I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Monday, December 20, 2004

Entropy and Death

Okay, I know I've been using this blog so far to blather on about politics and religion. If you're into that sort of thing, you can skip this post, because I'm about to blather on about me.

Am I a writer? In other words, is writing vital to my identity?

Or is writing just something I do?

This question came up recently on the Codexwriter's board. Several people there answered it, with most coming down on the side of writing as vital to their identity.

I confess--the reason the question came up is because I asked it. This is a question I've been struggling with for almost 25 years. Am I a writer?

On the surface, sure. Why not? I've published a novel. I've got half a dozen books on my bookshelf that contain my words somewhere between the covers. My published works are only the tip of the iceberg, since I've written 5 novels and more short stories than I can count. I used to try to list every story I had written, and could never remember all of them, and this was years ago--the list of stories is only larger now, as is the list of stories I've forgotten.

Still, I called myself a writer long before I'd ever sold a single word. In retrospect, there was something almost desperate in my clinging to the label. If I wasn't a writer, I wasn't sure I had any identity at all. I'm not a father, or a husband, nor do I define myself by the way I earn a living. I've called myself a writer despite the fact that I barely write. Five novels over twenty five years is nothing. There are professional writers who crank out five novels in a year. It's not like I'm laboring over War and Peace sized volumes of deep meaning either. I'm writing fluff and fantasy for the most part. I set my goals low, and even then I have trouble meeting them.

About a decade ago, after my thirtieth birthday, I went to the beach with my friend Greg. It was near New Year's Day--the beach was icy cold. There wasn't a soul around. All the restaurants were closed, as were the grocery stores. We survived on chicken bouillon and a box of spaghetti left over by past residents of the condo we stayed at. Both Greg and I were recovering from recent break-ups. I'd divorced from my first wife, and had broken up with a rebound girlfriend. Greg had never married, but his broken relationship lasted almost as long as my first marriage. We weren't in the most upbeat mood. I came down with a cold early on, and spent most of my time staring out the window at the gray sky fading into the gray ocean.

Greg and I went for a walk. He talked a lot about reconnecting with the artist he had once been. Greg was fairly multi-talented--over the years, he'd been an actor, an author, a folk singer, an improv comic, and a painter. He was cursed with actually being fairly good at everything, I think, and had never settled into just one talent. He recalled how, when he first met me, I had been a more visual artist. I'd almost forgotten this, but when I entered college, my primary creative outlet hadn't been writing--it had been drawing. In High School, I had been the "art guy," doing cartoons and illustrations for the school newspaper, painting banners for the football team, and designing and working on sets for school plays. As a college freshman, I never went anywhere without a pad of paper, which I would studiously use to draw my surroundings. Yet, by my senior year, I had abandoned visual art and decided I was a writer.

Part of this was financial. Art supplies cost a damn fortune, and I was broke all through college. Part of this was ego--there were several fantastic visual artists at the college--my stuff looked like scribbles next to their work. But no one there could write worth a damn. Each year, the college published an arts magazine, awarding three prizes for stories, and in four years I won four prizes, for stories I now consider juvenile and undeveloped. I won only because the competition was so thoroughly bad, and I was moderately less bad.

One final thing that attracted me to writing was that the standards were much, much looser than they were in the world of visual arts. If you paint a picture of a dog, and people look at it and think you've painted a sheep, or a cloud, or a bagel, you might not be an artist. But poems--poems are marvelously ambiguous. Nobody knows if you've written a good poem or not. Indeed, if you wrote a poem that was popular, that people could identify with, you would be dismissed as shallow and pandering. True success as a poet seemed to be measured more by your level of obscurity. If you wrote a poem about a dog, and people thought you were writing about a bagel, this wasn't proof that you were a poor writer--it was evidence of your brilliance. No one actually makes a living as a poet any more. Other arts run the risk of financial success. It's possible (though rare) to make a living, or even become wealthy, being a great actor, or musician, painter, or novelist. Poets need never risk being judged by the marketplace. If their is no possibility of financial success, it follows that there is no risk of failure. Poetry is therefore the perfect art form. So, when I left college, I was a poet. Only later did I morph into a novelist, on the foolish hope that someone might actually pay to read my words.

Back to the beach: Greg and I had walked for miles. The wet ocean wind was blowing against us. I was wearing a sweater that I had pulled up to cover my head to protect my face from the wind. Fortunately, the knit was loose enough that I could still see where I was going. Yet, it still must have been a surreal sight, as we stopped to rest on some rocks, and Greg carried on a conversation with a headless body.

Why had I stopped drawing things?

The walk, the cold, and the near starvation diet had lowered my defenses. I answered truthfully. "I didn't have any real talent. I could draw, but it wasn't art. The real artists at the school seemed to be able to put their world view into their work. I was never anything more than a highly inefficient camera."

"And you think you do put your world view into your writing?" Greg asked.

"I try. Sure."

"So what is your world view?"

I had never actually summed it up before. But I had written novels and short stories--all had common threads. And, of course, there was my vast body of poetry. It wasn't exactly a struggle to find my overall beliefs about the world in my words.

"Things tend to go wrong," I said. "Then they get worse. And, eventually, something will kill you."

And that was it. That was everything I knew about life when I was 30 years old. We both had a good laugh.

After that, my depression and gloom lifted. I was actually rather thrilled to discover that I had a world view. I believed in entropy and death--and I believed in laughing at them.

My writing before that beach trip and my writing after are fairly easy to tell apart. The best of my earlier work wallows in the gloom and despair of living in a cold, uncaring universe. The best of my later work celebrates the boundless joy of living in a cold, uncaring universe. Year after year, I've looked into the abyss, the abyss has looked back, and we've both grinned. It's a bizarre sort of life, only borderline what you call normal. I frequently have trouble explaining myself.

So, I write. I craft tasty little prose cakes that I spike with jagged, razor sharp chocolate chips of nihilism. I write in hopes that people will read my words, and understand.

So, am I writer?

No. Not really.

To be continued....

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