数一数二的。今年五月,我非常喜爱和赞美的Cici学姐在这里举行了婚礼 =D=D=D 作为希腊的代表城市,它PK掉了单从选字来说跳不出毛病的“雅典”。

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No. 4 剑桥 (Cambridge)

作为英国的代表城市,它PK掉了有一丁点俗气的“爱丁堡”。

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No. 3 哥本哈根 (Copenhagen, Koebenhavn)

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No. 2 翡冷翠/佛罗伦萨 (Florence, Firenze)

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No. 1 圣弗朗西斯科(旧金山, San Francisco)

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旧金山是个神奇的地方,曾经它是我第一个到达的美国城市,像开启淘金者的冒险人生般地开启了我在这片大陆上的奋斗旅程。如今,我在这里送走了生命中最敬爱的人。那是一个令人难忘的好天气,加州带有穿透性的阳光和深秋凛冽的空气似乎让人的每一粒细胞都觉醒。那山坡上绿草如茵,大理石制的石阶拱廊营造出异常静谧的气氛,还有我们工作时都不怎么顾得上瞧一眼的美丽花朵。从那天起,当我走过这样一片土地的时候,有一个我深爱的,那么熟悉的人和它融为一体了。

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Special No. 3 香江/香港 (Hong Kong)

HK被列进Special第一是因为它根本不是“外国城市”;第二是因为凭“香港”或香江两个字挤上这个列表有点勉强——不排除是因为姑娘我在那里念了几年书把它的perplexity给拉下去了🙂

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Special No. 2 西雅图 (Seattle)

西雅图的城市全景很经不起推敲,如果放上来恐怕要被上面的很多城市给比下去了。这张照片是某一次国家地理头版登出来的据说是2013年最大的月亮——Space Needle的顶部果然像只飞碟。

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Special No. 1 牛津 (Oxford)

牛津是泰晤士河谷地的主要城市,传说古代牛群涉水而过,因而取名牛津。个人认为从“好听”这个标准来说牛津可以把同档次的“剑桥”P下去,但是鉴于列一堆我自己待过的地方略显乏味,于是乎开辟Special加以列之。

牛津有很多经典的角度可以取景,然而我想选一条平常的街道,这让我感觉亲切。只是我发现自己已经忘了这条街的名字,也只能依稀记得它的位置。我也忽然发现那条时常出现在我记忆中的黄昏里的小街,尽管我一开始就不知道它的名字,却仍旧完完整整的记得它的样子。

也许再过几年,我对于这里就与陌生人无异了。那些漫步过的小路,有些或许已叫不出名字,但我会永远记得它们的样子。我想说,对于每一个姑娘,那有过浪漫际遇的城市,总是最好听的吧?

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我最喜歡的十二個童話意境

这个系列很早很早就像写了,然后一直拖,直到拖到我觉得再不發表自己就要把他们都忘了。

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12. 女扮男装的猎人(《十二个猎人》The Twelve Huntsmen)

这个故事的特别之处在于是我到目前为止读过的唯一一个有女扮男装情节描写的西方文学作品。我对其中国王考验这十二个猎人时使用的两个任务印象深刻:其一是让她们走过撒在地上的豆子,因为女性的脚步不够稳健,更容易滑倒;其二是走过一排纺车,因为纺车是女性重要的生活工具,她们中间有的人可能会回头看。这十二个猎人当然都非常“机智”地通过了考验。

现在的我在计算机这个行业里跟男性们从事(几乎)一样的工作的时候,常常想起这个两个考验。然而每每想起都会觉得这两个考验真是弱爆了,放到现在社会就应该把每个猎人的笔记本拿出来翻一下浏览器记录或者把那些纺车换成一群高谈阔论的帅哥——唉,我真是比那只会说话的狮子还要狡猾。

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11. 荨麻织的衣服(《野天鹅》)

这个故事记不全了,虽然主人公是个姑娘,但是故事的主体没有浪漫的成分,讲述的是这个姑娘和十一个哥哥之间的故事。女主人公被关在红衣主教的地牢里采荨麻织衣服,最后一刻在囚车上将衣服抛上天空,十一个哥哥落地成人,大雨瓢泼,浇灭囚车周围的火焰。

小时候读得时候,觉得“野天鹅”应该是很美丽的生物,而“荨麻”应该是一种很奇妙的植物(长大后见到发现两样都长得不怎么好看)。

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10. 豌豆上的公主

安徒生的很多童话里都下大雨,这不,又是一个被大雨淋坏的公主,跑到一户人家借宿。小时候觉得那个在被子下面垫豌豆来判断睡在被子上的是不是公主的情节真是太荒唐了。也就是这份荒唐让我们记住了那颗豌豆,那个娇弱得令人怜爱的小公主,故事也就到此结束了。

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9. 云霄里的豌豆树(《杰克与魔豆》 Jack and the Beanstalk)

这是一个很激动人心的故事,里面有很多惊心动魄的场面描写。高耸如云的豌豆树,树顶端巨人的家,吃人的巨人,熬汤的巨人保姆。当然故事以杰克成功抢走巨人的金币收场,从此和母亲过上了幸福的日子,倒霉的巨人就这么摔死了(不知道杰克和他妈的日子怎么过得安稳)。

小的时候常常会盼着世界的那个角落真的生长着这样一颗豌豆树,沿着它我们可以攀爬到另外一个世界(我不知道很多童话在小孩还没有熟悉他们生活的世界时就向他们引入“另一个世界”的概念是不是好的)。如果我是杰克,我应该也会不听妈妈的话沿着那棵树向上爬,因为不管它通向哪里,我总是会看见一些新的,让我振奋的东西。

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8. 参加舞会的花儿(《小意达的花儿》)

这个故事在写的时候已经完全不记得了,我只能记得小时候看过的童话树上的一幅插图,一个金头发的小女孩坐在钢琴前面,周围有很多花儿随着音乐翩翩起舞。我很小就长了一颗玻璃心,所以假如我对一个故事书里的个别故事比较陌生,多半是因为这个故事有些悲伤。迅速地在百科里翻了翻,嘻嘻,果然如此。故事的梗盖是这个小姑娘很喜欢花,养了很多花,可是(由于管理不善?我觉得应该是季节变换意境更好一些)这些花儿们渐渐地开始枯萎,就要死去了。于是父母就骗这个小女孩说“花儿们是在夜里面参加舞会,所以白天才没有精神”(这个谎言很美丽有木有)。这个小姑娘就相信了,

然后终于有一天晚上她参加了花儿们的舞会(应该算影射日有所思夜有所梦哈),之后的一天早上所有的花儿就都那啥了……

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7. 飞入心灵的玻璃碎片(《冰雪皇后》)

这个故事里面有一个小男孩小女孩住邻居。围绕他俩的故事我一点也想不起来了,只记得这个童话里有一个情节是什么什么地方住着一个邪恶的白雪皇后,她的宫殿里的什么什么打碎之后的碎片只要飞到一个孩子的眼睛里,就会从他的眼睛里钻到他的心里,然后这个孩子的心就变邪恶了。解决的办法是要怎么样把那个碎片哭出来。故事的结局似乎是小姑娘成功让小男孩把碎片哭出来了,然而我想不起来她是怎么做到的了。

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6. 拇指姑娘 (《Thumbelina》)

这个故事很好玩。因为拇指姑娘的形象想来就觉得很可爱,花芯里出生,玫瑰花瓣做衣服,胡桃核做小床。想必现实社会的庸脂俗粉再怎么伴萝莉也萌不过这个萝莉了吧。而且这个故事也不悲伤,尽管拇指姑娘随波逐流离开了养育自己的公爵夫人,但是她最后骑在小燕子的背上,找到了一个和她一样的小小王子,快乐得和他生活在一起了。(对了,当年本姑娘就是在看这段描写的时候学会了“国度”这个词^_^)

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5. 睡美人 (Sleeping Beauty)

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4. 水晶鞋 (《灰姑娘》Cinderella)

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3. 充满期待的十五岁(《小美人鱼》The little Mermaid)

我第一次读到《小美人鱼》的故事的时候,还不到五岁。因此对于那个时候的我来说,十五岁是个多么遥远的年纪,而小美人鱼“十五岁以后可以浮出水面,随意游到河流湖泊里观看陆地上的城市”的约束在我看来,就是一个无比遥不可及的愿望。今天,十五岁对于我来讲,又成了一个遥远的年纪了。当年的小美人鱼看够了她所向往的城市吗?我说不出个回答。

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2. 树林里的糕点屋 (《汉索尔和格瑞泰尔》Hansel and Gretel)

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1. 永不长大的孩子(《彼得潘》Peter Pan)

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在这些故事里面,路易斯卡罗脍炙人口的《爱丽丝梦游奇境》没有上榜,因为我觉得作者在写那个故事的时候脑子里一定乱糟糟的,以至于整个故事看起来也乱糟糟的。还有安徒生的《卖火柴的小女孩》以及王尔德的《快乐王子》,这两个故事都充满了忧伤的美感,但是跟上面的一组比起来太贴近现实。《奥兹法师》也是一个相当经典的童话,但它的的确确比较像是一个专门为了讨好小孩子的童话故事。

很多自以为是的评论家这样说,“《XX童话》不是童话,其实反映的是成人世界的XXXX“。真是愚蠢得可笑,谁说童话是专门写给孩子看的?童话只不过是透过一面棱镜折射出来的世界,那面棱镜,就是一个孩子的心灵。那些构思出这样奇巧故事的作家们,心里一定都住着一个永不长大的孩子。