Category Archives: Observations

Not keeping up appearances

One of the consequences of doing anything well, is that it tends to look effortless. If you’re doing something professionally, it is of course desirable to look as good as you can while doing it. Success is attractive. Relaxed capability is attractive. You want people looking at the elegant swan you’ve put into the world, not all the frantic paddling below the surface required to keep it there.

The problem with this – and I see it a lot – is that a significant number of people will assume it is indeed, effortless for you to do what you do. If they can’t see how much time and effort went into getting you to the point whereby it is indeed easy, they’ll use words like ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ and maybe ‘lucky’. This can have consequences. It can leave other people assuming that they should be that good for no effort. Or they may assume that because they aren’t instantly that good, there’s no point even trying. Neither idea is useful.

The general wisdom is that to master something takes 10,000 hours of work. The effortless performance, the relaxed artistic flourish…  are possible because of the many hours of study and practice underpinning them. There’s also a lot of planning in the mix. Films have a nasty habit of showing us creators producing amazing work in a single frenzied round. Most of us don’t work that way. Paintings are planned and sketched for. Stories and pieces of music are built up in stages. And so on.

The same is often true of other things. Cooking. Gardening. Self employment. The effortless coasting towards success is often just a superficial appearance. People who get results usually have to work for them. If they can do it easily now, it’s because they already put in the work. Right now, Tom and I are starting to enjoy the benefits of the Hopeless Maine project – in terms of money, recognition, opportunities and whatnot. We’ve worked together on this for about a decade, Tom’s been on it longer. As one if my publishers used to say ‘it takes years of work to become an overnight success.’

We like the stories of people who come out of nowhere to achieve wild, unexpected success. We don’t tell stories about years of quietly chipping away at it, slowly building a following, and having modest success, but that’s often how it goes. We also don’t tell stories about people being able to invest in their own projects because their families support them and cover their bills, help them make time and give them space. It’s easier to be creative if you’ve already got money – are retired, or have a supportive spouse. This kind of information tends to vanish from the story of how the successful individual got to where they are.

It’s always tempting to create stories that make us look as good as possible. However, I think it’s ultimately harmful to create the impression of great talent welling up to achieve great things, and not mentioning the levels of work and dedication required. I also think its problematic to let people  assume you’re making it as a creator when you aren’t.

At the moment, my household is getting by on the money I make as a book publicist. We get top-ups from the creative side, which is always cheering. It looks feasible that in the next few years, the Hopeless Maine project will start laying golden eggs for us. This is because we’ve made a choice to invest time in the creative stuff rather than Tom mostly working for other people. If we make this work, it will be because of the massive amount of time he’s invested, and because I’ve been able to pay the bills. I intend to keep talking about this because there are myths I want to dispel.

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Contemplating failure

There’s a lot of positivity culture out there to tell us we can have anything and everything we want. We have to be positive enough, never give up, keep visualising the glorious outcome. It doesn’t take into account that failure is a very real part of human experience. We will all fail sometimes. Being realistic about how and why we’ve failed and what the implications are, is really important.

We can fail through lack of knowledge, experience and skill. It can mean that we just have to pick ourselves up and have another go. Many things require patience and perseverance, and will not come to us quickly just because we want them. Recognising the work involved, and recognising that we may fall short makes us better able to deal with reality than going forth with relentless positivity.

The timing may be bad. We may be unlucky. Things beyond our control may wreck our plans. We may not have the resources to achieve what we wanted. We may need to change tack and study, or practice, or rethink in some other way. These are all common events. They do not represent a failure to be positive enough, and simply being positive won’t deal with them.

How do you tell when you really should give up? How much time and money and energy – yours and other people’s – should you pour into something before you’ll admit it’s a bad loss? When is it time to accept that a dream isn’t viable? There are only personal answers here. A consciousness of failure can help us shift our goalposts to more appropriate positions. When I was a teen, I wanted to be a famous and important author. Experience has taught me to accept that if I can make ends meet and some people like my stuff, that’s probably as good as it can get.

I could dream about one day climbing Everest, but this body is never going to be equal to it. I doubt I could get up even the smallest mountain these days. No amount of positive thinking is going to enable me to run long distances, either. When do we decide what’s possible and what isn’t? When do we give up?

One of the big questions here is around how chasing the dream impacts on others. Imagine the person who goes full time with their dream but earns very little, and whose family has to support them. Imagine that they put little time into their family or friendships, expecting emotional and practical support while they follow their dream. How long can that continue before the dream itself needs questioning. A year? A decade? It’s important to consider what we’re asking other people to sacrifice for the sake of our dreams. Are we making other people put their lives on hold for us? Are we killing their dreams for the sake of our own? Are we making them pay unfairly?

If your efforts and failures and aspirations only really impact on you, then how you live your life is really no one else’s business. Most of us don’t exist in that kind of isolation. Dreams need putting into context, and I think one of the most important measures for failure and for recognising the need to give up, is how much the unrealised dream is costing other people.


Rebuilding

Building anything up is hard work – be that a skill, a fitness level, a project, or anything else you might decide to invest in. Rebuilding is a whole other thing. Rebuilding means doing again something you have already done once and then lost. While there may be advantages from the experience of the first time, emotionally speaking it can be really tough.

If you have to rebuild, it is usually because something went wrong. Illness or injury may have stopped you in your tracks. Someone else may have pulled the rug from underneath you. Perhaps you were set back by misfortune, or by external pressures demanding you put time and energy somewhere else. Perhaps you lost your nerve, gave up on yourself, decided your goals and dreams were stupid and unreachable. Whatever stopped you when you were building, will have to be faced in some way as you rebuild.

It is utterly frustrating having to revisit things you could once do and now only do badly, if at all. It is a real loss to contend with. It may seem easier to give up entirely and avoid the emotional pain that comes from facing what you’ve lost. It may be hard to figure out how to do a reboot, and you may well struggle because you think you can run when in practice you can now barely walk – literally or metaphorically. You may feel awkward dealing with other people who have seen you better able to do the things you can’t now do. There may be anxiety and shame to deal with alongside the rebuilding. You may have no confidence that you can make it work this time, either.

Try to be patient with yourself, and to treat yourself kindly. Whatever experience you gained the first time round will be valuable. Consider whether you can realistically get back to where you were and if it isn’t an option, look carefully at the options you do have. If you aren’t going to be able to climb mountains, maybe you need to think differently about hills.

Ask what you are re-building and why. Is it about pride? Identity? Refusal to be beaten? Are you making a heroic choice to keep going or a foolish choice to not recognise that you really are beaten? Are you doing this for you, or for someone else? What, if anything, do you need to prove? What do you need to get back? Can you afford to compromise? There are no right or wrong answers here, but it is a good idea to know what your answers are.

My grandmother always said that if you fell off a horse, you had to get back onto the horse as soon as possible or you might lose your nerve. The longer it takes to get back on the horse, the harder it can be. She applied this to a great many things that weren’t horses. Sometimes getting back on the horse is hard, painful, scary. What meaning you give to that, is entirely up to you.


Things I am up to

Thus far this year has not gone to plan. I’m increasingly fine with that. One of the things I didn’t get to do I’m glad I missed – the feeling of having dodged a bullet there. I’ve become involved unexpectedly in other projects as well.

I’ve just launched a new column on The Hopeless Vendetta – Mrs Beaten is judging you. Mrs Beaten is the sort of character who worries about whether the orphans are speaking proper English, and complains about their poor postures while ignoring the fact that half of them have rickets. She’s all about appearances. Writing satire always means the risk of people thinking I’m serious, and to make this even more exposed, I’m doing cartoons for it. Tom is now working on the next Hopeless Maine graphic novel and I really don’t want to take any of his time away from that. Mrs Beaten will be unleashed on Sundays, you can find her here –hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/category/hopeless-tales/mrs-beaten/ 

I’m still blogging alternative wheel of the year stuff for Sage Woman every month. I blog intermittently at Moon Books. I’m writing a regular Quiet Revolution column for Pagan Dawn, and I’m writing about tree activism for the Pagan Federation International.

Over on Patreon, I’m putting up content every week, including new poetry, and fragments of fiction that may eventually turn into a thing.

Alongside this, I’m doing a bit of online campaign work for The Woodland Trust and helping out where I can with The Pagan Federation Disabilities Online Team. I am behind on learning sign language, but I do have a chant written for the next festival.

I’m supporting a number of authors who are at various stages of trying to get their work into the world. I feel strongly that getting your work out there should not depend on being able to pay. I don’t want to live in a world where arts careers are only for those who have a lot of privilege to begin with. So, where people need help and can’t afford to pay for it, I do what I can. Which is, I fear, a very small drop in the ocean of what’s needed. One of the reasons I’m reviewing every week is that it’s an easy way of helping people make their books more visible. I only review books I feel largely positive about.

Quite a lot of my time goes into unpaid work. Donating via the ko-fi link, (thank you those of you who have already done this) and supporting me on Patreon (thank you!) helps me stay viable while giving my time and skills to other people. It helps me afford to continue with Tom not taking as many illustration commissions so as to focus on getting Hopeless Maine out there. It gives me time for my own speculative work rather than having to focus on the things that are definitely going to pay. It makes losing money on events less scary, too. Train fares cost a lot, and we need to get out there to meet people and promote our work, but in the short term it is all too easy to lose money on this.

Of course much of this is true for many creative people. Having resources to invest in developing your work can be really difficult if you’re barely scraping a living. Creating part time isn’t a good answer for many people and it brings us back again to only getting creators who are in good health and well resourced. If you support the creators you love – in any small way you can – you help keep them going. Review them, re-tweet them, tell a friend. And if you can throw money at them, know that it makes an enormous difference. A hundred dollars a month on Patreon can easily be the different between keeping going and not keeping going.

If you want to wave money at me, you can do so here.
Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com


Are they ignoring me?

If you live with a phone that’s always on, or otherwise attached to the internet, it’s easy to expect instant responses to everything. If you think everyone should reply straight away and they don’t, stress, annoyance and misery may ensue.

There are of course lots of good reasons people don’t respond. Many of us aren’t available 24/7 – there’s no internet on my phone, and I have whole days where I’m not online. Self employed people should not be working seven day weeks – some do, of course – and the shape of their work may mean it isn’t obvious when their days off are. If I’ve worked a weekend doing an event, I take time off in the week to offset this. Around big events I can be largely out of contact for the best part of a week.

There may be something else going on. I may be on facebook because I need a conversation with a person. If you message me and I’m busy, I’ll ignore you until I have time to give you proper attention. I may be online because I’m not feeling good and I’m looking for something amusing and distracting. If that’s the case, I won’t answer work messages or queries. I am pretty confident I’m not alone in any of this. I feel strongly that just because a person appears to be around doesn’t automatically mean they have time and energy to respond to someone.

Sometimes, I don’t respond immediately because I don’t know what to say. I may need to go away and think about it. Sometimes I’ll just flag up that the message got through and I’ll get back when I can. However, if someone has made me unhappy or uncomfortable, I may need time to decide how to proceed. I give myself space to enquire as to why I’m reacting badly, whether I need to change something, or step away from a person. I’m dealing with thousands of people online, with various hats on. I can’t be everything to everyone and sometimes I have to make decisions other people don’t like.

I dropped someone entirely, early this year, who had emailed me to gripe about his life, again, and when I didn’t respond fast enough started demanding my attention on facebook instead. This is not ok. The instant nature of the internet may help us feel entitled to rapid responses. It certainly makes it easy to suck up other people’s time and energy. These days, I always ask what good that does. I try to be there for people who need my help, but if people keep having the same problems, refuse to make changes and just want me to pay attention to them (as with facebook boy) I can’t afford to indulge that. It’s very easy to make some of us feel like we should be helping, like we’re obliged to give our precious time and energy, but that doesn’t make it ok.

Of course sometimes things go astray online. Messages get lost – facebook is a terrible place to try and do anything important. If you want a serious conversation with me, ask for my email address and if I’m up for that serious conversation, we can do it by email. Sometimes emails get lost, and if something important isn’t answered, a follow through email after a few days might be appropriate. I miss things, we all miss things, and so long as you aren’t going to give me a hard time for being slow, I don’t mind being chased up on.

We need to slow down, give each other more time and space. If someone’s inbox is full of people asking, ten minutes later, why they didn’t get a reply to the first email… nothing gets done. It’s important to have boundaries, and where instant communication is possible, we need those boundaries more than ever.


Healing challenges

When there’s just the one thing wrong with you, healing can be fairly straightforward. However, when multiple things go wrong, there can be conflicts within your body. To give a simple example – if your back needs you to lie flat, but you have a stinking cold and can’t breathe easily unless propped up. When the side effects from the ideal medication interact with some other problem and you have no options.

There are a number of things I need to maintain my mental health. I need to walk and spend time outside. I need social time. I need to be creative and I need things that are mentally stimulating. None of this goes well with any kind of bodily illness. Needing bed rest and needing time with people do not easily combine. If I stay put and focus on getting my body well at the expensed of my mental health, this doesn’t go well for me. Equally, poor bodily health will undermine my mental health every time.

This is one of the reasons that unsolicited medical advice from random people can be such a miserable nuisance. Especially when said people are pushy and adamant that they have the magic cure for your ills and get angry with you if you say no to them. Because they didn’t know about the inner conflicts you have, or the things that won’t work with the magic cure. It’s no use telling someone to do yoga if being told what to do with their body is a major panic trigger (this has happened to me). It’s no good telling someone who also struggles with low blood pressure to take something that will, as a side effect, lower their blood pressure.

People with complex, multiple illnesses don’t tend to list off everything that’s wrong. Sometimes, people just want the relief that comes from being able to say ‘this is really shit right now.’ It’s no good insisting they should cover their face in bees if you don’t know how they respond to bee stings…

Pushing medical ‘solutions’ onto people who are ill can be incredibly bullying and demoralising. It’s the kind of bullying that hides behind the lies of ‘I’m only doing it to help you’ or ‘for your own good’ while offering no help and no good. Sharing information is always a good thing. ‘This helped me’ can be useful. The problems start when we insist people act on our information and refuse to hear their reasons for not wanting to.


Buying your identity, and other silliness

Recently on Broadside Blog, Caitlin Kelly blogged her list of responses to questions asked in a posh magazine. The questions interest me because they start from an assumption of enthusiastic consumption, and I’m going to answer them in a way that was not intended. If this appeals to you, carry it on! It’s an easy way to challenge the belief that consumption is how we best express ourselves…

My personal style signifiers

(I am only guessing as to what this means!) Scruffiness, Frankensteined, upcycled clothing with a dash of handmade, bohemian rags, urban pixie.

 

The last thing I bought and loved

What did I last buy that wasn’t food? Nothing for a week or two. It might have been the Welcome to Night Vale book. I loved it.

 

And the thing I’m eyeing next

There’s some Ursula Le Guinn books and some Alan Garners I’ve not read. I might splash out and buy them some time this year.

 

The last item of clothing I added to my wardrobe

A white petticoat skirt made out of a dead shirt. (Dead clothing Frankensteined into being live clothing!)

 

An unforgettable place I’ve travelled to in the past year

All of my travelling has been within the UK. Most of my travelling has been on foot. I tend to have long term relationships with places rather than one night stands so all of my places are memorable to me.

 

And the best souvenir I’ve brought home

The only souvenirs I bring home are memories and photographs. I got some really good footage of elfcaps on the local cycle path this year.

 

A recent “find”

I’ve found a number of old bird’s nests, visible while the leaves aren’t on the trees. I’m keeping an eye on them for signs of re-use.

 

The person I rely on for my personal grooming

….is me, and Tom when I have been too ill to look after myself.

 

An object I would never part with

Well, that depends on circumstances. I have a number of objects of which I am fond, many of which I also find useful. I might give them away to someone who needed them more than me. I don’t think I have anything that I couldn’t let go of, especially if I could no longer make good use of it.

 

The last meal that truly impressed me

Tom’s first forays into roasts have been wonderful.

 

The best gift I’ve given recently

My time and expertise.

 

If I had to limit my shopping to one neighborhood in one city, I’d choose…

I shop in Stroud (its a small town) unless I am somewhere else doing an event, and then I shop there for food. I don’t feel limited by this at all. It saves me a great deal of money and stress.

 

My favorite website

I don’t have a favourite.


Gaslighting with Terry Gilliam

Gaslighting is a deliberate tactic used by abusers to destroy the confidence, even the sanity of the victim. It can take many forms, but the intent is to leave the victim doubting their own memory, judgement, ability to chose, and sanity. There are lots of good articles out there, so if this is an unfamiliar term, hop on a search engine. At time of writing, the Terry Gilliam interview I’m talking about is also easy to find.

In a recent interview, Terry Gilliam criticised the #MeToo movement in a way that to me says ’gaslighting’, so I’m going to take some of the statements he made and look at them closely.

He told us that this is the price you pay – a night with Harvey in return for career opportunities. First up, this is an attempt to normalise the abuse, to treat it as just a regular thing that happens. Secondly, it suggests a trade; that it is a fair price to pay for a career. It normalises the idea that men with power can demand sex from women who have no power and that we shouldn’t see a problem here. Women who protested just didn’t get as good a deal as they wanted, or are capitalising on the attention now that can do them more good. We are to understand that women are the manipulators here, Harvey’s just a regular guy, doing nothing weird, unfair or creepy at all. The implication is that the abuse was no big deal, and the victims are making a fuss about nothing. This approach encourages victims to think they shouldn’t have imagined there was a problem or made a fuss.

Gilliam describes that’s happened as ‘mob rule’. Women who have spoken up about sexual abuse are explicitly compared to the kind of torch and pitchfork gang that turns up to deal with Frankenstein in movies. This is an image that suggests both power and violence. Mob rule, says that the gang is incharge here, making the decisions. What we’ve seen are women being heard and taking seriously and people not wanting to work with abusers. That’s not mob rule in my book, it’s healthy and necessary. But, cast it in a different light, make those who protest sound powerful, violent and the certainty about who is a victim and who is a perpetrator is supposed to be less clear.

The line of logic goes: Victims are not victims. Victims are a mob. Mobs are bad. Mob rule is bad. What’s happening is bad.

Following on from this theme of re-imagining violence, he said that Matt Damon was ‘beaten to death’. Matt Damon was criticised for saying something uninformed, and when he realised, he apologised. This is not quite the same as being beaten to death. But again, we have the violence and power of the mob rule than can kill a man. Now, this suggestion goes further than the others. It hides behind the possibility of being a metaphor while telling victims something happened that did not happen. If a person raises it, Gilliam can say that of course he wasn’t talking literally, you silly women. What’s wrong with you to take that literally? What are you trying to prove? This is what gaslighters do if you call them out – they blame you. Or they say they never said it. Why would they say something so ridiculous? Of course they never said that, you imagined it. You’re making things up just to get at them.

A one off like this just looks crazy. But, if you hear this kind of thing every day, it does (trust me on this) really destabilise your sense of reality. Nothing seems firm, or certain, or reliable, including you. This makes a person easier to abuse because after a while you can abuse them, and tell them they imagined it, and that they’re having disturbing fantasies and ought to get help, and they wonder if you’re right.

This is probably the only time we’ll hear from Terry on the subject, but he’s reinforcing what Liam Neeson said, and what a lot of guys have always said to hide abuse. In a society that lets men respond to abuse accusations in this way, we create a culture of gaslighting. Mistrust the victim. Blame the victim. Make the victim doubt their own judgement. It is an evil thing to participate in.


The trouble with countries

I’m not a big fan of countries as a way of organising and getting things done. I mention this in case we ever get opportunities for a radical restructure.

For a lot of purposes, a country is too small a unit to be useful. Many issues cross borders – pollution, crime, climate change, rising sea levels, food security, war, refugees from war and climate disasters, extinction, human rights. These are all things that do not care about borders, can’t be controlled or stopped at borders and where the actions of individual countries aren’t enough.

For many other things, the modern country is too big a unit to be of much use. In the UK (a small country compared to many others) we see routinely how a government operating out of London fails to grasp or pay attention to the issues of everywhere that isn’t the south east. Taking the economy of the country as a whole, for example, means that The City of London money moving operations can make it look like our economy as a whole is healthy. Meanwhile, in most of the rest of the country, local economies are in poor shape. I expect larger countries suffer bigger distortions than this.

Most of us feel remote from politics. We aren’t a big part of the decision making process most of the time. Every few years we get the option to replace the current set of suits with a different set of suits. Sometimes it seems there’s not much to choose between suits. For most people, it’s difficult to tell as well where relevant power is held, and that’s alienating. We have a lot of layers of government – parish councils, town, district, and county as well as country are all in theory democratic, all spending money on behalf of the people. All making decisions that radically impact on our lives, and on the options available to the tiers below them in this political structure.

I don’t know what a meaningful unit of organisation for political purposes would be, but I am entirely convinced that modern countries are way too big. We end up with these crazy stories about national identity that are supposed to bond us to a vast number of people – most of whom we have nothing in common with. These stories are increasingly used to make us resent other people for no good reason. I’d like to be part of a much smaller unit, held securely to world standards. It wouldn’t be perfect because nothing is, but it might be more relevant, accountable and meaningful.


Glass Herons and donations

A glass heron is a creature native to Hopeless Maine. Like most of the resident life forms, they’re a bit… odd.

There’s a glass heron front right in the image above and a second at the back and to the left.

Some time ago, in a fit of enthusiasm, I added a glass heron level over at Patreon. All of my Patreon levels are based on Hopeless Maine creatures, so at $1 there’s small things in bottles, and $5 is the splendid Dustcat level. They are about the size of a cat. I’m writing the dustcats a book about dustcats. I’m not the best when it comes to self promotion, so I put up the glass heron (size of a heron, give or take) and didn’t really spend much time telling people it was there. At glass heron level, you get things in the post – at least four times a year. Tom and I between us generate a lot of small things that can be posted, like cards, and dustcat books, little originals, handwritten things.

This week I was very excited to find that my first glass heron had sauntered in. There is a lot of validation for me in people liking what I do enough that they want to throw money at me. Not least because I appreciate that most of us don’t have a lot of spare cash to chuck about, so the decision to support creativity is a big deal.

Money is, simply, a great enabler. I’m living within my means, which are small. Extra cash means being able to afford research books, the odd course, getting to things that inspire me. Doing events as a creator costs money and you don’t always make it back – I’ve lost money on two events in the last year. Doing a print run for something like a dustcat book costs money. It’s a lot less stressful doing this sort of thing when you aren’t also obliged to carefully count the pennies. I’ve got very talented friends who should be getting their work out there and can’t afford to invest in it. I want to be able to help them with printing costs.

I like the gift economy angle with Patreon. I put free things into the world – here, on www.hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com, on my youtube channel, my Sage Woman blog column. I write regularly for Pagan Dawn and for the PF international. No one pays me for these things because there’s no money with which to pay.  Pagan magazine publishing does not make anyone rich. I know what it’s like to have no budget for fun stuff, and what a difference free, online content makes in that scenario. Now that I can afford to, I do buy books and music, and tickets for gigs, I support the creative economy as best I can. In turn, people who like what I do and who can afford to support me are doing so, and it really helps me make ends meet and feel like it’s worth carrying on.

Money of course is not the only thing to have that effect. Likes, shares, reblogs, comments, sharing my stuff on social media – these things cost nothing and they have a massive impact on me from one day to the next. At my lowest points when I’ve not known how to keep going in the desperately difficult economic environment of ‘creative industry’ it’s been this blog, the support here and the comments that have kept me moving and saved me from despair. That’s gift economy in action, too.

So, here’s a question. I’ve been wondering about putting a donate button of some sort on the blog. I appreciate that the commitment to regular Patreon funding is going to be too much for many people. A donate button is more like being able to throw small change in the pot when you have it. Would that be a thing? If you think you might like to chuck a dollar in a virtual hat now and then, can you let me know? No commitment required, just I want a sense of how people feel about this. If everyone following this blog chucked a dollar in the hat once a year, it would change my life radically. I’m also at the kind of level where small sums of money make a difference. I’ve resisted the idea of a donate button for a long time because I want people to feel comfortable about having things for free. I choose to give this stuff away, and I hate it when people tell me things are free and then demand a five pound donation… so I’m not doing that. Thoughts?