Books of experience

I found Autumn Barlow’s guest post deeply resonant, yesterday. Partly because I’m crap at being told what to do, and the more strident the instruction, the more likely I am to prickle and resist. I hate being ordered about, and books are no exception.

Like Autumn, I read my share of magic books when I was younger, and I didn’t really get on with them. I had the advantage that there was Paganism rife in my family already, and I knew a few things. Most critically, I knew that magic is will, and that the methods of magic are therefore only a focus of will, so it really doesn’t matter what colour the candle is, and if needs be you can do it without one. I was not impressed by books of spells that were clearly more about prancing about looking witchy, than getting anything done. I also had philosophical issues with the whole thing – using magic as a short cut to get new shoes, exam results and boyfriends felt like cheating, and more importantly, like cheating myself.

I didn’t want a wand to make school assignments go away. I wanted to experience the numinous. I wanted to know and see and feel more, and I wanted there to be wonder, and none of the books I read held that for me.

In my twenties, I started reading Emma Restall Orr’s work. Here at last was a sense of someone really experiencing magic. She doesn’t write ‘how to’ books, but writes from her own life. A door opened, a sense of possibility crept in. However, there was nothing in those books to tell me how to live the mystical, magical life she apparently has. That was frustrating. Eventually, I went to OBOD and they were a good deal more helpful. Not least they made me realise I’d been doing a pretty good job already and had some sound foundations to build on.

The spiritual writing I like best is non-dogmatic. No instructions. No ‘thou shalt’. Authors who write from personal experience, in the first person seem far more credible to me than more distant, third person, perpetually authoritarian voices. People who own their struggles, challenges, mistakes and setbacks also seem a lot more real to me, and I can empathise with them. I am certainly not perfect and all knowing. It is comforting to find that wiser and more experienced Druids still struggle, too, still mess up, fall over, get up again. Tales of setbacks are really helpful, while writers who just bang on about how great everything is can be alienating to us more flawed humans.

Experiential writing reads like the results of an experiment: Here’s what I did. Here’s what happened. These may have been important variables. This is what it means to me. When this is done well, there’s enough information to strike out and do something similar on your own terms, but no sense of being ordered about by the author. There’s the freedom to do something different and the knowledge this will be just as valid. Perhaps more valid – we all need different things. I like it when authors write about why they do things, too. Authors who ask questions and leave us to find our own answers can be really helpful as well.

Mark Townsend. Cat Treadwell. Robin Herne. Rachel Tansy Patternson. Lorna Smithers. These are authors I am reading who keep bringing the personal and the theoretical together, who share from experience and experiment, as people on a journey not as figures of authority. I’m always on the lookout for other spiritual writers who take the same approach, so if there’s someone I’ve missed, do please give them a shout-out in the comments. I think it’s really important that we take the authority out of authoring as far as is possible, and make Pagan spiritual writing about sharing experiences and ideas, not about telling people what to do.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

7 responses to “Books of experience

  • Julie

    I have had a lot of the same issues with most of the witchcraft/paganism books I can manage to get my hands on. . . they tend to feel so contrived, and missing the elements of spirituality and experience I’m wanting to read about and explore
    I’m looking forward to checking out the authors you mentioned–thanks!

  • Jnana Hodson

    It’s not just your Pagan vein but all forms we examine, and not just literature. When I was taking studio art in high school, my best work emerged outside the classroom, rather than under the strictures the teacher imposed. And even now, I see nothing energizing in any of the daily prompts being circulated. There’s simply too much already in front of me demanding deeper investigation and interaction.
    Now, back to work! And best wishes.

  • Nimue Brown

    Ooh yes, I should have remembered him, I have one of his books.

  • Nicola

    Thank you Nimue… Oh i am not alone! I gave up on ‘Pagan’ books on the whole as I don’t flounce about in Purple or have Bats hanging from the ceiling. Instead I enjoy the OBOD Podcast, Your Blog and general books from authors who simply love the ‘old ways’ and nature.
    I have never been to a moot or felt the need to join a coven, I always felt as though i was missing what a Pagan really was but I have always understood what real magic is (you only have to listen)… as it turns out i’m just me on the right path enjoying reading blogs and beautiful books from like minded people… Once again Thank you x

  • Grims Pound

    Thank you so much for this, Nimue & also so totally agree with Nicola.

  • lornasmithers

    Many thanks for the mention.

    This is exactly why I enjoyed ‘Spirituality Without Structure’ – rather than telling people what to do you suggested they find their own compass, their own map…

    I think showing rather than telling is very important. After recently trying to write an article on working with myth, which I scrapped because it was didactic I recalled Blake’s quote: ‘My business is not to reason and compare but to create.’ The inspiration has to be paramount to other aims, however well meant.

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