Category Archives: Bardic

What stories should we tell?

A good writer can tell any story they like. However, one of the hallmarks of the crappy author is the inability to spot the stories they aren’t qualified to tell. All the male authors who write their women boobing boobily down the stairs being an obvious case in point. This is how we get the dominance of stories in which the only gay people are having unhappy coming out experiences and dealing with abuse. It’s how we get miracle cure disabled stories, and all kinds of fantasy disability. It gives us bad takes on history, and the thoughtless repetition of racial stereotypes.

Whenever you set out to tell a story, it’s worth asking why you want to tell this particular story in the first place. Also ask what qualifies you to tell it. If the answers involve current writing fashions, or some superficial awareness of the subject that should make it obvious that you are not, at this stage, qualified to tell the story. Good writing involves research, and if you don’t have a rich body of experience to draw on, you can tackle that by dedicating time to finding stuff out.

This is also an issue we can consider as readers. Whose stories do we buy and consume? The creative industries tend to favour white middle class men. Often the depictions we see and read of anyone outside that narrow category, are created from the outside. That increases the risk of prejudice and assumption, or of treating the characters as exotic and other. I don’t want to read stories written by men in which the inside of female heads are dominated by an obsession with their own breasts. I don’t want to read weird middle class fantasies about what poverty might actually be like. 

A weak author tends to assume that everyone is basically like them. Thus they don’t do any work exploring the differences between people. They don’t actually imagine other ways of being in the world, or how experiences different from their own might shape a person, but project bits of themselves and their assumptions into a variety of bodies. This is how we get disabled characters who are only tragic or heroic and women who have emotional melt-downs over broken nails. 

Often, when people are allowed to tell their own stories, what emerges is strikingly different. Queer authors don’t tend to write stories about how hard it is being queer. What you get instead are characters who are queer, who have queer friends and queer relationships and a main story that is about them doing some stuff. Also, happy endings, because people usually want to see people like them wining and that’s sadly lacking when stories are written about ‘the other’. People from the global majority don’t tell stories centered around how hard it is not being white – why would they? 

A good author isn’t simply someone who could tell any story, but is someone who will know what stories they can tell to best effect. A good author writes what they know – and will undertake to make sure they know before they start writing. As a reader, you deserve the work of people who know what they’re talking about, not the misleading fantasies of the empathy-impared.

“Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.”

And you might want to read this much more details and far better referenced article on the limits of how we imagine each other – http://lcfi.ac.uk/news/2018/sep/7/can-we-understand-other-minds-novels-and-stories-s/


Sitting in Silence

Silence is something we often explore in meditation and for spiritual purposes, as in the practice of silent retreat. Without vocalised interactions, we turn inwards, in theory, listening to the quiet inner voice, finding peace and so forth. While I’ve done plenty of sitting in silent meditation, I’ve never entered extended periods of silence for spiritual purposes.

I’ve recently had tonsillitis, and between the sore throat and the swollen tissues, talking has been really uncomfortable. I’ve been obliged to become mostly silent, and it’s been an interesting experience. 

I am of course still communicating, because not communicating would be unbearable to me. I’m relying a lot more on facial expressions, hand gestures, body language – there is a lot I can get done this way. I’m typing and using devices when I need to share things that I can’t gesture. It turns out that if I have my written ‘voice’ I don’t feel too troubled by the loss of my spoken voice. As being ill has kept me at home, it hasn’t caused any great technical problems to have to type rather than speak.

It raises some interesting thoughts for me around the role of communication in life, and in our spiritual lives. Increasingly I see the bard path as the heart of what I do, and that absolutely revolves around communicating. It can tend to prioritise the ability to make sounds with your face, but I feel very strongly that no one should be excluded on the basis of how they are able to communicate. 

For me, spirituality is a conversation. The silence is for listening, but extended silence isn’t a conversation, and the exchange matters. What I do tends to be fairly people-centric because I communicate best with people, but I listen a lot more widely. 

I can learn in silence, but I don’t find my own  spiritual self there. I find more benefit in sharing, in vocalising, in communicating. I’m more my spiritual self when I make sound, or make words, than I am when I turn inwards for extended periods.


The art of reading

Books are always a collaboration between the author and the reader. This results in many different experiences of the same text. I’ve long felt that one of the key things a person does when writing, is to define the gaps where the reader will be invited to plug in their own thoughts and desires. Often it’s what we don’t know in a story that stays with us.

For me, one of the great pleasures of reading has always been the time I spend with a story while I’m not actually reading it. This is a major reason why I avoid binge reading (unless I’m ill) because I need the pauses in which to reflect and wonder. Reading a book slowly allows me more opportunities to do this and tends to enhance my reading experience. I engage imaginatively with the text, thinking most about the things that are implied. A text that makes everything too clear tends not to charm me in the same way as one laced through with ambiguities.

We get very attached to our own readings. It can be disturbing if the author comes back with reasons to think that their take on their story is not yours. We see this a lot in fandoms for all sorts of things. To read well (or watch, or listen) we need to recognise that our personal take on a story probably isn’t universal. There’s nothing invalid about a reading that doesn’t match the creator’s intent – people who have traditionally been left out of stories have to read themselves in deliberately or deal with not being represented. So we infer queerness, or disability, or a different ethnicity. But if we want our reading to be the only reading – even going so far as pressuring the creator to uphold our version – this becomes toxic. Curiously it isn’t the people who are left out who do this, it’s the straight white boys.

We don’t teach people how to read, not really. We teach kids how to extract words from a page, and we might teach them how to think about the context in which a story was written. I can’t help but think we’d understand ourselves better, and the relationships we might have with stories if we encountered fan fiction in formal educational spaces and were encouraged to think more deeply about how people read, what they bring of themselves to stories, and what the implications are.


Madness and language

For some years now I’ve been exploring my own language use to try and weed out inadvertent abelism. For example, like a lot of people, I’d been in the habit of using blindness to refer to things people refuse to see, are willfully oblivious to, or are unable to recognise because of cultural and personal biases. This brought up all sorts of interesting things as well for how often I default to writing ‘see’ rather than a more inclusive ‘perceive’ or ‘experience’. I’m keen to tighten up my language use so as to be more precise, and to avoid abelism.

I’m trying to be more alert to the way in which language that criticises people for low intelligence or lack of education is used to attack people who make deliberately bad choices. One of the things this does aside from demeaning people with learning difficulties is to draw attention away from deliberateness.

Madness is proving to be a tricky one to figure out. As a person with ongoing mental health problems, the only time I find madness language offensive is when a white man kills people and the media jump straight in with ‘he must have mental health problems.’ There are certainly issues around using the language of madness to flag up disagreement. It’s much more effective to call out a person’s reasoning if that’s the actual problem. It’s also important to be careful with people whose thinking has been distorted by gaslighting – there’s a lot of that out there right now. People with poor critical thinking skills who have been extensively exposed to lies can end up with a really distorted sense of reality. It’s important to talk about what that is – calling them mad makes it sound like a personal issue, not a deliberate thing that’s been done to them.

The difficulty with madness is that there’s a glorious side to it. It’s been part of our literary traditions for a long time, and overlaps heavily with religious experience. I have been told that the difference between shamanism and madness is that the shaman goes deliberately and comes back at the time of their choosing. Some of us actively seek madness in substances, in extreme activities that bring on different states of consciousness, perhaps even in meditation. I knew someone once who drove himself clinically mad with excessive meditation practices.

Ecstatic experiences and insanity can be hard to tell apart. Inspiration, the fire in the head can feel like madness if it hits hard. To most people, belief in magic is itself madness. I find it problematic when other people use the language of madness to belittle spiritual experiences. The numinous is not rational.

I’m also aware that romanticising madness is really problematic. For many people experiencing mental health problems, the reality is hellish. Misery and the inability to act are more likely outcomes than literally or metaphorically being away with the fairies. The wild upswings of mania can seem fabulous while a person is experiencing them, but can prove life destroying. 

Madness is the state of not being engaged with consensus reality. We don’t really have a separate language for the people who have sought that deliberately. I am reminded of the bit in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell where a person seeking insight into fairy distills madness into the body of a mouse and then makes mouse water from the body, and drinks it. Choosing to drink the mousewater is a very different experience from falling apart organically, even if the look of it is similar.


Procrastination Projects

There’s no one right way to work as a creative person – and that’s true regardless of whether or not you are selling your work. I’ve never felt comfortable putting all my work-eggs in one basket – it leaves you so vulnerable if something goes wrong. I try to have more than one income stream at all times. Currently my only stable income comes from Patreon, and everything else happens when it does which is a bit unnerving, but I’m making it work.

Some people seem to do very well working on one project at a time in a really focused way. That’s never been me. I usually have a few projects on the go, and at the moment I have a lot of projects. I write for this blog, and The Hopeless Vendetta, I’m working on other Hopeless Maine written content, illustration and live performances. I’m writing a Druidry and the Darkness book over on Patreon, I’m planning a novel, which you get bits and pieces from on this blog. I write two Wherefore episodes a week. I feel a bit over extended at the moment, but less so than I’ve been in the last few years.

One of the great advantages of having many projects on the go, is not getting stuck. I experience block quite a lot. I may run into a wall with a project at any time. But, when that happens I can just put it to one side and move to one of the others. I don’t need a conscious reason, even, sometimes it’s more like procrastinating. But, if I procrastinate on one project by getting another project done, I still win.

I like to have projects on different scales and different time frames. I like to be working in different forms. I like the space to be thinking about what’s next and doing the developmental work – reading around, researching details, world building and so forth. Having various things at different stages means I have more scope to do the work I’m in the mood for. I can just knuckle down and do what needs doing, but I’m happier if I have some space for my whims and inclinations.


And they all lived…

Authors often have particular kinds of stories they tell. That often relates to genre. Back in my twenties, I wrote a lot of erotic fiction, back in the days of Myspace, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Amazon didn’t sell ebooks…

I had one story that I told more than any other. There would be some people – two or more. They would be odd, outsiders, set apart in some way. Perhaps they would be paranormal creatures, or magical, or otherworldly. They might be monstrous. They would be lonely, and that loneliness would have hurt them and it was not obvious to them where in the world they might fit. 

Then chance would throw two (or more) of these people together. There would follow a process of finding out that they made sense to each other. Past wounding might be overcome. Impossible-seeming situations might start to resolve. They might save each other, or figure out how to save themselves. Instead of being lonely, impossible heartbroken things, they would become people who belonged together.

It’s a story that can be played out in many ways, so I never got bored with it and I don’t think my work became too samey. 

I wrote variations on that theme because I wanted it to be true. I note that this is pretty much the story Chuck Tingle tells, over and over, with higher levels of weirdness and less angst. I’m glad it’s not just me.  

It’s not the story I’m going to tell moving forward. It’s not the story in Hopeless Maine, and it isn’t how the project I’ve been posting from here is going to work. These will be stories to at least some degree about people who have already found their people. Stories of cooperation and working together to overcome challenges. 

In many ways what I’m working on now are sequels to the stories I used to tell. This is about what happens to the outsiders when they’ve had some time feeling secure and now know where they fit and who their people are. Stories that twenty-something year old me could not have told, because at that point I’d never seen it, and even the romances were based on hope, not experience.


Further Adventures with Ominous Folk

At the weekend, we took The Ominous Folk of Hopeless Maine to Stroud Steampunk weekend, with a show called Wrecked on Hopeless. It’s a mix of storytelling, script and song and gives people an introduction to the fictional island of Hopeless, Maine.

It went so well that we’ve had several further bookings as a consequence, which is really exciting. This has led me to thinking about what we might do next year and what I might write for us. 

My creative life depends on having people to create for. It’s one of the reasons I love being in steampunk spaces because there’s always so much warmth and enthusiasm. Making things for steampunks is a deeply rewarding process. I invariably come out of steampunk events full of ideas and feelings about things I want to create. At the moment, I’m giving a lot of thought to what I will take to the Winter Convivial in Gloucester in November – more of that over here – https://www.facebook.com/SteamPunkFestGloucester

When I initiated as a bard, I pledged to use my creativity for the good of the land, and for the good of my tribe. At this point I recognise that ‘tribe’ isn’t a good word to use but it’s now part of the history I have. So, while I won’t claim that word moving forward, I need to acknowledge it in relation to that specific pledge. 

It remains vitally important to me to think about who my people are, and to think about what good I can do with my creative work.


Intuition on the bard path

Intuition is a really important skill for bards. First and foremost it’s about being able to read the room (or grove). Having a feel for your audience that allows you to respond to them is essential for making a connection and communicating effectively. You also have to give yourself space for that – if you’ve carefully planned out every detail of what you will say and do, you’re leaving no space to include what comes up at the time.

Stages feel pretty exposed at the best of times. If you are nervous you may feel like trying to be more open to your audience is a bad thing. This is not something a person is likely to get the hang of at the first go. It’s something to explore once you’re over the worst of the nerves caused by simply trying to perform.

It’s easier to read the room if you start before getting on to the stage. It’s important to check out the space and the audience ahead of time. Flounce up just before your set and you have no idea what you’re walking in to. It’s easier to try and read the mood of the gathering before you start performing. Some crowds respond well to bombast, some will like you more if you come in gently.

Intuition has a role to play at other times as well. Very few bards create in the moment and on the day. It takes time to learn, write, choreograph or otherwise get your creativity to the point where you can share it. What you have to learn to get there, is an issue. The decisions about what to work on happen a fair way ahead of sharing a finished piece. What will be relevant by the time you can share it?

For me, 2021 has been full of intuitive leaps in the dark. I’ve made decisions about what to do and when, creatively, that were at best informed by wild guesses. That’s been going surprisingly well, so far. It’s left me feeling more open to possibility, and perhaps a little more in tune with the tides of existence. Which sounds slightly pretentious, but I can’t think of a more grounded way of saying it!


Separating art from the artist

Should we draw a line between what people make and who they are the rest of the time? Is it possible to do so?

Firstly, to separate art from artist you have to not have been affected by whatever they did, or are doing. The person who can separate may well be experiencing privileges not available to others and is therefore under some obligation to proceed thoughtfully.

Is the creativity being used as a platform? Does it get this person access to victims? Is it giving them an opportunity to spread hate or cause harm? Is their economic value to their industry resulting in people pretending not to see the harm caused? Where this is true, the decision to consider the art as separate from the artist is the choice to be complicit in the harm they cause.

Where the artist is dead and can no longer hurt anyone directly, it might be less problematic to separate art and artist. However, the notion of whether that harm continues may be less visible to people with more privilege. If we continue to celebrate people who were harmful, and we do so by saying that the art is more important than the harm, what message does that send to the people and the wider communities they harmed? What does it tell future artists about what is acceptable?

Is it truly possible to separate someone’s behaviour from their art? If you’ve experienced the kind of nastiness they pedalled, that art is going to be tainted for you even if the specific content isn’t always visible. If I know someone was abusive, I can’t un-know that to view their art objectively even if I want to.

I don’t accept that ‘greatness’ in any field should give anyone a free pass on being a shitty human. I think for every shitty human who has managed to also be a ‘great’ creator there are many less visible people who are kinder and who do better work. Capitalism favours ruthlessness, self importance, and people who like having power over other people. Gentler people can be disadvantaged by the way the big business side of creative industries work. I’d rather seek out the less famous folk than support the ones whose creative platform has more to do with their pushiness than with their ability.

There are massive issues around who is allowed to be ‘great’ and shitty at the same time. The further you are from being a white, middle class, straight, cis guy, the less room you will be allowed to be considered great while being shitty. What’s indulged in this demographic isn’t allowed for everyone. While some are allowed to get away with almost anything, others are punished for not playing nicely and not doing what they are told – not playing nicely includes of course calling out the shit of the great white men. The more profit you make for other people, the more likely you are to be considered great and to be shielded from the consequences of your actions.

I can’t separate art from whatever I know about the artist. I can’t separate any aspect of human endeavour from whatever else a person is doing. If it’s something you find it useful or interesting to do – that’s fair enough, but please be alert to who gets harmed when we excuse certain kinds of behaviour on the grounds of certain kinds of output.


All Stories Are Political

Every now and then some bright spark will object to their favourite creator saying political things. Or to other fans involving the creative work in political conversations. ‘Don’t politicise Terry Pratchett’ was a stand-out recent example of this…

Politics isn’t just talking about parties. Every story involves a world view, a sense of what’s wrong or right, valuable or problematic. These are also political issues. Who is present and who is absent is a political issue. What is shown as desirable, is political. Stories tell us what to aspire to – and whether that’s wealth, or kindness, or power over others, or the bloody death of your enemies, has implications for how we think about life.

If a story doesn’t seem political, there are reasons for this. One may be that it represents the world as you think it is, and so it seems entirely free of judgement. We often don’t see the political implications of supporting the status quo – at the moment a good example would be that most people won’t see car adverts as politically loaded.

If the story reflects you and your life and experience, and you have a lot of privilege, you might just see it as normal. There are all kinds of issue around access to education, to books, to who gets to be a high profile writer in the first place, that bring politics into writing. There are longstanding issues around getting to write children’s fiction if you aren’t white. There are issues around how mainstream publishing favours white, educated in specific ways, middle class voices. Especially if your book isn’t about offering exotic novelty to the assumed white, middle class reader.

You might not realise a book is political if it is speculative. As with the Pratchett illustration at the start of the post, people don’t always make connections between the stories they read and the world they live in. Speculative genres can be better at speaking to real world issues because they can take short cuts and explore alternatives. Racism becomes specieism, disability becomes undead issues and so forth. It can be easier to think about things when they’re presented to us in a more entertaining, less loaded sort of way. But, for the person whose heart is set on not seeing that, it remains possible to pretend that stories are free from politics.

One of the most insidious forms of ignoring the politics is to suggest that we don’t hear from certain voices because those people just aren’t good enough. The stories that are published, and discussed are supposedly the highest quality ones – which often means they are told in the way that seems most familiar to the white and affluent people who dominate in all the relevant industries. ‘Dest’ often really means ‘sounds like me and is something I can relate to’. The way race, class, gender and disability narratives are assumed to be less accessible to a ‘mainstream’ audience tells us a lot about who gets to decide which stories are universal, and which are of less interest.

All stories are political, and none more so than the stories we never get to hear.