Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey


Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?


I Know It When I Read It

By Alexis Duran

When I first began my foray into writing erotic fiction, I discussed the “ins-and-outs” of the biz with a writer friend of mine.  I noticed very quickly into the conversation that whereas I always used the term “erotica”, she always said “porn”.  It rankled me.  Eventually I expressed my enranklement and she explained that in her opinion erotica is just porn dressed up in a more marketable guise.

I beg to disagree.  I believe there’s a significant difference between the two genres, though there is a point at the extremes of both where they overlap.  This is not a judgment call or anything to do with morality, but simply that, as a writer, I have no interest in crafting porn, just as readers of erotica and readers of porn have different tastes and come to the page looking for different experiences.

Pornographic fiction and erotic fiction share one major thing in common: hot, graphic sex.  It’s my opinion that while in porn the sex is the reason d’etre, in erotica it is the icing on the cake, sometimes the filling as well, but never the whole cake.

Eros & Psyche by Antonio Canova

Eros & Psyche by Antonio Canova

In porn, there is a setting; a roadside bar, an office, a castle on the hill. There are characters defined by easily identifiable labels; bored housewife, rebellious biker, lonely traffic cop.  There is a very brief set-up; bored housewife stops at seedy bar and meets rebellious biker.  There is action; hot, graphic sex on a pool table.  That’s it.

Erotica has these things as well, of course, and depending on the style of the writer and the subgenre, these elements are developed and complicated to varying degrees.  In erotica, the setting becomes a more richly detailed world designed to heighten the senses and provide both opportunity and challenges.  The characters become actual people who transcend labels. They have lives beyond looking for sex. They have complications and maybe as many reasons to avoid their destined mate as to jump their bones.  There’s not only action, but plot.  Here is where things really diverge.

In porn, there’s very little resistance between contact and coitus.  Readers of porn aren’t interested in watching characters overcome obstacles to be together. As a matter of fact, I’d guess the reason they prefer porn is that they are tired of obstacles and just want to have fun. Porn is lust at first sight. Complications, if they exist, involve questions like “how many bikers will this pool table support?” not “if I have sex with this stranger, will it be the end of my marriage?”

Essentially, erotica offers two major elements  porn doesn’t: Romance and suspense.  By romance I mean a developing relationship at the core of the story.  By suspense I mean obstacles, doubts and delays that get in the way of the romance, or in other words, the grand human mess that is human intimacy.  Erotic fiction ranges from pure fantasy to gritty reality, but always, there is some element of that most delightful state of being: anticipation.  You might scoff and say there’s no suspense in romance because we know damn well who’s going to boff who.  Well, that’s just like saying there’s no suspense in your average mystery because we know the detective will solve the crime.  The suspense lies in the journey. What twists and turns shall we endure? What challenges will the lovers face? How often will their fatal flaws get in the way? Will X panic when he falls in love with Y? Will Y go back to her old boyfriend, or run away with Z?  It’s all deliciously complicated, frustrating, and if done well, arousing.

And speaking of sex.  Porn goes straight for the hot sex with a sprinkling of story on the side. In erotica, it is the story that makes the sex hot.  It hardly matters who does what with which parts, or how large or slippery those parts are. The reader has already slid beneath skin of the characters and ridden out the storm with them. The sex will be hot!

I believe we all dream of that perfect mate, that awesome, mind-blowing connection with another human being. That’s what erotica offers that porn doesn’t.  The purely realized fantasy of love achieved, love expressed in its rawest form; hot, graphic sex. Dirty sex. Kinky sex. Sad sex. Angry sex.  There is physical bliss but there is also emotion. Doubt. Fear. Longing. Rejection. Joy. Erotica removes sex from the realm of simple fantasy to that of complicated fantasy. Characters in erotica earn their orgasms, by golly.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but in this world we market and shop in, labels are important. While I will click on a book labeled erotica, I’d never click on one labeled pornography.  So maybe my friend is right? Maybe it’s all just lipstick and fishnet stockings and fooling the search engines?

Call me a romantic, but I don’t think so.

Dark Desire

By Alexis Duran


“Love is giving someone the power to destroy you but trusting them not to.” Unknown.

Sex and violence. Love and hate. Trust and fear. Protagonist and antagonist. Hero and villain. When opposites collide, sparks fly. All we have to do is look at two of the most popular TV shows of all time, Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, to see how popular those conflict-generated sparks are. There’s no arguing that these elements are intricately entwined within the human soul and so naturally, they make their way into our stories. As a writer of erotica drawn to explore the dark side of desire, I’ve occasionally questioned the value of such stories.

As early as my pre-teens, I remember flinging my sister’s Harlequin romances and “bodice-rippers” against the wall in disgust when the so-called “heroes” forced themselves on simpering heroines who then promptly fell madly in love with their abusers. Rubbish! Crap! Horror!

Imagine my embarrassment when the editor of my new novella Touch of Salar informed me that one of my sex scenes was actually a rape, and that Loose Id prefers their romantic heroes not to be rapists. Apparently no does mean no. A few subtle shifts of language and voila, acceptability is attained. But how in the world did this come about? Why did I write my characters into such a situation? Why would a writer who should know better feel compelled to send her characters into the murky realms of sexual violence?

I decided it was time to take a look at the role of villainous lovers, submissive heroes and what happens when combatants fall in lust.

Dark Fiction takes us into the breach and over the cliff on our own writer’s journey through hell and damnation. Others here on ShadowSpinners have explored the function of horror, mayhem and death in fiction (here, here and here). They found value in the impulse to endanger lives, threaten comforts, kill off gods, upend reality and kick over rocks, and so too have I found rewards in the risky behavior so often present in dark erotica.

In fiction we can safely press beyond the confines of reason, rationality, common sense, political correctness. We can send our characters back into the haunted house or into the arms of Mr. Oh-So-Wrong. What if the protagonist falls in love with the antagonist? Now there is some delicious conflict.

When I first allowed myself to write about terribly flawed characters with a penchant for dangerous partners, I discovered that the challenges of loving a villain, of forcing my characters to the edge of reason, is every bit as compelling as threatening them with death, loss, and destruction in other areas of their lives. There’s no scene quite so intimate, so revealing, as a sexual encounter that challenges everything a character believes about themselves and the other person. They know it’s “wrong” and they do it anyway. Through this self-sacrifice and self-abandonment, perhaps the hero will learn the truth and come out stronger.

And what about the villain/lover? Is she a flawed hero? A wounded aspect of the protagonist? A dangerous other who threatens to bring out the worst in everyone they encounter? The Dark Man or Dark Woman does not have to be a malevolent outside force but a catalyst, a key to unlock passions buried within, a mirror of repressed longing. The dark lover might be the one person who can help the hero experience a sexual freedom they cannot achieve themselves.

And so we conscript our characters to wrestle with deeply buried desires that can’t be acknowledged by the rational mind. There are a hundred reasons not to give in to the dark lover, but reason has little to do with the decision to risk everything. Our characters can be stupid. Our characters can be scandalous.   Our characters can embrace vulnerability and overcome fear. Usually it is society that must be defied, along with constraints of fear, shame and propriety, but often it is one’s very own demons blocking the road to liberation and any author worth her salt knows the benefits of confronting those bastards.