When I Was Seventeen

“When I was seventeen, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past thirty-three years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

— Steve Jobs


The Eye of Argon

If you’re into F&SF, you might have heard before of “The Eye of Argon” — called by some the worst story ever written. I, personally, have been hearing about it for years, almost always in the context of people renewing the ridicule heaped upon this tale, and breathlessly declaiming its wretchedness in ever-loftier ways, and excitedly announcing “Eye of Argon” literary salons where people try to read it without laughing, and on and on.

And you know what? I am fucking tired of hearing about “The Eye of Argon,” because I am even more especially tired of all the inside-fantasy schadenfreude bullshit that surrounds this tale. I have seriously had enough.

Here’s what you need to know. “The Eye of Argon" was written in 1970 by a guy named Jim Theis when he was sixteen years old. He was writing from the perspective of someone who’d grown up on and loved pulp fantasy, and who dreamed of telling the stories he loved in his own voice. And like many beginning writers, he made grave mistakes in the way that words as we read them translate to the page during all our initial attempts to write them down. But he was sixteen years old, and fantasy was something he loved and believed in, and he was brave enough to put his story down on paper, and brave enough to send it out into the world and to dream that people would read it. And for all that, he’s been laughed at for forty-five fucking years now.

Jim Theis did something he loved. He did something that most others will never do — that most others haven’t got the guts to do — and people laughed at him.

Oh, Jim Theis actually died, like, ten years ago. Hasn't stopped people from laughing at him, though.

Is “The Eye of Argon” a bad story? Yes. Yes, it is. But when people can look upon the efforts of a sixteen-year-old kid to engage in the bravery of creation, and to add something to the genre he loved, and their only response is to laugh at him, then they should seriously fuck off.

Or, you know, write their own stories. If they're up to it.



“Ah! Please excuse me,” said the little prince.

But, after some thought, he added:

“What does that mean — ‘tame’ ?”

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”

“ ‘To establish ties’ ?”

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”



I live and work amongst people who are, for the most part, a lot more driven than I feel. Or at least they put in the appearance of people who are more driven than I am, which I think must count for a kind of achievement in and of itself. Over many years spent observing, working with, and learning from talented creative people, I came to the conclusion long ago that there’s an element of compulsion to the highest levels of talent and craft. The people who are the best they are at what they do don’t just enjoy what they do — they’re driven to do what they do, in the sense of creating the very real impression that if they were ever denied the ability to do what they do, something in them would break.

My biggest problem (at least when I dig down below the even more obvious problems) is that I don’t feel that compulsion. Or at least I don’t feel it with the kind of singular strength that’s always been missing from my life for some reason. I understand that compulsion. I know what it’s supposed to feel like, and I understand the mechanics of being driven to do the best work I can do, and I’m comfortable with the notion that each thing I do is slightly better than the last thing I did, which I think is ultimately the only long-term goal that any creative person can set for themselves. But against this sense of acceptance of what I probably should be feeling creatively, there’s this sense of distraction that I’ve never been able to shake. Not just the sense of dread and self-loathing that I think accompanies every creative endeavor (and that’s totally, healthy, right?) — but a sense that my lack of a singular compulsion comes from too many competing compulsions all hammering away at each other.

I was thinking about this in the context of a recent conversation (repeating a conversation I’ve had a lot of times), talking about how I have a unique job that consists of a lot of smaller jobs all puzzle-locked together into a singular something that is my life. I do a bit of fiction editing, I do a bit of RPG editing, I do a bit of RPG design, I do a bit of story editing and consulting for film, I do a bit of writing for myself. Trying to make a living doing any one of those things would be difficult — maybe even impossible given my geographic and emotional distance from the places I’d need to be in order to be more active in any one of those endeavors. But taking everything all together, I make out pretty well.

For me, this cobbled-together creativity makes a damn fine enterprise, in that I like all of what I do, and being able to do different things makes it much less likely that I’ll ever get bored of any one particular thing. Against the sense of those singularly focused people who would break if their compulsion to creativity and ever-increasing perfection was ever denied them, I think about myself and see a person who could probably absorb the loss of a single lesser compulsion. If circumstances prevailed to prevent me from doing one of the things I do, it wouldn’t kill me. But I’m not sure if that’s as good a thing overall as it seems. Because the problem with being widely focused on a number of things is that no matter how cool those individual things are, there’s always this nagging sense that you’re never going to be as focused on one thing as you really need to. And that without that focus, you’re never going to get as good at any of those singular things as you really want to.


No Jury of Graphic Artists in the World Will Ever Convict Me

ME: Okay, I’ve got that box selected. Now I’ll just grab the resize control and adjust it.

ADOBE INDESIGN: Hey! I noticed there’s another object a quarter-inch away from the one you had selected! And I’m absolutely sure that’s the one you really wanted to select and resize! So let me just select that one for you instead with no warning, and hey wow! Look at the completely different object resize itself all over the place! No, no! Don’t thank me!

If anyone ever introduces themself to me by saying, “Yeah, I’m an Adobe software developer responsible for object selection,” I’m going to prison for a long time.