I am facilitating The Light Returning again this year. This is a series of invitations to tell your 2021 stories. This is the second time this course is running, and the workbook has been updated for 2021.
This course begins with the winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere.
Our opening ceremony will take place on December 21, 2021. As with so many 2021 experiences, and continuing the tradition we started in the 2020 version of this course, this opening ceremony will take place online in a video chat. This is such a grief and such a gift – that we cannot easily share each other’s physical presence; that we can share each other’s virtual presence across vast distance.
Many of our 2021 stories are filled with these contradictions. Such distance, such presence. Such disconnection, such connection. Such scarcity, such abundance. Such discouragement, such hope. It has been another year of extremes, for many of us.
The winter solstice marks the beginning of the lengthening days, the beginning of the light returning. 2021 has often felt long and despairing, a continuation of a 2020 that also felt long and despairing. It has felt, at times, like the light will never come back. Maybe even more this year than last year, for some of us.
That story of despair is often the most accessible when we think about what 2021 has meant, what it has included, what the story of this year has been. But 2021 includes more than just the stories of struggle and despair. It also includes the stories of care and collective action. The stories of survival. The stories of relationship and connection. Those stories are even more important as we continue in the hard times that we thought might end with a vaccine, as we continue into hard times that include more rapid and devastating climate change, more variants, more long covid, more fear, more despair.
This course is meant to invite participants to reflect on and share their 2021 stories. The good ones and the bad ones, the soft and the hard ones. My hope is that this course will help weave a more complicated, nuanced, richly described tapestry of the year, one that we can look back on and find ourselves in, not as passive recipients of collective trauma but as people with hopes for ourselves and our communities, with skills to navigate hard times, and with agency.
The opening ceremony is optional. Participants will receive ten days of emails, each containing a reflection and writing prompt. We will also have a Discord set up for sharing our stories or chatting.
Participants will also receive a workbook that includes each of the ten invitations, along with some additional information about the thinking behind the course, and some guidance for creating your own reflection prompts. You can print this workbook off and use it during the course, or share it with friends, or return to it whenever you go through an experience that wants to be given story.
This course is available on a pay-what-you-what basis.
I have been trying to write this letter for most of the month, and it is arriving a full two weeks late. It has been a time, hasn’t it?
I’ve been thinking about what Shannon wrote in our very first in-person meeting – “The calm that exists because of it is wonderful and is like a vacation that never ends. I remember vacations and loving the way the days were shaped by desire and curiosity. I remember loving them. I know you love them. Imagine a world like that.”
I’ve been thinking about all the pressures we are under to be productive in this time of isolation and lockdown and physical distancing, and how we are also under a competing pressure to experience this time as a break, a rest, a reset, a vacation of sorts. I’ve been thinking about how both of those pressures land in unkind ways for many of us.
Right now, maybe not “more than ever” but certainly more than usually, we need ways to reach for hope, to find the shiny threads hidden in the gutters, to seek out possibility, to imagine our way into the future. We need ways to do this that are justice oriented, that are aware of existing power structures, that are welcoming of diverse experiences, that hold space for the discomfort and fear and grief of this time in our lives. We need robust hope, a light that can show us the next step forward.
So, here we are. The Shiny! speculative writing group meets again.
This month there will be no in-person meeting. And I’m not sure when we’ll have our next in-person meeting! We’ll be listening to the recommendations of health professionals, and then being a little extra careful because some of us have compromised immune systems or complex health concerns (including me!)
Instead, we will be meeting from 4-6 pm Mountain time on Sunday April 5 in a GoToMeeting chat. If you’d like the invite link, please send me a message.
In this letter, you will find a craft lesson, writing prompts, some recommended reading, and some shared writing.
How do we practice craft during a crisis? Plot, pacing, dialogue, point-of-view… all of these things seem so far beyond what many of us are experiencing in our daily life. How do we bring these onto the page? How can we write anything good while everything around us is terrifying and bad?!
If you’re having trouble writing anything at all, let alone anything that feels like it’s “good” writing, you’re not alone. Even Neil Gaiman has been having a tough time with it.
So, instead of our usual craft lesson, this month let’s try something else.
Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, writes, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.“
This month, let’s remember that craft includes shitty first drafts, incomplete paragraphs, stories that go nowhere, ideas that tumble around the page and end up looking like a mess. This is craft, too.
So just write anything.
Write five first lines, with no demand on yourself to take them further than first line.
Write one snippet of dialogue.
Write a list of ideas, no matter how far-fetched.
Set your timer for 10 minutes and free associate from the word “pandemic” and then set another 10 minute timer and free associate from “hope” and then spend five minute searching for resonances between your two lists. (Free associating just means that you start with the word and then you write as many words as you can think of that are in some way connected.) When your mind takes you down a path during this process, follow it – turn the timer off and go.
However you show up for yourself at this time, however you show up at the page (or not!) is craft.
I know it doesn’t feel like it. Trust me, my beloved magpies, I know. I feel the failure, too! I, too, saw that post that went viral about documenting our lives during this time for future historians, and even though I’ve had a three-pages-every-morning routine since my dad died, I still haven’t managed to journal in the morning this month. I know it feels like failure.
My favourite craft book is Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, and the title reminds me that right now we are steering our craft through the storm.
Now is the time to be kind with our creative selves.
These gentle invitations to the page are craft, too.
This month’s shared writing comes from Agnieszka, and although it was written before the pandemic was determined to be a pandemic, before we went into isolation, before we realized that everything would change… even though it was written before this time, the portal described is exactly what we need right now.
Now, with so many pressures to be productive, to be creative, to be well… it’s a possibility that some of us will experience create productivity, creativity, wellness, in this time. But let it pass. Just breathe. Hold onto the wall. Just be in the now. In the doorway.
A portal opens or closes
A portal opens or closes March 1, 2020
(My gut hurts from worry about too many difficult things, unsolvable problems, total fear of failing at all dreams, time passing by, kids growing away from me, me hanging on too tightly and causing issues for their future but letting go causes issues for their future too. But, there is nothing coming from all this effort! I’ve been too serious, too worried. That’s always the problem – worry shuts down creativity… But does it really??)
I want this mind to open. Let life pass. Let ideas pass. Let hope and newness and possibility pass. Why be so crammed in the dinghy basement of tension, freaking out, pressure, fear, and self-judgement? Why breathe only comparison and self-judgement? Let possibility pass.
Let possibility pass. The door IS open. Yes, it is. Regardless of words not coming out perfectly. Just a chance to practice, to imagine, no matter what, doesn’t matter what. Just let them pass. Breathe. Let whatever IS there just be there.
And stay. Stay quietly calm, present, patient. Curious.
Let it pass. Give it time. The door stays open. Approach slowly. No, it won’t suck me in. It’s okay. Hang on to the wall. Take small steps. Breathe deep and slow.
So. This is a threshold then. Afraid that I’ll get lost. It feels like fear on the inside. If I let go of the worry, what will be there? The story of success is bullsh*t, I know… If I let go of the tensions, what will keep me upright…?
Maybe it’s okay to let the tension go and just be. Just be. Lie down. Rest. And maybe it’s not all up to me.
The tension lessens. The door is still open. Nothing needs to happen. Just let possibility pass. Stay here waiting.
Breathing into the vast space. Take shelter in the sky. Letting the blue feed me. Drinking in the safety of the ground. Letting skin be warmed by the sun. That’s it.
Coming back into being. Not past, not future. Just now. Just being now. In the doorway. When the breath passes through, the stories and possibilities will pass through as well.
Reading it also part of our writing craft!
This month I have some excellent recommendations, along with short study guides.
Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. By adrienne maree brown. This book! It is the spark that grew into An Unexpected Light and it is a constant source of inspiration. I highly, highly recommend it. It also includes many, many references to speculative fiction works and writers.
Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories for the Transformative Justice Movement. Edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. This collection of stories is a brilliant place to spark your ideas for justice beyond the prison industrial complex and ideas of punishment and exile. If transformative justice is part of the future you want to imagine, this book will offer you a lot to work with.
Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture. By Nora Samaran. This book (which is phenomenal and inspiring) grew out of Samaran’s essay “Nurturance is the Opposite of Rape Culture,” and both the essay and the book invite us to imagine what might become possible if we cultivated communities based on nurturance rather than violence. Where the essay focuses specifically on men and women and rape culture, the book expands this conversation to include all of society. For those of us wanting to write speculative fiction that includes care and nurturance, this will help. (For those of us who want to understand violence, this is also an incredibly valuable book.)
Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief. Edited by Cindy Milstein. I think that learning how to grieve, and how to write grief, and how to grieve together, and how to become comfortable with grief and grieving – these will be critical skills for those of us who want to write through to more possible futures. It’s a beautiful and moving book.
I want to share hopeful short fiction. I think it is so important! But in reality, I have not been able to focus on reading any kind of fiction this month. And I won’t share what I haven’t read, so instead… I love this essay by Aislinn Thomas. “Disability, Creativity, and Care in the Time of COVID-19.“
And I recommend watching Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts and Netflix. (Participants in An Unexpected Light have been invited to participate in weekly watch parties while we’re all in isolation together. Would you like to participate? Let me know!)
Here are the three prompts for our next writing session. (Which, again, will be happening on April 5, from 4-6 pm mountain time, on gotomeeting. If you’d like the link, let me know!)
The last prompt is an invitation, and a hope. I hope that you will contribute to the zine!
An enchanted apple. (Or pomegranate seed. Or fruit from some sort of super fancy tree. Or, like, a really amazing raspberry.)
The soft relentlessness of waves on sand.
Write something for my Succulent Zine! (April 10 is the deadline for the zine.)
I love the comic about how we are basically houseplants with complicated feelings, and it got me thinking about how isolation means we need to be succulents, able to survive and thrive in conditions of scarcity and intensity, and how fear also turns out lives into deserts, and how precarity does the same.
So I thought we could use that metaphor, and make a little zine about what gets us through, and how we get each other through.
What are our skills of survival?
What are our strategies of mutual aid and collective action and care?
How are we keeping ourselves going, and what can we teach each other?
Many of us are in communities with generations-long histories of succulent lives in deserts of ableism, transantagonism, queerphobia, colonialism, white supremacy. Oppressed and targeted communities know the way forward.
If you’d like to write something about how you’re feeling about the news, the health guidelines, the government response, your own experiences of isolation as a result of disability or illness that were not accommodated and how this has given you insider insight into what gets you through
A few weeks ago, before COVID-19 blew up like it has, I had the opportunity to interview Kay about their experience in An Unexpected Light. This is an excerpt from that interview, focused on answering concerns that folks might have about taking the course. The transcript is below.
Although we didn’t talk about COVID-19, I want to write about something that Kay brought up, and why I think that we need to find ways to imagine possible futures right now, despite the chaos and fear and the way that this pandemic is highlighting just how precarious so many of us are.
For example, why didn’t the stock market set aside three months of savings and give up avocado toast before this? Honestly, irresponsible. (I can’t take credit for this joke, but I do love it.)
In our interview, Kay says, “I think that pretty much everyone and anyone could really benefit from it, because there is so much of a push, especially in science fiction, to imagine dystopia. And dystopia is not very hopeful, if anything it’s quite damaging in a lot of ways and it’s not inclusive and it’s not intersectional. Like, if there’s a dystopic future, chances are you know who’s gonna go first; everybody living in the margins. This [course] is kinda the flip side of that, where the margins are creating a new world and a new path through that muck and mire, around that muck and mire, over it, under it, floating above it. Like, it’s just…hope is such a beautiful thing, and it’s much more accessible than people might even realise.”
It is so easy to tell the dystopian stories, to picture the dystopian future, to imagine the many ways this is awful and getting worse. And it is awful, and it is getting worse. But those dystopian stories do not help us move forward.
We must find a way to be present with the difficulty of this moment, without losing our ability to act on hope – not the flimsy hope of “everything will be fine!” but the robust hope of action and intention. Rebecca Solnit, in Hope in the Dark, writes, “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
“To hope is to give yourself to the future… to make the present inhabitable.”
We need that hope.
We need to act – to be connected to a sense of possibility, to a sense of ourselves as acting in solidarity with each other when we stay home, to a connection to the earth and our non-human relations. There is hope to be found in this time, and we must reach for it.
You don’t need to take An Unexpected Light in order to find that accessible hope.
You don’t need this course to bring that light into your life.
But I do think that many of us need the light. Whether it comes from a course or it comes from our communities or it comes from forgotten books on our own bookshelves.
I am in the process of converting some of the content in An Unexpected Light into some free lessons that I’ll be sharing on this blog, and into a ‘light’ version of the course that will be less costly and meant for folks who are in quarantine or isolation.
And in the meantime, find the unexpected light.
Find the people on the margins who are writing about possible futures.
Find the voices that are guiding us through to more justice, to more community care, to collective action.
Here are a few places to start:
Kay references Vandana Singh’s essay Leaving Omelas: Science Fiction, Climate Change, and the Future. It’s one of the essays we read in the course, and it’s fantastic. In the time of this pandemic, this essay is even more relevant. Singh writes, “We are taught to unsee the connections, to look at the world in chopped up, disconnected little pieces. Our Omelas constrains our empathic imagination to small personal circles, and to short scales of time and space. Science fiction should enable us to see structures of oppression and control, to make us aware of and question the things we normally take for granted, and to expand our imaginative reach. But more often than not, science fiction simply reflects the world in the image of the overwhelming paradigm.” COVID-19 is forcing us to see the connections, and it has the potential to expand our empathetic imagination. That this essay was written in 2018, about a story written in the 1980s, should tell us that there is guidance to be found in our history. There are maps that we can follow, even in these new and terrifying times.
Consider spending some time with the Destroy series – a set of special issues in Lightspeed, Fantasy, and Nightmare magazines that includes People of Colo(u)r Destroy; Queers Destroy; and Women Destroy. Start with People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy (And within that rich wealth of stories, consider starting with Darcie Little Badger’s pandemic story, Black, Their Regalia.)
Another essay included in An Unexpected Light is Lewis, Arista, Pechawis and Kite’s essay Making Kin with the Machines. We are realizing how critical our machines are – our internet, our ventilators, our computers and phones. This essay brings Hawaiian, Cree, and Lakota perspectives to the idea of machines as kin, as part of our network of non-human relations.
Read Brairpatch Magazine’s article, Mutual Aid for the End of the World. “There is so much latent strength in communities of disability when we rely on each other to survive with each other,” says Jim, an autistic trans man with disabilities who is mixed-race Indigenous. (Jim asked that we use only his first name, for privacy.) “Able-bodied people who have the choice to go it alone without consequence, or who have wealth and influence or access to resources that enable them to make it on their own – it’s a choice for them to do this work [of prepping], not a necessity. We rarely learn hard lessons voluntarily.”
adrienne maree brown (who is, truly, the core of An Unexpected Light even though she doesn’t know it! Her work inspired this course and her writing is central to the course) shared a collection of resources in this blog post.
And last, consider backing Hugh and Nicole’s COVID-19 comic. Their work is fantastic, and this will be an excellent resource.
Keep an eye on the blog, I’ll be sharing content from the course, as well as ideas and resources for moving through this time.
If you want to take the course, get in touch! You can also register at the Thinkific course page. (Note: all of the scholarship spaces have filled, but sliding scale is still available.)
Either way, become phototropic – turning towards the light. And if you can, become bioluminescent, creating light for others to turn toward.
As Kay says, hope is a beautiful thing, and it’s more accessible than people may realize.
TS: So if someone was kind of on the fence about taking An Unexpected Light, what do you think is the most important thing for someone to know about the course if they’re debating whether to take it?
KO: Hmm. Cause like a lot of different factors can go into somebody debating whether or not like, am I a writer? Like identifying as a writer would be a big one. Like, I know that that was kind of a contributing factor and I mean, there’s no pressure on you to do that, and like, if you’re like, “am I a reader? This seems overwhelming.” Same thing goes, like there were certain parts of the course that I like just couldn’t deal with, so, I mean, I just put them off [laughs] indefinitely.
TS: That’s fair.
KO: You can skip over stuff. If accessibility seems like an issue, like financially, I know I worked out a payment plan with Tiffany that worked for me, and my money, my financial situation, so that’s another really awesome option for people and that I know Tiffany’s open to.
KO: Another thing would be like, “am I gonna be graded on this?” The idea of like, learning or doing or making… I came from an art school background. I got a BFA from ACAD [now Alberta University of the Arts] and I really like the approach and style of this course because there’s no grading unless you want feedback for your writing and even then. I was just a reader and did a little bit of feedback for people and then you get the chance to read some really amazing stuff.
TS: Yeah, as the person who got to read everything that was submitted and then only sent it out to the folks who volunteered to be readers, yeah, the writing that has been shared in the course has been fantastic. And if folks are worried that you’re not a writer, I can tell you that some of the most profoundly moving pieces have been written by people who don’t see themselves as writers and who maybe hadn’t even written speculative writing previously. Because we’re thinking about the future and hope and possibility and justice, and I don’t know, the course just, this cohort of the course has been full of brilliance.
TS: And that Kay’s word. Kay came up with that at the Shiny writing group.
KO: [laughs] Everybody was jumping on it and I love it. “Cohort” is just like a really, you know? It’s just like, I love it. Everybody’s in this, you know, bumping shoulders, “Kay, what’s up?”, bumping elbows…
TS: Yeah. Trying to imagine futures together.
TS: Would you recommend people take the course?
KO: Oh my God. I haven’t stopped talking about it since before I was taking the course. I think that pretty much everyone and anyone could really benefit from it, because there is so much of a push, especially in science fiction, to like, imagine dystopia.
And dystopia is not very hopeful, if anything it’s quite damaging in a lot of ways and it’s not inclusive and it’s not intersectional. Like, if there’s a dystopic future, chances are you know who’s gonna go first; everybody living in the margins. This is like, kinda the flip side of that, where the margins are creating a new world and a new path through that muck and mire, around that muck and mire, over it, under it, floating above it. Like, it’s just…hope is such a beautiful thing, and it’s much more accessible than people might even realise.
KO: And like, I never would’ve really realised that Indigenous people had already lived through the end of the world if I hadn’t been a part of this course, so. It’s weird to think about, but that’s just a history that we’re not introduced to; it’s not a perspective that you hear. It’s like, no First Nations really did live through the end of the world; their world, everything they knew. So, that’s a huge takeaway in and of itself, so. Anybody who is talking about decolonising anything should probably know that.
TS: Yeah. And I think it really serves a colonial, capitalist narrative to imagine that the apocalypse we’re facing now is “the” apocalypse, and to ignore the fact that you know, first contact was an apocalypse and the transatlantic slave trade was an apocalypse and is an ongoing apocalypse. And the inaccessibility of care to trans folks is an apocalypse.
TS: And ableism in our culture is an apocalypse, and each of those communities not only is surviving the apocalypse, they are figuring out how to build possible futures.
KO: And everybody it seems like is survivance. That was one of the things.. I’m about it now; it’s not about simply survival, it’s about vibrance, it’s about…there’s levity there, there’s joy to be found there, and there’s future to be found there and so, like, it’s not just about surviving it anymore. Yeah. [Kay gives two thumbs up]
KO: [laughs] Take the course!
TS: Yes! Take the course! [laughs]
KO: I feel like I always get off track so that’s my takeaway: Do it. But only if you want to.
TS: Yeah. Yes.
KO: No peer pressure! [laughs]
TS: Is there anything else that you wanted to say, either about your experience writing or your experience in the course that you think you’d like to have in this interview?
KO: Hmm. Lemme think. Nothing immediately comes to mind other than the fact that I really liked the idea of, I loved that you kind of had Octavia’s Brood at the core of it because that is some stuff. Like, there is some brilliant writing in there. And the essay, is it Leaving Omelas?
TS: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.
TS: I think? I don’t know, actually.
KO: Yeah, I wasn’t sure either, [laughs] but I say it both ways just to…
TS: But, you’re talking about the essay by Vandana Singh?
KO: That was, like, one of the most.. I think that was a point of clarity when I read that, it kind of put everything in focus for me. And that was when I really stopped to think about what I was writing. So, I don’t know if it’ll ring true for other participants like that, but, it really, it’s an incredible essay. And even just the dynamism in it, and talking about like, what is it? Newtonian physics?
KO: And like, that being a thing. It’s just so good, everything about it. It’s an excellent essay.
TS: It’s an excellent essay.
KO: And, what was the quote that you say, like “writing science fiction is like, everything…”
TS:“All organising is science fiction” which is a quote by adrienne marie brown.
KO: And that was something that I’d also like to leave with anybody that’s considering this course and not sure. It’s like, getting together to, online, to talk about this, emailing Tiffany your work, considering this course, like, all of it is creating possible futures and maybe bringing something into the world, so. [sings]: Science fiction! [laughs]. It’s not all just like ancient sexist Star Trek! [laughs]
TS: It’s true. It’s so much more than that. Awesome. Thank you so much.
It’s about how we respond to recurring stories that focus tightly on a problem or complaint, whether the storyteller is ourselves or someone else. What I hope to do with this post is to describe how we might use narrative therapy practices in our responses to ourselves and each other, in order to help the storyteller feel stronger in their story. This might mean strengthening the storyteller’s connection to their own values, or inviting the storyteller to tell the story of how they responded to the problem in addition to telling the story of the problem’s influence on them.
Many of us have experienced recurring stories that focus on a problem. These recurring stories tell the story of an experience, a person or a relationship, where the problem has significant power and is central to the story. Problem-saturated stories are notable because they tend not to leave room in the story for recognizing agency, choice, and response. The problem happens to the storyteller, and throw the storyteller off course in a way that is disruptive and distressing. They are often stories of injustice, or of a social context that suddenly goes off the rails.
These stories can be distressing to hear, even if we’re just hearing them from ourselves! It can be hard to know how to respond, and sometimes we respond by shutting the story (and the storyteller) down, changing the subject without engaging in the story, asking (or demanding) that the storyteller focus on the positives, or downplaying or dismissing the impact of the problem because we don’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of the problem story again. Sometimes these responses are based in self-preservation, but they are not often helpful for the storyteller. The goal of this post is to offer us some other possible responses.
A problem-saturated story tells the story of an experience in a way that makes the problem powerful and visible and leaves the values, skills, choices, and responses of the person experiencing the problem less visible. Our goal with these responses is to flip that around, and make the values, skills, choices, and responses of the person experiencing the problem more visible. People are not passive recipients of hardship – we are always responding. This post is about how we help the storyteller make those responses visible.
I want to add some really important caveats right at the beginning of this post:
First, this practice is at the heart of narrative therapy. I think this is at the heart of all therapy, really, though different therapeutic methods approach it differently. This practice is about listening with compassion and care, and asking questions that invite a shift in the narrative focus. It is hard and important work, and it is not only trained therapists who do this work. Many of us, therapists or not, have deep skills and insider knowledge when it comes to listening and responding to the stories of problems, and all of us have skills and knowledge when it comes to responding to problems – one of the core beliefs of narrative therapy is that nobody is passive recipient of trauma or hardship.
In sharing this post, I’m not suggesting that we should all become therapists for each other all the time. Even though this practice is at the heart of narrative therapy, and it can be a therapeutic process, it’s also just part of how we can be in relationship with each other. We listen to each other tell the stories of our lives, and the stories of our problems, all the time. The goal of this practice, especially when we’re bringing it into our non-therapeutic relationships, is not to “fix” the problem and it is definitely not to “fix” the person.
The goal is to invite the storyteller to tell the story in ways that feel strong. It is about highlighting and making visible the skills and values and responses that already exist within the story. That’s a really important orientation to the story (and the storyteller) because it involves curiousity rather than education. This practice invites us, as listeners, to locate the storyteller as the expert in their own experience, and and it invites us to carry a pre-existing belief that there are skills, values, and responses already present in the story.
Second, I want to acknowledge the importance of complaint in our lives. Complaint is not a bad thing, and telling stories of complaint is also not a bad thing. Complaints, including retelling stories of problems in our lives, are often critical steps in standing against injustice. So when we respond to each other’s complaints, or to our own complaints, it is important to keep in mind the value of complaint, and to honour the insight that allows someone to say, “this happened and it was not okay.”
Sometimes it takes time to get to the point of saying it so clearly, and what can come across as “whining” or “fixating on the negative” can be part of an important process of sifting through an experience to understand what happened and why it feels bad.
As Sara Ahmed points out, “A feminist ear picks up on the sounds that are blocked by the collective will not to hear. The sounds of no, the complaints about violence, the refusals to laugh at sexist jokes; the refusals to comply with unreasonable demands; to acquire a feminist ear is to hear those sounds as speech.”
So, before I invite you to use these practices to respond to complaint in a way that shifts from the problem to the response, I first want to invite you to listen with care to the complaint. Is the story being told over and over to you because the storyteller (perhaps yourself!) has been “blocked by the collective will not to hear”? How can we “acquire a feminist ear” in our listening to each other (and ourselves)?
If it is the case that the storyteller has not had the opportunity to tell the story without being “blocked”, then the storyteller first needs to be witnessed in the grip of the problem and the complaint. For example, if the problem story is about experiencing racism, transantagonism, queerphobia, fatphobia, ableism, misogyny, or any other problem related to structural oppression, chances are very good that the storyteller has been “blocked” by the collective ear, and naming the injustice is a critical part of that person’s survival and self-affirmation. In those cases, it is so important to listen compassionately and with the “feminist ear” that Sara Ahmed invites us to develop in ourselves.
That act of listening carefully to the problem story is one of the most important practices of narrative therapy (in my opinion). Michael White referred to it as “lingering with the problem” and it can be deeply uncomfortable, but also incredibly valuable. Often, only once we have been witnessed in our struggle, and the harms and injustices that we are facing have been named, can we consider moving past this to other stories.
So, if you’re the listener, and you recognize that the storyteller might need to be witnessed in the struggle before they can move to other stories, and you just do not have the bandwidth to hear the story (sometimes for the fiftieth time – some stories are very sticky, and we try many times to find the right audience or the right way of being witnessed!) it is absolutely okay to say, “I don’t have the bandwidth to talk about this right now. Can we switch the topic?”
You can say this to someone else, and you can also say this to yourself. Being a supportive friend (to others and to ourselves!) does not mean that we have to always extend ourselves past our limits. Being able to say, “I don’t have it in me right now” can invite consent and accountability into our relationships, allowing us to say yes to the hard conversations more openly and intentionally. This is particularly important if we are also feeling weighed down by our own contexts or problems.
So, with all those caveats and assuming that you have the bandwidth to spend some time in the problem-saturated story and you’d like to try and engage in a narratively-informed conversation with the storyteller and try to shift the story a bit, here are some ideas.
As I mentioned, the goal of responding to these problem-saturated stories is to make those values, skills, choices, and responses visible, or at least to invite the storyteller to reflect on them. This means that we’re not trying to change the topic (though that’s valid – it’s just a different thing!), we’re trying to change the lens on the topic.
Note: the storyteller might be yourself.
Additional note: This might be incredibly difficult and uncomfortable.
Third note: If the storyteller, especially if it is not you, appears uncomfortable with your questions and with this approach, take a step back. If you feel like you have to push to get anywhere with this, it’s best to stop. Narrative questions can be so valuable and so rewarding, but they can also be so full of pressure and friction. If it feels hard and bad for either of you, take a breath and pause. The storyteller may not be ready to shift the story, and that’s okay! That’s not a failure on their part, and it’s not a failure on your part. And it also doesn’t mean that you have to listen to the same story again – you have the option to decline the conversation, to change the topic, to take care of the relationship in other ways.
So, the actual practice.
Listen to the story and think about the following questions, and consider asking them if an opportunity arises:
What skills made it possible for the storyteller to get through that experience?
For example, if they are telling the story of a relationship that has ended, and they are lingering in the stories of pain that they experienced, what skills allowed them to keep going in their life despite that pain? How did they get through the relationship up to the point of it ending? Where did they learn these skills? Who taught them, or showed them it was possible? When did they first realize that they had these skills?
As you listen to the story, you might notice moments when the storyteller did something in response to the problem. Is this connected to a skill that can be named, and whose history can be traced?
In an example like this, be mindful of not cooperating with victim-blaming discourses by suggesting that they should have had different skills, or that the hurtful situation was a “blessing in disguise” because of the skills they developed in response.
What values did the storyteller hold onto as they moved through that experience?
For example, if they are telling the story of how workplace bullying has invited problems into their life, what have they held onto that allows them to get through that experience? What do they value or cherish about themselves in a work context – do they have a value of integrity or collaboration or justice that has allowed them to keep showing up for work despite the problems? Can you see these values evident in the story, such as in the way they choose to treat coworkers with care, or in the way they do their work? What do their choices say about what is important to them?
Sometimes problem-saturated stories are so sticky because they are stories of times when our values have been violated – if we have a value of integrity or honesty and we have been lied to, this can feel like a very sticky problem! Sometimes the complaint itself highlights the value, and it can help to witness this actively. This might sound like, “it sounds like you really value treating people with compassion, and that value was not extended to you in this situation.” If this is the case, then you can ask about the history of that value – where does it come from? Is this a value that they share with anyone in their life? Have there been times when they’ve really seen this value being expressed in actions?
In an example like this, be aware of the fact that talking about our values can invite feelings of guilt or shame if we have acted out of alignment with our own values or if we feel that we’re not able to express our values through our actions. Focusing on what is important to someone, and framing it in terms of how they have held on to that being important despite contexts that don’t support it, can be one way to sidestep the shame.
How has the storyteller responded to the problem?
For example, if they are telling the story of how sickness or disability has impacted their life, how have they responded to the ableism that they’ve faced, and to the changes in their body and social context?
In an example like this, be especially conscious of not downplaying the impact of sickness or disability on a person’s life within our ableist culture. Naming ableism, capitalism, lack of social supports, and other structural and systemic problems is so important, because sick and disabled people are so often invited to view ourselves and our bodies as the problem. To quote Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, our bodies are not the problem, ableism is the problem.
And also, when our ability changes, this can bring grief and loss, and those feelings are valid! But the person, and the person’s body, are still not the problem.
If you are looking for stories of response, you might ask things like – what do they do when the problem shows up? How did they respond when the sickness or disability arrived, or as it has changed over time? What has allowed them to respond to the problems that have come?
Who has witnessed the storyteller experiencing this problem? Who has supported them?
This is such an important question, because the problems in our lives can isolate us, leaving us feeling alone. But we are not alone. Even if the only person we see on our team is a fictional character, a pet, or an ancestor… still, we are not alone. We are always in relationship, and there are always ways to find connection.
So, for example, if they are telling the story of being hurt by someone else, were there any kind witnesses to this hurt? Even if nobody witnessed the hurt, are there any people in the storyteller’s life who, if they had witnessed the hurt, would have recognized why it was so hurtful? Have they seen anyone else hurt in this way? If so, what did they think of that? How would they respond to seeing someone else hurt in this way? Who has supported them, or responded in the way that they would want to respond?
All of these questions focus on finding the moments of agency, choice, and response.
It’s about finding the strong story that already exists as a shimmering thread in even the most sticky, muddy, problem-saturated story.
We are always responding to the hurts and injustices and traumas that we face. These responses come from somewhere. They might come from witnessing someone else respond in a way that we want to emulate, or in a way that we don’t. From our own past experiences. From the values that we learned in our favourite books or games, or from our family members or culture. From so many places!
Telling the story of our response can help us find a sense of agency and choice – we did respond to that injustice, even if that response was to roll our eyes or go complain to a friend. We did something in response!
We all have values – things that we consider precious and worth holding onto even in the face of obstacles. These values have histories. Those histories can help us feel connected to others who share our values, and can help us feel less alone.
We all have skills – ways of acting that allow us to respond to the problems in our lives. These skills also have histories! And they may be connected to our values, and together these values and skills shape our responses.
We all have connections and community, even when we are distant from these. We all come from somewhere, and we all have people who have been a positive influence in our lives (even if those people are pets, or celebrities, or fictional characters). We are not alone.
These questions aren’t about downplaying the problem or the impact it has had on the storyteller’s life. They are about making visible what the storyteller has done in response, and what has allowed them to do this.
If you end up using some of these strategies and questions in your life, I’d love to hear about them!
If you’d like to learn more about narrative therapy, the Dulwich Centre has two free online courses – an intro to narrative therapy, and a free online course focused on Aboriginal narrative therapy (taught by Aunty Barbara Wingard, who coined the phrase “telling our stories in ways that make us stronger”). You can find those courses here.
Our current economic, environmental, and political devastation offer plenty of problem stories for many of us. I offer An Unexpected Light, a six-month online narrative therapy and speculative fiction course focused on telling stories of futures full of care, collaboration, justice, liberation, and possibility. The next session starts April 2, 2020. Find more information and register here.
This is our monthly Shiny! speculative writing group letter. Our first regular letter! I’ve been thinking about who we are as a group, and what we’re trying to do, and the obstacles that we might need to navigate.
I decided on magpies, because I love magpies.
They are inquisitive, curious, and creative. These are skills we need in this group, as we explore and investigate the complexities of the present in order to imagine more hopeful futures.
And they are forever seeking out the shiny hiding in the gutters and the trash and the deepest, thorniest thicket. We need this skill, too. The little bits of sparkle that we find together in this group will help us build nests for the future. (It is important to note that magpies aren’t actually more drawn to shiny objects more than any other bird – if you are a sparrow or an eagle or robin or a turkey vulture, you, too, are valuable and necessary and you, too, will help build the nests to hold the future.)
And magpies are brilliant and adaptable – recognizing the faces of allies and threats, using tools, adapting to hostile contexts. Magpies are one of the species that have fully adapted to urban living, and that thrive in spaces that have been fundamentally altered by human intrusion. This is another skill – to adapt, to recognize threat and to thrive despite it. (And perhaps to swoop at the heads of a threat, like Australian magpies do!)
So, my lovely magpies, let’s dive into this letter.
You’ll find the craft lesson first, then shared writing from the February session, some recommended reading, the writing prompts for March.
Shiny! is open to writers of all experience and confidence levels, and the reason we are not engaging in craft lessons at our in-person meetings is because, although ‘steering the craft’ (to borrow from Ursula K. Le Guin) is important, first we must be invited in. First, we gather up our words and our threads of story. First, we learn the sound and feel of our own voice. That’s what we’re doing in the in-person writing sessions. Once we have gathered a rich pile of words and stories, then we can figure out what to do with them.
Then we learn how to string those words together in ways that are most effective, and how to use our voice in ways that are most accessible to our audience. That’s what we’re hoping to do in these craft lessons.
You do not need to engage with these craft lessons in order to participate in either the in-person or the online group. They are entirely optional. However, if you do decide to engage with the craft lessons and would like to chat about them or receive feedback on your work, you can bring them to the group or email them to me. (We will eventually have a dedicated online space, most likely a Discord server, but since this is all volunteer on my end and I’ve got a bit of a learning curve to get that set up, we don’t have it yet. Bear with me!)
So, our first craft lesson!
We are starting with dialogue, since this was one of the requested topics at our launch party in January.
One of our participants shared that they have lots of character sketches and settings and narrative ideas, but they struggle with how to write dialogue between these characters.
This was a shared experience for many of us!
There are whole books written on the topic of writing dialogue (including a wealth of books on screenwriting, which offer insights that can be translated over to other forms of writing). Many of us speak all the time – to each other and to ourselves. We play over conversations in our minds, remembering or rehearsing. We listen to other people engaging in dialogue, too. We are surrounded by dialogue!
But it remains challenging to write, partly because we are so immersed in conversation throughout our days, and what we write on the page sounds off if it is exactly like what we say and hear throughout the day. Our writing needs to capture the feel of conversation, and that means that we need to learn which parts of spoken conversation need to be cut away in order to leave the core intact and convincing.
Here are a couple exercises to work with:
Practice rewriting dialogue
Record yourself having a conversation with a friend. This works best if the conversation is about something, so that you have some clear themes to work with. I suggest recording five minutes of rich conversation (which may mean setting your voice memo recording and then chatting for twenty minutes, and choosing the richest five for this exercise).
Transcribe those five minutes of conversation.
As you’re transcribing, pay attention to all of the filler in the conversation, and all the bits that could be edited out in order to make the dialogue easier to read.
Once you’ve done this, rewrite the conversation. Keep the core of it – the meaning, the flow, each person’s separate voice. Work on shaping that dialogue into something that reads smoothly but remains true to the actual conversation you had with your friend.
Dialogue or description?
(This exercise is adapted from the book Writing Dialogue by the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto.)
Put two characters in a setting where they’re stuck together. (The book recommends a car, but I’ve also found waiting room, plane ride, or ticket line settings useful.)
Write the same scene twice, once using only dialogue (what are the characters saying to each other?) and once using only description or summary (what is happening around the characters?)
Which works better?
That wasn’t the plan!
Write a two-part scene.
In the first, have your character imagining what they will say in a conversation that they’re anticipating.
In the second, write them actually having the conversation.
We’ve all had the experience of anticipating a conversation and then having that conversation actually happen, and it rarely works that it goes exactly as planned. (When it does go exactly as planned, this is its own kind of shocking!)
If your character’s conversation does not go as planned, what are the variables that push the conversation off the anticipated track? What is the result of this?
If the conversation goes exactly as planned, what is the outcome of this? How does your character feel? What are the effects on their life or the lives of those around them?
One of our writing prompts was rolling three Magic & Fairytale Story Cube dice. We got a wizard, a treasure chest, and a knight. Agnieszka wrote three haikus, and has allowed me to share them here.
Cloaked in patient leadership,
They stand with courage
An alchemy of wisdom
The Knight (for Tiffany)
The pursuit of truth,
Through deepest sorrow of loss,
Your shining armour
Oh, the joyful abundance
Of being open
To the beauty of pleasure
If we are going to, as Walidah Imarisha suggests, write “fantastical literature that helps us to understand existing power dynamics, and helps us imagine paths to creating more just futures,” then we must be actively and intentionally working to decolonize, to be actively anti-racist, to be working towards justice. And I think that if we want to write good speculative writing, in any genre, we also need a sense of hope and possibility – sometimes our efforts towards justice, especially if we are writing from a place of privilege and trying to be in solidarity, can feel stripped of playfulness and joy. I think we need to find that joy. Our selected links for this month are tied to these ideas.
With the colonial violence being enacted against Wet’suwet’en by the Canadian government, knowing what is happening and how to be in solidarity is important, even if our writing is on other topics. These big moments in our collective narrative are important for speculative writers because in these moments, possibilities for other ways to be in the future open up. So our first link is not related to writing speculative fiction, but it is related to our goal of imagining more just futures. The Wet’suwet’en Supporter Toolkit offers a wide range of ways to support, including links to further resources. As you read through this, what becomes possible in your writing? Does the history shared here, and the story of resistance and resilience, change how you might write possible futures?
Our second reading is Kate Heartfield’s article at Article Magazine, Decolonizing the Future: How a new generation of Indigenous writers is changing the face of science fiction. This is a beautiful read, full of recommendations for books and articles and to read, and clearly articulating why Indigenous science fiction is so important. One thing I love about this essay is that it makes clear that Indigenous communities have been imagining possible futures for themselves that have always stood against colonization, and have affirmed Indigenous rights. Written a couple years ago, I think that this essay is a beautiful pairing with the Supporter Toolkit – the land defenders are holding the future, and Indigenous speculative writers have been imagining that future into possibility. “The concept of “the future” only exists in the present. It can be shaped by the same colonial structures and narratives that shape the North American present, or it can affirm Indigenous land and sovereignty.”
Our third reading is for those of us who want to write, and may not be sure what stories are ours to tell, and how to tell them in respectful ways. Amal el-Mohtar offers a brilliant and comprehensive answer to the question, “How can writers represent people on the margins in their stories? How do writers know when they are being allies and when they are talking over people who could be speaking for themselves? How can I tell, as a writer, when I’m telling a story that isn’t mine to tell?” It can be found in her essay, Writing the Margins from the Centre and Other Moral Geometries.
And lastly, the joy and playfulness, and how friendship makes the future possible. Read more from Amal el-Mohtar in her story Pockets, at Uncanny Magazine. The thing I love most about this piece is how it demonstrates what friendship can mean – the care that Tessa and Nadia and Warda take with each other, the way they check in about what they each need… it’s beautiful. It reminds me of some of my own friendships, the ones that make it possible to stay in this world even when the world is hard and terrifying. The friendships are my favourite thing about this story, but I also love the pockets!
In addition to the readings, I have an announcement!
The Spring 2020 round of An Unexpected Light is open for registration! Participation is limited in this six-month online narrative therapy and speculative fiction course. Shiny! is an offshoot of the first round of this course, which has been really well-received! If you’re enjoying this group, you might enjoy the course, too.
You can find out more (including a link to download the updated syllabus) here.
Our next in-person writing session will happen on March 1, 2020, from 4-6 pm at Loft 112 in Calgary, Alberta. We’ll be writing on the following prompts (probably not all three, unless we are a very small group!) Since our craft lesson this month was dialogue, our writing prompts are loosely themed around communication.
Shiny! is explicitly a speculative writing group, but “speculative writing” can encompass a vast diversity of genres and styles. Whatever you write, keep an eye on the speculation of it. What are you imagining to be different than what is currently known of reality? And Shiny! is also an explicitly justice-focused group, hoping to write our way into more just, more liberated, more possible futures. So if the dread rises up in you and the only future stories feel dystopian, reach in for your inner magpie, wise and adaptable and possible, and find even the tiniest sparkle to grab onto. Bring that sparkle into your story.
If you will be attending the March event, you can choose whether to write on these ahead of time and then polish them at the event, or write another piece on the same prompt at the event.
If you’re following along at a distance, you can write along with these prompts and share them by email if you’d like them included in next month’s letter. To write along, set your timer for 20 minutes and write! Feel free to edit and rewrite or keep writing past the timer, but also don’t feel obligated. Sometimes it’s worthwhile just to get a little bit of writing done, even if it’s not perfect or complete.
“I trust that help will come eventually if I persist in my curiosity, my investigation.” – Susan Power. Write about the help that comes to your character, and about the curiosity and investigation that made it possible.
A hand-written note from another time. (Note, you can take this in many directions – a note found in a book far in the future, a note sent to the past via time travel, a note from or to an ancestor, a note never meant to be found and discovered somehow, etc.)