TAZ and The Words I Needed to Hear

“See, there’s magic in a bard song. They call it inspiration and it tells the listener what they need to hear right when they need to hear it.”

Those were the words I needed to hear right when I needed to hear them. I was sitting on my couch the night following my grandfather’s funeral, a year and twenty-seven days ago. I’d just gotten back from Chicago, unloaded the car, and then sat down on the couch to finish the podcast I’d started on my first of many drives down to Chicago in 2019 to visit my grandpa and help out my mom. I was alone–my roommates could tell I didn’t want to talk–and I put on the last two episodes of the Balance arc of The Adventure Zone.

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Every Day is an Adventure

I remember, the first time I sat down to watch Adventure Time, remarking to my friends that I wasn’t drunk enough to watch this show after only the first episode. For those of my friends who are adults and trying to start the show, I usually recommend sitting down to it with a strong drink because while I adore the show, it starts off a little weirdly. It also continues weirdly, but it isn’t jarring once you’ve made the mental adjustments required to enjoy the show. They’re not strenuous, of course. It just takes a bit of time to adapt to the over-the-top action and characters before you start to see past the surface to the surprising depths of the story and character development arcs.

Like a lot of “children’s shows,” Adventure Time can be enjoyed on multiple levels. At the most basic, there are good lessons about how to be responsible, what it means to strong, how to deal with emotional problems, and how to treat people who are different from you, to name a few. These lessons are delivered through fairly straight-forward plots and the colorful fun of an action show with heart, making it an instant hit with most kids. For those looking for a bit more, there’s actually some complex emotional and interpersonal problems that happen through the various seasons that are resolved slowly. It can be difficult to watch if you want the sort of cleaner wrap-ups of most adult shows since, for example, some things are introduced in season 1 that aren’t addressed until season 5. Emotional development takes a long time, in terms of seasons and shows, but it happens at a rate that lets the adults watching the show appreciate what is going on beneath the surface but also lets the kids slowly see the changes happen in a way they’ll understand as they go through similar (if somewhat less fantastical) situations in their own lives.

For instance, a lot of the earlier episodes are non-sequiturs, with nothing to place them inside the show’s overarching timeline, but there are details that slowly fill in the world around the protagonists, Finn the Human and Jake the (magic) Dog. Finn’s sword is an easy indicator of when an episode takes place as he has a tendency to go through them a lot faster than you’d think. His behavior and age are much more subtle ones since they don’t mark most of his birthdays or give a number to his age that frequently. Instead, you can follow the show’s continuity using plot markers and shifts in character relationships. Old enemies become friends, allies reveal ulterior motives and become enemies, and background characters rise to sudden prominence before establishing a firm place in the long list of secondary characters.

The way information is revealed to the viewer can make it a difficult show to watch haphazardly. While understanding most episodes isn’t dependent on having watched all previous episodes, a lot of foreshadowing or important subtext can fall between the cracks in your understanding of the show. As information is slowly revealed, one small bite at a time (bites that increase in size as the show goes on as the first two seasons are particularly light on details), so much that you suspect is confirmed. If you pay attention to the background in almost any episode, you could reasonably draw the conclusion that Adventure Time occurs in a post-apocalyptic world. You could also conclude that humans are rare, magic has risen in the place of most of the sciences, and there’s an incredible danger present in the world that most people see as ordinary because of how screwed up the world became following whatever apocalyptic disaster befell it. Eventually, you get enough information to assemble a picture of the past on your own. Full reveals or complete pictures are super rare, but they become reference points for the show that help shore up the history you assemble as you watch it and you can usually tell where you are in the show’s timeline by references to these points.

My favorite part of the show is the way the writers use the same method of small hints and details mixed in with a few big reveals in the emotional development of the characters. Finn, as the primary protagonist, deals with the most as he grows. Jake, the secondary protagonist, has his share as well. Even a lot of the secondary characters (who occasionally have small arcs featuring them) have complex emotional journeys throughout the show. The best example of that is probably the Ice King, a certifiably insane wizard with ice powers given to him by a magic crown he wears. Not only does he feature in a lot of Finn’s emotional growth, he changes throughout the show from a pathetic villain to a tragic villain who can’t help himself, seeing as he’s been driven insane by the magic crown he wears. Some of the most powerful and emotional moments in the show come from his stories and the way people start to treat him as they grow to understand and somewhat accept him. There’s a whole list of other characters, some with their own special mini-seasons, that undergo growth and change, and each one gets their moment to shine, even the pesky whiny ones you want to just disappear.

 

Throughout it all, aside from the big reveal or big change moments, the show manages to keep an upbeat sense of humor and a positive look on even the most difficult situations. The characters rely on each other to get through their weak moments and humor is a constant aid as they try to cope with the world they actually live in as it pushes aside the world they want to live in. Even the most resilient characters are sometimes knocked down and we get to watch them struggle to their feet again. The entire show is a lesson in getting back up after failure until you succeed and learning to accept change and growth into your life gracefully.

I’ll admit the pacing can be weird early on and that it can be difficult to accept some of the asides the show makes as it slowly works its way through a difficult problem, but every episode has something important to say if you’re willing to look for it. A lot of these messages are repeated many times, but they’re usually important enough that it’s worth hearing them again. Plus, with how human they all act, even Jake the Dog and Princess Bubblegum (who is made of gum), it can be incredibly refreshing to see people struggle to deal with lessons they’ve already learned and taken for granted.

I recommend watching it. The seasons are pretty cheap on Amazon or Best Buy, but I wouldn’t recommend getting them on a streaming service as they are sometimes in weird orders and the season-by-season breakdown in the later seasons gets super wonky. It is way cheaper to get them on DVD or Blu-Ray than to buy them on Amazon or iTunes. If you want a show that will make you laugh so hard you cry and so sad you just have to laugh, that will take you on an incredibly complex emotional journey through the eyes of a wide range of very (mentally and emotionally, since “diverse” means very different things in our world than it’d mean in their world) different characters, and will leave you constantly wanting more, I cannot recommend Adventure Time strongly enough.

Not a Young Priest or an Old Priest, but a Middle-Aged Priest

I’m on a bit of a “Matthew Colville” tear this week, so I figured I might as well review the first book in his Ratcatchers series, Priest. As Colville often says in his videos, the best way to support him is to buy his books. Since I’ve gotten so much enjoyment and refreshing information from his videos, I figured I might as well buy his books as a way to contribute to his well-being, despite the fact that I know his recent Kickstarter has helped him build a company that will probably have more to do with his income than his book series will for the next several years. I also figured he’d be a good writer since he does an excellent job with his videos and seems to be a DM people loved to play D&D with.

Priest is a surprisingly complex and nuanced book that stands out from most of the (honestly, pretty awful) D&D-fantasy books I’ve read. To be fair to the genre, I haven’t read most of what people say are the good ones since I get most of mine from used book stores and people seem disinclined to sell the reportedly good ones. I enjoyed it, and I’d say it was a really fun fantasy novel that broke away from a lot of the typical fantasy tropes by relying on the sort of stuff that comes up in a D&D world that is a bigger deal in a typical fantasy novel world.

For instance, the gods are real and have intermediaries who do their bidding, like the titular character, a Priest named Heden who used to be an adventurer. Heden, an ex-ratcatcher–to use the term most people use to talk about adventurers and all the chaos they bring to locals–is a shut-in priest who hates leaving his closed-down inn but is tasked to go investigate The Forest by his immediate superior, the local bishop. Heden not only has to face the dangers of a forest that generally kills everyone who goes into it and brave the mysterious Green Order, an order of knights who protect the locals from the dangers of the forest, but also his own anxieties and PTSD from his past as an adventurer.

There are a lot of mysteries about Heden’s past and Colville does an excellent job of giving the reader just enough information to slowly create a picture without tipping his hand. He lets us know that the past is important because it informs who Heden is and why he’s been chosen to investigate the death of a knight from the Green Order, but he also lets us know that it isn’t a central point of the story. Heden’s PTSD and some of the horrors from his past impact the present, but the important part is him facing them, not exactly what happened years ago. In addition to the glimpses through Heden’s quickly avoided memories, you meet some of the members of his old adventuring group and get a sense that Heden was the reason they’re all retired. Clearly they had all become very powerful by the time they retired, judging from the casual power of the magic items Heden has available to him, but still they all toil away at their own solo endeavors and don’t seem to speak to each other very much.

This cleverly side-steps the problem that arises when you have a large group of very powerful people united towards a single purpose. With all of them together, there would be very little that could stand in their way. Alone, Heden misses important clues in his investigation, can be brought down by sheer numbers, and has a hard time processing what is happening because he’s alone all the time. With the full group, the story would have been over in the first quarter of the book and there would probably be no sequels. Alone, you get to see that Heden still has a lot of growing to do and there is opportunity for mishap when he has to tackle every major task on his own.

The plot was a little frustrating, but that was mostly a personal thing. Heden is supposed to investigate and then redeem or condemn the Green Order, but he struggles with the task because of his own prejudices against knights and because literally everyone seems to put all of the responsibility on him and then do their best to make his job harder. Eventually, you see everyone was acting appropriately, but felt like “there needs to be a problem so everyone is going to be stubborn and difficult” while I was reading it. In hindsight, it was a clever thing to do because it aligned the reader with Heden’s feelings on the matter, but I really dislike stories that have problems because there needs to be a problem, so I almost put it down.

I would definitely recommend this book. It was a lot of fun to read, the characters are all intricate and super interesting, and it deals with something most people don’t consider: what happens to the mental health of adventurers after they retire. Not many stories seem willing to consider they might wind up like a lot of modern combat veterans. I like that Matthew Colville clearly did his research and does an excellent job of bringing PTSD and panic attacks to life in the novel in a way that isn’t so rough that it could easily trigger someone with related issues. I suggest picking up a copy of Priest and giving it a read.

NaNoWriMo Day 30 (11/30)

I finished last night. I wrote my last 1500 words and then celebrated. I also wound up taking today off of work because I was up so late celebrating last night and I decided to reward myself this morning with a nice day off. A day of video games, reading books I’ve been ignoring, and reflecting on my month. Honestly, I could use a whole week off, but that’s a rather unreasonable expectation when I’ve actually got a 9-5 job to support my writing. It’s hard to support your writing with a job you’re not doing.

I think my biggest lesson from this month is that I’m still capable of incredible writing feats, though I really need to work on the “every day” part. Despite all of the time I’ve spent away from writing over the last year, since I entered NaNoWriMo in 2016 and decided not to attempt completion a day later, I’m still capable of pushing myself to produce a large number of words when I need to. My ability to write isn’t diminished, only my discipline and self-control when it comes to writing. Those will still be problems for a while, though. The end-of-month panic writing is clear evidence that I still need to work on pacing myself properly. Sure, I updated my blog every day, but the goal is to be able to write some of my story every day AND update my blog every day.

Which is something I still plan to do. Update my blog every day. I’ll find something for tomorrow and then spend my weekend working out an update schedule (for topics) and writing up a week’s worth of posts. Once I’ve gotten a decent buffer built up and worked out the kinks in WordPress’s scheduling function, I should be able to be able to just write the post a week ahead of time and schedule it for the next week. That way, I can still post on holidays without actually having to work on Holidays. Or, if I get sick again, I don’t need to struggle to make cohesive sentences, I can just focus on getting better and let my buffer take the hits. All-in-all, it sounds like a very solid if somewhat ambitious plan. Which is a theme of my plans. I really hope I manage to follow through on this one. It’d be really cool.

As for regular story writing, I’ll probably aim for 1000 words a day. Less than NaNoWriMo, but I’ll be able to go over 1000 words any time I want to. That, plus daily blog updates, should put me in the 1500 to 2500 word range which seems like plenty. I plan to continue my NaNoWriMo story until I reach the end, which should be in less than 100,000 more words. I would definitely say I’m in the 33%-50% range, so maybe I’ll finish it some time this spring. That’d be nice. Then I can get back to work on other projects while this story sits for a bit.

I’ve got so many things I want to work on and only what amounts to a part-time job’s worth of time to use unless I completely give up every other aspect of my life in order to write more. As rewarding as writing is, I think the last week has made it pretty clear to me that I need balance rather than unfettered pursuit. I’m super tired and ready for a rest. Maybe not a complete rest, but definitely a slow down.

 

Daily Prompt

In every story, there is a moment after the main action has concluded where the characters wrap up all the loose ends and make the last points on behalf of the author. Today, for the last day of National Novel Writing Month, write a scene about your character wrapping up your story. Maybe they’re talking with their friends after defeating the Big Bad Evil Person. Maybe they’re having a moment to reflect on their growth and the growth of those around them after coming of age. Maybe they’re looking back on all of their mistakes and realizing that they were wrong the entire time. Whatever it is, write it so that you can have the same sense of closure as the month ends.

 

Sharing Inspiration

One of my favorite things that crops up in older storytelling is the narrator speaking with the audience or invoking a muse. Tolkien didn’t do it in most of his fiction, but he wrote about what he called The Tree of Stories. Milton invoked a muse he referred to as The Holy Spirit. Shakespeare, in some of his plays, had the narrator invoke a muse. My favorite muse invocation is from Shakespeare’s King Henry V. The play begins with

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

The narrator is calling upon a muse to help them tell the tale of King Henry the fifth, a tale of war that could not be properly captured on a stage alone. At the end of the play, the author follows up the invocation of a muse with an apology:

Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursued the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.

This is a sentiment I feel a lot of writers share and one that I don’t think was entirely an affectation by Shakespeare. King Henry the Fifth was incredibly popular in England when Shakespeare was alive, so he likely felt exactly as the epilogue of the play depicts–the same way almost any amateur writer feels–like we’re not good enough to tell the story properly. It feels nice to see that even someone as huge in the literary world as Shakespeare struggled with these same feelings of inadequacy.

 

Helpful Tips

Remember, as long as you did something this month, even if it wasn’t necessarily more than you otherwise would have, the important thing to note is that you tried. Try often, fail frequently, and try again. As long as you’re willing to keep trying, you’ve never really failed. There are many lessons in a project and almost all of them come from the failures you experience as your go about completing it. Failure isn’t bad. Its part of learning and growing. If you don’t fail, then you’re not really pushing yourself. As Jake the Dog once said, “Sucking at something is the first step towards being sort of good at something.”