Real Talk 07/05/18: The Stained Glass Conspiracy

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I’m experimenting with a new theme for my Instagram. At first glance my photos appear vaguely pink, but when you look closer, nothing in the photo actually is pink. It’s a real mindmelter, is what that is. @evaricweicksel

I want to write a book titled The Stained Glass Conspiracy. It will be about monks who live in isolation, devoting their entire existence to crafting stained glass windows depicting Biblical events. Except the conspiracy is that they actually just buy the stained glass windows from a thrift shop next door, and behind the barred doors of their monastery, they really spend all day playing Hearthstone and drinking Bourbon.

That has nothing to do with what this post is about, except for a weird metaphor at the end. Instead, I’m going to talk about accepting things I’ve known to be true for a long time, and actually practicing what I preach for once.

Writing Day to Day

 

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Quality writing is usually fueled by churros.

Last Real Talk, I talked about how I was closing in on finishing and publishing my first novel. I’ve been sick the past week and my freelance jobs have been taking up a fair amount of time, but I’m still making progress. The biggest step has been acknowledging how far I still have to go and keeping my pace steady.

This close to the end, I am tempted to rush. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and think, If I sit down and write for the next sixteen hours, I might finish my book today. That might be right, but it’s not the best approach. Instead, I’ve been trying to treat my writing sessions as if nothing had changed since I started the book. The goal is to be consistent, not fall into the trap of intensity followed by burnout.

I’ve been talking about lagom in my Skyrim posts, and applying it to great success in my writing. I like to think of myself as some sort of uberwriter who doesn’t need breaks, who can write for six hours at a stretch, but of course I’m far more productive when I take twelve-minute breaks here and there. These breaks are so small that the actual action of taking them is laughably easy. The only roadblock is in my mind: it feels like admitting defeat, or else I’m afraid that if I stop writing for twelve minutes I won’t be able to start again. Making decisions out of fear of how my future self will behave is an insidious trap I fall into all the time, but of course it’s far more productive to have faith in future me and do what I can to set him up for success.

Side note: I’ve started writing with music. I used to do this all the time and I think 99% of writers already know how effective this is. At some point I spontaneously regressed to a lower life form who doesn’t understand how focus works, and decided just listening to coffee shop ambiance was fine. Anyway, my meditation app, Calm, has a great library of monotonous trance music and nature ambiance, and taking advantage of it has hugely boosted my productivity. Anyone else who belongs to the 1% of the population who don’t already do this, take note.

Owning Your Lair

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Step 1. Tear it all apart.

The other topic I talked about last time was how I was searching for a new apartment. Shortly after that post I found out how much I owed in taxes. I still pay taxes as a Canadian resident even though I live in Mexico. Canada, being a pseudo-communist country, has some breathtakingly high tax rates. As an independent contractor, I pay these taxes twice–I pay as an employer and as my own employee. Altogether, it was more than I expected, and I had to reevaluate some things.

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Step 2. Put it back together.

In the end, I was only admitting what I already knew: it doesn’t make sense to look for a new apartment anytime soon. My rent is unbelievably low and I don’t pay for utilities or internet. If I stay here for the next five to ten years, I’m in a good position to save up and buy an apartment outright, and never pay rent again. But if you read the last Real Talk, you’ll remember me describing an untenable living situation. Can I live her for five more years and would the pain be worth it?

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Step 3. Maximize natural light.

Now that I’ve accepted this as my long-term home, I can. Many of the problems resulted from the idea that I would move in the near future, so I didn’t want to make any investments in the space. Since the last post, I’ve traded out my bed for a new one. Well, my “new” bed is also a very old piece of furniture, but the frame isn’t down a leg and the mattress isn’t full of broken springs. The new bed is also smaller, making my room less cramped. After moving around all the furniture I even have room to do yoga! I also moved furniture away from the window to maximize natural light, and fixed a broken curtain rod so I can actual let in said light. Finally, a new internet connection means I don’t have to burn gigabytes of data to use my computer in my room.

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Step 4. I’m still getting around to step 4.

This is also an application of lagom. I’ve been living with the expectation that a larger space would solve my problems, but that would probably have turned out to be false. If I can’t own and manage a small space, a bigger space would just be a bigger, more disorganized mess. Not having the ideal lair is no excuse to leave your lair in disorder. When I do eventually buy an apartment of my own, I hope this experience leaves me ready for it.

Desdenada Is: Stained Glass

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I don’t have any recent photos of stained glass, so check out my new haircut instead.

As I continue to flesh out the Desdenada Core Values, one thing is apparent: I need to nail down a naming convention. So far the values are Ridiculously Slow, As Real As It Gets, and Stained Glass. I feel they lose something if I convert them all to the same syntax: Ridiculously Slow, Unflinchingly Real, Openly Biased. Maybe the answer is to come up with flowery metaphors for the other two, like I have for Stained Glass. Hmmm. Desdenada Is: Chilled Molasses. Canadian Winter. Yeah, I’m going to have to workshop those.

Meanwhile, you might be saying, “Wait, did he just say being openly biased is one of his core values?” Yep. Keyword, openly. Bias means letting your thoughts seep into something, so any being that thinks is, by definition, biased. That’s not necessarily bad. The key is accepting bias, learning to recognize it in the world around you, and cultivating the right kind of bias.

I’ve always loved stained glass. It’s a beautiful, underutilized art. Not only is a stained glass window beautiful in what it depicts, it also lends a certain tone to the interior of a building. The light that filters through stained glass can be warm and comforting, or perhaps create a sense of gravity and somberness. The important word here is “filter”. Stained glass doesn’t create light of a certain color. It blocks out all the unwanted colors and leaves only few chosen wavelengths.

I used to do “Hall of Heroes” posts, talking about individuals I’d designated as Heroes. I think most news is either useless filler or else exaggerated or spun beyond recognition, but I don’t think the answer is to avoid news altogether. My solution was to filter all of my news through a set of Heroes. If everyone I admire and want to emulate is talking about a story, then it’s something I’ll look into.

Initially I was hesitant to implement this solution, because I think “echo chambers” and “internet bubbles” do a lot of harm. We all create our own bubble, though. Even if you follow a lot of people who disagree with you and with each other, you’re still selecting certain sources of information. Unless you want to consume all news without worrying whether it’s real, fake, quality, or clickbait–the equivalent of staring directly into the sun–the goal should be to identify what shade of stained glass you want to build. If you have liberal views and create an echo chamber full of only other liberals, you are saying, “I value feeling like liberal views are correct more than I value hearing both sides”, and I think that’s dangerous. But if you like geek culture and follow mostly other geeks, you’re saying “I value the opinions of geeks more than the opinions of mainstream reviewers who think the movies I like are overrated”, and I think that’s fine.

I might bring back the Hall of Heroes column occasionally, although I realized when I first did them that I might as well just write a name and the rest of what I was writing could be learned with a simple google search. Instead, I’m thinking of trying out some sort of “Desdenada News” column, sharing news and editorials from my very narrow, very biased perspective. I’ve said plenty of times how I love video games and other geeky things but don’t really relate to mainstream geek culture, which means I don’t really enjoy and geeky news outlets. In the spirit of creating the product you wish you could buy, I’ll cover stories from the perspective of someone who is equally obsessed with fantasy and with real-world success–no matter how small the audience for that might be.

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Real Talk 16/04/18: Recursive Real Talk

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Just keepin’ it real.

Sometimes I think this blog should be titled “Not Practicing What I Preach” and wonder if I shouldn’t talk about self-improvement until I’ve improved myself above a certain threshold. Other times I think maybe seeing somebody in the middle of the struggle instead of at the end of the journey might be valuable. Then I remember that this is a blog 90% dedicated to Skyrim shenanigans and I’m probably overthinking things.

Last week on real talk I highlighted the value of Ridiculous Slowness, which helps you focus on the journey instead of trying to rush to the end. I’m good at doing that sometimes, but it gets harder for me as I get closer to the end. When the finish line is in sight I get impatient with the distance I still have to cover.

Let’s reflect on how I could do better.

Closing the Book

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This is a book. It’s closed. What are you, the relevance police?

I’ve wanted to be a published author since I was five. Eighteen years later, I’m on the cusp of being a self-published author, which technically fulfills the goal. I’m approaching a final draft of a romance novel I’ve been working on for a while, and am getting people to read it and give feedback. The goal is to publish it next month.

Being this close has gotten me anxious and a little impatient. There’s still work to do, but it’s hard to spend a couple hours going over the dialogue of a single scene when what I really want to do is finalize the book as a whole. Of course, that’s counterproductive, because now more than ever I want to be taking the time to do my best work.

This feeling can be alleviated by taking the long view. Putting my first book out there is a significant moment in my life, but it is still only one moment in my life. Right now I’m hung up on wanting to see if the book well do well or if it will flop, and either result will affect my life in the short-term. In ten or twenty years, though, how this one book does won’t matter as much as the habits I’m building right now. Whether it sells a million copies or not a single one, I still want to keep writing, so I’ll still benefit from being a more disciplined and productive writer. Instead of thinking that I am approaching the end of the journey, I must realize that this is only one leg of a far longer journey. Sprinting the next mile won’t help me walk the thousand after that.

A Change of Place

Casa Hemingway

The other thing coming up in my life is less monumental, but may have a far greater impact on my daily experience. For the year and a half I’ve lived in Mexico City, I have been dwelling in a small room in a shared house. I’m finally secure enough financially that I’m looking for an apartment of my own.

Now that a new place is on the horizon, the little things that annoy me about my current situation have become much harder to deal with. The broken springs in my lopsided mattress seem to dig deeper into my back while I sleep, and the window that doesn’t close seems to let in more noise than ever. I’m impatient to find a new home, but I really should be searching with care and not jumping at the first apartment that comes up.

It’s also a good way for me to practice stoicism and mindfulness. Even once I have a better apartment, there will always be little inconveniences in life. Learning to live with them now will do me a lot of good later on.

Desdenada Is: As Real As It Gets

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Unflinching Realness is a 5 am preworkout so you can hit the gym when it opens at 6.

If the value of Ridiculous Slowness formed the bedrock for Ridiculously Slow Let’s Play posts, the genesis for Real Talk can be found in the value of Unflinching Realness. To put it another way–a way that gets me in trouble whenever I bring it up–this is the value of Anti-Escapism. I prefer to phrase my values in the positive form, rather than the negative, but escapism is rampant today and so worth talking about.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one of my literary heroes, the hatred of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the glass. Many people turn to fantasy because, rather than a mirror that reflects their own perceived ugliness, they desire a window into some beautiful illusion. They revel in this illusion while their reality continues to degrade. Garok the orc grows stronger and more celebrated with each passing day, while Gary the gamer grows sickly on the other side of the screen.

Yet anyone familiar with Oscar Wilde has probably already caught the error in my logic, because Oscar Wilde also said (paraphrasing once more) that the hatred of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in the glass. I may reject escapism, but obviously I don’t reject fantasy. For me, fantasy has always been a window into what could be. I’m not satisfied by making my avatar strong and accomplished. My play serves as inspiration for me to make myself strong and accomplished.

That’s where the unflinching part comes in. Desdenada is Caliban looking in the glass and seeing two faces: his own, and the face of the person that he could be. While I advocate Unflinching Realness to anyone who wants more out of life, it is not for the faint of heart. Comparing yourself to your fantasy heroes, taking an honest look at where you are and how far you have to go, can be devastating. There have been periods of my life where I struggled with depression because I didn’t live up to my own standards, and envied some of my friends their comfortable, escapist lives.

But if I could go back ten years and tell my 13-year-old self one thing, it would be this:

It was worth it.

Skyrim Life Skills

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You can find all sorts of stuff while exploring Skyrim. Like this beacon of a demonic goddess.

Despite not considering Skyrim a particularly great game, I find it strangely addictive. At first I thought it might be the world: in gaming, as in life, I crave exploration, travel, and discovery. However, my love for exploration is inextricably linked to my love for story. I like exploring partly because I like discovering new characters and stories, and seeing where they lead. There’s a lot of pretty stuff to find and look at in Skyrim, but the game’s relatively hollow stories take some of the thrill out of exploration.

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Still gotta fix this tree at some point.

The real answer became clear when I looked at how I was playing the game. Rather than being motivated by quests or stories, I anticipate leveling up certain skills and unlocking new perks. Usually, the leveling process is one of the things that interest me least in the game. The skill system is one thing Skyrim really gets right.

Today we’ll look at how you can apply that system to your real life.

Do What You Love

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Back on the road again.

There are games that I enjoy far more than Skyrim, like the Witcher or World of Warcraft, that could learn a thing or two from Skyrim’s skill system. The draw isn’t the skills themselves, or the fact that you can level any skill rather than being constrained by class. The magic is that the skill improves when you use it.

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Travel takes a long time in Skyrim when you keep your speed toggled permanently to walk….

You can specialize in alchemy skills in the Witcher, which of course I do every time, but the only way to improve those skills is to go and kill enough nekkers and complete enough quests to level up. World of Warcraft does have professions, including alchemy, which do level up when you use them. But as far as class abilities go, it doesn’t matter if you’re a warlock trying to summon stronger demons or a rogue trying to develop more effective poisons–you learn these new abilities by killing boars and completing quests. Not that leveling in these games can’t be fun and addictive in its own way, but Skyrim is a step up. If I want to be a better alchemist, I make a bunch of potions and my skill goes up, allowing me to make better potions.

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….but it’s worth it to enjoy the view.

The skill system doesn’t just motivate me to do alchemy, though. Buying ingredients for potions is expensive, and when I run out, I need to go find reagents in the world or complete jobs to get more money to buy them. Leveling up my alchemy skill, more than the game’s story or world, is what motivates me to go out and quest.

Love What You Do

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At least I’m going the right way.

If this system inspires me to sink countless hours into developing fake skills, could it inspire me to sink at least a few hours into useful real life skills? I decided to find out.

I selected a range of skills that broadly reflect the skills available in Skyrim as well as my interests. To reflect Warrior skills like weapons and armor, I went with skills like running, lift strength, karate, and so on. Since no amount of practice has ever allowed me to wield real magic, I substituted Mage skills for more spiritual ones, like mindfulness, yoga, and self-care. Thief skills are things I technically could in real life, but lockpicking and sneaking don’t have much application in my day-to-day. I replaced them with mental and creative skills, like writing, Spanish, and art.

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Spotting a building in the distance, I thought it would be a safe place to spend the night.

In Skyrim, skill points and character levels are easy to attain at first, but become progressively more difficult. I modeled this progression with a set of simple formulas. To level up my writing skill, for example, I must write n x 1000 words, where represents the level of skill I’m trying to attain: I have to write 2000 words to go from 1 to 2, then an additional 3000 words to get to 3; getting from rank 50 to 51 will require 51,000 words (in addition to all the words from previous ranks). Alternatively, I may level up by completing n writing exercises from various how-to books I own.

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I was wrong.

I’ll get into the skills in more detail later. For now, the question is: does it work? Well, I started tracking my skills today. It’s just past lunchtime, and so far I’ve meditated, written a journal entry, did laundry, and read a chapter of a book. Now I’m writing this blog post, and I’m about jump in to writing my novel.

So far, so good.

The Road to Falkreath

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Why are there ALWAYS bandits?

After slaying my first dragon last time, today’s play session brings it down a notch. We left off last time as Aemilian went to investigate a fire. Instead of another dragon, he found a camp full of giants and their mammoths. I need to get a mammoth tusk for Ysolda, but I wouldn’t stand a chance of taking them on. Instead I sneaked through their camp and looted a chest, hoping they might have a tusk lying around. They didn’t, but I found a strange beacon, through which the Daedra Prince Meridia demanded I pay a visit to her shrine. Interesting.

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Yeah dragon you better run.

On the way back to Whiterun I heard some disembodied voices shouting at me. When I met once more with the jarl, he told me it was the Greybeards of High Hrothgar, who had summoned me for training. He insisted I go at once, but I have other plans.

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My new home?

I set off down the familiar road between Whiterun and Riverwood, but this time followed it toward Falkreath. I stopped to kill some bandits on the way, and spotted a dragon wheeling overhead. It was night when I arrived, so instead of going directly to the jarl who had summoned me, I stopped by the local tavern. Immediately, some stranger challenged me to a drinking contest, and I took him up on it.

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I’m always down for a drink or two.

What could go wrong?

DRAGON!!: A Worthy Adversary

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This doesn’t look good.

Despite my general aversion to the Main Story Quest in whatever guise it takes, fighting dragons will always be cool. It’s one of those immortal cliches that will never get old. A while back I did a post on why dragons appear in almost every European and Asian mythology, and dragonesque figures appear in most of the rest of the world. I came to the conclusion that dragons represent the awesome and terrible might of nature. Early European cultures saw nature, and thus dragons, as something to be fought against and overcome. Early Asian cultures saw dragons, and the nature they represent, as forces to respect and learn from.

Dragons in Skyrim are something to be fought and something to be learned from. In addition to being a metaphor for nature, they’re also analogous to something that strikes very close to home for anyone working in a creative field.

Dragons are creative competition.

Lethal Creativity

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Mirmulnir: the Hemingway of destruction.

There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris in which the protagonist asks my personal hero, Ernest Hemingway, for feedback on his novel. Hemingway says he already knows he’ll hate it: either he’ll hate it because it’s bad, or he’ll hate it because it’s good and that makes him competition.

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Something to respect…

Most creatives have a love-hate relationship with others in their field (in addition to with themselves). Anyone with talent is simultaneously a mentor and an adversary. When I read a great novel, I am both learning how to write better and confronting an enemy I must overcome if I want a greater share of the spotlight.

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…something to fear.

This all sounds pretty cynical, but ideally competition between creatives can be friendly and constructive. I use terms like “enemy” because we’re looking at this through the lens of Skyrim, where my character and dragons are literally trying to kill one another. Competition between writers is usually nonlethal and can result in both writers getting better at their craft.

Enter the Dragonborn

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Umm…is this supposed to happen?

What does all that have to do with dragons? In Skyrim, dragons are masters of the thu’um, a magical kind of shout. Rarely, and with great difficulty, humans can learn to wield the thu’um. After slaying his first dragon, it is revealed that Aemilian (or whichever character you make) is Dragonborn, a mortal with the soul of the dragon. The Dragonborn can learn shouts instantly by absorbing the soul of a vanquished dragon, making him the only mortal capable of learning a wide variety of shouts in a single lifetime.

 

Though this is the part that originally put me off Skyrim–nothing ruins an open-world sandbox adventure faster than discovering you are the True Ultimate Hero of Prophecy and your destiny is already Written in the Stars–it does serve nicely for my metaphor. Like an aspiring writer, Aemilian has taken his first step toward mastery in a complex and challenging craft. This puts him in competition with dragons, whom he must vanquish, but also learn from.

Off the Beaten Story

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And all I ever wanted was to pick flowers and brew potions.

I’ll keep my in-game recap brief, since anyone who has played even a little Skyrim already knows what happens: a dragon attacks a watch tower outside Whiterun, I go out with a bunch of guards to kill it, I absorb its soul and learn my first shout.

I will say that, on legendary difficulty, battling a dragon is truly epic. Any of its attacks can kill me in one hit, including its breath, which can’t be dodged–the only way to survive is to dive behind cover. When I ran out of arrows and had to finish the fight with my mace, each step needed to be executed perfectly to avoid being eaten.

Before returning to Whiterun to tell the jarl what happened, I am distracted from the Main Story Quest by a glimpse of fire in the distance. Another dragon?

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What’s this, now?

I must investigate.

Quest Accepted: An Adventurer’s Journal

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For many creatives looking for meaning in life, this random NPC encounter is Skyrim’s most relatable character.

In addition to philosophizing about how my experiences in Skyrim can inform my real life, one of my goals with the Ridiculously Slow Let’s Play is to actually do things in the real world inspired by the game. We’ll start simple. One of my main goals for 2018 is to get into the habit of keeping a daily journal. There are many ways to keep a journal. It can be a record of events, a spotlight on things you’re grateful for, or even a creative exercise in stream-of-consciousness ramblings. I’m going to try something different–something that will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played an open-world RPG.

Your Personal Quest Log

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My quest log says West, but my heart says North.

Yesterday I talked about how I found some of Skyrim’s storylines more interesting than others. Specifically, I felt more drawn to a trivial “Miscellaneous” quest than the game’s main story. That got me thinking: what makes games so appealing, even addictive, is that you always know what you’re supposed to do. Even in Skyrim, where the whole point is that you can explore a vast open-world at your own discretion, there is something comforting about carrying a log full of quests that you can refer back to at any time, a handy tool that places little markers on your map and tells you how to move forward.

In retrospect, we can order the events of our lives into neat narrative threads, seeing how one thing led to another and got us where we are today. In the moment, it’s just a lot of chaos and noise. When you follow a quest in Skyrim, you know it’s going somewhere. Regardless of whether it ends happily or not, whether you succeed or fail, you know in advance that you are doing something that the game considers Meaningful. In real life, you might meet a Mysterious Stranger or apply to join some Heroic Organization–and never hear from them again. In a game there is guaranteed to be closure. Even if the stranger comes back and tries to rob you or you fail the organization’s entry trial, that’s somehow more satisfying than getting invested in something that eventually turns out not to matter.

Life is not a game, or if it is, the writers need to be fired and replaced with someone who comprehends the basics of narrative structure. Until then, it’s up to us to write our own quest logs, and it’s up to us to do it right. That means only accepting quests we have control over. For example, let’s say you want to be a professional photographer, so you decide your main quest is to get your friend’s cousin to hire you to photograph her wedding. Two months before the big day, the engagement falls through. You’ve failed your main quest for reasons that have nothing to do with you. A simpler and better goal would be to leave it at “become a professional photographer”. Opportunities will come and go, but as long as you keep working toward your goal, you’ll be making progress on your own personal adventure.

A Purpose in Skyrim

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Maybe I’d be more interested in this quest if the wizard who gave it to me wasn’t, like, just the worst.

Back in Tamriel, Aemilian is looking for his place in Skyrim. I’m not familiar with the world of the Elders Scrolls games and don’t know enough about Hammerfell to construct much of a backstory, so I’m keeping it simple: Aemilian was caught poaching and fled to Skyrim, where he was then mistaken for a Stormcloak. Now that I’ve escaped both Redguard and Imperial justice, I can shift my focus from running and laying low to figuring out what I actually want to do with my new life.

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After seeing how much depth and texture alchemy adds to the world, I decided to dabble in the game’s other tradeskills.

The Jarl of Whiterun and his court wizard have their own ideas: they want me to go to Bleak Falls Barrow and recover some artifact that has something to do with the dragons coming back. With nothing better to do, I agree. After learning the basics of arcane enchanting, catching up on some reading, and exploring the city, something more meaningful catches my eye.

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Apparently to fix this tree, I need the sap of another tree, which can only be collected using a special dagger used by hagravens to sacrifice hapless tree-creatures.

Danica Pure-Spring, a priestess of Kynareth, implores me to help her revive a sacred tree in the city square. I’ve established Aemilian as a hunter and alchemist who lives very close to the land, and Kynareth is the goddess of nature and patron of travelers. This quest isn’t just something to do. It’s a purpose.

A Purpose in Mexico

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Retracing my steps toward Riverwood.

While Aemilian raises his steel in service of Kynareth, I’m busy starting my own quest log in real-world Mexico. It doesn’t take a lot of soul searching to find my main story. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Technically this blog is writing, and I’ve even worked as a professional content writer before, and I wouldn’t count either of those as achieving my purpose in life, so I need to get more specific. I want to be a published author. Except I already am, since my first collaborative, ghostwritten novel was recently published. That doesn’t fulfill my purpose either. What I really want is to publish a novel I wrote entirely by myself, and under my own name.

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Don’t look at me like that, Main Story Quest. I’ll get to you eventually…

It’s a goal I’ve had since I was about five years old, so it’s not a huge revelation. The exercise is helpful, however, in changing how I see the story of my life. Humans naturally construct narratives out of the events they experience, and it’s too easy to give these stories downer endings. I’ve started and scrapped countless novels in my life, and it’s natural to see these each as self-contained, negative narratives: “This is the story of how Evaric failed to finish a novel.” In other words, a string of failed quests.

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Property values in Helgen really went downhill after that whole dragon incident.

But I have the power to define it differently, marking these as the ups and downs of a more meaningful, lifelong quest: “This is the story of how Evaric struggled, learned, grew, and became a successful author.”

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“Who made these neat rock formations?” I wondered. I’d soon have my answer…

At least that’s how I hope the story ends. Check back tomorrow, as I march on toward the elusive ending of yet another novel and Aemilian marches toward the sinister hagravens of Orphan Rock…

Stone by Enchanted Stone: Here Be Dragons

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Building fantasy, one stone at a time.

I love fantasy as a concept, but I dislike most fantasy in practice. Many fantasy books, movies, and games rely on stale renditions of the same ideas and stories. Despite that, it’s still my favorite genre on the whole, and the main genre that I write. Out of fear that my own books will turn out equally stale, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the true essence of fantasy.

Yes, I recognize “the true essence of fantasy” is among the most pretentious phrases I’ve written in my life, but bear with me. If you’re a fantasy nerd like me, chances are you get excited by the idea of a kingdom of elves besieged by dragon-riding necromancers. But do elves, dragons, and necromancers add anything fundamental to a story, or are they merely set dressing? If you wrote the same story about a human nation invaded by paratrooping demolitions experts, would that really impact the essence of the story?

I don’t think so, at least not given the way many creators approach fantasy. Orcs and druids appear in fantasy because they have appeared before, but most of the time nobody asks why or what they contribute. These are the sort of questions I’ll tackle every Sunday, as I deconstruct fantasy’s most important tropes and then put them back together, one dwarven runestone at a time.

Western Dragons: Monstrous Glory

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Safe to say the dragons of Game of Thrones are Western.

To kick off the series, we’ll look at a creature that’s been a fantasy hallmark for thousands of years: the dragon. Dragons are easily one of my favorite mythological creatures, which is kind of like saying pepperoni is one of my favorite pizza toppings. Everyone loves them to the point it feels banal for me to admit my love for them, but like pepperoni on pizza, there’s a reason they’re the go-to.

The dragon myth is believed to have arisen in the earliest agricultural human civilizations. Specifically, ancient Mesopotamia and its neighbors. All the dragon myths that followed can be broadly divided into myths that arose to the west of Mesopotamia and those to the east. Most of us living in the Western world are more familiar with the Western myths, and that’s where we’ll start.

Reptilian, fire-breathing, four legs, two wings, animal intelligence. All but for that last one, this is probably what you picture when you hear the word dragon. In modern fantasy, dragons are often Western in appearance but with human sentience, a distinctly Eastern trait. Let’s put that aside for now and assume dragons are just giant, fiery lizards.

Tales of heroes or gods vanquishing monstrous serpents appear in almost every Indo-European mythology. Sometimes these serpents breathe fire, but they are universally associated with water. Even our word for dragon comes from a Latin word for serpent which comes from a Greek word for sea snake. The association between dragons and treasure came a little later, and is thought to have been inspired by a common practice of putting snakes in the village granary to catch mice.

Dragons even appear, in a sense, in the one European mythology that is still widespread today: Christianity. Though translations change over the years, the serpent in Eden was often considered to have been a dragon in Medieval times. Satan himself was also frequently referred to as a dragon. Christ slaying the devil in Revelation is thought to be an expression of the much older dragonslayer tales that were the cornerstone of European myth.

Taking all of this together, a few common threads jump out. Dragons are more than human in terms of size, ferocity, and deadliness, but are also subhuman in intelligence and behavior. They represent death and danger and the ultimate expression of nature’s wrath, and they are all, without fail, conquered by humanity. This resonates with how dragons often appear in modern fantasy: a force to be conquered. They appear as final antagonists because they are recognized as ultimate forces, and conquering them secures a hero’s status as unquestionably heroic. What force they represent, however, has changed.

Sometimes dragons are an ultimate force of evil, which is consistent with Christian mythology. Sometimes they represent greed, due to their habit of hoarding shiny things. Now that the average Western dragon has been bestowed with Eastern intelligence, their actions are generally down to calculated malevolence rather than animal instinct. But if we recall that the first dragons had no intelligence, and their treasure-guarding tendencies developed later, what did they really represent?

A small detail added to maps by some early cartographers present a telling answer. The phrase “here be dragons” or drawings of dragons on sea serpents sometimes appear on old maps, in places that were unexplored or considered dangerous.

To put it simply, dragons represent nature. They represent all that is not human, that which has not been explored, conquered, or understood. Modern people might find this idea uneasy, as nature has become almost synonymous with good lately, but respect and preservation of nature is a modern luxury. In the old world, the world beyond the hearth was filled with predators which could match any human weapon, unidentified poisons and diseases that could not be cured, and the daily enemies of hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and weather.

The Western dragon is nature incarnate, the unthinking hunger of the wolf bundled up inside the destructive terror of a thunderstorm. The dragonslayer, then, represents everything that allows humans to thrive in a world which should rightly crush them: the courage that allows us to venture into the unknown, the ingenuity that allows us to breed wolves into dogs, and the camaraderie that allows us to shelter one another from the storm. Slaying the monster confers glory to the hero, just as triumphing over nature brings glory to the human race.

Eastern Dragons: Sacred Humility

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Probably more fun to hang out with.

I had more to say than I thought about Western dragons and will not pretend to be an expert on their Eastern cousins, so I’ll keep this section brief and return to it at a later date. It is interesting to note, however, that what dragons represented in ancient Asian cultures is a complete 180 from what they represented in Europe. This is an important lesson for any fantasy creator: the same concept can mean very different things to different people.

Eastern dragons are typically more serpentine than lizardlike, with four wings and no wings. They are generally more intelligent and far wiser than humans, possessing magical powers and the ability to speak. In some stories dragons even taught people to speak, or at least to write, which explains why their writing systems are so much more sophisticated than ours. We were probably taught by monkeys.

Dragons are benevolent in Eastern myth more often than not, and typically represent primal forces of nature and the universe as well as wisdom and longevity. They’re also tied to the healing and life-giving properties of water. Again, I am by no means an expert on Eastern culture, so in the interest of not accidentally saying something alarmingly racist I won’t dive too far into this one. I will say it’s fascinating that both Western and Eastern dragons are expressions of nature, but Europeans saw nature as something to be conquered and Asians as something to humble oneself before and be taught by. I would not be surprised if these mythological archetypes are indicative of greater cultural values.

The Dragon As Artist

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What do dragons mean to you?

When I said Eastern dragons were a 180 from their Western brethren, I may have misspoken. Dragons everywhere actually represent similar things, but those things they represent have different meaning to different people. For example, in Europe and Asia dragons are tied to nature and water. Nature is full of danger, but also secrets and wisdom. The ocean is a deadly place that is also responsible for all life on Earth. Your worldview determines which side of the story you focus on.

Nothing in this world is black and white, though, excepting penguins and artistic Johnny Depp films. Let’s return to that fascinating detail about how dragons came to guard treasure in Western legends. Humility is rarely given a high place in European mythology the way it is in Eastern cultures, but some European somewhere once looked at a granary snake eating a mouse and said, “You know what? I think I’m the mouse in this story.” The dragonslayer narrative is a celebration of human merit triumphing over the brutality of nature, but whether the storytellers consciously recognized it or not, this structure only works when the assumption is that humans are small, insignificant, and weak. The story of the mouse who slays the snake is glorious only because, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it goes the other way.

The same is true of Eastern myth. Dragons represent knowledge and life-giving water, and seem like pretty chill dudes. But these stories are about humility, and you wouldn’t have to humble yourself before a dragon to get water and wisdom if those things were easy to get. The process is quite different, but just like in the Western stories, the premise here is that human survival is inherently difficult. Only with the help of dragons can humans persevere.

This isn’t to say that, as a creator, you should force your dragons to conform with one of these two archetypes. The East/West divide is an oversimplification; some people even consider the Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl figure here in Mexico to be a kind of dragon, and he’s a whole other thing. The only goal is that you ask yourself why dragons are (or are not) in your story to begin with. Are they just a scary monster that guards the treasure? Or could they represent more?

 

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

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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.