Tag Archives: stories

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.


New Stories

I have three new stories out in the world at the moment…

I have a tiny flash fiction piece in the album notes of Maximum Splendid, the new Rapscallion album. I’m very taken with the music, and it’s always lovely to be part of a steampunk thing! Hard copies here – https://rapscallionband.com/store#!

And you can listen to a couple of tracks over here – https://rapscallionband.com/music

Over on Patreon, I’ve started serialising a new book. That’s available to anyone who signs up as a Dustcat, Steampunk Druid or Glass Heron. It’s a speculative novel, plenty of magical Pagan elements, plenty of weirdness… Spells for the Second Sister isn’t available anywhere else at present.  You can find that over here –  https://www.patreon.com/NimueB

The Hopeless Maine kickstarter hit its funding goal, so we’re now looking at stretch goals. The odds are very good of hitting the first one, and at $7k everyone who has supported the project gets a new story as a pdf. That means the odds are very good of getting a story for a dollar. There are lots of other interesting things you can have should you feel so moved.  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hopelessmaine/hopeless-maine-the-graphic-novel-by-tom-and-nimue-brown/

Here’s a little taster…

That morning he found a large, yellowish ball of spider eggs inside the collar of his jacket. It was not an omen. Durosimi did not believe in omens.

Any occultist worth their salt knows that divination, prophecy and other variations on a theme of anticipating the future, are tricksy things. Durosimi considered it an inexact science at best.  He preferred exact science and dependable outcomes. Alchemy, necromancy, demonology; why try to see the future when you could create it through deliberate action? Most of what passed for divination was nonsense anyway.

The ball of spider eggs did not mean anything. The large, dead spider that somehow got into his breakfast did not mean anything. Only that the latest cook was as incompetent as the previous one.


Stories we need to change

There are a lot of stories in popular culture that do far more harm than good. One of them goes as follows – and I’ve seen variations of it many times in films.

There are some men who have a job to do. A sexy lady person comes along and distracts them. The professional men suddenly become completely unable to do their job. They may be distracted enough that someone escapes, or plants a bomb, or otherwise thwarts what they were supposed to be doing. They may be so overwhelmed by the sexy lady person that they leave their post, hand over keys or otherwise actively mess up their job.

No one really benefits from this story. It tells men that they have no self control and will think with their balls at the slightest provocation. If there’s a sexy lady person in the room they may become unable to think or to act professionally. They may have no self control or integrity in face of a sexy lady person. This in turn supports narratives that when men experience desire they cannot be expected to control themselves or act responsibly, so it’s perpetuating rape culture.

Scenes like these tell women that sexuality is how women get things done. Sexy clothing, provocative behaviour and offering sex will allow you to manipulate men. Power for women thus becomes entangled with being young – because we don’t tend to present older women as sexually appealing. The accident of beauty is the only possible source of power and worth. Most women therefore will not have an option on being powerful on these terms. It tells women they should be glad when men focus on them sexually because this is the only kind of power they can have. Also sexy women tend to be ‘bad guys’. This is all very patriarchal.

There are stories in which the roles are reversed, but what tends to happen is that the women fall in love with the men, and may switch sides on the basis of this. The women are more likely to be persuaded by the righteous cause the man has, as well as his handsome face. Men are invariably able to use power in other ways alongside persuading key women to act on their behalf. Men using their sexy powers are more likely to be heroes than villains.

A single instance of a story like this doesn’t do much harm, but it’s such a frequently used plot device – and it is lazy as a plot device as well. We see it too often, we hear its messages too often. It’s a crappy story that may do more to shape how people think of themselves than it does to reflect how people really are.


Water Witches

Water magic is all about healing, and emotions. You place bowls of water in the moonlight to gather enchantment, and take healing baths.

Slowly, you learn to listen to the water. You discover that the water is full of sorrow.

There is plastic in the water, and pollution of all kinds. Death flows where there should be life. There is thirst in the land and in its creatures. You stop wondering about how to use water for magic, and start asking how to do magic for water.

You become a water witch. You go to the edge of the desert to make desalination equipment out of rubbish you scavenge from the dumps. You set up camp at the edge of a poisoned lake and dedicate years of your life to fishing out the plastic, filtering out the oil, bringing the plants back. You make sand dams. You try to become a beaver. You make wetlands and plant reeds and dream about hippos.

In a land of intermittent rain, you build barriers across places where the water floods. Your back hurts all the time from bending and digging, but when the rains come you are ready, and some of your dams hold, and ponds form. The soil will not wash away this time, and some of the water will seep back into the earth rather than evaporating.

When you weep for all that has been lost and damaged, you understand that water is all about healing, and emotions.

(Art by Dr Abbey – these are concepts and sketches I’m playing with, but i think we’re going somewhere with all of this…))


Stories to Light the Night – a review

Susan Perrow is a well established international expert in the field of healing stories. I heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in exploring stories (or for that matter any other creative writing) as a healing tool. For anyone following the bard path, this could be a vital part of your tool kit. While this book is focused on creating stories to help children process grief, there are wider implications and the content will certainly benefit older readers/listeners as well.

Stories to Light The Night lays out what it takes to write a healing story. This is invaluable information for anyone considering such work. The majority of the book is taken up with stories. The book is themed around healing from grief, and the topics covered are – the loss of a loved one, the loss of a family connection, the loss of a pet, the loss of health and wellbeing, the loss of place, environmental grief and loss, cycles of life and change, and a chapter that covers an array of other losses.

The stories themselves are mostly written by Susan Perrow, but a fair few come from other therapeutic authors working in different contexts around the world. As a consequence, there’s a diversity of perspective and experience, which I found really helpful and interesting.

All of the stories are presented with a piece about the context in which they were written. Most of them fall into one of two categories – either that they were written by someone as a way of working with their own grief and then offered to others to help, or they were written for a specific family, child, or community. It means that with most stories, there is also a story about what had happened. Many of them were heartbreaking. I cried over pretty much every story in the loss of a loved one section. They are poignant and not easy, even though these stories are short and accessible. They help you face up to grief and to better understand it.

If you have unprocessed grief, this book is going to do things to you. The work of dealing with grief is important, but make sure you don’t get caught off-guard by this. If you are looking for help with your own grief, this book might aid you, but give yourself plenty of time to digest, process and whimper. I did not realise how much unprocessed grief I was carrying when I started reading, and I was caught out by that. Which is fine – books do that sometimes.

The stories here could be used directly by reading them to people who might be helped by them. If you’re interested in using stories as a therapeutic tool in a healing context, this book is a really interesting introduction to the subject. If you are interested in how to bring healing work into your own writing and storytelling, this book has a great deal to offer.

Find out more about the book here – https://www.hawthornpress.com/books/family/bereavement/stories-to-light-the-night/