Every now and then, I run into someone a lot younger than me who seems to have their life figured out. I’ve met people who knew they wanted to be doctors when they were six years old, and somehow made the right choices at all the critical stages of their lives that led them to accomplish their goals without any odd diversions.
I am not one of these people. The only thing I have in common with them is that, as a child, I kind of sort of thought I’d like to one day write books. I certainly loved reading books, and had a vague notion that someone somewhere must make a living writing them. And how hard could it be? I was a natural at making up stories. I used to fill up notebook after notebook with comic books I’d write and illustrate, following the adventures of Monkeyman and the White Tornado and the Invisible Invincible. I especially liked telling stories about the Invisible Invincible, since I didn’t actually have to draw him, just his word balloons. If I’d been clever enough to think of it at the time, I could have given him laryngitis and just drawn page after page of square panels with nothing in them.
In retrospect, this lazy approach to comic book creation was a forewarning of the main obstacle that would stand between me and a literary career. It’s much, much easier to daydream stories than to actually do the work of putting them down on paper. In school, I did the vast majority of my creative work while sitting in the back of the classroom ignoring whatever was actually being taught. In my free time at home, I had other stuff to do, like reading. I went to the library each week to check out the maximum number of books allowed. I’d plow through them, staying up late into the night, reading by flashlight long after my official bedtime. I’d be dragged out of bed under protest the next morning, but by the time I was on the school bus I’d again have my nose in a book.
I wish I could say I had a taste for fine literature, but the truth was I had a taste for the trashy and sensational. I loved “true” books about UFOs and Bigfoot and the Bermuda Triangle. I occasionally stumbled onto books of actual science, and wondered at how anyone could write a book about dinosaurs without mentioning all the evidence for ancient astronauts that used to ride them. Luckily, where science let me down, science fiction stepped in to fill the void, filling my head with all sorts of wonders. In high school in the late 1970s, with manned moon missions in recent memory and the space shuttle slated for launch before long, I couldn’t help but daydream about the grand and exotic future of the far distant year 2000. I’m still daydreaming of it, even as it recedes into the past. I’ve been named Piedmont Laureate in recognition of my literary accomplishments, but it’s time for a confession: I’m not really a professional writer. I’m a professional daydreamer.
There’s one major difference between the teenage daydreams of James Maxey and the daydreams I now have. As a teenager, I daydreamed to escape reality. I was a bored smart kid whose family moved between three different states during my high school years, keeping me from forming many close friends. I often found reality disappointing, not quite up to the vivid pulp landscapes I spent much of my waking life devouring. But as I matured, opened my eyes to the world, and allowed myself full contact with the people around me, I began to see that reality held several distinct advantages over daydreams. For one thing, duh, it’s real. It’s also a lot more complicated. Tolkien’s interwoven culture-building and the detailed future histories of Isaac Asimov are pale shadows of the true world. The sense of wonder I once felt contemplating the alien worlds of Star Trek was replaced by the sense of wonder I felt contemplating a tree in my own back yard. I could spend hours thinking of the eons of evolution it represented, pondering the ecosystem that sustained it, and thinking of how, for the insects crawling along the bark, the tree was a world unto itself.
As a kid, I daydreamed to escape the world. As an adult, I daydream to understand it. Yes, I still construct imaginary worlds far different from our own, but the counterfactual landscapes I create are useful tools to study reality. When I daydream about superheroes, I’m seeking to understand mundane humanity, and the good and evil that we all share in common. When I daydream about dragons, I’m often thinking about the environment, about how men interact with majestic forces of nature to tame them, or to be tamed by them. When I construct huge, epic stories of love and war, life and death, I’m seeking to understand my own life, my own love, and, ultimately, my own mortality.
In the coming year, I hope to use this forum to offer practical advice on writing, be it plotting, or dialogue, or world-building. More importantly, I hope to offer advice on daydreaming. Writing fiction is a worthwhile and rewarding hobby. But daydreams… daydreams can change the world. At least, that’s my daydream.