Passing the Torch of Depression

It’s incredible, to an extent, to consider that my son is fifteen.

When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth as bedtime stories for him, he was a wide-eyed seven-year-old, in love the wonder of fantasy and the magical places stories can take you. When I first published Consolation in 2014, he was ten – old enough to understand the importance of such a feat, yet young enough to whole-heartedly believe that it could be a success.

And now, five years later, he is very much an adult. Not wholly – he hasn’t entirely mastered social interactions or handling money (something he’s unlikely to learn from me) – but enough so that to hear him speak, or read his writing, you could certainly be forgiven for thinking he’s at least ten years older than he actually is. He’s socially aware, intelligent beyond books, and able to hold a political conversation with evidence to support his stance.

But there’s something else that’s happening as he gets older, and it’s as disconcerting as it might be inevitable. He’s starting to show symptoms of depression.

I might be reading too much into it – after all, teenagers frequently fall into dark moods and monosyllabic interactions – but there are many of the hallmarks of depression in his behavior and attitude, and I don’t mean from a clinical perspective.

I mean from a personal one.

At fifteen, he’s beginning to behave exactly the way I did the year depression took me away forever. He’s moody, miserable, frequently uncommunicative, and denies that anything is wrong more or less all the time. He won’t talk to me about his feelings, about his relationships or friends, and I worry that he might be falling into the great void that I did at his age.

It’s so hard to talk to him, because it isn’t ever clear if he’s really listening, or taking my words to heart. I don’t have advice; I don’t have any good suggestions. All I have is a lifetime of experience with misery and depression, and the only thing I ever wanted for him was to not descend into that same abyss.

If I could let him know anything, it would be that most important of knowledges, the one thing I never knew or felt in my own youth: he’s not alone. I wish I could help him understand that he has a companion, he has support – he has someone who intimately understands what it feels like to hate yourself, to worry compulsively over someone you love, and to wish with all your heart that things could be somehow different; that you could return to the past of youthful abandon, or fast-forward to the future where all the heartache of youth is long-spent.

He has me.

If you’re out there; if you read this; please understand that I want you to know it’s okay to feel the way you do. It’s okay to feel sad, depressed and miserable. It’s okay to despise your life and wish it was different. It’s okay to dream about escape, to hope for love and to want to avoid talking to anyone because it’s embarrassing, painful and frustrating.

It’s totally okay to be you.

And furthermore, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I haven’t been as supportive as I could have been. I’m sorry I lie in bed while you do the dishes and clean the house. I’m sorry I’m a pathetic excuse for a parent who probably seems like a cruel taskmaster, pushing my own responsibilities on you because I can’t bear them myself.

And most of all, I’m sorry to have passed you this torch of depression. I hope dearly that I’m wrong; I hope that you can find a way to grow out of it, to find happiness and joy in life. Maybe you do, and you just hate me. Hell, I don’t even care if that’s the case.

But if you are suffering in the throes of despair, please, please understand that you can talk to me. I won’t judge; I won’t discipline. I won’t even speak, if you don’t want me to. I’ll just listen, and I promise at the end of it I won’t tell you to suck it up, or that ‘that’s life’; all I can say is I’m sorry, and I know what it’s like.

Truly – I know what it’s like.

To Trope or Not to Trope? A Balancing Act

One of the things I’m highly aware of in my fantasy work, The Redemption of Erâth, is that there are quite a few parallels and similarities to many other fantasy novels out there. From character names to events and creatures, I’ve borrowed heavily from the great fantasy masters that came before me to craft a world that, whilst unique, might feel suspiciously familiar to those who already know well Middle-Earth, Narnia, or Westeros.

That isn’t to say that those same early fantasy writers didn’t borrow themselves; even Tolkien relied heavily on Anglo-Saxon mythology for his invented creatures and languages (though their invention is still masterfully his).

Everything in storytelling is rehashed, recycled and reused eventually, and this is of course where tropes are born. Elves, goblins, fantasy languages and healing herbs find their way into so many fantastical tales that it becomes difficult at times to know which story inspired which. Where did the concept of speaking dragons first come about? Was it Christopher Paolini who popularized them? Was it Tolkien? Was it in Beowulf?

Tropes have become so frequent in the canon of popular fantasy that even using them has, in some circles, become a trope of its own. Articles such as this one from The Toast point out so many of those frequent fantasy themes that one bows one’s head in shame to find them in one’s own work. (There may or may not be quite a few in my own.)

So when is it acceptable to use a trope?

But here’s the thing: tropes have their uses. They help to define genres, for a start; after all, what defines a fantasy novel? Typically the concepts of an alternate world or history, yet one bound strictly to a single place or planet (as opposed to sci-fi), languages that don’t really exist, and mythical tales, quests and demons, all play a part in helping the reader to establish the type of novel to expect. If one were to open to a page that contained sentences such as, “She caressed his chest, as smooth and hard as the Glock 9mm she kept in her purse,” we’d probably have a very different concept of what sort of book we were reading.

So when is it acceptable to use a trope, and when does it cross the line? Is there a difference between a loving homage and outright plagiarism? And what is the tolerance of a reader to coming across the same concepts over and over again?

In my own fantasy novels, I’ve tried hard to navigate the line between these two realms. I do not have elves, or orcs – though I do have races other than ‘men’. I do not have any ‘magic’, or at least anything along the lines of the Harry Potter universe (or even words of ‘power’, such as in The Lord of the Rings) – but I do have unexplainable phenomena. I do have a mythical weapon of legend to be found. I do have numerous languages and civilizations. Perhaps most importantly, I do have a young orphan who is taken in by his grandfather when his parents die in a fire.

I can’t argue that the world of Erâth is utterly unique or inventive, but I do find that these tropes help forward the story itself. You see, what I’m trying to achieve is really a sense of grandeur, of nostalgia, and of lost hope. By the projected end of the series (seven novels in total), the hero will have gained and lost everything – and may not make it out alive (I have yet to decide). In fact, the hero may not even end up being the true ‘hero’. I think that if I focused too hard on making the world and its inhabitants completely ‘original’, it would detract from the actual story I’m trying to tell.

And that’s where I think the balance lies: using tropes to our advantage, whilst not over-relying on them to support the plot. Is it important that a character be able to heal from a wound or illness? Then why not use some healing herbs – a staple of fantasy since time immemorial – so that you can get on with what really matters: the emotional journey of the characters.

At the end of the day, I think there are some authors who spend so much time making their world original that they forget what the story was meant to be about in the first place. I don’t need worlds I’ve never conceived of before, so long as I’m reading about characters I’ve never conceived of before. I don’t need to dream of new and fascinating creatures, so long as the emotional and spiritual journey of the people in the story rings true.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that fantasy can’t be original; it just means that to focus too narrowly on the details risks overlooking the bigger picture: the fact that every story is unique in its telling by the nature of the person telling it. So don’t worry about making your story stand out with details no one cares about; make it stand out with a compelling character arc and an exciting, fresh journey.

In other words, don’t fear the trope.

Thought of the Week: How to Grow an Aloe Forest

This one is by request this week, from TamrahJo, who wanted to know how to not kill aloe plants. I should preface this by saying there are many, many varieties of aloe, and I am familiar with precisely one:

Our aloe plants; we never quite new what species they were, but the closet I could find was the African Aloe.

Our aloe plants; we never quite new what species they were, but the closet I could find was the African Aloe.

The key thing to understand about aloes is that they’re like rabbits (or Catholics): they love making babies. As long as you take care of the original aloe, as it grows you’ll find smaller aloes sprouting all around it. These can be separated easily (the roots go deep) and replanted on their own, and will soon grow and make babies of their own.

Realize that aloes are distantly related to cactuses , and store a surprising amount of fluid in their stems. The stems are actually the wide, flat leaf-like part of the plant, as technically only the spines qualify as leaves. If one breaks it will release a large amount of viscous, clear sap that is often used to soothe burns (I won’t go into why this works, because I don’t actually know).

What this means is that they don’t need a lot of water. Plant them in a pot that has ample drainage, and water them only when the soil starts to dry. Mind you, if you let the soil dry too much it will crack, and not retain the water at all. Water them until the water just leaks out of the bottom, and then stop (make sure you have a plate or base to catch the water). I’ve over-watered countless aloes, and ended up with a lot of water to mop up.

If you get this right, you’ll find your aloe starts to grow fast. It’ll grow in all seasons if you keep it indoors, though faster in Spring and Summer. Keep a close eye on it for babies, and be willing to repot it regularly. Because of its affinity for dry climates, its roots are long, tangled and numerous. If the roots fill the pot it’ll start to wither, so repotting it into larger pot allows its roots to spread.

The babies actually come from these roots; when the spread far enough from the original plant they start to branch off, and some will begin to grow upward toward the soil again (photophillic, I think my high-school biology teacher once said?). Once the baby reaches a moderate size, gently dig it out and replant it in an appropriately-sized pot with fresh potting soil.

And have lots of pots on hand.

If you follow these steps, you might – if you’re very lucky, and it turns out I actually know what I’m talking about – get an aloe forest something like this:

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Our aloe forest.

And if you’re really, really lucky, they might flower, like this:

The droop of an aloe flower.

The droop of an aloe flower.

And there you have it. Two disclaimers: I am not a plant expert, and every single thing you’ve just read comes from Mrs. Satis, not me.

Good luck!

~

Oh, one other disclaimer: I have nothing against Catholics. Just saying.

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