Tag Archives: stories

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.

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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.


Of Place and Story

After leaving Edinburgh on the train last Friday, I realised I was on The Bridge from Iain Banks’ novel, also called The Bridge. The distinctive red metalwork and design, plus the location caused a moment of intense surprise, recognition, uncertainty (is this really the bridge?) and delight. We were in a place I’d never been before and I hadn’t known what was on the route. What I recognised was a description from a book, not a memory of the location it had described.

I spent much of the weekend in Edinburgh, a city I have only previously known through authors. I’ve read a few Ian Rankins – so long ago that I remember little detail. I’ve read quite a lot of Iain Banks, such that he’s probably formed more of my sense of Scotland than any other author. I’ve read a fair bit of Robert Louis Stevenson and some Walter Scott, but not in a way that shaped my sense of place.

It struck me that when reading about a city you’ve not been to, it doesn’t matter how good the details and descriptions are, it won’t capture it for you, you won’t go there and know where you are. A city is so much more than you can get into a novel. At the same time, having read novels set there definitely had an impact on my experience of visiting – this is the first city I’ve been to where I have a body of reading experience. It gives an emotional depth that I’ve not had when visiting places that were not already storied in my mind.

There is also a world of difference between reading about somewhere you know, and somewhere you’ve never been. At some point I will have to dig out those Edinburgh set novels and have a re-read and see what visiting does to that experience.

The thing that affected me most aside from the bridge, turned out to be a song – Fish’s Internal Exile a song that’s been with me since my teens. “I saw a blue umbrella on Prince’s Street Gardens, heading out west for the Lothian Road…’ placing that opening line in physical geography turned out to be a surprisingly powerful thing for me. Here’s the song…


Revisiting a landscape

Going into a landscape for the first time tends to be exciting. Humans respond well to novelty. The excitement of a new place can have some of us making our way around the world – a habit that does not do the world itself any good at all. Novelty can break us out of our own disinterest. A distant and exotic landscape can impact on us in ways a familiar one won’t. Not because the landscapes closer to home aren’t beautiful, but because we can become complacent about them. We’re not always good at properly seeing what’s right in front of us.

In the drama of encountering a significant landscape for the first time, it’s normal to have a lot of feelings. If there are a lot of stories attached to a landscape, those can shape our responses and feelings of significance. However, we don’t inhabit those stories and they are not inherent to us – not when we’re in an unfamiliar landscape. It’s all tourism at this point.

When you revisit a landscape repeatedly, you build a relationship with it. If there are stories about the landscape, you deepen your understanding of them. A story can be as simple as a few lines about who once had a temple here, or how folklore re-imagined the bumps as treasure mounds… After a while, there will also be stories that are about your relationship with the landscape. These may also be very short – the field where we saw the huge and really shiny fox. The lane that was full of tiny frogs. A story doesn’t have to be long or complicated to be part of your relationship with a place.

Revisiting places and building stories of relationship, you bring the place into yourself. You craft relationship over time and through revisiting. Seeing a place in different seasons, your understanding of it will deepen.

Over time and revisiting you also build a body knowledge of place. A physical sense of how it feels to move through the landscape. A body knowledge of the distance between one key feature and another. A sense of where the wildlife is, or where to stop, or where to avoid. The trick at this point is to stay alive to the land and not start seeing what you think is there. It’s important to stay open when revisiting a place – as open as you would if you’d never been there before and have no idea what to expect.

Any landscape has the potential to enchant you. The question is not whether the place is new and exciting enough to move you. The real question is, are you ready to treat each experience as new, and to be properly open to it?


The narratives of meat

Diet is a very emotive subject, so let me be clear – this is not a blog post about food choices, this is a post about the stories we tell around our food choices. It’s about a set of perceptions that are so normalised, so taken for granted that we might not even notice them. We tell stories about what it means to eat meat, and those have a powerful effect on us, even though we have more up to date stories that suggest high meat consumption isn’t good for your body or for the planet.

Meat is high status food. It costs more to produce, and always has, so we can go all the way back to the Celts and the hero’s portion at feasts. At any period in history, the poor have tended to eat little or no meat while the rich have eaten a lot more of it. Meat equates to wealth, meat consumption equates to wealth. Eating meat is part of the story our culture tells itself about what it means to be wealthy. It is feasts with whole roast swans, still with their feathers on, or Henry the 8th throwing bones over his shoulder for dogs to pick up.

Meat is seen as macho – red meat especially. So eating red meat is to be seen as masculine. To not eat meat is often seen as effeminate. Meat consumption is associated with sexually powerful heterosexual masculinity. It’s also associated with muscle building and physical strength, even though you can do that with any kind of decent protein sources. I think some of this has to do with the way our feudal history has constructed both masculinity and hierarchy. We’re back to that Henry the 8th image again.

Part of that macho red meat narrative taps in to ideas of man the hunter. Now, most men are not hunting down wild cows in order to get their steaks, but even so, there’s an emotional association that suggests to people that if they are eating red meat, they are the sort of person who could have hunted it. It’s an emotional effect that links feelings of power, competence and mastery with the consumption of meat, perhaps especially potent when the person in question has done nothing to earn those feelings.

How we feel about something often has more impact on us than logic or evidence. What we eat is part of our sense of self. The stories we tell ourselves about what our food means reinforces our food choices. The stories around eating meat are stories of strength and power, of dominance, and importance. I suspect that the less actual power you have, the more affecting those stories are.

Vegetarians and vegans tell stories about being healthy, living kindly and having less impact on the planet. There’s a different kind of power here, it’s about the power to make change rather than power over other beings. These are stories that help a person feel kind and virtuous, and worthy – all of which is also very attractive.

I find it interesting the way ideas of what is ‘natural’ enters these stories as well. As far as I can make out, everyone views their food choice as natural, but does not necessarily think everyone else’s food choices are also natural. Everyone thinks their own food choices are good and appropriate, but may well not hold the same beliefs about other people’s food choices. Food choices that supposedly make you powerful can result in some very fragile and defensive behaviour. Food choices that supposedly make you kind can result in some pretty aggressive and unkind behaviour. Our food stories can divide us into tribal groups, feeling conflict with those whose stories are different.

While we stay focused on the stories and the emotions, we aren’t looking properly at the science, the evidence and the climate impact of how we live.


Doughnut Economics – A Review

 

Kate Raworth’s book on economics is a very readable and useful text. The odds are, if you’re reading this blog that you are the sort of person to question conventional economics. You’ve likely noticed that the constant growth model doesn’t make any sense and that GDP doesn’t measure anything useful. But now what?

The Doughnut, is the safe space for humans that meets everyone’s basic needs without compromising the planet.

In Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth lays out the history of the subject, explaining how we got to this current set of beliefs about the role and functioning of money. There is nothing natural or inevitable about where we are and it is not underpinned by any real laws. What has happened, is that the people making policy and working with money have adopted the stories of economists and to some degree, made them true. That’s not the same as making them work. The exciting thing in all of this is that economic stories can change, which in turn would change our relationships with each other and the planet.

What’s particularly good about this book, is that it doesn’t just offer top-down solutions for fixing things. There’s a lot here we can take onboard as individuals and within small community groups. For anyone who wants to be part of changing our collective story about economics, there are tools here for your kit box.

This is an excellent book to read alongside Ecolinguists (which I reviewed here – ecolinguistcs-a-review ) because the stories we tell about money, finance, taxes, and the economy are both economics issues and ecolinguistic issues. How we are influenced by the language of these is really important. There is power in understanding that language – firstly the power to step out of the story and see yourself differently. Secondly we have the power to influence each other through the economic stories we tell and the language we use to tell them.

And if that doesn’t make your bardic heart beat a little faster, or swell with hope and possibility…

More about Doughnut Economics here – https://www.kateraworth.com/doughnut/

 


Lord of the Wyrde Woods – a review

Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrde are two books but between them are one story so I’m reviewing them as a pair – their collective title is Lord of the Wyrde Woods. You have to read them in the right order and the first one doesn’t stand alone.

It’s been a while since an author has so completely captured my imagination. Neverland is a rundown area, with a facility for young people who have already fallen through the cracks. Narrator Wenn is one such young person. She’s had an awful life full of monstrous betrayals and setbacks, and she is as bitter and angry as you might expect. One of the threads in this book is the story of her learning to trust again and open her heart. It is the woods that she first lets in, and then the people associated with the woods. The story about learning to become a fully functioning human when reality has beaten you down, is a powerful one.

Going into the woods offers Wenn respite from the miseries of her daily life. What she finds there is enchantment. Most of this is the kind of enchantment any of us could find by getting out into greener places around us. There were obvious parallels to be drawn with Mythago Wood, but where Holdstock’s vision tells us the magic is largely unavailable, Nils Visser does the opposite. He invites us to see our surroundings in these terms, too. These novels are an invitation to magic, and to personal re-enchantment.

The story itself weaves folklore and history together around a series of locations. There’s a fair smattering of radical politics, and a fair amount of paganism, too. The story places human narratives in a landscape, and does so to powerful effect. The tale itself is full of magical possibility, but it’s also startling, sometimes devastating, haunting and full of surprises. If you enjoy the kinds of things I blog about, these books are for you and I think you’ll find much to love in them.

This is a story about how important it is to have stories about your landscape. It is through stories that we stop seeing places as so much scenery and start to have a more involved relationship with them. Those can be mythic and folkloric stories, they can be historical, and they can be personal. They can also be the stories we imagine of what would happen somewhere like this.  The process of learning and creating stories, and storying yourself into a landscape is a powerful one, beautifully illustrated in this novel.

I loved these books so very much. I heartily recommend them.

You can find Nils’s work on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nils-Nisse-Visser/e/B00OK5RMSY


And very little happened

Being a Pagan blogger creates (for me at least) a certain amount of desire to come back with a good story. I was hoping to write about the lunar eclipse this morning. I sat out on a barrow above the Severn, I watched the sun set (as much as the clouds would allow) and I couldn’t even see the moon, much less any part of the eclipse. Today I do not get to write a blog about how beautiful and meaningful I found the night sky on Friday.

I also find this is often the way of it when I go somewhere more as a tourist than not. If I’m going somewhere once, or not very often, even if I feel like it’s pilgrimage, I’m always going to be mostly a tourist. It is daft to expect that I can rock up to a sacred site and have an off the peg, personal, meaningful experience.  It’s especially suspect if we think our experience as a tourist gives us more authority than someone who has lived near and worked with a site for a long time.

Landscapes reward relationship. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a famous historical monument there, or not. Landscapes reward people taking the time to get to know them. They reveal themselves slowly, over time. I think we need to be suspicious of anyone, and most especially ourselves, walking into an unfamiliar place and getting a big, dramatic revelation. Especially when the main impact of the revelation is to make the person having it look shiny and important.

When you’re working with intuition, and looking for magic, you have to be alert to what could be ego and imagination. You have to be alert to what you’re taking into a space and how that might colour your experience.  I think we also need to be alert to the ways in which talking about what we experience can create a form of spiritual inflation. If you’ve read a lot of woo-woo stories about other people’s amazing and dramatic spiritual encounters, will you feel comfortable saying that nothing happened to you? Or that a very small thing happened to you?

Coming down off the hill on Friday, I turned at the right point to see the moon, low over the hill and briefly free from cloud. Even so, the moon was partially obscured. What showed was large, low and yellowish. The eclipse had long passed. Off to the right, there was a planet and my little party was not sure whether this was Venus or Jupiter. Not knowing felt perfectly comfortable. I’m glad we saw the moon, and I wish we’d seen the eclipse in all its drama and beauty. But at the same time, the land desperately needed those clouds and the days of rain that followed. I watched the clouds coming up from the south and knew they were bringing much needed rain, and was glad to see them.

There is a power in showing up. There are things that happen when you keep showing up to places, open hearted and not expecting too much. There’s a process, and it leads to small wonders and a greater overall sense of the numinous. It doesn’t always lead to good stories or even to things that are easily put into words. There’s a lot to be said for being a person in relationship with the land and I think it’s better for us than focusing too much on stories that put us centre stage.