Tag Archives: stories

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

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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.


Heroic Romance

Last week while hanging out with Meredith Debonnaire, we got talking about the lack of pragmatism in love stories. Especially in terms of how this applies to women. I went away and pondered – as I like to do, and a thing struck me.

Western patriarchal societies have not given actual or fictional women much scope in their lives. Mostly, the role of women has been to be prizes to win, or defend, or capture or the harming of women has been a motivation for male characters to do stuff. There are odd exceptions – Lady Macbeth springs to mind, but mostly women in stories aren’t like her. Women in stories are passive. Their job is to be beautiful and to inspire the men to do things, one way or another.

Only when it comes to love are women reliably allowed to do more dramatic things. Women are allowed to die for love, like Juliet. They’re allowed to throw their lives away waiting years to see if the man comes back, like Penelope. They’re allowed to ruin their lives, like Isolde. The can be dramatically murdered by their menfolk, like Desdemona, and so on and so forth. When you look at the dramatic things women are allowed to do for love, it’s clear this doesn’t benefit the women much.

As I was pondering this, it struck me that we have the word ‘heroic’ to indicate the stand out stuff that heroes do. We have heroines, but there is no ‘heroinic’. Heroines just are, it’s not about what they do. If we want to talk about women doing dramatic, brave, important things, it can only be called heroic, because they’re doing guy stuff.

If wrecking your life for love is the only kind of heroism you’re offered, it’s easy to see why women keep telling these kinds of stories, too. But, if you think that taking damage in the name of love is the best and most noble thing you can do, it has consequences. It might make you more willing to put up with violence, jealousy and mistreatment. It might leave you feeling there’s something heroic about standing by your man, no matter what he does. It might encourage you to feel that your worth is defined by what big gestures you can make for the man in your life. It’s a very narrow field to operate in, and it props up ideas about women not having lives separate from the lives of their men.

How many famous historical stories do we have in which women save women? I’ve counted Goblin Market so far. How many historical female heroes do we know of who get to act dramatically and it not be for the sake of a man? There’s Boudicca. There are probably others that I’ve not remembered, but on the whole these kinds of stories are in short supply in terms of the back catalogue.  I can think of modern examples, but what we’re steeped in has a very different flavour.

What if we could be pragmatic about love? What if we didn’t tell each other that love is enough and will overcome all obstacles – because life demonstrates routinely that love does not in fact fix everything. What if we don’t celebrate putting your life on hold for a man or sacrificing yourself for a man? What if we stop telling stories that make romantic love the centre of women’s lives and the primary focus for any heroism we might go in for? What if we make it equally ok for male heroism to revolve around sacrifice for love, rather than violent responses to love thwarted?


The story war and poetic truth

We live in a post-truth world. We don’t know which experts are real experts or who has been bought off to lie to us. For every story we hear there will be another story that tells us just the opposite. Reality and trust become subjective. Opinion demands to be taken as seriously as fact. And who knows what the facts are anyway, right? A week ago, a young man told me confidently that everyone was as much in the dark as him. I found this odd, because I knew something of what I was talking about, but when you assume a level playing field in knowledge, you can dismiss anything anyone else knows that doesn’t fit your story.

You cannot argue in this context based on facts. Your facts will be disbelieved, or countered by other ‘facts’. You can’t quote statistics, or experts, or even blindingly obvious realities to people whose story says you are wrong. Those of us who are interested in truth and evidence have been losing on many fronts to people who are willing and able to assert simple stories and offer apparently simple solutions. It is easier to hear that there is no climate change, than to deal with it. It is easier to swallow a simple lie than to chew on a complicated truth, and most truth is complicated.

I wonder sometimes if we are fighting the third world war right now. The weapons are stories. The landscape we’re fighting over is the minds of people. You can see the damage, the bombed out sites, the shell holes. This war is fought to conquer the inner landscapes of people, and to rule those inner worlds, and change how we think. One side of this war believes in holding power over others, accumulating wealth, exploiting those too weak to resist and killing those who don’t fit the narrative. On the other side of this war there are people who are trying to fight back with truth and evidence, and sometimes they do make some ground, and sometimes they look a lot like Ewoks armed with spears trying to take on people with space technology.

(That wasn’t a casual metaphor, because of course the Ewoks win.)

When someone’s mind becomes a bombed out landscape full of hate and fear and resentment, we don’t save them from that with facts. Our facts fall on them like bombs. Every time we deny their truth, we feed their hatred and resentment. You do not restore a city or a landscape by bombing it. You do not restore a hate-damaged mind by truth-bombing it. No matter how much you want them to hear the truth.

This is where the poetic truth comes in. Poetic truth doesn’t deal with the literal and immediate. It deals with Ewoks fighting storm troopers, and with Celtic heroes dying for honour. Poetic truth doesn’t call for facts that can be denied, because it works to evoke feelings. The stories we are up against encourage us to see the worst in each other, to hate and fear and resent and take down and keep on raging and hurting each other until no good thing remains. A poetic truth doesn’t enter this warring landscape in the same way. Sometimes, a poetic truth can shelter a real world truth and get it safely into people’s minds. A story about something else is easier to swallow than a story that has too much to say about everything going on right now.

I know I’m writing this blog only for people who have the means to read it. It is an idea, and not the work itself. The work will involve finding and making small stories that can travel easily, and that can saunter through the trenches in people’s minds, and un-dig some of the holes.


The distorting power of drama

Drama is, by its very nature, self announcing. It can skew your sense of what’s really going on in life, and it skews other people’s perceptions of you as well. A week or so ago someone commented to me (and not for the first time) how often I fall out with people. I find that a curious perception. I deal with a great many people with my various hats on – easily more than a hundred people in any given week. I deal with bloggers and book reviewers and authors and publishers and people running events and at events, and people who follow me on social media, and through the social media platforms I work on. Many of my online people I consider friends. On top of that I have a lively local scene and a great many people I regularly see in person.

The percentage of people in my life I’ve fallen out with is pretty small. A handful of real drama episodes (two involving the police) and, I confess, rather a lot of my just not bothering. I can’t be everything to everyone and I don’t always stay around when I’m not enjoying things. I’ll do what I can, and what I want to do, and increasingly I make no apology for it. Sometimes, this annoys people.

Drama always takes centre stage. It’s what stands out, what we see and notice if we aren’t careful. Drama itself is inevitable to some degree, but how much it gets to hog the limelight is a real consideration. It is easy to let the big things, and especially the big and difficult things, become the story of who we are. My real life, my normal, everyday life is quiet and there isn’t much drama in it.

In any given week I will have exchanges with a lot of people, in person and online. Most weeks, all of those exchanges are peaceful and productive. Some are exciting or challenging and that’s fine too, but most are not especially dramatic. I spend my days with my husband, and a lot of time with my son and we are a peaceful and functional household. My interactions with friends are – most of the time – warm, quiet, mutually supportive experiences. My real life has very little drama in it, and I like it that way. I find drama exhausting.

But, if the drama is big – which it usually is – and disorientating or destabilising in some way, it becomes the dominating story of what’s going on right now. If I’m not careful, it can become the big story of who I am and how I interact with people. It becomes the story other people tell me about myself and each other – and that bothers me. It’s what’s easiest to see from the outside sometimes. But also, stories are about drama by their nature. We don’t make stories about the thousand gentle, productive conversations that happened in the week. We don’t write songs about the sensible decision we came to in the pub – although perhaps we should. Humans tell stories about drama, and so we foreground our own drama and lose sight of the bigger story. The big story is often full of small things.

My life is mostly about the small things. The gentle details. The smooth, easy exchanges that make perfect sense and get stuff done. I realise that I am a part of a culture that foregrounds drama. I am influenced by it, and I contribute to it. I need to keep doing that – around environmental issues and speaking up against abuse, but I want to develop a better stream alongside it that is all about the small, everyday things, the good things, and the things my life is mostly made of. I don’t think it will change the perceptions of people who want to see me as a difficult, temperamental drama queen, but I don’t have to take up the roles I am cast in. I do not have to let the inevitable bouts of drama define me to myself.


Wrecking other people’s stories

People like stories. We build our lives around the stories we have about who we are, where we come from and how the world works. If you are part of a shared, dysfunctional story, and you decide to step out of that story, there will be consequences and it is as well to be aware of them.

For people dealing with domestic abuse, the time of greatest danger is the time when you try to leave. Not just because you are physically trying to get out, but because you are putting the lie to the story about how right, virtuous and justified your abuser is.

People will fight and kill to protect their stories and their take on reality, even when those stories are clearly harming them. As the person breaking the story, you are perhaps more likely to be seen as the destructive oppressor, and not the rescuing angel you may imagine yourself to be. Those still in the story may simply recast you so that they can keep the story going. “You used to be such a nice little girl. I don’t know what went wrong.”

Sometimes, the only way out of a story is to break away from the people whose story it is. Sometimes, the only option is to play the role consciously and then escape into spaces where you can properly be yourself. Sometimes to do that, a safe house is required, a new identity, police protection. Sometimes you have to ask difficult questions about the price of your relationships, and the implications of leaving them. People can die as a consequence of misjudging this.

If you call out a story as a lie, even if you can evidence it, people may fight you. They may fire you, take you to court, lie about you, attack you on social media. They may deprive you of key resources. If you refuse to play your allotted role you may be harassed, ridiculed, threatened or abandoned. You have no control over how other people respond when you stop acting in line with their story.

But you have the right to live your own life, and you have the right to be safe. So, if you’re wrecking a story, plan your escape routes first – more or less literally as required. Do some risk assessment. Consider the consequences. Try to break the story as calmly as you can, with minimal drama. There is nothing like drama to keep a story moving, because even as you think you’re resisting it, you can find the energy of it being sucked in and used to reinforce the existing story. You were always a useless child. Now you’re upsetting everyone with this stupid idea that you can do something. It’s all your fault… These are the outcomes to avoid.

It’s natural to want justice, to want recognition. It’s reasonable to want the people who have miscast you to realise their mistakes. It’s also very likely that you won’t get that. If you choose to stay and fight, you may be pulled back into the old story. Sometimes, it is better to go quietly and start a new story of your own somewhere else.


Am I the architect of my own problems?

You’ve seen the repeating patterns in your life. You’ve seen the roles others have cast you in, and maybe the roles you’ve created for yourself. You’ve seen that this isn’t working for you. It may, at this point, be appropriate to point a finger of blame somewhere else, and take a dramatic leap out of the story you’ve been trapped in. If you can do that, then it wasn’t your story. But what happens when you point the finger of blame, and then after the drama this brings, you settle down and find that you’re back in that same story again, playing the same role?

It is a hard and painful thing to consider that you may be the architect of your own problems. It is the least comfortable outcome to find that you are the one making up the roles and doing the casting that keeps the same story playing on repeat in your life. The good news is that you have great power to change things in this situation. The bad news is that you may put up massive resistance to admitting your own role.

When we spend our time casting other people in roles, we don’t get to know them as people. We just treat them how we treat the story we have about that role. This can be deeply disorientating for the person put into the story. I’ve had a few rounds of people treating me in incomprehensible ways, telling me I am things, or I do things, or that something means something else… This is what it looks like when a person is relating to an idea, not another person. And I think this indicates the best way out of such a mess, too.

If you are making your own problems by repeating stories, all you have to do is quietly stop casting people in roles. No one has to be your twin soul, your nemesis, your mother, your perfect lover, the child you never had… Without creating any drama or weirdness, you can just let go of these ways of relating. Replace it by getting to know people as individuals. Find out who they actually are and where they want to be in your life and you’ll be well under way to creating new stories full of open ended possibility.

Squaring up to this, you may feel silly, or fraudulent, or like everyone can see what you’ve been doing. You may feel shame, and regret and misery. And actually, this is all ok. These are fair and appropriate responses to having been making a mess of things. It’s when we’re unwilling to feel difficult and discomforting emotions that we are most likely to make a mess of things. Fear of our own dark sides can be a big motivator for casting other people in roles rather than properly relating to them. Feel the things, but don’t let it turn into an excuse for mostly just feeling sorry for yourself or you could find you’ve wandered back into the old story again.


Stories we should stop telling

This is by no means an exhaustive list. It’s a selection of tale-types I am personally sick of. Do pile in and suggest others. I think we should stop telling these stories in fiction, and stop celebrating them in real life as well.

A problem is solved by killing a person, probably with guns.

A man is a total asshat, but he’s also a ‘genius’ so we should treat him like a hero and overlook his shit.

A white person turns out to be the chosen one of a non-white community. He (it is usually a he) goes on to be better at the thing important in this community than anyone raised there. He needs little or no time or training to achieve this because he’s naturally gifted.

A woman falls in love with a guy who has treated her appallingly. I might accept this as a dark and psychological piece, but please stop telling me this is romance.

A person (usually a woman or a more effeminate man) is too beautiful and good for this world, so they die pointlessly and everyone who failed them has feels.

A story in which a person is in love with two other people and is obliged to choose between them.

A white person travels to an ‘exotic’ place and discovers or does something important with little or no reference to the indigenous people. Lose extra points if the indigenous people are portrayed in a patronising way, with no reference to the culture that exists in the actual setting, or they are all played by middle aged white men.

Stories about how a woman has to change to make her attractive to a man.

Any story that hinges on one person failing to tell another person(s) something hugely important that they knew all along.

Stories in which women change their loyalty and betray their people because a male character they’ve just met is sexy.

 

What kinds of stories would you get rid of if you could?


The power of local stories

In the last few weeks, I’ve read three books set close to where I live. Two – Mirror Dead, and The Axe the Elf and the Werewolf I’ll be reviewing next week. The third was a friend’s work in progress and you’ll have to wait for that one. I noticed, reading this trio, how affirming I find it reading fiction set in my own landscape.

As a child, I had some local folklore and tales about landscape features. I had some local history, but I didn’t have novels. The real action always seemed to be somewhere else. Adventure would mean leaving my place of origin; that much was clear. And now Dursley has The Dursleys, and that probably doesn’t help.

We need stories to show us unfamiliar things, to widen our view. However, we also need to see ourselves reflected, to be good enough to be part of a story, to know we are worth telling a tale about. Girls and women need to be more than prizes and motivators in male dominated stories (film industry, I am looking at you!). With over a hundred thousand new books published every year, there is clearly room for diversity. We need characters of different race, age, religion, sexual and gender identities, class and location.

The implications didn’t hit me until I read these three stories that are in part set in Gloucestershire. It gave me an enormous feeling of belonging. I felt affirmed. One of the books offered me bisexual and polyamorous characters as well, and even though they were guys, I felt deeply affirmed by their presence, too. I find monogamous, hetranormative romance alienating, and if I read too much of it, depressing. It is not easy to look at worlds where you do not exist.

A novel set in your immediate landscape is a chance to get excited about home. It’s an opportunity to see the land through someone else’s eyes, to see it anew and to be excited about it. Making your landscape into a location worthy of a tale elevates it. So many UK novels seem to be set around London, or non-specific places. Seeing the details of a town or city is much more engaging, seeing what I already know reflected back in a way that is unfamiliar, I can get really enthused.

It’s worth asking why some locations seem more worthy of stories than others. It may be the sense of anonymity. In a big city, anything can happen. Your story won’t run headlong into reality too often. And yet, a big city is a specific place full of real details and real people. It may accommodate a fictional addition or two, but something different happens when we impose our fantasy onto a setting rather than working with the setting. Neither is invalid, but the effects are different and it’s worth thinking about what happens to us as readers when encountering each of those.


The treacherous desire for simple answers

There’s something alluring and comforting in a simple answer. Especially when that answer says there’s no problem, or blames someone else. It is true of course that sometimes the simplest answer is the best one. The Gordian knot solutions sometimes make sense. However, many problems are complex and multi-faceted in their nature, they exist for multiple reasons and can’t be tidied up by building a wall, rejecting a minority, or blaming the victim.

Why do we favour simple answers even when they are manifestly inadequate? Why do we accept simple blame narratives? For example the right blames the poor for being lazy and thus causing economic woes, the left blames the rich for taking more than their fair share. Very few people seem willing to talk about fundamental issues with capitalism and markets, because those are really difficult and will make your brain hurt, and aren’t easily solved. The desire for the easy solution may make us accept the offer of it even though it can’t always deliver.

Some of it is no doubt cultural – if mostly what you hear is people telling you there are simple answers to complex problems, you may just absorb that. You may feel they are better qualified to know, or believe that they can use their simple answers to solve things for you. You may be happier with an answer that makes immediate sense to you rather than one full of jargon ad details that are largely alien.

There may be an aspect of how we teach young people. If you grow up learning that there are right answers for exams, and every subject is reduced in this way, then as an adult you may expect binary yes/no answers to life’s questions. If we don’t teach complexity, nuance, multiplicity, then it isn’t reasonable to expect everyone will get there by themselves.

Some of this may come from popular culture, where we expect to know who the good guys and the badies are in a film. Films often offer us the simple solutions of destruction and death to otherwise complicated problems. Heroes win. Villains die. We know who is who. We don’t tell each other stories about the complexity of human nature, how most people have an array of qualities some better than others, how asshats turn up everywhere. We put Nazis in uniforms and make the serial killers and rapists into freaks, so we all think we’d recognise them if they moved in next door. We don’t talk about the ordinariness of human horror, and how hard to recognise it is from the outside.

Simple answers often lay the blame elsewhere, so often what they give us is the reassurance that we personally need not change. It’s not our buying choices, our lifestyles, our desires that need working on. Someone else has to sort it out. Change is generally threatening, most people aren’t keen on it, so the reassurance that you won’t have to do differently may be really appealing.

We need to tell each other more complex stories, and become open to more complicated answers. Humans aren’t tidy creatures. We may like simple answers, but seldom respond well to our own implementing of them.