Creativity, Competition, and Community

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One of my thesis advisors in graduate school told me, as I was working up my proposal and trying to figure out exactly what I was going to focus on, that building a new argument is a lot harder than tearing down someone else’s. In other words, don’t use this opportunity to only dismantle something. Say something new.

That struck me hard and has stuck with me into other parts of my life. I’ve been thinking about this early life lesson a lot as the New Year puts down roots.

Creating something—whether it is a book, a new coven, a tarot business, a blog, a painting, a ritual, a song—is an act of sharing one’s self. It’s challenging, and it requires a lot of energy. It’s also a sure way to draw criticism from others, even if that criticism is your own negative self-talk. After every open ritual that you worked so hard on, there is always someone who will whisper, “Well, I think you should’ve done it this way.” Every book gets negative reviews, and some of them will be unfair. If you run a coven or circle, someone in your community will eventually say something negative about it. You might even find yourself the subject of a rumor or two (often at the hands of people you’ve never even shared intimate space with, and maybe never even met at all). People in the audience will talk over you as you play your music, waiting for the next act. Your art won’t sell as fast as you want it to, or even at all. You will at times feel awash in a sea of competition as you set up your business, and you will worry that maybe you just aren’t good enough to be here. Your YouTube video or blog will eventually get thumbs down and nasty personal comments (it wouldn’t be the Internet otherwise).

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If Everything Changes, What Good is Tradition?

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My friend and initiate, Corvus, is in the process of starting a coven, and the other night we got to chatting about what it will mean for her to go forward, both as part of a community and as an autonomous high priestess. What if she does something that pisses off her upline? What if she gets out into the community and decides she doesn’t fit in? What if she has genuine encounters with the gods that take her in directions beyond where she went with me? What if she goes on to initiate someone who everyone else hates, and then no one else wants to hang out and circle anymore? WHAT IF SHE RUINS EVERYTHING.

Clearly, a lot of this is anxiety-driven and not based in our actual relationship. The whole reason she was elevated and given the support to go off and start her own group is because we knew she’d be great at it and would be a credit to the tradition.

A lot of this, no doubt, sounds totally ridiculous to some of you who are not involved in traditional covens, with their lineages and their hierarchies and all that hoo-ha. Maybe this is exactly why you’re not involved. It’s a tricky thing, having to negotiate belonging in a lineaged tradition. It can feel like you’re being watched all the time, and like you’ve always got to answer for your choices. Every one of us has heard horror stories about what happens to people who cause too much offense, stray too far from what’s accepted, or don’t build the connections necessary to ensure that you and yours are recognized at the community table.

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Finding Community on YouTube

I don’t know how many people are aware of this, but I got my start as a writer and Internet witch (that’s a thing, right?) on YouTube.

I was studying French in Paris in preparation for beginning graduate work in religious studies, and I was miserable. Not because I was in Paris—Paris is amazing and this was a highlight of my life—but because I’d just escaped an abusive relationship with a dude who, aside from being an asshole, also thought Wicca was stupid (I believe the word most used was “childish”).

I’d spent more than three years not practicing, barely having contact with my Pagan friends, drinking unbelievably, and abusing amphetamines when I wasn’t hysterically trying to use my GPA and academic pursuits to make myself feel like a worthwhile human being. Oh yeah, and I was cutting myself.

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When Communities Break

I’m watching various dramas unfold in my Pagan life right now, mostly having to do with community: A popular YouTuber converted (remember when that happened to a popular writer a few years ago?). Two Pagan Pride events in my state imploded. My conversations with peers are increasingly turning to “this new aesthetic, social-media-witchcraft that’s so popular right now.” Some of us are feeling a little threatened by the latest trends (when are we not?).

Fundamentally, this is all about change being scary.

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Alabama and Reflections on Alex Mar’s Witches of America

alex marI’m in Alabama for Thanksgiving, hanging out with my parents, running, writing, and sleeping more than I usually do. Oliver always makes the drive with me, and it’s funny watching him interact with my mother’s three cats, who are comparatively huge and fancy (long-haired, Persian, flat-faced, totally uncivilized despite whatever she says about them). Oliver stalks around the house looking surly, hissing a lot, and staying close to me. The other cats do little more than watch him attentively, but he hates it. And, naturally, I have to take his side.

Thanksgiving break and then winter break are much-needed, and I appreciate them more now that I’ve finally admitted to just not liking fall. I can catch up on reading (in between grading student papers), do some blogging, and refocus on my own physical well-being (eating regularly, getting a lot of exercise, sleeping). I even set up a target in my parents’ backyard so I can shoot.

I’m finishing up Alex Mar’s Witches in America, which I’d been dying to read since seeing all of the horrendous, scathing, angry reviews floating around the Pagan Internet.  It’s been sitting on my table for weeks, and I finally got to read it yesterday, finishing up this morning.

There’s a lot in here that I recognize. Mar and I have similar educational and economic backgrounds (near as I can tell) and are close in age, so many of her questions and impulses look familiar to me. I understand how she feels when she doesn’t quite connect to the language prevalent amongst the Dianics she visits (it’s not her feminism, not her experience of womanhood). I understand that she feels self-conscious, surrounded by the kind of ecstatic religiosity at a large Pagan gathering, and later amongst the smaller groups she pursues. I understand wanting to suspend disbelief in search of a feeling that everyone else seems to have already achieved, feeling like you’re missing something. I understand the difficulty she has negotiating conversations about socioeconomic class, and the sometimes careless assumptions she makes about the people she’s studying.  And I understand the disappointment of having to go, “Nope. This isn’t what I thought it was or what I hoped it would be.”

So I’m empathetic, even if my experiences were different.

I can’t really comment on her relationships with her individual subjects or what oaths she may or may not have broken. I think it’s worth noting that (as far as I know) the people she describes by name have remained silent on the matter. Only they can say what boundaries were violated, if any. I’m not privy to the promises she made, and I don’t feel like that’s any of my business. I also think that when oathbound material is shared and vows are broken, it’s usually best dealt with by shutting up and not drawing attention, which only serves to let everyone else know the material is really oathbound.

When I first read Tanya Luhrmann’s Persuasions of the Witches’ Craft, I had similar reactions. I found myself thinking, “Jeez, I would never have been comfortable letting a scholar into my circle like this.” But that’s their business. It’s not up to me to tell them what’s secret and what isn’t, because every group is different. If I disagree, they only way I can protect material is to keep my own mouth shut and use their experience as a cautionary tale. As for open rituals, I think having writers present is a risk that everyone takes. These are public, after all. How many church services have I written about myself? How many open rituals? Even when you go through IRB clearance (as I did), individual consent from a large body of attendees is often not required, especially if the event is open to the public (like most Pagan festivals). Whether or not that’s personally ethical varies by individual, and the outsider’s position (whether she’s a scholar, a journalist, or a blogger) is usually different from the insider’s.

Friends and colleagues have commented that they found the work to be dismissive of certain kinds of Paganism (especially eclectic Wicca) and also somewhat body-shaming. I didn’t get that impression, myself. If anything, I thought most of her descriptions were a little cliché (“pendulous” breasts abound). When she avoided eclectic Wiccans, I understood it to be because she was personally on a quest for something organized, lineaged, and appealing to her desire for intimacy. Her avoidance made sense to me, and didn’t strike me as dismissive.

As an ethnographer, I can also empathize with the fact that subjects almost never feel perfectly represented. They often feel you’ve missed the point. They often feel slighted. Usually—for religious groups—this is rooted in the ethnographer never totally giving up her outsider position. The Christians I worked with knew that I couldn’t possibly have gotten them, because if I had, I would have been saved.

At best, I’d say this is an interesting memoir from someone who thirty-something spiritual seekers may recognize. At worst, it’s just kind of rehashed and self-indulgent—pretty standard fare in popular journalism. I think the mistake some people made was assuming that this book was designed to be representative or descriptive, but this is obviously not the case. It’s very clearly a memoir. I can’t imagine how someone could pick this up after reading the dust jacket and opening chapter and think this book would tell them how to be a witch, what Paganism looks like in the United States, or what really goes on in a witch coven. This is one more volume in the growing library of “seeker” memoirs—popular for the last several years—akin to Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple or Lauren Sandler’s Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement. Fascinating for the mildly curious, but clearly not intended to be objectively scholarly.

As usual, I think our reactions say more about us than about the work itself. Maybe she really gets it wrong. Maybe looking in the mirror is uncomfortable for us Pagans. Maybe she broke her oaths. Maybe we’re offended that she didn’t feel what we feel. Maybe we wish she’d worked with different people. Maybe we just wish she’d picked a better title.

I think it’s worth reading, though, and considering the problem for yourself.

Drawing Lines: Musings on Categories, Labels, and Representation

IMG_6554Drawing Lines: Musings on Categories, Labels, and Representation.

Is there a Pagan uniform? With so much interest in organized representation, how do we decide who to exclude?


 

Okay, please bear with me while I try to figure out how to effectively share Patheos posts in an aesthetically pleasing way.  I really will refrain from double-posting, as promised, but the option to follow my postings on Oathbound isn’t quite up and running yet (it’s dependent on having a minimum number of posts, apparently).  Until then (later this week), here’s my most recent blog for those of you who may have missed it.  If you like it, please share it with people who may also like it!  My schedule there entails posting about twice a week, so updates will be frequent!  There’s also a lively comments section for those of you who enjoy sharing your input!

Blogging at Patheos!

photo-4In just about a week I’ll be writing on Oathbound: Witchcraft and Magic from the Gut, my brand new blog over at Patheos. I’m super excited, because I’ll be sharing space with established authors whom I’ve followed for a long time (Jason Mankey, Lupa, Aidan Kelly, Peg Aloi, and Lilith Dorsey, among others).  So hooray!  It’s a big deal for me because I’ll have the opportunity to write for a larger audience and get more critical feedback on both my writing and my general line of thinking. It’ll also give me an excuse to finally attend Pantheacon, which I’m mad stoked about.

I’ll be writing about a lot of the same topics: traditional Wicca and witchcraft, Paganism in the academic world, generally humorous stories about being Pagan in the wild, and tales from my own work operating a coven and trying not ruin the tradition with which I’ve been entrusted.

The new blog is still under construction, but look for a link in about a week. I’ll continue to post at Thorn the Witch, but it’ll take some time to figure out exactly what the divide is going to look like. I expect that things may get a bit more personal and swear-y over here (because saying fuck a lot and trying to revive the word “cowan” isn’t going to go over well on Patheos, probably), but hopefully not less frequent.

In the meantime, please check out and like my brand new Facebook page! You’d be doing me a big favor (and tricking Patheos Pagan into thinking I’m really popular and cutting edge so no one regrets letting me do this).

(And isn’t my blog banner badass?  It was made by Lore over at Ecstatick Magick, who is a fucking wizard.)