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?

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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.

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.