Tag Archives: stories

What stories shall we tell each other?

Humans are story telling creatures. We do it all the time in the normal scheme of things. We have our daily adventures, and our people we check in with about how that went. How was your evening? How was your date? How was your day at work? How did the appointment go? And of these small story interactions we affirm and build our relationships with the people around us.

How is your lockdown going?

I notice on social media that there are a lot more people posting and far less is being said. We’ve been doing this for weeks now. We are over the novelty. Most of us are not getting much done because this is all so stressful and depressing, so we aren’t doing new things that give us stories to share. For some people this makes drama and conspiracy theories appealing – they are at least something to talk about, and if you provoke someone else then you have a story to tell.

Relationships depend on stories to share. We need to find each other interesting. If we are bored with ourselves and bored with the people we usually communicate with, this is a recipe for misery.

It’s important not to be living too much in the future, as well. It’s easy to start telling stories about what we will do when this is over. But, those stories further dislocate us from where we are now. They aren’t an answer to everyday stresses. We don’t know when we will be able to do all the things, so setting yourself up to watch the things you want staying unreachably ahead of you isn’t a good long term mental health choice. It is better to think about what you can do now. If there are things you want, it’s a good time to be figuring out how to move towards that and what you can do. Have a castle in the air if you want one, but also work out the means to approach it.

I have several castles in the air at the moment. I want to move, and being stuck in this small flat with no garden makes that a powerful imperative. I have to believe I won’t be stuck here forever. Even so, I’ve taken the decision not to move at the first opportunity. I could get out of here, but I have been offered a truly lovely air castle that can more likely be made real if I stay awhile, so I’ll stay. There is a story to tell, but I’m not ready yet. As a bonus, but not my major motivation, if we can get that to work, one of my biggest and most outrageous castles in the air becomes more feasible – that daydream about setting up a small movie studio.


How we think about work

How we think about work may be more informed by what we get paid for it than by how useful it is. Unpaid carers are routinely undervalued. Unpaid domestic work is unvalued. We tend to take going out to work more seriously than staying at home to work. Friends and family don’t assume they can just pop into your busy office for a cup of tea and a chat when they feel like it. If you are a self employed person and a carer, it can be hard persuading the people around you that you are working.

The way we prioritise paid employment has a great deal to do with the stories we’ve assembled about paid work. It is the basis of how we organise our lives and our countries. It is entirely normal to work for someone else who profits more from your work than you do.

For most of human history, it clearly wasn’t like this. We haven’t always had money. The closer to subsistence you live, the more preposterous the idea of profit seems. We didn’t used to work, we used to exist, survive, struggle, hunt, farm and make the things we needed for daily life. Without the notion of work it is hard to have a notion that some people are so important that they shouldn’t have to work and should be served. When everyone is involved in the effort required to stay alive, the value of what you do is not going to be measured in coins.

Our ideas about work are deeply intertwined with our ideas about human worth. Our money stories distort our sense of what is valuable. It’s worth taking the time to think about what we value and what we pay for and who we think is important. If our views weren’t distorted in this way we might better value the people who raise children and care for the sick and elderly. If we did not put money first, we might have a very different perspective of people who do very little, and get paid a great deal for it.


Body Stories

We attach meanings to bodies. We pass around stories about what certain body shapes mean. Some bodies we sexualise, and some we desexualise with no reference to the nature of the person whose body it is. The racists amongst us have stories about the meaning of skin tones that has nothing to do with the people those stories are imposed on. Those stories are used to cause harm and to reduce opportunities.

We tell stories about disabled bodies that are profoundly unhelpful to the people they are about. The stories of liars, scroungers, and fakes beget violence. The stories about what a disabled body means regarding the capability of the person, keep people out of jobs, social spaces and opportunities. The stories about being brave and inspirational are perhaps less toxic, but just as much about imposing a narrative on someone else.

If you have big breasts there is no way of dressing short of using a binder, that makes your body look modest in some people’s eyes. It is, by all accounts worse if you are a black woman, much worse if you are a younger black woman with curves –  that your body will be read in a sexual way no matter what you do, or who you are. The power to impose a story on someone else’s body is the power to say they were asking for it, they were dressed provocatively, their consent can be inferred.

When we read poverty on a person, we judge them for being lazy, dirty and feckless. When we don’t see those things, we judge a person claiming poverty as lying.

It doesn’t get much more personal than the story about what your body means. When people are able to read your body and impose their meanings upon you, there is a massive power imbalance. When you are told what you can and cannot do because your body is read as old, or female, or black, then you are at a huge disadvantage. If you don’t get to act based on your own body story, you are compromised in so many ways.

People who consider themselves normal measure other people’s bodies in relation to their own. All too often, no one asks what a person can do, or how they feel. We put superficial readings of bodies ahead of finding out what a person actually does.

Who gets to tell the story about what your body means? Who gets to impose limitations on you based on how they read your body? Who do you judge on appearances? What assumptions do you make when you look at someone who is different from you? None of us are entirely free from this.


What does poverty look like?

You can’t see it, not reliably. Not if you don’t know what to look for. Many working people are in poverty. Many young people trapped in expensive renting situations and unable to get mortgages, are struggling with poverty. For many, it’s not where you end up all the time, just something you fall into the month there’s an unexpected bill or a setback. A person can have a good coat and not be able to afford to eat this week.

Our stories about poverty are often othering. They’re about people who are not like us, who live in almost Victorian conditions that they have brought upon themselves – it’s a mad sort of story, but there we are. People horrified by refugees and homeless folk with mobile phones, because they don’t fit the story. People oblivious to the folk around them who are marginalised, because when you sound educated, you don’t fit the poverty story.

We need to be kinder to each other. If we put down our assumptions about how poor people look, dress, and spend their time, we might more readily see what’s around us.


Grief and Identity

This autumn I entered into a grieving process for the many things I had not previously been able to grieve. I’m not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg here – whether I can do this because my sense of self has shifted, or whether my sense of self has shifted because I’m doing this. Either way, it’s a feedback loop.

When I couldn’t grieve, it was because I didn’t feel safe to do that. My emotional responses might well bring more misery down upon me, affirming the impression that everything wrong was basically my fault. There were so many things I experienced as my fault, even though I had no control over them. Every shortcoming and imperfection, every innocent mistake, the limitations of my body, and how that body looked. I grew up thinking I was a bad and unloveable child, that I could never be good enough and that unless I was hyper-vigilant about everything, I would do something awful.

Grieving is not only allowing me to process those experiences, it’s allowing me to rethink my own story. As I grieve for my child self, I’ve been able to think differently. I wasn’t entirely awful – I was largely trying to be good. Having now parented someone myself, I have a different perspective on what can reasonably be expected of a child. As someone who teaches, I’ve learned the importance of holding space in which it is safe to make mistakes. Deliberate malice and cruelty are the only things worth getting angry about, and most children don’t do more than dabble in it as they try to figure out what’s acceptable.

I’m in a process of re-writing my story about the kind of child I was. I wasn’t a bad child. I’m not convinced any young child can be ‘bad’. They’re just learning and making mistakes.  I wasn’t a lazy child, and I don’t think it’s necessary or good for children to be super-motivated to work and achieve. It’s ok to want to be a child, to want to play and mess about and be silly. There’s a lot to be learned from mucking about. I wasn’t a fat child. I’ve got some old photos of me and I’m the same size as other kids. I was continually fat shamed. That’s not ok. It still wouldn’t have been ok if I’d been fat.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to justify my existence. Trying to make up for being inherently inadequate and unloveable. Trying to atone for being a bad person.  I’ve invested so much time and energy in trying to be good enough, trying to prove something about my worth so as to turn off the flood of self-hatred that has always been within me. All I ever needed was to be able to consider myself adequate and tolerable – it’s a pretty low set bar.

So I grieve for the little girl who had trouble learning to skip, and who just wanted to draw trees the way other kids drew them, and who wanted to be able to mess about during the holidays. I grieve for the child who was constantly afraid of being punished, and who just wanted approval and for someone to say ‘you are fine as you are’. I grieve for the unwinnable setup of having to get the best marks but being told off for getting too big for my boots if I made anything of it. I grieve for my wedge shaped Minnie Mouse feet, my arms like  a baboon, my rats teeth,  my singing like a cat, my funny-looking face, my fat, unloveable body. I grieve those stories, and what they did to me, and who I’ve been as I’ve lived with them as an adult.

I had a beautiful moment last week when it dawned on me that I grew up listening to, and adoring Steeleye Span. Child me did not sing like a cat. Child me sang like Maddy Prior.


Changing my body story

The body story I have had for most of my life goes like this: I am fat and unattractive. I am fat because I am lazy and greedy and don’t try hard enough. I make a fuss about pain. I would have more energy if only I did/ate/thought the right things so it’s really my fault I’m not doing better. That body story has gone with me no matter what I’ve done, or how hard I’ve tried. It is not a story I started out telling myself, it was told to me and I internalised it.

I’m working on changing that. It is not an easy thing to do, because the story is so embedded, and there are other stories tangled into it – that I should not expect love because I am fat. That no matter how good I am, it will never be enough to offset how unattractive I am. Pre-teen me was told that no one would ever want me because I was so fat. I don’t think I’ve ever really got past that, even when it’s repeatedly been proven not to be true. It haunts me.

My new body story takes into account some truths about my body. I’m very hypermobile, which means I hurt and injure easily, and I hurt a lot. It re-casts my historical pain not as fuss making, but as a real issue. Hypermobility often goes with fatigue, and everything taking more effort. I can re-write the stories about my laziness as being about limitations in my body, and not lack of trying on my part. My poor co-ordination in childhood – only marginally better now – probably also wasn’t a lack of effort on my part, but a consequence of the hypermobility.

I can tell myself new stories about how child me tried their best, but had problems.

Hypermobility has implications for the soft tissues, including the stomach. I’ve always had a dodgy digestive system which suggests that the soft tissue issues are in my guts as well as around my joints. I’ve always had trouble building stomach muscle or getting my middle into a shape I’m happy with. During pregnancy, my middle expanded to an alarming degree. This would make sense if I have weaker tissues to begin with. What if the stomach shape that was the source of so much childhood shame wasn’t about fat, but about the state of my muscles? Dieting never changed it. Starving myself never changed it. Exercise routines, regular swimming and other such efforts have never made much difference either. Trying to get my stomach to be a more acceptable shape has been a life-long obsession. What if it’s not because I’m greedy and lazy? What if something else is going on?

I am trying to tell myself new stories about how this might not have been some kind of personal failing on my part.

I’m also becoming aware of a thing. When the first port of call is to stigmatise fat and shame the fat person for being morally inadequate, there’s no looking at causes. There’s no asking what’s going on in their body and how that might be managed, dealt with, or how they might be more kindly supported in getting on with life. No one (including me) asked what was going on in my body because it was so obvious to everyone (me included) that my greed and laziness were to blame. That my body did not change was proof that I must be too greedy and lazy to really make the effort. Even as a teenager on the slimfast diet (remember that? Replace 2 meals each day with special milkshakes) I did not get to be the right shape. I did get to be very tired and had lousy concentration.

Putting down a story that has dominated my entire life isn’t easy. But, it does help having a new story to replace it with. A story in which I do not have to hate my body for the accident of how it is. A story in which it is not my fault. A story in which I do not have to think of myself as a ‘bad’ person. And if my body is not an expression of my moral failure, it becomes that bit easier to ask people to accept me as I am.


Folkloresque and Picturesque

I’m currently reading The Folkloresque – a collection of essays edited by Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert. Reading Paul Manning’s chapter on pixies in the Victorian era brought something into focus for me – the similar ways in which Victorian picturesque and folkloresque work.

The picturesque is the process of making a landscape into something to be consumed. It can mean artistic depictions but it can also mean knocking down peasant cottages to make a more pleasant view, or building a fake ruin. It’s the process of making charming landscape walks with lovely views that you can enjoy only a short distance from your large country house. It turns the living landscape into scenery for amusement. Anyone poor living in this landscape had better be quaint and appealing, or there is no place for them.

Folkloresque productions of the period take the same approach – focusing on what’s charming and delightful that can be taken from the place and sold to people for money. As with the land, the stories are made to confirm to what the money wants to buy – we are to have charm, and whimsy and something nice for the children. The people whose stories these were of course get no money from the sale of them, get no kudos for carrying them and won’t be named in person. If any of those ‘simple rural folk’ made their stories up, no one wants to know – it does not suit the Victorian folkloresque agenda. We don’t really know what the relationship between the people sharing folk tales and the folk tales really is, because the people themselves are vanished from the story landscape as much as they are from the picturesque landscape.

There is no place in the picturesque or the folkloresque landscape for the people who live, work and tell stories there. They are simply something to exploit – for their labour and their raw materials. Other people take the money. Other people get the kudos for collecting, or for improving the view. Knock down the cottage in which the storyteller lived because it isn’t pretty enough to be seen from your windows and claim the stories as your own. It’s much the same underlying logic.


Out of love with novels

I read novels of course – usually one or more in any given week. I read widely in different genres, historical and contemporary. I’ve read disposable comfort fiction, although most of the time I prefer to be surprised. I’ve read the self-proclaimed literary stuff, although most of the time I prefer the work of thoughtful people who want to entertain their readers. One way and another, I have spent much of my adult life thinking about books, and novels most especially.

Child me wanted to be a novelist and wrote a lot of short stories. Teenage me wanted to be a novelist and started trying to write novels and novellas. Twenty something me got quite a lot of novels written and published as ebooks. Somewhere in my thirties I slowed down. I lost the drive, the passion and the love that had kept me writing and for a long time I wasn’t sure what was wrong. Yes, the industry sucks, and it is nigh on impossible to make enough money to live on. But, suffering for art, and putting your creativity ahead of profitability and doing it for love, and knowing there are at least a few people who appreciate what I write – that should have been enough, surely?

It’s taken me until the last few days to realise a few things. I have not ceased to love books and novels. I have not ceased to love storytelling. I am not out of ideas, and I am not out of creative impulses. I just don’t enjoy writing conventional novels anymore. The form itself no longer speaks to me as a creator. Looking back over my last few projects (stalled and languishing) I can now see what the common thread is. I can see my own resistance to the form, my trying to push for something else and not knowing what it was, much less how to do it.

There is a fledgling form, somewhat akin to the Japanese light novel – a form mixing prose, illustration and sequential art. It’s a young form, there are no hard rules about how it is supposed to work. I’m excited about it. I think it would free me up to find new ways of presenting and exploring stories, worlds and characters. It would allow me to work collaboratively with my husband, and it would mean if we shift to this form, that he isn’t spending 6 months a year full time on graphic novels. We’re going to do the two remaining books in the Hopeless Maine graphic novel arc, and then that may be it for us with big comics projects. We’d have more time, we could tell a story faster and with more depth and breadth than comics allow. We could tell stories with more visual interest and with all the artistic magic a regular novel does not permit. We can have fun with this.

It’s going to be an adventure!

 


Stonehouse Myths – a guest blog

A guest blog from Keith Healing

When I was a young lad, more years ago than seems reasonable, there were two places in my home village that kids avoided. One was a particular part of the local churchyard, a rounded cross about a metre tall close to the door of the church. It was completely unremarkable, old, eroded and covered with lichen. It was, however, loose on its base. Not so loose as to be dangerous, but quite easy to turn on its axis. It attracted the myth that it could be used to summon…something vague. Satan? Possibly. Ghosts? Maybe. In truth, it didn’t matter. What did matter was the general nasty potential of it. It was the local equivalent of Bloody Mary or Candyman, although less specific.

On a different road sat a tumbledown house. Looking back it could well have been a “pre-fab” – one of the thousands of temporary houses put up rapidly after the war to deal with the problem of the number of families made homeless by the bombs. There was still rows of them behind my first home close to Boscombe Down, an experimental air base in Wiltshire.

This place was to a different design, but was made of corrugated iron and hadn’t been occupied for years. It was set back from the road in an overgrown garden and was plainly unsafe. It also, according to local legend, had a huge, deep hole in the living room from which weird sounds would issue. It was so obviously haunted that my friends and I would dare each other to peer through the mould-covered windows on our way home from school.

These were myths with no basis in history. They were local, modern folklore that were spread amongst kids and that went no further.

I now live in Gloucestershire, in a small industrial town called Stonehouse. Like many English towns it has existed for at least 2000 years, the Stone House being its main building of note when William created his big list of taxable property in 1086. It still has a decent selection of interesting architecture dating from the early 1600s. Some of these have bricked-up windows. Some were old hospitals. There was an animal pound, although no-one knows where. What are the stories that have built up over the years, or that could have built up?

In order to answer that I started writing short, one-off tales called the Stonehouse Myths. The first was a simple story of madness and the perils of listening to the Jackdaws that infest the chimney pots. The second concerned destructive invisible wallaby-like beasts in an area of town called Little Australia. It was a bit of fun and people seemed to enjoy them.

And then I was messaged by a local woman who asked whether the Wallaby piece was based on reality because she and her family had repeatedly seen something weird by the railway line – something they called the Railway Beast.

The chances are, of course, that they were seeing Muntjac deer, strange little beasts with fat bodies, long back legs and little tusks. But it doesn’t matter. The myth persists. They see something odd and someone else describes it, albeit accidentally.

And the myth grows.

People respond to stories in a way that they respond to nothing else. If they are the right stories they are believed on a subconscious level because they connect to our primal brain and they gain power because we want to believe them.

So what might happen if something enabled these stories to breed, to gain real power?

I realised that the stories I was writing were linked, so I began re-writing. Over time they will form a novel that will explore the way a small town deals with stories when they run out of hand.

I have set up a Patreon page to enable me to distribute the chapters and, as support grows I will add more layers of detail, including maps, drawings, old documents and songs.

Welcome to Stonehouse Myths – https://www.patreon.com/StonehouseMyths

 

(A note from Nimue – Keith Healing is also the creator of The Hopeless Maine role play game, and is an excellent chap).


Stories about ourselves

We all tell stories about ourselves. Humans are storytelling creatures and we like to make narrative sense of the world. We present ourselves to each other in the stories we tell about what we’ve done and seen, where we’ve been and who we’ve known. Many stories are very short and often we don’t notice them – as tellers or as audience, or what effect they might have.

I’m intrigued by people who tell stories about the sorts of people they are – that they are empathic people, or highly aware, sensitive, special – these come up around Paganism a fair bit. These are stories that tend to come from people who seem to be none of those things, in my experience. Then there are the people who want to tell a story about who you are – to measure you and demonstrate that they understand you. When there’s depth of relationship this can be valuable feedback, but it’s the empathic people who do it off the cuff I find least helpful.

No doubt we’re all inclined to make ourselves look good when we tell our stories. We want to pick out the best bits. At some point there’s a line to cross between a good retelling and an actual falsehood. That line is seldom easy to see.

One of the falsehoods I see frequently, and that I know to be harmful, is the habit of bigging yourself up. Social media is full of it – people putting their best self out there and doing their best to look like they have great and successful lives. I see authors doing it too – overplaying book sales, what ‘best seller’ on Amazon means, and the like. Success is attractive, is the theory. Who wants to buy from a moderately successful author? The trouble with this comes when you need help.

If you’ve been telling stories about how good you are, but those stories aren’t true, how can you ask for help? I’ve seen authors who have presented as successful start Patreons and not get any support – either because what fans they have believed the success story, or because they never had many fans in the first place. On the flip side, creators who are honest about how things work for them are often much better supported. Fans understand the struggle, and care and want to be involved. In practice, most creators don’t earn enough to live on and investing time in creativity alongside regular employment isn’t easy. But when you’ve overplayed your success, this is hard to talk about.

When you’re over-invested in the story of your own success, you can end up tied in knots about your reality. This way lies cognitive dissonance. When you have to believe in your literary legacy, even though no one seems to be reading your books. When you have presented a perfect family and cannot then admit how your household is falling apart… The greater the distance between your stories and your reality, the harder it becomes to let anyone into your life. The more you’ve misrepresented to look good, the harder it gets to effectively ask for help.

The stories we tell to ourselves, about ourselves and about our relationships with other people are tiny, every day things. We might not even notice when we do them. We might be crafting it deliberately as good PR, as fake it until you make it, as positivity or to feel better. But, these distortions come at a cost – they increase anxiety and feelings of pressure to succeed and they don’t reliably work as marketing strategies, whether you’re trying to look good to your family, or sell more books.

Most of us identify more with stories of honest struggle and occasional success than we do with people who seem to have it all. Our kindness is engaged by empathy with other people’s trials. We can enjoy the success of people we feel have earned it but may resent people who seem to have had it all handed to them on a plate. Better not to fake it until you make it. Better to be real, and human, open to being supported and able to have a wail about the crap along the way.