Tag Archives: stories

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.


Speak your truth

It is the morning after a hard night, the anxiety rode me into the early hours. I think of folklore and witches night riding horses, and I know I am that sort of horse.

There is anger inside me. So much anger. There has never been a safe way for that rage to come out through my skin. It turns on me. I think about stories of people possessed by demons. I know how that goes.

Sometimes I fight my demons. Sometimes we just snuggle. Those modern stories, those cute meme responses to distress. There’s comfort to be had there. Sometimes I try to hold the demons that are inside my skin, and I whisper to them the things I wish someone had whispered to me.

This morning I am a mangled wreck of a person, washed up from the sea, shipwrecked nameless on some unfamiliar shore, waiting for the crows to come. I think about the true stories of fisher folk, and the things they did to protect their loved ones, and make them identifiable if worst came to worst. I do not feel there is much left of me to identify. I think about the people who knitted jumpers for me.

There’s always a story to turn to. Always some last, desperate thread that gives context and continuity. Something to wrap around your fingers when there is nothing else to hold on to. Once upon a time… nothing is new… someone else washed up on this shore before you, broken and unrecognisable.

You may not have it in you to tell a story about how things got better from there. Some stories do not end well. Some stories are warning signs. Mind the gap. Do not feed the bears. Danger cliffs. Sometimes all we can do is show where we fell in the hopes that others stay away. Be the story that saves someone else.

Tell the story in the hopes that it makes sense. Tell whatever fragment you have, so that you know you were there, and it was real. Murmur it to the sand where you lie abandoned by the tide. Whatever story you have, speak it.


Snow White and other problems

Content warning – consent issues.

Recently there was a controversy over a Disney ride including a depiction of the non-consenting kiss at the end of Snow White. I’ve watched this with interest. I note that for people who are ok with it, the notion of love and romance is key. That he kisses her to save her life, that the kiss is ok because she wakes up and isn’t horrified.

As an aside, the prince kisses Snow White when he thinks she is dead, and having never known her as  a living person. I prefer versions that change these details. Yes, it’s very normal to kiss your dead loved one, less so to kiss a corpse when you’ve never spoken to the living person.

It’s romantic because he is young and good looking and she isn’t horrified. What would happen to this story if the kiss came from an older, less desirable person? I have a suspicion that if our prince wasn’t an attractive young white guy, the interpretations of romance would be undermined for some people. Through this story, we teach children that being kissed by a stranger is ok, in the right context. We suggest that love follows violation – and this is a theme that comes up far too often in stories that purport to be romance. Girls who fall in love with their kidnappers and abusers are on my list of stories I think we’d be better off without. There are still places in the world where children are made to marry the men who rape them.

So much hangs on the idea that the whole setup is ok because Snow White falls in love with the Prince. But, we’re not talking about a real, autonomous person here. We’re talking about a fictional character, and it worries me how often that’s ignored. She doesn’t have autonomy, she isn’t choosing, this isn’t true love. It’s a story suggesting that a certain pattern of actions are ok. I see this other places too – male comics artists defending highly sexualised depictions of women on the grounds that the female characters are expressing themselves. It’s empowering, apparently, for a fictional woman to wear highly sexualised clothes and pose a lot in positions that draw attention to her sexual qualities. As though these were real women able to make real choices on their own terms, and not the creations of men.

Just because something is old, doesn’t make it right, or good, or useful. It’s also important to remember with fairy tales that these aren’t fixed. There are versions of Rapunzel where the young lady falls pregnant before her boyfriend is discovered. There are pregnant versions of Sleeping Beauty, with all that implies. I prefer the Snow White story when it’s handled as a 15, what with the eating of hearts, the attempted murder and the implied necrophilia. And I’m not convinced we really need to tell children stories about how women might want to kill other women in order to be considered the prettiest one.

It may be tempting to think that the story is ok because yay, the kiss brings her back to life! But once again I point out that this isn’t a real person, this is a story, in which a person has been put in a pretty unlikely situation precisely so that the tale can have this sort of ending. No real people get to live because of this non-consenting kiss, but quite a lot of real people seem to have been persuaded that non-consent is fine, in the right circumstances. It might be fun to imagine being kissed to life and wakefulness by a beautiful stranger… but what if they aren’t the gender you find attractive? What if they aren’t beautiful? What if you don’t open your eyes and fall instantly in love with them? It doesn’t take much for the dream to look like a nightmare.