Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thinking Like Tolkien

This photo is in the public domain.

When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a letter in 1951 to Milton Waldman, a friend of his at Collins publishers, he outlined in a few brief sentences how he created the world that is Middle Earth and the stories that make up the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings:
My Dear Milton,

You asked for a brief sketch of my stuff that is connected with my imaginary world. It is difficult to say anything without saying too much: the attempt to say a few words opens a floodgate of excitement, the egoist and artist at once desires to say how the stuff has grown, what it is like, and what (he thinks) he means or is trying to represent by it all.

In order of time, growth, and composition, this stuff began with me – though I do not suppose that that is of much interest to anyone but myself. I mean, I do not remember a time when I was not building it. Many children make up, or begin to make up, imaginary languages. I have been at it since I could write. But I have never stopped, and of course, as a professional, philologist (especially interested in linguistic aesthetics), I have changed in taste, improved in theory, and probably in craft.
When I’m feeling discouraged as a writer, I open my copy of The Silmarillion, in which an extract of this letter appears, and I re-read it. And every time I hear Tolkien say “though I do not suppose that that is of much interest to anyone but myself,” I pause and say to him, in my imaginary world where we sit and talk, that what he says about the craft is certainly of great interest to me.

Tolkien never stopped. Never, like the elves, or Theoden, or Denethor, Steward of Minas Tirith, did Tolkien rest in stasis. He so wanted to find a world of myth (not allegory, he repeated often) to connect himself with the earliest of Britons, but because he never found it, he created it. He let the egoist and artist within shape and evolve, he “changed in taste, improved in theory, and probably in craft” over time as he studied and pondered and wrote.

That’s how you create a world, and it takes a lifetime.

Do I consider that a discouraging thought, you might ask. How can that possibly aid me, a person who has so little depth in his taste, theory, and craft, that I can never hope to be Tolkien’s equal?

I don’t know. But it does. It shows me it can be done. It shows me that 90 percent of the effort Tolkien put into his stories is the research, the thinking, the picking at ideas, the avoidance of stasis. The rest – the writing – came easy. So as I pursue the writing projects I’m working on, I, too, work to emphasize the behind the scenes, the thinking, the research. I’ve got a few projects that I’ve been working on for years. I’ve experimented with some of the writing, and when the writing comes difficult I know it’s not because I’m a lousy writer, but because I haven’t done enough thinking or research of any kind. So I put the pen down, I walk away from the keyboard, and do some more of the thinking.

That doesn’t stop me from writing; to stop writing puts one in a state of stasis that Tolkien obviously avoided. But I write a snatch here and a snitch there, working on one project as a writer to feed the egoist and artist while other projects gather more bits of fluff and hair to add to the ball.

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