Beginner’s Mind (Part 1) 02/26/21

Picasso is famous for saying “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

I think that writers can get so technically good that they end up with nowhere to go, with technically “perfect” novels that no one wants to read. The reason for this is that art itself does not benefit from being perfect.

I’m going to go deeper into this over the next few blogs, because it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for the past month or so, and I think it’s an important point to make, especially if you’re reading and wondering whether or not you’re good enough to be a writer. My contention is that it is the people who are not traditionally “good” at writing who have the best shot at being widely read.

Okay, let’s get it going:

Have you ever seen one of those incredibly lifelike drawings people can do these days? Check this shit out:

Diego Fazio

That’s pencil.

Looking at something like that, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the sheer level of technical skill it takes to draw that. You’d be lying if you said that’s not awesome.

For me, however, and for a lot of people, I don’t think I’d hang that or any portrait like it in my house. With all due respect to the artist.

Now, of course, somebody would. The guy is successful and (probably) wealthy. But I’m talking about people like me, I guess.

Remedios Varo

This, on the other hand, I would hang in my house. There’s nothing lifelike about it. It’s dreamlike. But still, with this particular work, there’s a level of technical mastery to it. It is obviously applied to something that is not meant to be photorealistic, but it is compelling and interesting and full of feeling.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Now we’re getting into that territory of “heyyy…I could paint that.”

Could you?

What we’re seeing with this piece is a fierce control over chaos, a kind of steady, dynamic skill born of years of tagging, which is what Basquiat did a lot of around Brooklyn in the late ’80s.

Again, this is something I’d have up in my house. I love this piece.

Okay, so what does all of this have to do with writing? Writing is words on a page, not images, and there is such a thing as story, character, style, etc.

What I’m saying is that writing can often, even if it isn’t trying to be “photorealistic,” skew too close to a set of rules put down by MFA programs and exemplified in the “literature” that gets published by the Big Five. What a lot of writing is missing is the idea of forced simplicity, clunkiness, and even ugliness in the service of creating a holistic picture that is better than if everything had been “perfect.”

More on this tomorrow, as it’s going to take some time to tease this out.

Challenging Beliefs 02/25/21

When I was in high school, I used to order T-shirts off of TShirtHell. They had all kinds of fucked up designs, and I loved all of them. The one that I loved the most featured Jesus on the cross, winking and giving a thumbs-up. It read: “Jesus Did It for the Chicks.”

I wore that to school one day and my English teacher absolutely lost her mind. I got sent home, and felt pretty cool about it.

The school I attended was in the fourth-largest city in Oklahoma, so very small in the grand scheme of things. It was full of churches, full of bigots, and I hated every last one of them. Compounding this was the fact that I’d been forced to go to church my entire life. I’d fall asleep listening to the pastor drone on. We’d stand up, sing, sit down, repeat. I hated every minute of it.

What I hated the most, and what I was savvy enough to get even at twelve years old, was that no one in church was really saying anything. It was all a loop. Sermons were true because they came from the Bible, and the Bible was true because it was written by God, and God is real and trustworthy because the Bible says so.

I’d argue for hours with my dad about this. I remember one time he came home with a long, printed-out article. I had asked a simple question: “If got knows everything, the past and future, then how is he Good when he condemns people to hell? That means he creates people knowing they’re gonna burn forever.”

They tried to explain to me that He knows everything, but that human beings are given a choice…it made no sense. Still doesn’t!

Within that particular dichotomy, of course.

I went to college and studied philosophy. My first professor was an Irish guy who worshipped at the altar of Daniel Dennett. Between him and my vegan Ethics professor, I turned into a completely different person. I only ate Taco Bell bean burritos, and I spent all day marveling at how the world could be so stupid to believe in a big, bearded man in the sky.

Over time, for whatever reason, that smugness stopped appealing to me. I got into lots of different things (including drugs!) and started to feel like something was off. I realized that I had never really challenged my atheistic beliefs in quite some time. That bothered me. Was I somehow no different from people who get locked into dogmatic Christian beliefs and never question them?

Long story short, I did not end up returning to Christianity, but I did develop a much wider, more interesting view of the world and how it works. I conceive of a spirit world, a living earth, psychic phenomena, and other “fringe” ideas as being more than likely true. I put “fringe” in scare quotes because those ideas are only “fringe” to us, now. Most of humanity throughout time (same brains we have today, by the way) believed these things to be true.

This developed into a kind of radical detachment from every idea I have that comes down the pipeline. I can’t really believe in much outside of my current experience. There are even times when all the things I mentioned above seem fake to me. On those days, I’m an atheist, I guess.

On other days I experience such a profound connectedness to a spiritual force, that I wonder how I ever believed it couldn’t be true.

But what I try to be, is always arriving. I’m always just showing up to the party. I attempt to have my thought process remain fluid and open to change. Take the v*rus, for example. There are times when I feel like this is one of the greatest incidents of mass hysteria in recorded history. Dying empires tend to create those conditions. Other times I’m like “damn, this looks pretty nasty…better be safe.”

What this means, functionally, is that I don’t have a ton of friends. The friends I do have are great, and we argue and disagree all the time and get along just fine. They get me, and it’s good to be gotten by a small circle of pals.

I’d put this forward to you fine folks (thanks for reading, by the way): when was the last time you really did a deep dive into your core beliefs? When was the last time you tried to utterly and completely tear down your worldview, the things you hold most valuable?

I can’t tell you about the rabbit holes I go down in service of keeping myself sharp, because most of you would (rightly) think that they’re gross. But it’s my belief that a fluid, constantly evolving brain is necessary for both wisdom and creativity. The artist loves a messy picture.

Take the thing you believe in the most and steel-man the opposition. Read the absolute smartest opponents of who you fundamentally believe yourself to be. Avoid snark and Twitter. Really deep dive. It’ll change the way you look at everything. It’ll make the world more interesting.

And, funnily enough, you find yourself being more correct on average than dogmatists on every side of every aisle. Who doesn’t like being smug? Maybe it never stopped appealing to me after all!

Growing Up 02/24/21

Imagine this: you’re a 34-year-old man, and you walk into a party of 18-year-old kids. You listen in on their conversations. You get progressively angrier about what these kids are saying, and then you begin shouting in the middle of the party, explaining to everyone why they’re so wrong, why the things they care about are so stupid, and on and on and on.

That’s social media.

Twitter, of course, is not just 18-year-old kids, or just 34-year-old, or just 56-year-olds. And therein lies the problem.

We have age-based social boundaries for a reason. It’s considered not a little creepy for an older person to be chatting up a significantly younger person, and I’d have to guess that the reason for that is deep down, we realize that those younger people have different brains than older people.

Young folks are the drivers of culture, not just because they will very soon be the key consumer demographic, but because for as long as there have been “civilizations,” there are people who have drunk the blood of the young to maintain some sense of vitality.

When you translate that to Twitter, what you end up with is an embarrassing amount of grown-ass people giving a shit about things that they should not care about. Not things that aren’t important, because that’s relative, but things that are strictly in the domain of the young.

In high school, you care very much about who said what to who, who is in a particular in-group or not, where the next party is, who has beer, etc. This attitude continues into college, where you start to get a little responsibility. Now you care about all the former things, but you also have to get to class or your job on time. Or both.

You also have grand ideas about how to change the world. That’s because you have no idea how the world actually works. You don’t understand the systems of power at play, you don’t understand money, you don’t understand people. It’s an endearing quality, and it’s necessary to becoming a full-fledged adult, and even sometimes, yes, changing the world.

And then, ideally, you reach something called adulthood. And when you do that, you pick yourself up off the puddle of vomit you passed out in the night before, and you realize that you have to make the next forty to fifty years you’ve got left mean something.

You realize how power works, you realize that you don’t want to spend forever screaming into a void, and you realize that the best way to make a difference is to get small. Those people who you’d scoff at as you prepared your protest sign, the kind of people who do small things like pick up litter or teach at a prison or take care of their families, those people who do seemingly insignificant things, those are the people who have it all figured out.

They control their lives, their direct sphere of influence. They give not a shit that some dope they’ve never met said a totally uncool word. And they leave power up to those who have it, or want it.

There’s nothing more embarrassing than grown adults arguing with children about whether or not some lady should be on the spaceman show because she made fun of pronouns. The only proper response to that shit is “who got fired from what?”

You also really shouldn’t care about whatever dumb thing some kid says on TikTok or whatever. I am guilty of this.

Jay Springett says that “your attention is sovereign.” I think that’s inspiring. I think that we get up every day and get roped into giving a shit about what’s going on in a literal high school, or what’s going on at levels of government we are powerless to affect.

I think that I want to live a small, humble life where I’m able to make art, take care of my family, and help my community in small ways. There’s no place for getting sucked into internet drama in any of those three things.

Otherwise we all end up like that Steve Buscemi meme, saying hello to the fellow kids, asking “who said what to whom???”

Don’t be embarrassing. Live life.

Voice 02/23/21

Allegedly, there are people who read books for a good plot. This doesn’t track for me. I’ve never put down a book, or walked out of a movie, thinking to myself what an incredible plot. Imagine? Wow, it was crazy how they set something up, complicated things, and then resolved them at the end.

This song is so good…it’s got a verse, then a chorus, then a verse, then a chorus, then get this…it’s got a bridge! Then they do the chorus again.

Have you ever had a friend who, when talking about a movie, said, “I hated that. The plot didn’t make any sense.” Nine times out of ten that person is telling on themselves. Anyone who has watched a movie with someone glued to their phone through half of it, only to have them go “meh” at the end knows what I’m talking about.

If you’re working on something, and an idea comes to you, a perfect plot twist or development, by all means write it down. I’d caution against getting too cute with it, though, as most people, and I mean this, do not care about clever twists.

This used to be all the rage. After you’ve seen The Sixth Sense, though, you’ve seen it. That movie at least has the luxury of being really good.

No, movies are not their plot. Whether people articulate it this way or not, when they read or watch or listen to something, they are evaluating it on a second by second, minute by minute metric of whether or not that particular piece of art is a good hang.

You’re at a friends house, drinking beer or bubble water or whatever. When you leave, you don’t think “hmm…the plot of that hangout just didn’t do anything for me.” You’re evaluating the experience based on how interesting the conversation was, how tastefully decorated their place was, how many surprising things happened. That’s it.

Books, I’d put forward, are more equivalent to “a good hang.” A good plot is like the tasteful decor: you really shouldn’t notice it too much. But the conversation should be great.

I noticed this when reading my pals’ books. We have our little writers’ group, which I blogged about earlier, where we read each other’s work and gas each other up.

Lucas Mangum writes horror fiction, for the most part. In his Gods of the Dark Web series, we are introduced to characters, given a little slice of their life, then we watch them get ripped apart by monsters. It’s a simple, effective formula. If you’ve read horror fiction or seen a scary movie, you know what’s going to happen. If Lucas didn’t have some semblance of a plot, I could see that being a problem. But what makes the book a good read is Lucas’s voice. You enjoy reading the words he writes. It’s a pleasure at the time it’s happening, not once it’s all been “pulled together” in the end.

The same thing goes for Kelby Losack. His new book is about two dirtbags holed up in a trailer during a hurricane. There’s a ghost in the house. There’s a raccoon who can’t be killed. The plot on this one is much more loose, dreamy. But again, the joy of reading it comes from the paragraph-by-paragraph musings of the narrator, the strange things that occur that may not go anywhere.

When you read something, you’re pulled in by the writer’s voice, or you’re not. There’s a reason everyone can read the same how-to books or attend the same MFA classes, and then when they put books out a person might like one and not the other, or vice versa. They understand plot and character and all that good shit. But voices only connect with certain people.

I like podcasts. There are immensely popular ones that I can’t listen to because I don’t connect with the host’s voice. There are some that I would really like to listen to, but alas. Can’t get past the fact that we’re not vibing.

Your voice is the single most important element in writing, hands down. And if you’ve been taught that there’s a “proper” way to write a sentence, or structure a book, or whatever, you run the risk of cutting your vocal chords, and creating a bland, beautiful product that gets absolutely zero people excited.

Fill up your toolbox. Keep all the tools neatly in their little cushion-y indents. But keep the lid closed between uses.

Project Completed 02/22/21

Finished the first draft of Tomahawk this morning. Finally. It feels great. The thing clocked in at 14k. I’ll make another pass. Usually that’s when I add a little more meat to the thing. Who knows? It could be the longest Black Gum book once I do that.

I can’t really explain how good it feels to actually finish something. To type “The End” (sort of, I don’t literally ever write the end, one time Jeremy Robert Johnson told me “you don’t have to do that, because once the book is over, people know it ended.”).

I went to bed last night with the last third of it in my head. I was at about 10k. Then, once I got home from dropping Rios off at work, the rest poured out in a mad 4k rush.

I won’t talk too much about the book, because I still have to go over it one more time, but then I’ll design it and slap it up on Amazon. No sense in waiting. It’s pretty much ready to go.

I’m tempted to move right into Book 4, but I’ve left Dying World alone a little too long. Do I continue my hot streak, or pause to go back to the other book?

I’ll figure it out.

I’m all typed out for the day. Time to do some editing work.

I might even play Sekiro tonight.

Busy 02/21/21

I have been busy as of late. Mostly with editing. It’s been back-to-back books. Not complaining in the slightest. It’s a great gig, and one that I sometimes remind myself I worked for, but I’m the kind of guy who, every once in a while, gets a little bummed about work in general. Who doesn’t?

Lounging is a lot of fun. I get about an hour of Sekiro play in a day…but wouldn’t it be fun to get four hours in? Just grind it out, level up, make some serious progress? It would. But then, like clockwork, I’d see my bank account dwindle until I panicked, then I’d be scrambling to find work.

About six years ago, I had this goal in mind: I would work about four hours a day. I wouldn’t be rich by any stretch of the imagination, but I’d make about as much money as I would at a 40-hour-a-week job, paying about $20 an hour.

This is Oklahoma. This is a very reasonable salary.

Recently, I’ve had people hit me up, asking how to get into editing. There isn’t much to it. You take jobs from friends at first. You do it on the cheap. For the first three years or so, I was editing strangers’ work for about a half a cent per word, or 33% of the going rate for most editors. And you just slowly build up a CV. You use websites like Reedsy and Upwork to find clients. You price your bids competitively. And you deliver on time.

A big thing, too, is that you stick with the project until the client is satisfied. I make it clear that any questions they have, any issues they have with my notes, are all worthy of discussion. I prefer phone conversations, where we can iron those out in about an hour. Sometimes, the client prefers to do it over e-mail. That’s a bit more time consuming, but if you’re looking to build a client base, it’s worth it.

At this point, I get about 50% new clients, and 50% returning clients. The returning ones are great. It’s like a gift every time: someone out of the blue saying “would you like money to fix my book?” Well yes, of course I would.

All of this took about six years. In that time, I worked at a hot dog restaurant, as a checker at Safeway, a concierge at a swanky downtown condo building in Portland, and a program designer for an education company. When that last job tanked due to the p*nd*mic, I was out of work for quite some time. Editing dried up a bit, but I was able to get government assistance.

As of January I’m off the government assistance and working on novels full-time. I’ve got my schedule planned a month ahead or so. At the moment I’m booked through to April. And I’ll keep it up.

Yesterday was packed, even though it was a Saturday. I edited 20k words, wrote 3k, drove to the city for Korean food, watched Space Sweepers (good movie), played Sekiro (killed O’Rin of the Water, got stomped a few times by the Corrupted Monk), hung out with the family, and posted some pictures to my Instagram Story. Oh, and I wrote my blog for the day.

That’s a good day, in my opinion.

The goals for the next year are to finish up about three books. I’m 8k words into Tomahawk now, and if you’ve read Black Gum (17k words) or A Minor Storm (15k words) you know that means I’m about halfway done. I read through AMS in about an hour to refresh my memory for Tomahawk, and I was reminded of why I love that short format. It’s just fun to pick up a book and finish it in one sitting. Very few people are doing that right now, and it’s not for everybody (check my Goodreads reviews for proof), but it’s my niche and I’ll stay in it. My style is so minimalistic that I’m not sure if I’d ever write something that cracks 80k, unless the story itself is just that massive.

Anyway, I started rocking on Tomahawk a week ago, taking a break from Dying World (currently at 15k, will probably be 40k or so). I’d like to have Desert Priest out in the fall, and MAYBE Wolf Like Me (another short Black Gum book) out in the winter. So that’s actually four books. By that point, my long-suffering Kickstarter backers will have their loot, which also makes me happy.

The editing will continue at the pace it’s going. I have one ghostwriting project that I’m scheduling for April, so I’d like to do that some more. It pays better, and it’s good exercise. By the way, if any readers of this blog are interested in a quote, feel free to e-mail me.

And finally, I’d like to somehow monetize No Country, my podcast with Kris Saknussemm, juuuust a little bit. I don’t like the idea of Patreon episodes, though Kris and I have been playing with the idea of creating a book club. Something where we could maybe make $500-1k a month each, both to cover the cost of hosting, our time, etc. But that’s perhaps something that more realistically will happen in 2022.

Again, none of these endeavors, whether it’s the books or the editing or the podcasting, have to make a ton of money. But if there’s a little bit coming in from each, then my humble little Oklahoma life will be peaceful.

It all takes time. The trick is to have fun while you wait.

Feedback 02/20/21

People have different levels of social needs. That’s why this pandemic has been such an uneven experience for different folks. It’s hard for some to understand why staying inside all day, never seeing people, is much of a problem at all. For others (like me), the five months I spent inside on lockdown were some of the toughest I’d experienced in my life.

The same difference in personality is reflected in writing routines. There’s a reason writers by and large don’t have a problem with lockdowns: they’re naturally solitary people, capable of being alone for long stretches of time, in their own worlds. This is especially true of fantasy and sci-fi writers, cats who can bust out a thousand pound, fleshed-out world every year.

Couldn’t be me.

One of my favorites, Patricia Highsmith, was fine working alone. Bukowski, not so much. He once said “being alone never felt right.” He also drank a lot. Those five months in lockdown and the cases and cases of beer I went through can relate.

Sartre said that if you hate being alone, maybe you’re bad company. He’s also famous for that “hell is other people” line. Schopenhauer said that if you can’t be alone, you can’t be free. Miserable fucks, those two! Look at Schopenhauer’s hairdo. Dude had zero friends.

Some of us need interaction with other people. When I was a kid, my mother, grandmother, and aunt started a cleaning business. I’d go along with them during the day. They handed me a vacuum or rag to make me feel like I was helping. What I loved the most about that time was the conversation. I was basically raised by women, and these particular women could talk, and talk, and talk.

Listen to any of my podcasts, and you’ll notice that I love talking. It’s well-earned. Hours sitting with my elders while they smoked cigarettes and looped around and around subjects. The setups and punchlines. Laughter. Disagreements. I loved it all.

I call people on the phone all the time. I’m sure it’s annoying for my friends who have lives. I edit books for about four hours a day, and then I’m just…free. I do chores, I work on books, I watch YouTube, listen to podcasts. But I crave interaction with people.

It should come as no surprise, then, that creating in a vacuum is awful for me. I want constant feedback, praise, criticism. I need the work to be alive, I need to be changing hands, feeling around in the brains of other people, coming back to me. Art is, for me, a fundamentally collaborative process, even if it’s something as solitary as writing.

Different strokes for different folks.

I grew tired of reading people talking about their writing on social media over the years. The whole thing seemed so self-aggrandizing. However, in my quest to never be like them, I cut myself off from the wellspring of Creativity that I needed to move forward. Never talk about the work, I said to myself. As though I was some kind of stoic!!!

Once I started a private chat with my pals Lucas and Kelby, shit really started rolling for me. This was the missing link. A small group of people whose opinions I respected, who could give me immediate feedback. I needed ears to bend. And in turn, I lend my ear to them.

Get yourself a small group for feedback. Make a bubble for yourself. In that bubble, there’s no hypocrisy, no worries about the outside world. It’s just you and your friends smoking cigarettes around a kitchen table. Allowing ideas to snowball as they’re handed back and forth, each time leaving their host with a little something extra added.

Hell is being alone.

Community 02/19/21

The snow is still here.

I’ve been driving Rios back and forth to work up in the city. I’ve seen cars stuck in the snow, cars stuck in their driveways, semis tipped over, the whole nine yards.

It struck me the other day how ill prepared we are for basic changes in the weather. Sure, this is an historic storm, with temperatures that dipped to -14 F, which yes, is rare for this part of the country.

But still…we can’t have a bit of bad weather without people freezing to death?

Mysteries of life. Growing up in America is a strange experience. On the one hand, we have a largely great standard of living compared to most of the world. On the other, you learn very quickly that absolutely no one is looking out for you in the highest chambers of government. Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to walk around knowing that, god forbid, something bad happened to you, the government would take care of it.

I’ve never felt that.

Whenever things get tough around here, I like to say “we’ll figure out how to get through it.” It’s a statement of grit and determination, sure, but it’s also the cold fact of the situation. We’ll figure it out, or we’ll be in deep shit.

I wonder sometimes why a government couldn’t be like that. A huge reservoir of money that tells you “we’ll figure it out.” You know, so people don’t freeze to death. It’s too big to think about, and there are no good answers to any of this. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just “eat the rich” and have that fix everything? The brain worms are in all of us, now.

The importance of a local network is more important than it has ever been. The past hundred years of rugged individualism has run its course. The answer, of course, is not to switch to communism, which is both impossible and undesirable (for example: most times it’s been tried in history).

The local network is comprised of people who genuinely care about each other. It’s neighbors and friends, and if you’re lucky, family. A group of people who understand that no help is on the way, and all we can do is sacrifice for each other.

Did I stop for any of those people stuck in the snow? No. Should I have? Maybe!

But if one of my buddies called me up with a problem, I’d drive through two feet of snow to go help them out. That’s the kind of network I’m talking about.

Keep your friends close. Build bonds with them. Call them if they’re hurting.

Because no one else is coming to help.

Wabi-Sabi Writing 02/18/21

Beauty in writing is like beauty in everything else: it’s great when it’s properly deployed. Sentence-level perfection is hammered into the heads of MFA students worldwide, and then they graduate and become confused as to why their books aren’t selling.

“Wabi-sabi” is a Japanese term for architecture that, if I remember correctly, relates to the beauty of imperfection. It’s leaving a bit of sheet rock exposed. A cheap and ugly version you might recognize are hair salons that have their ventilation exposed overhead.

Real wabi-sabi, however, is fundamentally important when it comes to crafting things that people want to read. You have to take your foot off the gas and just freestyle a bit.

Recently I’ve been editing works that are very well written, from a certain point of view. What I’m trying to get across to clients is that there’s something that feels a bit alien and dead about a book that has been “sentenced” to death. Maybe that’ll be the title of a book I write someday!

Say you’re zipping along, writing your novel. You have trimmed so much fat. Everything flows together until it’s this perfect stream of words. It sounds great to you. But you’ve created no real world for the people reading to inhabit.

It gets really, really boring.

I am totally guilty of this in my own way. I’m trying to understand when it’s important to be precise and beautiful, and when it’s time to ease off and relate a story, as though I was telling it to a friend. There’s a third bit too, kind of a “jazz riff” technique that I could talk about later (it’s self-explanatory, though).

I used to go about 70/30 “beautiful prose/telling story” but now I’m closer to 90/10 “telling story/beautiful prose.”

Killer lines in a book should be relatively rare. That’s what makes them so killer. It reminds me of rap music: the stuff that I like is largely very stupid, but what some artists can do so well is have that one perfectly placed, cleverly stupid line that makes the whole song more fun. On the other hand, you can have verbose, wordy rappers who are boring. It’s word salad. Many are like this. Only Aesop Rock comes to mind as someone who’s wordy and still interesting/funny.

I haven’t quite hit exactly what I mean by this post, but that’s the beauty of blogging. I’ll keep “thinking out loud” and one of these days I’ll really hit on what I mean.

Dark Souls 02/17/21

The X-Box Store had a sale on all the Dark Souls games. I had played the remastered original on Switch a little bit, but figured a big TV was the way to go.

I got all three games for about $45, which is less than the cost of one brand new game. Between these three (and however much I have left of Sekiro), I think I’m set on games til 2022.

I have pretty strict rules for play. At the end of the day, once all of my work is done, I’m allowed to game for about an hour. Sometimes that rolls over into an hour and a half, but never more than that.

Surprisingly, this isn’t difficult. I can feel when it’s time to turn the games off.

Overall, I think Sekiro is going to end up taking me about 80 hours to complete. I started playing it a month and half ago or so. I’m currently nearly smack in the middle of the game, judging from my count of the bosses/minibosses I’ve killed versus how many are left (21 down, 23 to go).

So in total, I’ll spend about three months with the game. I’m assuming each of the Souls games will take a similar amount of time. That means I’ll be into November before I’ve completed them. And who knows if I’m even going to have that much time to play them.

I completely lost interest in GTA V and RDR 2. I’m sure I’ll return to those games eventually, as I’ve written about their appeal in the past. I love the pulp storytelling, and some of the adventures you go on are fantastically designed.

But honestly…they’re a bit too easy. I was rolling through about a dozen missions a day in GTA. There were very few that I was failing even once. First try, best try. The only one I remember really being tough was the boat mission, where you have to drive and shoot at the same time. It’s awkward and a little clunky, but after four or five goes, you have it down, and you’re through.

I have killed a few bosses in Sekiro recently on my fifth or sixth try, but the average is around thirty, with some bosses (like Lady Butterfly) taking literal days to beat. I truly believe I fought her about a hundred times. When I finally did my shinobi execution on her, I walked into the bedroom, a little stunned. “I beat her,” I told Rios quietly. She had seen me lose several times. Looking at me incredulously, she said, “Really?”

“Yes,” I said. “I finally beat her.”

It’s a mood, it’s a vibe, it’s a feeling. It’s hard to explain!

I love the challenge of these games. I love their obtuse stories, the fact that they don’t explain the world away immediately. You have to collect pieces of information. There are YouTube pages dedicated to figuring out the story of Dark Souls, and there’s still no real consensus. You’re an undead knight in a crumbling world, condemned to die over and over as you move towards…something. Along the way, you progress to increasingly difficult and scary parts of the map…but the game isn’t linear. If you’re having a tough time with a boss, you can always go somewhere else. Level up a bit.

It’s great. If you haven’t tried these games, don’t let the difficulty get in the way. Too often what kept me from enjoying video games was the feeling that I was letting time slip away from me, being guided by the hand through a story that honestly could have just been a movie. But these are real challenges. They’re teaching you to enjoy difficult things.

And that is a life skill.