Tag Archives: story

Stories for us

I know this is a subject I’ve posted about before, but it is on my mind a lot at the moment. Stories are maps we hold to help us navigate. When you don’t have stories about the kind of person you are, then feelings of otherness and isolation are inevitable. For many of us, the only available stories are tragic.

There aren’t many good stories out there for polyamorous people. Most three (or more) sided relationship stories are rivalries, and do not end well for at least one person. Love triangles are usually stories about having to choose. Or one of the three people turning out not to be so good after all.

There are more good stories for queer people than there used to be. It is no longer the case that the only way you can have LGBT representation is if your queer characters die tragically. But still, there’s a lot of work to do here. We need more stories in which queer folk do stuff that isn’t about coming out or having a hard time for being queer.

The same issues exist for People of Colour – that good stories that go well and aren’t primarily about politics, struggle and race issues are not as numerous as they should be. Not even close. We need to stop restricting the kinds of stories Black and Ethnic Minority people are allowed to tell.

Then there are the characters who are outside of mainstream culture because they are clever, talented, gifted, brilliant, capable beyond what most people do. And outside of the super-hero genre, this doesn’t go well. The souls who are too good for this world who end up dead, or still alone while comparatively mediocre characters get to have a meaningful experience or a coming of age narrative. This makes me sad. I want to rescue all the manic pixie dream girls and give them stories that are about how they live out their awesomeness and are properly appreciated. I want the world to look at the people who are too good for this world and up its game so they do not have to be sacrificed.

I’d also like a new love story. I am tired of the earth-shattering life changing love affair that can only make sense if it lasts for a very short time frame. What we keep telling each other is that grand passions are not for the long haul. You can only have Romeo and Juliet levels of intensity if you only get a few days together and then you both die. It’s not true.

Obviously one of the answers is that I have to write these stories, and amplify other authors who are writing these stories. If you’re doing this kind of work and would like a signal boost from me, please let me know.


External authority and why I’m not a fan

One of the accusations levelled against Pagans and atheists alike is that we can’t have a moral compass because we don’t have a sacred text to refer back to.

In practice, the person without a sacred text can only use their reason and personal sense of fairness to make moral judgements. It means you know that you are responsible for what you do and say, what you think and how you come to conclusions. As far as I can see, this is the most honest and most responsible position to hold.

Of course a person can have a sacred book, use it for inspiration and take the same process of coming to reasoned positions. So long as the book isn’t considered the literal word of God and to be followed in all ways, a person can use it to help them navigate while still remaining consciously in charge of their own choices.

However, when a sacred book becomes a substitute for thinking, it becomes dangerous. Anything in a book is at risk of going out of date. What makes sense in one time and place may be far less sensible or fair in another. Dogmatic insistence on the primacy of an out of date book clearly isn’t going to work well.

I note that the people who seem most fanatical about sticking with the text are often the ones calling for the least kind outcomes. The sort of people who would make a child rape victim carry a baby to term, and oblige them to marry their attacker. The sort of people for whom being ‘immodest’ in dress (however they choose to measure that) is a greater spiritual offence than physically attacking someone. What I think happens here is that people outsource their morality so they don’t have to question the real implications of their apparently spiritual beliefs.

This kind of dogma is really convenient for anyone with a nasty agenda.

I don’t think the problem here is books – a decent human being can read a book and make informed decisions about what to work with and what to reject. We do this all the time with the stories of our Pagan ancestors. I’ve never seen a modern Pagan suggest that tricking someone into a bag and then beating them until they let you have things your way is a sensible way of getting things done, for example. If you know that a story is just a story, you can work with it in whatever way makes sense. It’s when you decide that the story has authority, and then, having given it authority, negate your own responsibility to be a decent person, that we get into trouble.

It’s not the presence or absence of a sacred book, or books, that gives people a moral compass. The morality does not lie in the book. It never has.


Love and the drama llama

Drama llamas are creatures who feel a desperate need to be centre stage, and who will whip anything up into a whirlwind if it means they can stand in the middle of it and draw attention. People who create drama, or amplify it are exhausting to deal with.

I’ve watched on a fair few occasions now as people doing drama have spun their whirlwinds and pushed away the people who were close to them. It’s easiest to do drama with your nearest and dearest and to cast people you know in whatever roles best suit your needs. Most often what the drama-addict seems to do is cast people who were on their side as villains, attackers, abusers and so forth. I note with interest that drama llamas are more likely to assume victim roles than cast themselves as heroes of their own stories.

While I was pondering the mechanics of being a drama llama, it was suggested to me that all drama llamas really want is to be loved. This may be so – it’s such a fundamental human motivation. However, the process of creating drama tends to drive people off rather than drawing them in. If the desire is for love, then the method is inherently self-defeating.

It is easy to mistake attention for love. This is a thing to watch out for when dealing with small children, who are motivated by attention, and will keep acting out to get attention even if the attention isn’t pleased with them. If we don’t get attention for being good, or just for being ourselves, we may seek it by other means. Patterns for life can be set early on, and if you’ve learned this as a way of being it will take some unpicking. The person who seeks attention in ways that elicit less love may be stuck in a cycle of attention seeking, love-damaging behaviour and be unable to break out of it.

I don’t know how anyone stood on the outside of this can make a difference. You can’t save a drama llama from themselves by pouring love over them. I’ve yet to see a drama llama respond well to love from any source.  It may be that this can only be changed from within, that a person with these patterns has to see them and want to change them, and that from outside all you can do is feed the story. You can stay, and be an actor in the drama, you can leave and be a villain and reinforce the feeling of victimhood. You can ask the drama llama to step up and be a hero, and you’ll be manipulating or mistreating them. I have no idea what a winning move is, I’ve never seen one.

We all have stories about who we are and how life works. Often, it is the most dysfunctional stories that we all seem to cling to the hardest. Perhaps because these are stories grown out of suffering, that in some way serve to make sense of an original wound. We cling to the story because we prefer it to challenging the story. We may be protecting someone else. Or, if we’ve worked with a story for long enough, we may now be protecting ourselves from feeling the shame that would come from admitting the story was useless or wrong.

There is no saving someone who does not want to be saved. There is no healing someone who does not want to be healed. You cannot change the story of someone who does not want their story to change.


When there aren’t two sides to a story

Suggesting that there are always two sides to a story may sound entirely reasonable, but I think it’s a notion that could stand some scrutiny. That the Flat Earth Society persists in stating that the world is flat, does not mean that they have an argument worth listening to. When the science is all on one side, and unsupported opinion dominates on the other, we are not looking at a two sided story, we’re looking at fact and fantasy. This is very much the case with climate change, where there is a consensus amongst the vast majority of scientists, and yet the other side of the story – a tiny minority – is given a platform to speak.

We live in an era that doesn’t discriminate between evidence based information, and opinion. It doesn’t help that the opinion side of any story will usually claim that there would be evidence to support their version if only the evidence side did their job properly. If the ‘facts’ are skewed by biased researchers, of course we shouldn’t trust them. The way that the tobacco industry successfully hid the dangers of smoking for so long is a case in point about how asserted ‘facts’ can turn out to be nothing more than marketing.

So, how do you tell if you’re seeing something reliable and evidence-based, or something that’s been paid for? Actual science tends to be wary of asserting facts. It offers theories that are open to change as new things are learned. Science tends to deal in probabilities, not certainties, so proper science can sound a bit cautious, even when its 97% sure about things. People working based on opinion tend to sound a lot more confident, which in turn can seem far more persuasive.

If you’re looking at something evidence led, there may be uncertainty over how best to interpret the data. You may get more than one possible interpretation. You may get questions raised about whatever hasn’t properly been studied. If someone asserts that they know what the data would look like if only someone did the proper research, there’s every reason to be wary.

When considering whether there could be two sides to a story, we have to consider the reliability of our sources. This is not an easy process, and the less education you have, the harder it can be to assess what might be reliable. You can end up mistrusting all authority and so called ‘experts’ if you’ve got no means of telling which ones are being as fair as they can be, and which ones are playing you for their own ends. That mistrust can then be played on by people who do not want you listening to good information, and people who want opinions to be as important as evidence. When those of us who have the privilege of better education and sharper thinking skills denigrate people who are more easily persuaded by less rational things, we feed into this. Denigrate a person and they have no reason to trust you.

Not all opinions have equal weight, either. The opinions of people who want more than their fair share and who want to hurt and harm others do not deserve to be accepted as valid. The opinions of people who are known to lie and manipulate for their own ends, do not deserve to be taken as seriously as the opinions of someone who has always acted well. People who have done the wrong thing, or who wish to exploit others, will say whatever they think it takes to get them what they want. It is in their interests to persuade you that there were two sides to this story all along. The apparently less tolerant person who won’t accept there could be two sides isn’t always the bad guy.

People who are working with evidence can and will show you their evidence. It takes more work on our part than listening to a sound bite. People who have no evidence will ask you to accept that they know best. They may offer that which is clearly too good to be true. They will assert that their evidence exists and that only prejudice keeps the data from being properly collected. They will be more likely to rubbish their opponent than tackle the details of the argument.

Sometimes there aren’t two sides to a story. Sometimes there is no debate to be had, and nothing worthy of being explored. Sometimes there is evidence on one side, and noise on the other. If you aren’t sure who to trust, ask who will benefit and in what ways, should you believe them.


Am I repeating a story?

How do I tell if I am repeating the patterns of a story? It’s not easy to see until you’ve been round it a few times – patterns, by their very nature, must be repeated to be observed. So the odds are that you won’t spot one until you have repeated enough times for you to see it as a problem. For people trapped in repeating patterns of dysfunctional relationship, or other things not working out, it is not comfortable looking at where we’ve contributed to that.

The only way to break out of a pattern is to start by acknowledging it. The only way to change a pattern reliably, is to change what you personally do. You probably didn’t get here alone, other people may continue to play roles, but you are the only person you have the power to change. If you label is at fate, karma, bad luck, you throw away your own power to change things.

Identify exactly what you think the pattern is. One of mine, for example, is being willing to bleed myself dry metaphorically speaking, to try and impress people who are critical of me and difficult to please. I have to prove something to them. I have to win them round. I have to be good enough. It’s taken me until recently to decide that I don’t have to prove anything and that ungrateful gits just waste my time and energy.

To get to this point I had to see what I was doing. I had to look at what happens to me emotionally when I deal with demanding and unreasonable people. I had to ask why I feel moved to give so much to people who are never satisfied. I traced the threads of this back through my own childhood, and back to one of my grandmothers, and I thought about her grandfather as well. Some of this has grown over a very long time. I had to ask what I owe anyone, and what’s in it for me. And I broke the pattern and stepped out of the story. This is a fairly painless example.

When you’re playing out a story like this, the roots of it can be deep in your family past. Digging those roots out can be painful and may cause shifts in other relationships. You may have to look at what forgiveness is needed, and helpful. You may well need to forgive yourself for what you’ve done as you’ve played the role. If the person most hurt by your actions is you, definitely work on self forgiveness. If your role has had you hurting other people, look at making amends, or at least learning lessons. It isn’t your right to forgive yourself for harm you’ve done to others. If you need to deal with people who set you up in this story, that can be complicated. Forgiveness isn’t obligatory. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it just traps us in doormat and martyr roles.

Changing the story, breaking it down, opening it out to make new endings possible… this is not easy work. It can be exhausting and it will likely take time. You may have to go some rounds with your story shape before you can properly escape from it. Be patient with yourself, and keep doing the work. If you can escape from a story that is really just a trap, life will open up for you in all kinds of ways and it is worth the work to get there.


How to tell a story

Humans are drawn to stories, but the ability to tell them is not innate. This blog was prompted by seeing author Mark Lawrence on Twitter yesterday pointing out that if telling stories was easy, we’d never be subjected to boring retellings of other people’s dreams. This connects, for me, with two recent incidents of reading comments about how children can’t tell you what they did at school today because they do not know how to tell their stories.

There are many situations in which we need to relate stories from our lives to other people. Much of that is social and about entertaining others through anecdotes. You may need to tell your story to the police, or to a jury. You may need to tell your story to get funding, keep your job, or get a new one. A well told story can be a powerful tool. There are of course no simple tactics that will work for all circumstances, but here are some places to start.

  1. Think about your audience. What do they want and need from you? What kind of story do they want to hear? In a legal or professional context, it has to be relevant and appropriate. In a social context, stories exist to amuse, or to share something personal with someone you trust. Oversharing, and making people listen to you for a long time can be antisocial and defeats the object.
  2. Unless you are talking to a counsellor in a counselling session, assume that people do not want to play the role of your counsellor. If you are going to tell that sort of story in a context that is not already involved in sharing difficult stories, at least ask if it’s ok before you start. Do not assume that people want to do emotional labour for you by hearing about your bad stuff.
  3. How does the audience need you to tell the story? If you’re talking to the police, they need a blow by blow account with all the details you can remember. If you’re telling a story in the pub, the gist and the punchline are likely to work better. In most normal situations, people do not want to listen to you trying to remember who said exactly what and when. Less is often more. Rehearsing the story in your head can help with better delivery.
  4. The longer a story is, the better a teller you must be to sustain interest in it – even if it’s a good story. Brevity is the soul of wit. If you’re just trying to be the centre of attention, this will show, and people will learn to leave for the loo when you start a tale.
  5. Being spontaneous and off the cuff can seem like the best and most natural way to share a story. If you don’t normally tell stories, then relating your funny work anecdote or strange dream won’t come naturally. It pays to rehearse. If you think something is worth sharing, run it through in your head. Figure out the order to tell it in before you open your mouth. Be alert to key events and work out what, if anything, makes the story potentially attractive to someone else. This can also weed out boring, pointless stories before anyone has to sit through them.
  6. Try and remember who you’ve told your stories to already. If the story about how you made a walk in wardrobe was dull and annoying the first time, that’s nothing compared to how much people will hate it when they’ve heard it half a dozen times already.
  7. Listen and be a good audience. People who insist on leading all conversations back to themselves and their stories are not enjoyable company. Story sharing has to be a process of exchange in order to work. If you’re going to say “that reminds me of…” then it had better be a good link. The more tenuous it is, the weaker your story sharing feels.

Inhabiting the song

If you have a decent memory, it’s possibly to learn songs, tunes, poems and stories at a fair speed, and thus to perform them from memory. For some purposes, that’s enough. Storyteller Martin Shaw in his various books talks about a much more involved process. Sitting with the story, living with the story for a year or two, telling it to the landscape it came from, telling it to wildlife and working up to sharing it with a human audience. In this approach, it isn’t enough to know the surface of a tale, you have to climb inside it and enter the heart.

Something changes when you undertake to make a piece part of yourself. I’ve found it with tunes and songs, and I’ve found it with the stories I’ve carried with me though my life. They become points of reference, they develop new meanings, and carry with them the resonance of where I’ve sung or played them, who I was with, and so forth.

I have a whole set of seasonal songs, some of which I’ve been singing at their proper time of year for more than a decade now. The process of singing them year on year builds associations and insights that go beyond what a single year of singing can do. This isn’t necessarily a clever and thinky process, it is more often a body knowledge of song and season, memory and place. Sometimes I come up with new interpretations of songs I’ve known for a long time because life experience shows me something that gives the song a different sense.

Singing with other people changes my experience of a song. This may be practical – different versions of tunes and words, different pacing, unfamiliar harmonies. Another singer may bring new meanings to the song simply by how they use their voice. Sometimes, a different voice changes the feel or even the meaning of a song. There’s also a thing whereby if someone nails a powerful harmony line, a song can come alive for me in an entirely new way.

For me, an important part of the bard path is this process of forming a deeper relationship with the material. It is in part the process of being shaped by the material. The O’Carolan tunes I’ve played since my early teens have settled into me, in ways it is difficult to describe. The songs I’ve sung since childhood are part of my sense of who I am. The occasional songs I write are partly a consequence of what I’ve internalised, and what I need to express that I can’t express with existing material.

 


Sometimes you can read too much into these things

Once upon a time there was a story…

The giant is a symbol of toxic masculinity. He’s all about power over and violence.

The princess is asleep in a tower, expressing passive female roles, lack of agency, and the impact of traditional gender stereotyping. The tower is a phallic symbol. Don’t ask what the princess is doing inside the metaphorical penis or it gets confusing.

There is a prince who is supposed to fight the giant to free the princess because he’s just toxic masculinity with a socially acceptable face and he’s got class privilege on his side.

The prince cannot get into the penis tower but while he’s trying to conquer the giant willy in the middle of this story is dawns on him that he’s really into giant willies so when the actual giant shows up, the prince totally rethinks his plan. The two of them live happily ever after.

The princess wakes herself up and makes her own decision about whether or not to stay in the tower. Either way, at this point the tower is just a tower and not Freudian at all, honest.


Review: The Shadow Crucible

I was approached to review this book because the author – T.M. Lakomy –  found me online and thought I would like it! I love it when people do that, especially when they’re right – as in this case.

When I started reading The Shadow Crucible, I thought I knew what I’d got. The set-up looked like a straightforward Christian fantasy with angels, demons, Templars, and the such. I was reminded of Constantine, and Tom Sniegoski’s Fallen, only with a mediaeval setting. The male lead is cold, remote, firm. The female lead is wild, beautiful, dangerous and seems a bit petty – A Scarlet O’Hara with a retinue of orphans. And for a little while there I was afraid that this would be one of those romances where the cool controlling guy breaks and tames the wild woman. But, the fascinating world building and the writing style kept me reading, and I’m very glad I stayed with it.

Then, around page 57, the plot shape started to change, and I realised I was not reading some kind of historical romance. Page 73 pulled the rug out from underneath everything I thought I knew about this book. No one, it turned out, was as they seemed in those opening pages. What I thought was going on was not happening. I had been fooled, misled, overconfident… and I was very excited by this!

Thereafter, what the story keeps doing, is taking a step back every now and then to let you see a bigger picture than you could before. In the context of the bigger picture, what you thought you knew looks rather different, each time. With each step back, the world expands, the implications of the story get bigger, the stakes rise, the magic becomes even more wild and wonderful, the philosophy becomes even more persuasive…

Whilst trying to avoid spoilers, this is a book that is very much in opposition to dogma and blind faith. It’s a story to challenge organised religion and question the motives of anyone who uses religion as a power base. All of the characters go through radical changes. One way or another, they are peeled of their surface pretences and small selves to reveal the larger presence beneath. I came to love characters who, in the opening pages, I felt no attraction to. I came to feel sympathy for other characters I’d not really liked at the start. And some, when peeled back, where entirely horrifying. There’s not a vast amount of horror in the book but when it comes… it really is very dark indeed.

I think for most people, the writing style will make or break this book. This is an author relishing their deliberately archaic language. It is wordy, with turns of phrase that sound profoundly un-contemporary. If you’re the sort of person who only likes stark, pared down language, considers ‘said’ the only acceptable speech tag, and skims paragraphs of description, this is not for you. If you enjoy wilfully wordy books, I fully expect you’ll enjoy this. I found it difficult to put down, and was enchanted by the unconventional story-shape.

Buy the book here (or pre-order it, it’s not out at time of posting the blog) https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Crucible-Blind-God/dp/1590794141


Novel society

It may seem odd to claim that the way we tell stories shapes our culture, but I am absolutely convinced it does.

A novel, as we generally understand it, is fundamentally about conflict resolution. That probably sounds like a good thing, but I think it isn’t. A novel sets up a situation a tension, or difficulty, a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome. Then the characters deal with it, and if the book is tragic, they may fail, or die succeeding. The default story is that the problem is solved.

What was confusing, is caused to make sense. What was inexplicable, is explained. What was obscure, becomes clear. What was wrong, is set right. Mysteries are solved. Crimes are thwarted, or punished. The tension of attraction resolves into the familiarity of a relationship.

A book, we are taught at school, has a beginning, a middle and an end. The ending has to round things up. At the end of a book, the world of the book is a clearer, simpler place. Of course there are exceptions.

Real life is not like books in that many things are never resolved or tidied up in this way. All too often, the consequence of the tidy plot ending is the loss of mystery, possibility and wonder. I have a problem with this.

As a writer of stories, I’ve explored a bit what happens when a novel opens up more possibilities than it shuts down. I tend to tell small coherent tales against a backdrop of expanding chaos. I’m somewhat influenced by Philip K Dick in this regard. It does not make for an easy sell, but it makes me happy. As a reader I prefer the worlds that aren’t tidied up – Mythago Wood, Earthsea, Winchette Dale – those places that leave me with far more questions than answers.

What does the story shape do to us? How much is our wider culture shaped by the idea of the tidy ending, and that all mysteries can and should be explained? What would happen to us if we told stories that expanded possibility rather than contracting it?