Tag Archives: stories

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.

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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.


Celebrating without ritual

I’ve been celebrating Imbolc for more than a week now, in a non-ritualistic sort of way. I get outside every day, normally. There are snowdrops in bloom and hazel catkins in abundance. I can see leaves coming up from the daffodil bulbs, and there were a few of those in flower at the weekend. I’ve seen winter jasmine and gorse as well. I see pair bonding activity and territory setting in the local birds.

When you celebrate as part of a community it makes sense to get together at a time that helps you connect with key changes in the seasons. When you work alone, the changes aren’t an event, but a day to day progression. The days get longer, the nights are not quite so cold. I’ve ventured out without my winter coat, and I can be barefoot in the flat without my feet suffering. The first signs of spring are here, but this is also a time in its own right.

One of the dangers of being too involved with the wheel of the year narrative, is that we come to see it as eight events. Eight big points of change when we honour the shift from one season to another. In practice, every day is part of the cycle of ongoing change. Every day at the moment, a bud fattens, a new plant pushes up through the soil, a seed stirs. Nests are built one stick at a time. There may still be days with frosty starts, there may be wintery storms, and the earliest starters may find themselves set back if the season doesn’t go smoothly. At this time of year, a warm, sunny day inviting spring feelings can lead to a clear, cold and lethal night.

For some time now I’ve been making a point of celebrating the seasons in a way that doesn’t focus on big events. I’m celebrating my own experience, day to day. I’ve done pretty well this winter for not falling into total gloom, and part of that is because I’ve been getting outside, noticing, and participating a bit more in the season. I doubt I will ever love the winter, but I can appreciate the beauty in it, and that helps me get through. My body doesn’t do well in cold conditions, and the increase in warmth makes a huge practical difference to me. This is nature as it manifests in my own body.

When you explore the seasons in a day to day sort of way, there’s more room to have your own relationship. Hitting a major festival, with all its ideas and baggage and stories and assumptions can be really uncomfortable if your lived experience doesn’t match it. Working day by day creates very different stories. Today the path is clear and the flowers are coming up. Tomorrow, everything is wet and impassable. A few days hence, a sudden frost kills the new growth. Next week, spring reboots. It stops feeling like a simple progress narrative and becomes a complex mix in which some things do better than others. Watching closely, it becomes obvious that ‘nature’ as a whole isn’t perfectly in synch with the progression of spring. Some things will be too early for their own good, and some come too late.

All we can do is be alive and aware of what’s around us. Some years we will be creatures who time it perfectly, opening our leaves at just the right moment. Some years we will act too soon and get frostbitten. Maybe we’ll restart successfully, maybe we won’t. Maybe we don’t have buds, maybe we are like foxes who have carried on doing fox things all winter. Maybe we are more like migrant birds, or the night sky. If we put down the big stories about the seasons, we might find more space for our own stories in the details of day to day living.


How women talk to other women about men

In this blog what I specifically want to look at is the kinds of unhelpful stories women tell other women about men. I suspect this won’t be an exhaustive list. Some of these stories I suspect women tell to male children as well as female children, but I’m not well placed to comment on how that might play out.

He hits you because he likes you. He hits me because he loves me. We turn experiences of actual violence into stories about how this is an expression of affection. It keeps us accepting abuse, letting abusers off the hook, and setting each other up to be victims.

We tell each other that bad boys are sexy. We do this especially through the medium of romance and erotica fiction. We treat rude, demanding, unreasonable, controlling and violent men as desirable. We perpetrate the fantasy that magically, for us, they will become better people because they just need to be loved. We do not tell each other to run away and never look back, to find someone kinder and more cooperative. We imagine saving them when what we need to do is save ourselves.

We excuse male acting out, we tell other mums that this is just what normal boys do. We say ‘boys will be boys’ and then we teach each other how to stay safe and what to wear. We tell each other stories that the men who perpetrate violence just can’t help their bad behaviour. We say ‘he’s a good man really’, and we disbelieve the stories other women tell us to the contrary.

We bring up our daughters to feel responsible – the buck stops with us domestically. Women who find themselves living with overgrown man-babies who can’t or won’t take responsibility for home or children may tell each other how tough it is, but don’t reliably tell each other how to call said man-baby out and get him to do his fair share. Instead we tell each other that of course they don’t notice, remember, keep track, feel it’s their job and thus it continues not to be their job and stays wholly as ours. We make excuses based on how busy they are, or their upbringing. We accept that they can learn how to do a paid job, but not how to wash a nappy or cook a meal. We accept the role of mother and let them carry on being indulged boys when they’re at home.

We participate in the stories that work men do, or work done by men is more valuable than traditional female work, or work done by women. We accept that work done on the home front isn’t as valued as work done in public places. We accept that domestic arts aren’t as important as ‘fine’ arts. Women’s work is craft, not as valued as art. It’s cooking, and not valued like being a chef. It’s only interior decorating when you pay someone else to do it.

We use magazines to tell each other how we should look, in order to appeal to the male gaze. We share those magazine stories with each other.

In my family there were stories about boys being better treated than girls and stories about men who really didn’t make an effort. There were no stories about how to fix this. There were stories about how a mother can except to be judged over how clean and tidy her child is, but no sense that a father would be judged the same way. The kinds of stories women tell women about men go back to our grandmothers and great grandmothers and beyond. Expectations and beliefs are passed from one generation to the next. Changing the stories that are part of your fabric of reality is not easy, but change them we must.

Whatever stories you have, it pays to start by identifying them and trying to remember who told you these tales in the first place. Some stories aren’t spoken, they just underlie the way a family treats its men and the differences between that and how it treats its women. The stories are there in expectations and criticisms, in what we were allowed and what we were told was not for us.


What are stories for?

Stories have many different impacts on our lives, but for the purposes of this blog post, there are two aspects I particularly want to consider. Stories have the potential to show us ourselves and the kinds of problems, challenges and potential we have. Characters who we empathise with and who catch our life stage, feelings and so forth can be really enabling, and also cheering. The other not unrelated aspect, is characters who appear to be nothing like us, but who we learn to empathise with and whose perspective we come to understand.

Either way, this aspect of story gives us a wider perspective. It gives us tools for getting on with life, ideas about how to deal with stuff, a sense of where we fit. It reduces feelings of being alone with our challenges. Our scope for empathy with people who are not like us is increased. Our ability to see our similarities with people we might have assumed would be very different, is increased.

Key to this, is having diversity in stories. Authors with different backgrounds and life experiences writing what they know and what they imagine give us all a chance of finding ourselves reflected and finding the unfamiliar as well.

UK publishing has always been a white, male, middle class, straight, Christian and most likely Oxbridge educated creature. Not only in terms of what gets published, but what gets hailed as great by reviewers and critics (who likely have the exact same background). The more aligned a writer has been with that background, the better their chances. It has got better in recent years, but this is in no small part because internet shopping offers wider choices than bookshops used to, and there are more small publishers now who aren’t affluent Oxbridge men.

There are similar trends in films – how many action films can you think of with a female lead? How many films can you think of with only male leads? Hollywood thinks that a middle aged white man can be anyone from anywhere (I recently watched Troy, in which Sean Bean is Odysseus) but keeps people of colour in roles that are about being people of colour. How many famous disabled actors can you name? How many films are there with autistic characters where the plot isn’t basically about how challenging it is for the ‘normal’ people dealing with them, but how the ‘normal’ people grow as a consequence?

If mostly what we see are stories by and about straight, middle aged, middle class, Christian, white, educated, able bodied men, we get a very narrow sense of the world. The majority of us never see a world in which we even exist. Add up female people, LGBT people, non-Christians, the working class, and the disabled and you have a good deal more than half of the population, and yet we’re still talked about as a minority. People who read books and see films in which only a certain kind of white guy is an active and powerful character are more likely, I suspect, to believe that no one else can do anything worth mentioning.

A small percentage of the population sees a lot of stories that appear to be all about them and very little about anyone else. Most of us see stories that are not about us and do not reflect us. I for one am very tired of seeing women written and designed by men and for men. Women who exist in stories to be prizes, to create motivation by dying, or to applaud and reflect the man’s glory. Women who cry over broken fingernails, occupy very little space and are mostly passive and there to be eye candy.

As individuals, we can’t do much about the gatekeepers, but we can vote with our wallets. There are many people telling other kinds of stories, and we can support them. One of the things upholding the narrow story is that it appears to sell, and bean counters tend to assume that if they haven’t seen it sell, it won’t sell. Ignoring a long history of skewing the market by investing in some stories and not others.


Romance – we do it to ourselves

I am very partial to a love story, and happy to find love in a story as part of some other narrative, but I hate romance. It is a genre written for women by women, and I recognise that many women love it, but I think there’s much to be uneasy about. I’ve read a lot of romance, one way and another, trying to get to grips with it, and how it has changed meaning over time.

The end point of a romance novel is that the woman gets her man. Either in marriage or in something that looks like a settled and dedicated relationship. It is a story shape that tells us we are to aspire to this. It is the big moment for any woman. Your wedding day will be the most important day of your life. That’s a really dodgy message. It was dodgy when Jane Austin was doing it. It remains dodgy.

It’s not unusual for the man to start out hostile, unpleasant, dangerous, threatening, or something else of that ilk. We are to take from this the good old message that he’s horrible to you because he fancies you, just like the way we were told at school that boys hit us because they liked us. We are told that the heroine will magically turn the beastly man into a good man. This keeps us trying to tame abusive men and imagining that we can change them. This is not helpful.

Romance is a hetro-normative genre. My experience of writing in it is that readers and reviewers get really cranky if you write lesbian, or gay romance. It has to be labelled clearly as such, and then they can avoid it. You can’t have polyamoury in the romance genre, either. Its one man and one woman for the happily ever after. So, whole swathes of ways of being are excluded. Romance is on the whole a straight genre. LGBTQ people are expected, too often, to call their love stories something else. I’m not cool with that.

On the whole romance is a genre where being young and beautiful matters. Winning the man tends not to involve saving him from burning buildings, or any kind of adventure. This is a genre of the domestic sphere, more often than not. Because that’s where we are to understand that women belong. If there is any drama, it is usually the woman must be helped, rescued and so forth.

Medieval romance gives us forced marriage. I have a lot of trouble with ‘medieval romance’ as a concept knowing it was an era when women’s bodies were political game pieces and children could be married off to be raped by men they’d never even seen before. By finding ways to make these setups seem romantic, I think we’re trying to normalise some pretty appalling things.

Captive romances take this a bit further – and there’s too many of them out there. Women are captured, taken prisoner (usually in a historical context) and fall in love with their abuser so that makes it ok. That doesn’t make it ok. Not ever. I do not think these are good stories to tell each other.

I wonder how much of the genre is about trying to make inexcusable male behaviour palatable to women who aren’t encouraged to think they can have anything else. We do it to ourselves. I think we need better stories – stories about love that don’t just focus on the start of a relationship but which explore what it means to lover over a longer time frame. I want romance to be a genre that does not assume the preferences of the main characters, and I want there to be room for people who can be romantically attached to more than one person.  Most of all, I want women to stop telling other women that shitty, domineering, controlling and even violent men are in some way sexy.


The menoporpoise

It isn’t a pause. Nothing has stopped, and the ‘pause’ bit technically refers to stopping bleeding, which may be years away for me.

Peri-menopausal is an awkward mouthful of a term, it’s not something I can live inside. It does nothing for me.

So far, the material I’ve found has just flagged up all the bad bits. There’s nothing I can work with. Nothing I feel empowered or encouraged by. I suspect this is because our culture values youth and sexual fertility in women, and not age or wisdom.

As a practical point, my skin now takes offence at everything, including my own sweat. I seem to spend a lot of time slinking off to the bathroom to wash afflicted regions. Water is fine. This leads me to the logical conclusion that I am trying to transform into an aquatic mammal, and this in turn brings me very naturally to the menoporpoise.

I see the menoporpoise as friendly and benevolent, but not always convenient. It means well, but it is in essence a large aquatic mammal trying to swim about inside my life, and sometimes that’s going to be complicated. We will have to learn to get along, the menoporpoise and I.

Our lives and experiences are informed and shaped by the language we use and the stories we tell. How we name things, how we talk of them is important stuff. For easily a year now, my body has been changing. I don’t want the cultural narratives of menopause. But perhaps I can work with a menoporpoise and change into something new.


Talking about Nature

Earlier this year I ran into an free online course being run by the University of Gloucestershire, teaching ecolinguistics. It’s called The Stories We Live By. http://storiesweliveby.org.uk/  I’ve not completed it yet because I decided to read Arron Stibbe’s book Ecolinguistics. Each section of the course has notes from this book, so I figured it would be as well to read the whole thing.

Back when I did this sort of thing more (a degree course many moons ago) I always read whole books rather than the bits tutors waved at us because I wanted a broader and deeper understanding of things. I am out of practice with reading academic books, and it is slow going as I adapt to the language and concepts. Also, reading to study is no longer my primary concern, I just don’t have as much time to devote to this as I did when a student.

So, why ecolinguistics? This is about studying the kind of language people use to talk about the natural world, and how that language shades our stories and thus informs our choices. I feel that by studying this I will be better able to challenge other people’s ideas and dismantle them where I need to. As someone dedicated to the bardic path, the way stories work is an issue that matters greatly to me.

Mostly though, ecolinguistics is, for me, about my fiction work. I realised this year that I do not want to write books that could easily be classed as utopian or dystopian. I want to write books that imagine a better sort of future and how we get there, but I don’t believe in utopias, or find them plausible. I’m taken with Kevan Manwaring’s concept of Golden Dark, but I’m not sure I want to pin myself entirely to the dark side of the equation.  I also don’t have a clear enough sense of what, in terms of the details of how we live, needs to change. So I’m doing this course in search of inspiration.

One of the things the ecolinguistics course has made clear is that cultures are built out of shared stories. Those stories not only reflect where we are, but steer us in certain directions. They affirm some values and undermine others. While we tell each other stories about profit and power, conflict, consumption and GDP, we tie ourselves to planet destroying trajectories. We need stories about kindness, co-operation, hope, health and wellbeing and being part of the web of life. That all sounds profoundly Druidic to me! We need to change the stories we share, and look hard at the stories (often manifesting in adverts) that are telling us to trash everything for short term ‘profit’.


Mapping the territory

For some years now I’ve been interested in mapping the things that we don’t normally make maps of. I ran into the idea first in Jane Meredith’s Journey to the Dark Goddess where she talks about mapping the journey to help others find their way.

Sometimes, all we have is our own story about an experience. How big, important, unusual it seems may be entirely due to having no map. Further, without a map of some sort, where do we go in the new territory we’ve entered? Much of our standard mapping comes from the cultures we inhabit – consider the romance map, the maps we have for success which are all about owning big shiny things. There was a period when politicians liked to talk about their moral compass, but a compass without a map is of limited use and a direction that makes good sense in one context won’t always work the same way in another.

At the moment most of my personal mapping has to do with the body. I’m looking at the diversity of how bodies work, and the narrow path we give as the map for what we are supposed to do. What helps with this is when people share their stories with me. I’ve found putting things on facebook and on here is really effective for generating stories. Of course there are always people who respond to questions by feeling the need to tell me what to do, which is less helpful. That kind of response comes, I think when we assume the map to be small, and one person’s experience likely equates to what everyone else gets.

When we share stories about life experience, what rapidly emerges is the diversity. I’ve been talking about what we eat, and body size and stress, and exercise, and the breadth of what people want, what they need, what worked for them – we are so incredibly different. We can learn a lot from each other without having to succumb to the idea of total similarity.

When you offer the map of your own terrain (here’s what happened to me, here’s what I did, here’s what happened next) the person gifted with your map is free to take up any bits that connect to their map, and not explore territory that isn’t theirs. There’s no judgement implicit in saying ‘this is what happened to me’. There’s none of the power-over that comes with saying ‘this is what you should do’. We’re entitled to our own choices, even the bad ones. I’ve been round this with the issue of heavy periods, told I should get myself medicated into not having a problem – it is useful to know the medication exists, it is essential to have the right not to have to normalise my body on those terms.

A year ago, when deep in depression I asked how you tell when to seek antidepressants. A great many generous people shared their stories with me about what they had done and why, and as I worked through that, it became apparent to me that medication wasn’t the answer I needed. There have always been people keen to tell me that medication was the answer for me, but I’ve found the answer is to deal with the underlying causes, and that’s working well, finally. What the majority of people on or who had used antidepressants told me was that it gave them the time and space to sort out the issues. Not a magic cure, just a holding place. It only works as a cure for the people whose issues are fundamentally chemical in nature. That’s some of us, not all of us.

When we share our stories, we help each other put experience into context, and that can make it far easier to make sense of what’s going on. So, a big thank you to everyone here on the blog and out there on other social media, coming back with stories and insights, and to everyone blogging your own maps of the territories you have encountered.


Poetic truth

What do we use instead of metaphors, to talk about things more fully, but without getting caught in language that can be used against us? I get into the most interesting conversations, and the first fruits of that exchange are there to be read at Celtic Earth Spirit.

We know that police have used anti-terrorist laws to monitor law abiding Green activists and politicians. We know there are lists. We know that standing up for the survival of the planet and the species is considered radical and dangerous. Which when you stop and think about it, is weird. Where this is going and how seriously planet-protectors are threatened by laws designed to stop terrorists, is anyone’s guess. But, however this goes, new approaches to language may help us.

Language is a currency, and like any other currency, it can be devalued. Miss-use and over-use can take the power out of words. When corporations take your words to use in marketing campaigns, they take power as well. ‘Community’ is something politicians like to say when they mean to sound inclusive.

Modern language is increasingly about the pulling together of words. Chillax. Brexit. Remoaner. It’s sloppy, soundbite thinking designed to reduce and diminish. Careless misrepresenting of other people’s words has become a staple of fake news. I don’t think there’s one answer to this – not least because a multiplicity of individual answers is always the better way to go. Treating language with love would be a good part of the mix.

So let’s speak in story and metaphor, in poetry and allusion. Let’s play with the breadth and depth of languages, old and news to find words that have not been tarnished with poor usage. Let’s find and use heart words, soul words, the language of human in the landscape. No more trite little phrases designed to silence dissent. No more petty point scoring where winning trumps truth as a priority. With wit and wordplay, pun and poem, let’s find better ways of communicating with each other.

After all, the trolls only come out to feed when they can hear the trip-trapping across the bridges, and we do not have to trip or trap, we can make quieter bridges that do not alert the things that like to hide underneath and sabotage.