Imagination Is The Best (Now, Go Read A Novel)

Imagination is defined as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses”. Or, as Ursula Le Guin put, “imagination acknowledges reality, starts from it, and returns to it to enrich it” (Making Up Stories, 2013). An idea, a hypothesis, a lyric, a harmony, a story, a poem, a thesis, a recipe, it’s as if imagination is vital to almost everything we do. Which is why, as I mentioned earlier, the new Cats movie and the current state of politics are symptomatic of a dearth of imagination. Yet, the New Stories of our times, while brilliantly critical of business-as-usual, can still end up sounding a bit old-fashioned, a little unimaginative if you will. So, I think most of us could do with stretching our imaginations a little (or a lot) and we can start with reading a novel.

Because novels come in all shapes and sizes, and many, many genres, and all these genres have a thing or two to teach us. Say, you’re one of those Silicone Valley tech-guru types offering a vision of an all-singing, all-dancing, wizz-bang future, then you’re flying in the space of science-fiction, looking to an imagined future to help inform the present. Or maybe you like harking back to the glory days of yore when England was England or even further back to a time before the Romans invaded and wiped out our pagan heritage, then you’re riding through the realm of fantasy, looking back through history and giving it your own spin. Or maybe you don’t truck with fiction and prefer to focus on the “facts”. Then let me refer you to realism, as equally fictitious as the other genres, but working just as hard to engage the imagination of the reader with concepts a little more familiar than space ships and trolls. Other popular genres for modern storytellers include dystopia – the world’s going to sh*t; uptopia – the world will be great again if we do it this way; whodunnit – who’s to blame for all this; and romance – how to fall back in love with yourself in ten easy steps. I’d say a book like Homo Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, shelved in non-fiction, manages to engage all these genres yet despite professing to have a written A Brief History of Humankind he barely mentions a single novel, no poetry either.

Ideas need the imagination because it’s the faculty that allows us to engage with them. As Ursula Le Guin put it, “Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling.” So if you want to get stylish in your telling you’re going to have to do better than a bullet point list and would do well by exercising that imagination of yours. And if you want an imaginative workout, you could start by reading a novel.

Fantasy, City, Angel, Giant, Mystical, Atmosphere

The New Story Of Our Times (I’ve Got It!)

What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a monster? No, silly, it’s The New Story. From the mossy groves of land-based communities, the chthonic myths of oral storytellers, and the fiery determination of eco-activists, it is a story being pieced together sentence by sentence. Add to it the translated wisdom of many an indigenous community, throw in James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, and thank God that Earth (with a capital ‘e’) is a woman, and the sentences become paragraphs. Take the darkness and light of our souls, some lentils and the pleas for a less-populated world (with multiple options on how we de-populate our world), and the chapters gather until The New Story is at our fingertips. A story in which humanity lives sustainably and peacefully on Planet Earth.

Wow, this sounds like a great story and it’s one I’ve been keen to be a part of. I’ve done personal development courses in sustainable(ish) communities, I’ve fasted in a Welsh valley, I’ve signed online petitions to save the planet, and I’ve written many a poem about our deep connection to nature. For a long time I believed in this story, I saw Ecotopia on the horizon and I ran towards it (barefoot, naturally). I wanted to be part of the story, admiring of its prophets, and desiring of a world of so much more than this. Until a young gay man I briefly knew who also loved these stories took his own life. Until I realised that within the discussions of the Divine Feminine and the Divine Masculine there was no space for other genders – transgender, non-binary, genderqueer, questioning and beyond. Until I found the relentless sexism despite these discussions of “divine” masculinity and femininity. Until it became achingly clear how white these spaces were. Until I realised that it’s one thing to talk about (and laud) diversity of animal and plant species and quite something else to talk about diversities of gender, race, ability, class and sexuality. Yes, I was naive but I did my best to question the systems I was part of (just as the purveyors of the New Story told me to question the systems of the Old Story). It started to seem that the so-called New Story actually contained a lot of the Old Story – y’know, that one of patriarchy, power, oppression and abuse.

So I’ve come to be sceptical of anyone peddling The New Story because just as monocultures deplete earth of nutrients so monostories deplete people of their diversities. I don’t think a single story can save us (and maybe I’m being unfair to suggest that anyone is actually suggesting this) but I do think the more we gather as people with our many, many stories to hand, the more likely we’ll be able to face the monsters that really are coming over the hill. Of course I want a more sustainable and loving world and, of course, stories will inspire this change but we also need more than narratives with convenient beginnings, middles and ends, because life is so much more than a story.

Book, Open, Pages, Library, Books, Knowledge, Reading

Calling All Queer Warriors

Last summer I spent a week in the Welsh countryside. I slept in a big yurt and under a tarp, I did some fasting and I met a bunch of great people. The landscape was beautiful – we were staying in a rewilding valley, meaning that nature was slowly reclaiming the space that would previously have been farmed (although some pesky sheep did manage to break in to do some casual grazing). The land was fantastical and it reminded me of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and also the world of the Legend of Zelda (an ace computer game I loved playing when I was younger). However, as I thought about these stories I realised they are often about straight men fighting orcs and/or rescuing Princesses. So, there, deep in the Welsh wilderness a new character was born: the Queer Warrior.

Skip forward to yesterday and I just ran my first ever Queer Warriors workshop at ActivateLDN – a whole day event to equip young people with the skills and resources to make social change. The subtitle for my session was Resourcing and Supporting the LGBTQIA+ Community and for 90 minutes that is what I and eleven others got up to. We unpacked the acronym and explored what the different letters mean. We also spoke about our own experiences of gender and sexuality. We then got a bit fictional and invented our own characters, giving them names, appearances, genders, sexualities, fears and much more. We confronted our characters with their fears and had them overcome them in novel ways. In essence, we honed our storytelling and communication skills which I think are vital for the queer community because we have so many stories to tell, whether we consider ourselves a member of the community or an ally of it. We also need to be able to combat the stereotyping and prejudice that tries to sideline the queer community, often inciting and resulting in violence. Our stories matter and the more empowered we feel to tell them then, hopefully, the more others will listen.

Another metaphor of the Queer Warrior workshop is the idea that the queer community offers a huge umbrella of protection to those underneath. Furthermore, all are invited to shelter from the storm whether you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, asexual, queer, trans, cis, intersex, questioning, genderqueer, non-binary or curious. It is also an intersectional umbrella that recognises prejudice and discrimination affect different people in different ways including along lines of race, ability, mental health, class and religion. In essence, the one thing I would hate for the queer community to be is a clique. There are enough cliques out there (and, trust me, I’ve got a post or two on this for later) but in the world of the Queer Warrior all are invited – you don’t have to be x enough or more y or less z, you can just be you, whoever that is and you’ll be welcome. You don’t even have to be a Queer Warrior, that’s just a name I like!

If you’re interested in a Queer Warriors workshop please get in touch at hello@robertholtom.co.uk. And you can find out more about my work in storytelling and narrative skills here – www.robertholtom.co.uk

Video Game - The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Link Wallpaper
The Queer Warrior surveys their domain (actually it’s Link from the next Legend of Zelda game!)

Why Do Fairy Tales End In Weddings?

And it all ends happily ever after – the dragon slain, the terrible King overthrown, the witch thwarted, the wolf outrun, the villagers saved, the damsel rescued and…wedding bells. In old folktales, in Disney cartoons, in far too many movies and, of course, all over real life. Many people spend a lot of time, pain and money trying to craft that perfect day – the white dress, the giant cake, the big guest list. Sometimes they’re lucky and the only problem is the slightly leery uncle and other times it’s a disaster of catering, drained alcohol supplies and family feuds. Either way it seems we’ve taken the concept of a fairy tale wedding very seriously and tried to recreate it in real life. But I think we’ve slightly missed the point.

I do love a good fairy tale but I get pretty bored when it’s all about cisgendered, white, straight guys rescuing helpless damsels and marrying them, yawn. But the tradition was somewhat reclaimed for me when someone explained why fairy tales have a habit of ending in weddings. It’s not because the tale is literally a how-to manual for planning the big day, no, it’s a little more subtle than that. One way to interpret a traditional fairy tale is to see the characters in the story as facets of our personality (or psyche). We all have a questing hero in us and sometimes we can be a bit of a tyrant as well. There’s a wild wolf in us too, a wise sage, a jokey trickster, a helpless victim, a cunning witch and even a terrifying dragon (metaphorically speaking). We’re not just supposed to identify with the hero (y’know, that dull straight, white guy), instead all the characters represent different aspects of who we are. Many of us might play the part of the fool more often than the wise one, or the tyrant than the victim, but the point is the potential is there and our psyche is multi-faceted (whatever those dull personality tests tell us, give me dragons and witches over ENTJ any time). Basically, folktales are a form of psychology and therapy developed hundreds of years ago, pretty cool huh.

So why the wedding? Well, it’s not just some random straight folks tying the knot, it’s the marriage of your psyche. Say what? It’s when all of you, all of you, is invited back home to one giant party – it’s when you finally come to terms with being you. In many traditional tales the wedding won’t just include the in-laws but the tyrant king will be there (and he may well ceremoniously die as metaphor for you conquering your inner b*stard), the annoying brother, the sage, the mentor, the dragon’s head maybe, the witch (providing she survived and promised to be a little less wicked) and even the wild wolf might be seen flitting around in the garden. The guest list is vast and the catering cost astronomical but the point is all of you has been welcomed back home. It’s not about white dresses and multi-tiered cakes, it’s about inner healing and empowerment. So, as symbolism for inner transformation goes I think fairy tales are pretty ace. However, if like me you’re not such a fan of heteronormative ceremonies traditionally based on the buying and selling of woman, you’ll agree that the tales need a bit of a 21st century makeover. No more weddings for me, just one giant queer house party. All welcome.

A New(ish) Story: The Heroic Community

Stories are often constrained by the medium through which they are told. Shakespeare’s five act play structure lent itself well to the amount of time people could sit/stand through a play at the Globe. Dickens’ instalment-stories leant themselves well to regular publications in periodicals. And for the past few decades Blockbuster movies have slavishly followed the Hero’s Quest style narrative with great, multi-billion dollar success. And we have the original Star Wars trilogy to thank for this, or should that be blame? Effects-heavy, stereotype-rich and plot-lite is the typical approach for your average Blockbuster – there are basically only 90 minutes to tell the story of one main character (usually a man) doing a series of heroic (usually violent) things culminating in an explosive climax. Meanwhile, in-depth characterisation and moral ambiguities are ignored. Endless films keep using this formula backed up by a growing library of how-to books based on questionable psychology and claims that the Hero’s Quest is the best structure for a good story. Really!?

But that was then and this is now, and there’s a new hero in town, namely the television series. Attracting mammoth budgets, very special effects, stellar casts and nuanced plots – each 45 minute episode is now a bit like an instalment of a Dickens classic. These stories can involve multiple characters and multiple plot strands as well as having the time to explore bigger questions beyond the best way of blowing something up. We finally have an antidote to Hero Quest-itis, we’re no longer just watching the story of one man desperately trying to invest in staving off a midlife crisis. This is no longer the story of the lone hero getting by with a little, token help from his friends, it’s when the friends get to become actual characters with depth, backstory and plot. It’s not just Leia, R2D2, Chewie et al being plot devices in Luke’s success, it’s about opening up heroism (in all its forms) to the whole group. It’s basically the movie Pride.

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Based on a true story this tells the tale of the group Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners who raised money for striking Welsh miners in the 1980s. One of the pioneers of the group was Mark Ashton, a young, London based activist, and Pride could have been The Story of Mark – how he went from living your average life in London to being a hero of the Civil Resistance to the 1970s/80s Conservative Government, how he had to face obstacles (discrimination, violence etc) but triumphed over them to glory. But no, this film wasn’t just about Mark, it was about tens of people – a mix of gays, lesbians, miners, protestors, parents, friends, families, women, men, homophobes, naysayers, and bigots. The film portrayed the lives of many people, not just one, and gave depth and personality to a range of characters – quite a feat given that they didn’t have at least 20 episodes to do it in. Multiple protagonist stories abound (Calendar Girls, August: Osage County, Shakespeare’s canon) and they are a good antidote to the idealised, hero story. Pride tells a very different story – that of the Heroic Community perhaps.

The simple point is that we don’t have to look far to see beyond the structural limitations of the Hero’s Quest – for too long this go-to plot has been gone to by movie makers because it lends itself brilliantly to 90-minute, Blockbuster, cash-making extravaganzas. But the bit that really bugs me is the huge amount of literature, science and philosophy that is used to justify the endless use of the Hero’s Quest (ahem, Joseph Campbell). Fortunatley, we can retaliate by populating our stories with diverse characters and not being afraid to diverge from the predictable path of the hero. TV, comics, books, plays and video games are already streaming ahead (and have been for a long time) and now mainstream cinema needs to catch up.