The Curse of the Calling

After a bit of a hiatus, Desdenada is back. Rather than sticking to a theme, Venezia and I (Evaric) will talk each week about whatever happens to be on our minds.

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When you’re doing what you’re meant to do, you’ll know.

I do a lot of weird stuff, but my latest project is a high (low?) point. I listen to a lot of podcasts, many of which are part of the interconnected FrogPants and Diamond Club networks (viewer discretion is advised for the latter). At some point, I got it into my head that I could write a Game of Thrones-style fantasy epic, with the characters and events based on the personalities and interactions of the hosts of the aforementioned podcasts. Bizarre right? I agree, and for a long time I tried to ignore the plots and settings brewing in my head.

In the end, I caved. I’ve written a good chunk of the story and intend to see it through to its conclusion. Not because I necessarily want to write it, but because in a way I have to write it. Why? Because writing is my calling. Specifically, writing about and sharing the experiences of my life. I never consciously realized it until recently, but the podcasts I listen to have impacted and shaped my life in a major way. If my calling is to write about my life, I have to accept that means writing about the disembodied voices in my ears.

To be fair, it’s not the worst use of my time. At least I’m writing. Plus I’m writing about characters and interactions I never would have come up with on my own, which makes for a nice writing exercise at the very least. In sharing the story with other listeners, and some of the hosts, of those podcasts, I’m getting comfortable sharing and promoting my work in a way I’ve never done before. (Speaking of which, I will include a link at the end of this post, but I can’t emphasize enough that if you don’t listen to the podcasts in question it will not make any sense to you).

That said, it is certainly not the best use of my time. I have other stories to work on, novels I actually plan on publishing and making a living off of. Or I could be working out, or learning Spanish (I’ve only lived in Mexico for 7 months now…). If having a calling means you sometimes have to waste time on bizarre side projects, is it worth it?

You Don’t Have to Like It

Sad Monkey
What “follow your dreams” really looks like.

Venezia doesn’t listen to the same podcasts I do and might not get the story, but she understands why I have to write it. She’s always known she was destined to be a writer, even though a lot of the time writing is her least favorite thing to do.

Nine times out of ten, she hates what she writes and ends up feeling down after trying to write. The tenth time makes it all worth it. Like a lot of writers, she doesn’t feel like she’s making up the stories she writes. It’s more like the story has already happened, and she’s struggling to retell it correctly. That’s why, when it’s good, writing doesn’t feel like work to her.

I asked Venezia if she thinks the 9:1 ratio is permanent or if it would get easier with practice. She does think it will get better, but there will always be a high ratio of bad to good and that’s something she has to accept.

Why does she have to accept she’ll spend most of her life frustrated? Because writing is her calling. Not just writing, but writing the stories she’s always carried inside her. “There are stories that have to be written,” she says, “and I have to be the one to write them.” In other words, she could try to do something else than write, or try to write simpler stories that give her less trouble, but knowing she failed to rise to her calling would make her feel even worse. “When I’m not writing, I doubt if I could even make a living out of it. But when I start writing I know I could never do anything else.”

Her options, then, are to feel like a failure nine times out of ten, or to do something else and always be unfulfilled. Sound like a terrible choice? Maybe. Or, maybe, she’s the lucky one.

Can You Hear It?

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We all have one. What’s yours?

Having a calling feels like a curse. Venezia and I have to write, even when we hate it, even when it feels like a waste of time, even when we feel compelled to write stories we’d rather discard. But it’s a blessing, too, because we never feel lost. We never wonder if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. Well, not anymore.

We’ve both been through times where we doubted what we were supposed to do, tried to find a different calling or give up on having one at all. We can both point to those times as the most miserable periods of our lives, and our shared experiences led us to formulate a controversial hypothesis:

Everyone has a calling. Most people even know what it is, but the majority never pursue it.

What stops people from doing what they’re meant to do? Societal factors, ego, and practicality.

Case study: we have a friend who is always saying she feels lost. It’s time for her to go to college and settle on a career path, but she has no idea what she wants to do. Except she does. Several times she’s confided that she dreams of being a stay-at-home mom, raising a ridiculous number of kids while her husband supports her. Unfortunately, she’s been raised in a society that tells her women are supposed to be strong, independent, and career-oriented (which are all great, but not for everybody). She’s ashamed to admit her calling, even to herself, because it’s not what her calling is “supposed” to be.

Venezia points out that, especially in the case of stay-at-home mom but also in general, there’s too much pressure in our society to be special. A stay-at-home mom might be the most important person in the lives of her immediate family, but she isn’t important to the world. She won’t go down in history and she’ll never be famous (barring a reality show, but getting a reality show probably means failing at being a good mom). A lot of people in my generation want to be YouTubers and Instagram models. Nothing wrong with that, if you’re calling – the one thing you can’t live without – really is video editing, or posing while wearing branded clothing. But if those didn’t happen to be the best path to stardom at the moment, would those same people still be interested in editing or posing?

Again, neither of us are saints when it comes to staying true to our purpose. The hardest period for me was when I attended the University of British Columbia. It used to be incredibly important to me that everybody know how smart I am. In university, I had better grades than anyone else I knew. The problem was, I studied English and Philosophy. My peers insisted good grades in those courses don’t really count, that an A+ in an English course is the equivalent of a C- in Chemistry or Psychology or International Relations or Women’s Studies or whatever else they happened to be majored in. I cared so much about how people perceived me, I actually considered switching majors (in my last year!) to something “smarter” just to prove myself (okay, I also am legitimately interested in a lot of sciences, but it was definitely part of it).

Venezia can relate. She spent years studying Molecular Biology, partly due to a childhood dream of creating the real-life Jurassic Park, but partly to prove she was smart (it worked, maybe too well: I almost didn’t ask her out because I was too intimidated).

The problem isn’t limited to callings, either. Piano is a passion of mine, but there was a time when it stopped being fun for me. Once I realized it was a way of showing off and impressing people, I got frustrated with the time it took to learn new songs and get better. For a while I stopped learning anything new and only ever played pieces I was already good at. Because I had an ulterior motive and got hung up on the end result, I stopped enjoying the music and missed out on the joy of learning. Lately I’ve relearned how to just play for me, and have fun with it.

“The most I’ve ever written is when I got there, when I was just writing for me,” Venezia says. “I get stuck when I think about fame and money, which are things I’d like but not really why I write.”

Until she said that, I didn’t realize the other reason I’m writing that ridiculous fantasy about the podcast hosts. Since I’ve moved to Mexico, writing has shifted from a hobby/dream to the way I make my living. I’m blessed to do what I love for work, but now I can’t help but focus on the end result. If I don’t sell something, I don’t eat. I slave over every word of my “real” novels so that when I release them, they’re perfect. Not so with this story: I can just have fun with it, and write for the hell of it without the pressure of anything else.

Here’s the story, by the way.

What’s your calling? Be honest. Do you know what it is? Are you actively pursuing it? Do you know what it is but aren’t pursuing it? Why or why not? No judgment: it’s okay if mastering reggae harmonica is what gives meaning to your life.

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Camp NaNoWriMo and the Mexican Influence

This is the third post in a month-long series on Camp NaNoWriMo, in which Evaric and Venezia share with you the process of writing a book in a month. Last time we talked about writing really really fast (or not).

Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, Estado de Mexico.
It’s no secret where I get my inspiration from.

The Mexican Influence

Since moving to Mexico City just over three months ago, every story I write has taken a turn for the Mexican. At the time I was writing a thriller set in an unspecified American city, but it took less than a week for me to realize it would be far more exciting if it were set here. Now for Camp NaNoWriMo I’m writing a fantasy adventure, set in what is essentially a medieval fantasy version of Mexico.

That’s not much of a stretch since Mexico is almost a fantasy setting already. Ancient pyramids rise from the desert, and in their shadow prowl creatures which could fell a man with a single bite or sting. Mexican history is a collection of desperate uprisings, unlikely alliances, and prophecies that came true.

Today we’re going to talk about how we, and all writers, can take advantage of where we come from and where we travel to create richer, fuller stories.

Ancient Inspirations

Statue of the rain god Tlaloc in Teotihuacan.
I don’t write fantasy. I live fantasy.

I’ve always been a sucker for pyramids. The first place my mind went when concocting the setting for A Memory in Indigo was pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica and the amazing societies that ruled it. My gringo compatriots probably think, as I used to, that the Aztecs and Mayans were the only real players before the Spanish came. Some of the most impressive pyramids in Mexico – like the one above – were built nearly 1500 years before the Aztecs existed. Here’s a fact that sends shivers down my spine: the time between the disappearance of the Teotihuacan (who built the aforementioned pyramid) and the rise of the Aztecs is over three centuries greater than the time between the fall of the Aztecs and the present day.

When something inspires you, it’s helpful to dig deeper and find out why. I know that pyramids make me happy, but if I just throw a pyramid in my story for no reason it will fall flat. After some reflection, I realized the appeal for me comes from the inherent, beautiful irony. Thousands of years before we were born, people created something we still find impressive today, but in the end it didn’t do them any good. Their society became dust, and all that remains of them are these structures that have long outlived their usefulness. Now that’s something I can tell a story about.

Mexico City at Night

View of Mexico City from a plane at night
I might have teared up a little when I saw it. Sue me.

I was a little disappointed when I first moved that I wasn’t able to pull off an insane Vancouver to Mexico City road trip and had to fly. Venezia told me the view of Mexico City at night would make up for it. She wasn’t kidding. Since that beautiful first impression, Ciudad de Mexico has continued to take my breath away at every turn.

When I started writing this month I didn’t think anything to do with CDMX would make it into the story. After all, it’s a medieval fantasy set in a fairly small town on a backwater archipelago, not a sprawling urban metropolis. Then, as I had with the pyramids, I thought deeper.

My first glimpse of the city was inspiring because each of the hundred million points of light (probably not even an exaggeration) represented some new experience or opportunity for me. The main setting of my story, the City of Fuscia, may be tiny by modern standards, but my main character wouldn’t see it that way. He comes from a fishing village with a population south of 20. To him, the modest harbors and ramshackle taverns of Fuscia are a whole new world.

Just this morning, as I was walking to the cafe where I’m writing this, I had another thought. An interesting quirk of this city is that each self-contained neighborhood is well-planned out, organized, and aesthetically coherent, but the way these neighborhoods are laid out in relation to each other is sheer nonsense. The result is a diverse and beautifully chaotic patchwork of a city.

My fictional city of Fuscia is constructed across a scattering of small islands linked together by bridges. With borders clearly defined by water, the city is unable to expand outward and new neighborhoods are literally stacked on top of old ones: second stories are added to houses and shops, linked together by catwalks. It seems blindingly obvious in hindsight, but until now I’d never thought about how the design would affect the feel of different neighborhoods. Now my mind is reeling with possibilities: you cross a bridge from a harbor neighborhood, packed with bustling sailors and fish markets, and after walking all of ten feet come to a somber island full of ancient government buildings, a neighborhood that has stood for thousands of years. Climbing a ladder up the side of one of these structures, you find yourself again in an entirely different neighborhood, a recently constructed residential neighborhood of wooden shacks strung with colorful banners where the air is full of laughter and music.

You can find inspiration anywhere. The old adage “write what you know” is both true and not true. You can certainly write about places you’ve never been, jobs you’ve never done, and experiences you’ve never had, but drawing from your own experience lends truth and depth to your story. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a medieval city ruled by pirates and smugglers, but I do know what it’s like to move to a new place and feel your life has suddenly begun.

Venezia has been very busy applying to and interviewing for universities so was not around to share her thoughts this time, but fear not! There is plenty more to come.

 

¿Y Tú Tambien?

What about you? How have the places you’ve lived or traveled shaped your creative works?

Feeling inspired? Check out our video series Exploring Mexico to see more of this beautiful country.

On Writing (Really Really Fast)

This is the second post in a month-long series on Camp NaNoWriMo, in which Evaric and Venezia share with you the process of writing a book in a month.

A daily schedule indicating to write 3000 words in 1 hour
Typical Monday morning.

By the end of yesterday, the second day of Camp NaNoWriMo, I had written nearly 10,000 words (9,666 to be exact). This is more than I’ve written in the entire month on previous attempts. This is not a boast, but an example of the results of making tiny changes to your mindset and creative process. The difference between my output this year vs. previous years has nothing to do with me becoming a better writer or receiving a sudden burst of divine inspiration (hardly). It has everything to do with definitions.

Redefinition (or: the Secret to Doing It is Trying to Do It)

A graph of word count stats for Camp NaNoWriMo
Just over 7,000 words – not a bad first day.

To win NaNoWriMo, you have to write 50,000 words. That’s it. Quality and coherence are not factors. This is not a loophole; according to the movement’s founder, Chris Baty, it was a deliberate decision to help writers get past hang-ups about quality and inspiration and just get words on the page. I, like thousands of other writers each year, approached NaNoWriMo falsely believing that I had committed to this quantity over quality mindset yet still finding myself unable to meet word count goals.

There’s no reason writing 50,000 words in a month should be challenging once you accept the rules of the game. You could literally type “dog” 50,000 times and you would win. The problem was I had not accepted this definition of success. Secretly, I still hoped to meet the 50,000 word goal and come out of it with a decent manuscript. I was setting myself up to fail.

But then what’s the point? Will typing “dog” 50,000 times help you improve as a writer? Okay, probably not, but that was an extreme example. As long as you’re trying to write a real story, whatever you come up with will be worth something even if it is barely readable. To prove this point, here’s an exercise you can try at home next time you have writer’s block: go to the point where you’re stuck and type “Then the dead dog got up and did a jig.”

I’m willing to bet money that sentence doesn’t work. Most likely there is no dead dog in your scene, and even if there is, chances are it does not make sense in the context of your story for dead animals to stand up and start dancing. What did you learn from this exercise? First of all, that you don’t have writer’s block.

Writer’s block is having no idea what happens next in your own story. If that was true, you’d have no objection to dropping that sentence into your scene. You have no idea what’s going to happen, so how do you know a dead dog doesn’t do a jig? The truth is, you have some guesses about what’s going to happen next, and you know for sure capering canine corpses are not involved. You just don’t want to write it down because you’re afraid it won’t come out perfect on the first try. And that’s just nonsense.

A Truly Shameful Excerpt

In case you find it hard to believe I can write 3,000 words of prose in an hour, or worse, you are impressed by the fact, I’m going to share a sample of my output (though it pains me to do so).

He found Armand asleep against the trunk of a jacaranda tree, with purple petals scattered across his face and chest. Nando stpked th\e fire back into some semblance of life and let him sellep.

WHne he awaoke they explored the island a little more. This time, rather than climbing the central hill, which was, in fact, a pyramid, they circled around the degs. Nando traced the pyramid form with his yes and an idea began to occur to him.

“We’re still on it, aren’t we?”

“What’s that, boy?”

He was gflad to hear some of the gruffness had returned to the old hunter’s voice; he must have been okay.

“The pyramid. I think, well whatg if the pyramid isnt on the island. WHat if the pyramid is the island?”

The old bhunter looked down at the gleaming white sand beneath his feet. “DOnt know about all that, he muttered.”


Even ignoring the spelling and grammatical errors, it’s not exactly Hemingway. This scene is so boring it probably won’t even appear in the final draft, but it took all of a minute to write and I came up with some ideas I liked in the course of writing it: rather than an island having a pyramid on it, the entire island is an ancient partially-submerged pyramid; and the health of the old hunter character can be gauged by the gruffness of his voice. I don’t know if I would have come up with either of those ideas through slow, deliberate writing or outlining.

We learn by doing. If you spend more time thinking about writing or planning what you are going to write than actually physically writing, you are not learning nearly as much about how to write as you could be.

At least that’s my take on it. Venezia has a different perspective.

On Writing Really Really Slow

Girl laying face down on a couch
My approach to writing.

Writing really fast would have helped when I started five years ago but I’m at a different stage of my book. I know where the story is going and most of it is written. It’s a matter of putting on the finishing touches and finding a way to say what I want to say.

I chose hours instead of a word goal so I can focus on getting the words right. 90% of the work I have left to do is reading and rereading my book as if someone else wrote it, making small changes until it feels right.

English is not my first language, so sometimes I feel self-conscious about the way my writing sounds. I write slowly because writing for me is a process of trial and error, writing and rewriting until I find the words that sound right. Knowing I can go back any make changes at any time helps me feel better and more confident about what I write.

Even if you choose an hourly goal, it is not an excuse to not get anything done. If you only have two hours a day to write you want to get the most out of them. For example, I write a lot better at night. Two hours at night counts for more than two hours during the day. Choose a writing time that works and stick to it.