Tag Archives: stories

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.

Advertisements

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.


Stories about love

‘Romance’ as a genre and how that genre impacts on us culturally has bothered me for a while. I say this not as some kind of literary snob – I’ve written plenty of romance and erotica over the years. I’ve read rather a lot of it as well.

It bothers me also that romance is denigrated as a genre, because it’s largely written by, and for women. Love is one of the most important things in our lives, it often defines who we will spend our days with, it impacts on us economically. Whether we breed or not, may have a lot to do with who we’re with. So does whether or not we’re persecuted. Who we are allowed to love has always been an intensely political question and there’s a great deal of power tied up in who is allowed to shag whom. Love is a subject to take seriously. Unfortunately if you want to publish in this genre you have to play by the rules and so can only tell certain kinds of story.

The romance genre is that it is all about beginnings. That rush of first love, and the establishment of a relationship. In a more traditional book, the conclusion is the marriage proposal. Life, for women, stops at marriage, in romances. There are of course always exceptions, but on the whole the romance story involves a young woman and a man. She will be beautiful and virtuous and worthy of love. He may well not be in the least bit virtuous or worthy. If there is an age difference, he will be older. If there’s a wealth difference or any other power difference, it will likely be in his favour.

Romance as a genre means straight romance. If the romance is LGBTQ then the odds are it will be specifically labelled as such. Back when I was writing them, I had to be clear about the pairing, the assumption being that a reader would not want to be surprised by the direction romance took. that bothered me a lot.  If the romance is polyamorous it won’t be labelled as romance usually. Fit, healthy, slim people (often with lifestyles that don’t suggest this is likely) fall in love. Yes, I know there’s You Before Me, but it’s unusual to have a romance with someone in a wheelchair, and he does have a lot of money…

Poverty (that isn’t overcome Cinderella-style), disability, and anything not hetro-normative is unusual in romance.

While all of that troubles me a lot, what troubles me most of all though is the obsession with the new relationship. We don’t have much in the way of stories about long term love. Romeo and Juliet are the model for romance – a couple of kids who get into each other’s pants and die shortly thereafter. Because otherwise it might get old, and stale. As though love cannot endure at that intensity. As if the only way for there to be long term love requires us to accept it settling down into some tamer, more domesticated form. That’s the story our culture tells itself, and I think that story is a long way short of being the whole truth.


The lies we tell ourselves

I’ve recently finished reading The Wheel of Osheim – the third book in Mark Lawrence’s trilogy The Red Queen’s War, and while anything published by Harper Voyager is normally too famous for my book hipster standards, I like Mark. And, I knew him before he was famous. I liked him before he was cool.

Mark Lawrence is an author who can write tales that work on a lot of levels. A fast paced adventure trilogy, with witty dialogue, action, shagging, demons, magic and all the things you’d expect from a popular fantasy series. But alongside that, there are themes and concepts to chew on, and that’s why I find these books so engaging. It’s not just surface amusement.

For me, the major theme of the Red Queen’s War trilogy, is the impact of the stories and lies we tell ourselves, and each other. The central character, Jalan, has a big story about how he’s a coward and a man with no morals worth mentioning. But he gets caught up in other people’s stories, other people’s ideas about who and what he’s supposed to be and ends up doing all sorts of heroically out of character things.

We all assemble our lives out of stories. We tell ourselves things about who we are, and what we’re doing and why. We do that to justify actions that maybe aren’t justified at all. We do it to excuse shortcomings, to explain poor choices and mistakes. We tell stories about how other people impacted on us, the ones who saved us, the ones who are our enemies… and we tell these stories so well and so often and with such conviction that we often forget they are stories, and that other versions of events exist.

At the same time, we can talk ourselves into other roles and story-shapes, if we want to. We can talk each other into being braver and honest, into trusting instincts and following our inspiration. We can tell each other stories that help us get through the day, or get things done.

So, if you’d like a story that will entertain you, but that may also give you a bit of an existential crisis, do check out Mark Lawrence. And while you’re doing it, ask yourself what story you are telling about your own life and nature.

Find Mark here – http://mark—lawrence.blogspot.co.uk/


Being Goldendark

‘Goldendark’ is a term and concept being developed by author and PhD student Kevan Manwaring. I’ve been following his work for years (followers of the blog may be finding him a familiar name as I’ve reblogged him a few times now).

In his blog, Kevan sets out Goldendark thusly “This new approach I term ‘Goldendark’, an aesthetic which daringly engages with the ethical without descending into didacticism. While acknowledging the bleak reality of things it seeks to offer a glimmer of hope – a last gleam of the sun before it sets. This ‘gleam’ could be manifest in the arresting quality of the prose, the originality of the imagery, the freshness of the characterisation, or in redemptive plots.” It’s a work in progress and he’s clear about not wanting to be dogmatic.

When I first read it, the idea really resonated with me. The gothic speaks to me, I’m drawn to dark and creepy things. My formative reading experience on this side was Clive Barker, and the combination of the awe and the awful is something I’ve always been drawn to. Without contrast, you end up with homogenous sludge.

So I was very excited when Kevan reviewed Hopeless Maine and said “gets my Goldendark stamp of approval” (you can read the whole review here.)

The kinds of stories we tell have a massive impact on our culture. We live in dark times. But, if we wallow in the darkness, if all we give ourselves are grim dystopian futures, tyrannies and horror, we lock ourselves into that narrative. I have noticed a lot of people responding to recent political issues with references to The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones. If we believe we’re heading that way, the odds of going there are greatly increased. Here’s to glimmers of hope.


Repeating life lessons

One of the concepts that comes up in various spiritual practices is that the lessons we don’t learn we have to keep facing – perhaps over lifetimes, but quite possibly again and again in this one. If I keep attracting a certain kind of person to me, I should look at what I need to learn from the patterns of interaction to free myself from it. I’ve come to the conclusion this is both true and useful, and wrong and misleading in about equal measure.

Many of us will deal with hundreds, if not thousands of people during the course of our lives. People, is has to be said, are not wholly original. There are and have been billions of us, being standout is difficult. And so, of course, inevitably, we run into the same patterns of behaviour, the same odd dysfunctions and weird habits of relationship. I, to take one of many possible examples, keep running into people who find me excessive and too difficult. It’s something I’ve been hurt by repeatedly.

Of course in the grand scheme of things I run into dozens of people who say nothing at all about my being too intense – they don’t notice, or don’t care, or don’t feel moved to mention it, or maybe on some rare occasions, even turn out to like it. Because I’m paying attention to the pattern of people who find me excessive, that’s the pattern I see. If I focus on the pattern of people who have used me, or the people who betrayed my trust, or the people who weren’t who I thought they were, I could make those patterns centre stage instead.

I expect everyone has the same sorts of lists, of people who let them down, or did the thing that really hurt, whatever it was. Stories become prominent shapes in our lives when we notice them and pay attention, and the stories that have hurt us are especially good at getting noticed.

There’s nothing cosmic going on here. The universe is not setting this up to teach me lessons, because it doesn’t need to. There are enough people as a percentage of the population who fear emotional intensity, that I am bound to run into one every few years.

It’s the patterns we don’t deal with that cause the problems. If you are the sort of person who can see a narcissist coming from half a mile away, narcissists will not give you much trouble. If you’re quick to drop users, if you aren’t open to emotional blackmail, and so on and so forth, you will push these people away fast, without even noticing perhaps. They’ll see you aren’t good to latch onto.

So when we ‘learn our lesson’ and the universe stops sending us that lesson, in fact no such thing is happening. We’ll say ‘Sorry, I won’t do that’ the first time a thing comes up and the user will move on and we won’t necessarily see what we avoided. The ‘lessons’ are still there, we’re just holding a different, and better relationship with them.

The trouble with the idea that the universe is sending us lessons, is how responsible it makes us. If you have a run on sexually abusive people, that’s utterly shit luck, and not because you are somehow responsible for attracting them. Abusers exist, they have to show up somewhere. Nothing is directing them to a specific person to teach them lessons, and if we can all learn to take such things a bit less personally, we can be a lot kinder to ourselves and to each other.


Stories for healing

For a while now, I’ve been writing stories as a way of tackling things in my head I can’t take on more directly. Some things work best in metaphor. It’s a way of processing what otherwise has been impossible to deal with. The story below also had an interesting process aspect to it. In using these metaphors, I became able to see some things I had not seen before. Ways forward emerge. So, I offer the story, and also the approach. If there are unsayable things, then turning them into characters in a faux-fairytale can make it possible to talk about them, and get to grips with them.

And they all lived…

The prison is small, cramped. Not perfectly dark. Enough gloom to obscure, enough light to suggest. Light, and hope are often what get us into most trouble. It is too small a cell to accommodate a person and a demon. It doesn’t help that the demon is furious. Its mouth is full of hunger and broken glass. When it bites, it poisons. Words flow from it as bile and toxin, bite and breathe. Words gnawed into bones.

“Worthless,” it says. “Ridiculous ugly waste of space.”

It has claws for rending. It uses them.

“Misuse of carbon.”

The demon has large feet, for trampling.

“You’ll never achieve anything, anyway. Never justify your pathetic existence. Expensive nuisance. You should kill yourself. It’s the only good thing you’ll ever be able to do. Your only possible contribution. You’re a burden. Unwanted. Stop it. Stop your breath. Stop your heart.”

Perhaps death would silence the demon. Sometimes, it seems the only way. A soul this contaminated can never be redeemed, surely?

I am the prison cell. I am the demon. I am the weeping child prisoner. I am the blood under the fingernails, and I am the bruises. I am the crying and the resentment of crying. I am the skin tearing at itself in disgust. There is no door to this prison, unless death is a door. There is no destroying the prison, or the demon without killing the child, for we are one. Indivisible.

If the prison had been a well defended castle, keeping out, not locking in.

If the demon had been allowed to roar at enemies beyond the gate.

If the child had felt safe to cry.

Other stories were certainly possible, once. Working from within, trapped in the cramped, demonic lost child darkness, how do we tell a new story? A grown up fairy tale with a wiser outcome. Can we tell a new life? We wait. Child, demon, prison… person.