Tag Archives: stories

Silliness and Animism

Those of you who have started following the blog more recently may not be aware of the work I have already out in the world, so every now and then I like to revisit what’s available.

Wherefore was my lockdown project, guided by suggestions from various of my friends, but chiefly Bob Fry (who appears as a character) and Robin Treefellow (who appears under a different name). Wherefore is set around my hometown of Stroud. It features many actual people, and a whole host of imaginary people, some of whom are based heavily on real people. It became a way for some of us to connect with each other and to have something to talk about – which helped a lot with lockdown and social isolation.

The stories come in bite sized pieces, and the whole thing is more of a soap opera than anything with a coherent story arc. It’s mostly silly, occasionally darker and more serious, and pushes the notion of were-entities far further than any sensible person might go. The stories exist as readings, and as ebooks (which you can have for free).

Series 1 starts here –

Series one as an ebook is over here, for free – https://ko-fi.com/s/2241a51430

Series 2 starts here –

Series 2 as an ebook – https://ko-fi.com/s/1eb07c4561

Series 3 starts here –

Series 3 as an ebook is over here – https://ko-fi.com/s/f0055708b7

It is an entirely silly project, but at the same time, some of my best expression of animism are in here, particularly when it comes to very small things such as oolites, and yeast.

Misleading stories

CW rape and suicide

Recently I watched a film in which a young lady committed suicide because she had been raped. The whole thing was presented as a massive tragedy. Afterwards, it struck me how deeply misleading and problematic this kind of story is.

Rape is common, as is sexual assault. I know a depressingly large number of women who have been raped, most of whom have experienced no justice whatsoever. None of whom have killed themselves, or even tried to.

At the same time, suicide is most often an issue for young men. While there’s a general feeling that this is because it’s hard for men to talk about their feelings, I’m not aware of much real research into the question of why this happens or what we can do to prevent it.

The stories we tell each other inform how we think the world works. A lot of people get more of their ideas from entertainment than they do from non-fictional sources. People who believe that the global majority played little part in history often get that impression from the whitewashed American films of the 20th century, as an obvious example of this in action. Entertainment impacts on life and is not a morally neutral activity.

As a storyteller, the temptation is always to go after the most dramatic story you can imagine. It’s also tempting to tell the story you think you know, not the one rooted in reality. The way in which stories about female experience are told by a very male dominated film industry has troubled me for some time, and this film underlined it for me. There are too many films where realistic violence to a woman is used to justify and to centre unrealistic male violence. There aren’t many films that examine in a realistic way what it’s like for a female survivor. It’s there in the book version of The Colour Purple for example, but not really in the film at all. We don’t mostly go on Kill Bill style revenge missions. Mostly we just live with it.

Rape as a plot device often actually serves to make rape seem rare, dramatic, and the basis for other kinds of violence and drama. Part of the true horror of rape is the banality of it, the widespread, widely ignored nature of this kind of violence.

The Power of Absence

It’s all too easy not to realise what you aren’t seeing. I grew up with stories about kind and helpful little girls who were neat and good. All of the wild adventurers of my childhood stories were boys. All of the pirates and scientists were boys. I could have done with knowing about Mary Read, and Mary Anning at the very least.

It’s still the case that the odds of finding a film or series with an all male cast is far higher than finding an all female cast in anything. I seek out authors from diverse backgrounds, but mainstream publishing remains so white and middle class and much of it doesn’t speak to me. There’s a lot more queer representation than there used to be, but I grew up with nothing on that score. I grew up not having the words for the person I was, and having no maps or stories for how to move through the world as me.

Things are improving. Female people get to actually do things in stories more of the time rather than just being victims, motivation sources and prizes. I have seen nonbinary representation. There’s precious little polyamorous content. What’s most lacking is the content that isn’t about the struggle of being different – so often what mainstream publishers want from diverse people is basically their story of what a hard time they’ve had being diverse – stories of racism, of prejudice, of coming out. Not stories where diverse people get to do interesting things while being themselves. 

I see a lot of talk about this online from authors with all kinds of backgrounds who would like to write escapism and fantasy that comes from their own needs and preferences regarding fun things. It’s depressing not being allowed to do that, and not having those stories to read. Of course anyone who wants to write about their struggles should be supported in doing so, but that’s not what happens, often it’s the only thing people who are ‘diverse’ are allowed to write, and that’s so problematic in so many ways. 

When stories are the battleground

How do you know what’s true? Who do you trust for information? It’s become ever more problematic since the start of the covid crisis, but the war of stories and information is far older than that. Most conspiracy theories are bunk, and a very few turn out to be super-important. How do you decide which stories to share and believe in?

For anyone on the bard path, the power of stories is likely already a consideration. For anyone interested in politics, and world politics, the question of how stories have become weapons is an ongoing issue. It’s not easy, when faced with a story, to decide what to do with it.

I want the stories that help me understand other perspectives. I want the stories that open out possibilities and make more room to include more people. I reject the stories that encourage us to hate each other and mistrust each other. I reject any story that is about how a group of people deserve to suffer for being who they are when they are doing no harm at all.

Any story has the potential to become true. If we adopt a story and live by it, and invest in it we may well make it real. Sometimes asking if something is factually accurate isn’t the key thing. It may be much more useful to ask what a story will do, what it will enable, who it supports and who it crushes. I’m here for the stories that uplift people and crush injustice. 

For some years now, stories have been part of an ideas war being fought across the world. Don’t share the stories you don’t want to see come true – not even to argue with them. If you need to talk about stories you consider problematic, work around them, don’t give them direct attention and don’t send people to the places airing the problem stories. If we don’t invest energy in them, stories wither and die, to be replaced by stories that were better able to engage people. We get a say in how that plays out.

Dark but not Dystopian

I have a great love of the darker genres when it comes to films and books. I love gothic stories, and I am partial to the more psychological and monstery ends of the horror genre – relentless violence doesn’t do it for me unless it’s funny. However, I really don’t like dystopian stories and I’ve been thinking a lot about why that’s the case.

Gothic and horror stories are personal – it’s about the individuals involved. The monstrosity is personal, the horrors are perpetrated by individual people or entities or groups. This also means that the scope for overcoming the terrible things is both personal and possible, or you die trying. Stories in which there is a last girl standing, or in which someone thwarts the horror – even if they die in the process – are actually uplifting and cathartic in their own way. Stories in which people have to come to terms with the darkness comfort me in all sorts of ways.

Dystopian fiction has an impersonal quality to it. The problems are systemic and go way beyond the individual. Granted, sometimes you get stories about dystopian systems that the individual is able to take down, but for me that’s a differently shaped story. Really dystopian fiction may offer escape or reprieve to the protagonists, but the system itself remains. The surface of the story looks like a win, but nothing really changes.

There’s an additional problem here that dystopias often depend on taking something akin to the oppression suffered currently or historically by the global majority and asking what would happen if someone did that to white people.

I’m not convinced we do ourselves much good with stories in which winning is impossible and the system will crush or corrupt you. It’s something that bothers me greatly about the Aliens films, for example. A few people might survive a fight with the monsters, but the system that relentlessly brings them into contact with people while trying to capture and weaponise them, remains. At least with most monster films, there’s a point where they run out of desire to reboot and the monster stays dead.

There is of course a certain kind of comfort in dystopian stories. They tell us that it is ok not to resist, because resistance is futile. It’s ok to do nothing and accept what is done to you because fighting back changes nothing. This is a story shape that worries me.

How to become a hero

In the beginning you were just like everyone else. Your sorrow was not remarkable, your setbacks were not the things of legends.  Your hopes were no more ambitious than those of other people. Not at first. It is, after all, very much in the nature of the young to dream and aspire and determine to remake the world in their own image. Even though most do no such thing.

To become a hero is to become the person to whom others attach their longings and hopes. You become the one who can triumph in their place. They imagine that your glory will, in part also be their glory. Sometimes it means they help you. Sometimes they become angry instead and seek to tear you down for being what they longed for but never dared to try.

Always, they bring their own stories and paint them on to you. Over and over. Each new thing you do becomes exaggerated, distorted, sometimes entirely re-written. Your life is no longer the thing of your making – you are what they say you are. Slowly, all sense of yourself is lost to the layers of other people’s hopes and expectations. Other people’s bitterness and resentment.

You are no longer a person like them.

You do not recognise your own face any more when you see it in reflections. Your face frightens you, and you try not to look at it too often.

In the beginning, you wanted to be the hero of the story. You were young, and hopeful. You are carrying so much now that it is heavy and hard. Now and then, you see how the young people look at you, as though you are the system they must overthrow. You are the monstrous tyrant they must take down to remake the world in their image.

(Collaboration with Dr Abbey, who provided the art.)

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.

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.

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.