Category Archives: Bardic

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.


Show and Tell for Bards

The wisdom in the realms of written fiction is show, don’t tell. I’ve always had a problem with this and I’ve struggled to figure out why. Reading this article –  https://scroll.in/article/999215/decolonising-creative-writing-its-about-not-conforming-to-techniques-of-the-western-canon brought the issue into focus for me. It’s worth a few minutes of your time if writing and storytelling are areas of interest for you.

If you’re on the bard path, you’ll likely already know that myths, legends and folklore tend to be told. Partly this is to do with expectations about how much story you are going to deliver in how much time – which is often a consideration around storytelling. 

What the article I’ve pointed at makes explicit is that you can’t show people things unless they share your frames of reference. How people express and experience emotions is culturally informed. ‘Show’ approaches work for people in the mainstream talking about their mainstream experiences to other people who can be expected to know what that’s like. For anyone at the margins, things have to be explained and you can’t assume others will recognise or understand what you show them.

This is also true around magical and spiritual experiences. You can’t show that kind of experience to someone who hasn’t had it. You can do a lot more to help them by telling them about it. The ‘tell’ approach does more to encourage empathy as well because when we tell, we create a framework in which someone could try and understand something that isn’t familiar to them.

If we uphold and defend the validity of telling a story rather than showing it, we make more room for more people. It’s one way, as a bard, that you can make a contribution to justice and help lift and support others. Let people tell their stories on their own terms. Let people tell it like it is for them. We can call into question these cultural assumptions about what good and bad stories, and writing look like.


We feed upon each other

May be art

“The forest eats itself and lives forever”

Baraba Kingsoliver

Creativity can beget its own ecosystems. I’ve never really believed in the idea of the lone genius, making their art in isolation from the rest of the world. It’s a myth that denies creative influences and disappears the practical work that goes into making art possible. The wives, mothers, sisters, girlfriends and servants whose more mundane efforts have been key to the success of apparently great men. The female co-creators who disappear from the stories of how the men did the work. Meanwhile for female creators, there’s often a struggle around finding time for the work alongside other duties and obligations.

It’s important to ask what the art is eating.

In a healthy creative ecosystem, collaborations are acknowledged. The person who makes the meals is collaborating with the person who makes the art. At the same time, where inspiration flows between people, it needs to be owned and acknowledged. No one creates in isolation, and I think most of us are better when we are open to being influenced and inspired by other creators. 

The myth of the lone genius can turn out a bit self involved and mastabatory – and not in a fun way.

Honour the people who make your creativity possible!

(Art by Dr Abbey, inspired by Tom Brown. Text – me)


Learning things by heart

Memorising is a traditional bardic skill and it’s a wonderful thing to do. In learning something you form a much deeper relationship with it, and it becomes part of you. It is scary – performing from memory without a safety net is a really exposed thing to do and you can fall and fail – but you really feel it when you fly. And if you sauntered onto the bard path the odds are that you crave the applause, the audience response and the glory to some degree.

There are people, and my son is one of them, who seem able to absorb vast amounts of text with very little effort. For most of us, it is a slog taking time and repetition. To learn things by heart you also have to learn how much work that takes. It’s easy to be put off and to assume you can’t do it… but it can just be a case of needing to make more effort than you expected. The more you learn by heart, the better your memory becomes and the easier it gets.

Not everyone can commit things to memory. Not everyone who can memorise finds they can perform from memory. It’s worth investing time and effort in building familiarity with material even if you do then need the safety net. It’s vitally important that bardic spaces don’t require you to memorise – that’s abelist. Further, no one should have to explain what their issues are if they don’t perform from memory.

Here are some things I’ve found helpful when trying to learn something by heart…

Little and often is better than big sessions. Go over the material every day.

Start trying to do it – or bits of it – from memory as soon as you can. It doesn’t matter how bad you are. If you just work from the paper you get used to the paper. Trying to reconstruct the piece from memory will really help you, even if you spend most of the time going ‘tum te tum’ between key words.

Play with the material. Messing about helps with learning. But also be careful because you don’t want to learn the wrong words. Comedy versions can be great, but don’t set yourself up to remember the wrong words!

Don’t worry about getting it wrong. The chances many people – or for that matter any person in your audience knows the material better than you do, are small. If you present the piece with confidence and a smile, people will be persuaded that you know it. Mistakes delivered with certainty are seldom noticed. If you need to brazen it out, that was how Granny always said it, or ‘folk process’ are always options. As a bard, a good story can be more pertinent than a disappointing and useless truth. If you go off-text you can also always say that you were in the grip of the Awen and that’s simply what turned up!


Off to the Edge

Today, Hopeless Maine is off to Festival at the Edge in Shropshire, in the UK. This is an exciting development for us. We’ve had a performance aspect to the project for some time, but this is our first time out with a script and a show. There are four of us, with songs, Maine folklore, and a story.

Hopeless, Maine started life as a graphic novel series. It was my husband’s idea. I came in to write scripts for the comics, then got into colouring and other things. It’s a world other people have wanted to play with, so we have a role play game and novellas and all sorts of other things going on. We’re always looking for ways to let more people in and do more good stuff.

Some years ago we were invited to participate in our local book festival, and given a stage on the Saturday night. What do you do with a comic at a book festival? It’s not like readings are realistic. We took a selection of short stories, some folk songs and a couple of extra people, and from there, the idea of performance grew.

I’ve been to enough events to know that authors at events aren’t reliably exciting. Unless you are already into an author, listening to them talk about their life and work isn’t interesting. And sometimes even when it’s an author you like, this isn’t a reliably fun way to spend an hour. Not all authors are good speakers or performers. If you’re a fairly obscure author – like me – then the odds of drawing an audience to your sales pitch aren’t great to begin with. But, people at events want to be amused. By offering something more interesting than a thinly veiled book pitch, I can usually get an audience.

With this in mind, we’ve been developing a performance side to Hopeless Maine ever since that first book festival event. We’ve taken songs and folklore to folk events. We’ve taken something like a radio show to a number of steampunk events. I’m plotting other things that can include more people. I’d rather be more entertaining. I have more fun at events being there as a performer than I do stood at a table.


Strip mining your life

I’m a long-standing fan of Lorna Smithers. Recently on her blog she wrote about her intention to stop writing because of the way it has impacted on her. I recognised what she was saying – that you can end up having all of your experiences filtered through the process of writing. It can feel a lot like strip-mining yourself, and you end up depleted, empty, a ravaged landscape.

It can be hard to be fully present in an experience if part of your brain is making notes so you can write about it later. It creates pressure around anything you do. It can actively get in the way of your personal, spiritual life. It is not good feeling like you’ve become a spectator sport.

I went round this some years ago when I realised that trying to write Pagan books was having a problematic impact on my own lived experience of being a Pagan. To deal with this, I’ve slowed down and taken a much less commercial approach.I write what I feel moved to write and I’m not trying to crank them out. One of the unfortunate features of publishing is that without regular new books, it’s hard to stay visible or get the sales. So be it. I’m not going to sacrifice my Druidry for the sake of writing about it.

I’ve been round this with the blog as well. I have rules. I don’t post about anything large and personal when it’s still raw, I give myself time to reflect and process. I focus on ideas and technical stuff and I don’t talk much about recent personal experience. I keep my most numinous experiences private. That’s helped me hold the feeling of sacredness. There are things I’m currently considering writing about that happened to me more than ten years ago – which feels like an appropriate distance.

There are tensions between what it takes to be a good and successful Pagan author, and what it takes to follow a Pagan path. For some of us, those tensions will be a bigger issue than for others. I’ve been able to find balances that work for me, but I have run headlong into these issues and bruised myself by so doing. 

It’s important to hold something as sacred, secret, too personal to share. It’s important to not feel you have to do everything in public. Social media means you don’t have to be trying to become a Very Important Pagan to feel that pressure to share precious things in public. Hold what you need to hold. Even if teaching is your life, you do not owe it to anyone to expose more than you can bear. It’s good to be able to treasure things, and hold them close.


Finding my joy

If there was a time when I didn’t want to write, I don’t remember it. As soon as I knew books were a thing, as soon as I had a pencil in my hand, I wanted to put things onto paper. I knew from very early on that I wanted to write with purpose, to have ideas that might change things for people. It frustrated me not knowing enough to yet have those ideas, but the impulse was good.

I experimented. The things I wanted to write were unsellable. I tried writing what I thought people wanted, but I wasn’t very good at it… girl meets boy… girl has a severed head in a bag. Romance was never going to work for me. I got some terrible reviews early on when I was writing erotica, because my stuff was dark and weird. Slowly, I found my people, the ones who wanted dark and weird. I found Tom and his Hopeless Maine project, which wasn’t sexy, but certainly had room for any amount of dark I might want to bring.

I tried writing for money, and I failed. Somewhere in that process, I lost a lot of my passion. I stopped believing in much of what I was doing. I didn’t write much for me. For years I have quietly written for other people – here on the blog, and around other projects. If it helps someone, or amuses someone, that’s enough.

Then, unexpectedly in the last week, my joy flared back into existence. I was working on a project and suddenly realised that I really wanted to be working on it, that my heart was truly in it and I felt excited about what I was doing. That was a startling experience. 

I already knew that this summer I would have to give some serious thought to how I work and what I’m doing. I had no idea it even could be framed by this sort of feeling. I might be going to focus on passion projects, because I might have enough passion for that to be a thing again. I do have things I want to say, and I think fiction is going to be the best way to say them. 

At the moment I’m mostly stretching, testing ideas and wondering about how I want to work and what I want to do. I’m hoping to switch over to four day weeks, at least for a little while. I’m waiting to see how the economic side of my situation pans out, and there are reasons to be hopeful. And I’m writing, because I want to write, and need to find out what happens, because there are people I want to impress, and people I want to share with.

My creative identity was, once upon a time, a really big part of my identity as a whole. I’ve had some strange, barren-feeling years where although I’ve been writing, I’ve not felt like I was inhabiting that space. I’ve not felt like myself. I think all of that is changing now.


Inspiration and time

While inspiration can strike as lightning, it also requires time. It doesn’t turn up in a mind that is overwhelmed. When you are relentlessly busy and have to pay attention to a lot of things, there’s often no space for inspiration to get in. If your world is too noisy, overstimulated, and relentless, there’s no time or space to notice the flashes of inspiration.

That in turn makes us vulnerable. Rather than having the chance to be excited about our own ideas, we’re sold other people’s ideas. Instead of having the opportunity to work out what we need and what would be good, we’re sold solutions. We’re told what to want.

Quietness, wool gathering and even boredom are necessary to make space for inspiration to get in. We need time to ourselves, and time to be with ourselves to have ideas. Without that space, our minds fill up with other people’s ideas instead, and those ideas are seldom kind, or neutral. What’s being fed to us is very much about making money for other people and keeping us in line as cogs in the capitalist machine.

Our daydreaming doesn’t make billionaires richer. 

Steal back whatever time you can. Make some quiet space. Look away from the screen and out of the window. Go on. I’ll stop writing now to make it easier for you.


Creativity and discomfort

Teenage me was fairly sure that people who were comfortable did not make great art. Partly this came from some self awareness regarding my own urges to create, and some of it from reading biographies. There are reasons the tortured-artist cliche exists.

For a long time, the drive to create was very much rooted in my own distress. I needed to put something into the world that paid for my existing. That wasn’t a good way to be, and my fundamental discomfort meant that I never could produce anything good enough to feel like it entitled me to exist. 

Creativity comes from the need to make, the need to change things, to add something to the world, to fix or improve something in some way. There is no making without the urge to change something, and the person who feels uncomfortable or insufficient may be more motivated to seek change by whatever means they can.

Over the years, I’ve become more comfortable. My basic physical needs are fairly well met. I’ve dealt with a lot of my issues. I don’t feel I have much to prove, and most days I don’t feel like I have to justify taking up space. On the bad days these things can all show up, but I don’t live there. I note that the relationship between discomfort and creativity has changed for me.

There’s so much to be uncomfortable about that isn’t personal. The state of the world, the amount of suffering out there, the politics, the systemic oppression and cruelty, the exploitation and abuse… Making has become a way to push back. Sometimes that’s about keeping usable stuff out of landfill, or cobbling things together for us so we don’t need to buy them. Small acts of eco-resistance. Often what motivates me is the urge to comfort or inspire someone else.

At this point, my own circumstances could not become so comfortable that I would have no motivation to create. These are the tools I have that I can use to help. That might mean creating as a way to raise funds to get things done (I have plans). It may mean offering what comfort and cheer I can (that’s a lot of the motivation for this blog and my whole approach to social media). While others suffer, I cannot be wholly comfortable.

Without the annoyance of grit, oysters do not make pearls. It’s something they do in self defence. There can be a lot of self-help in turning life’s grit into personal arty pearls. As I saunter about my middle years, I realise that teenage me was wide of the mark. Comfort is something that the privileged are able to choose. It depends on ignoring the suffering and the needs of others. Discomfort definitely does fuel creativity, but that can be entirely about a reaction to what’s out there. A person does not have to be suffering directly in order to empathise and try to make something that will help. A person who chooses their own comfort and isn’t open to the world isn’t going to make good art.


Speak your truth

It is the morning after a hard night, the anxiety rode me into the early hours. I think of folklore and witches night riding horses, and I know I am that sort of horse.

There is anger inside me. So much anger. There has never been a safe way for that rage to come out through my skin. It turns on me. I think about stories of people possessed by demons. I know how that goes.

Sometimes I fight my demons. Sometimes we just snuggle. Those modern stories, those cute meme responses to distress. There’s comfort to be had there. Sometimes I try to hold the demons that are inside my skin, and I whisper to them the things I wish someone had whispered to me.

This morning I am a mangled wreck of a person, washed up from the sea, shipwrecked nameless on some unfamiliar shore, waiting for the crows to come. I think about the true stories of fisher folk, and the things they did to protect their loved ones, and make them identifiable if worst came to worst. I do not feel there is much left of me to identify. I think about the people who knitted jumpers for me.

There’s always a story to turn to. Always some last, desperate thread that gives context and continuity. Something to wrap around your fingers when there is nothing else to hold on to. Once upon a time… nothing is new… someone else washed up on this shore before you, broken and unrecognisable.

You may not have it in you to tell a story about how things got better from there. Some stories do not end well. Some stories are warning signs. Mind the gap. Do not feed the bears. Danger cliffs. Sometimes all we can do is show where we fell in the hopes that others stay away. Be the story that saves someone else.

Tell the story in the hopes that it makes sense. Tell whatever fragment you have, so that you know you were there, and it was real. Murmur it to the sand where you lie abandoned by the tide. Whatever story you have, speak it.