I have taken this lesson and done its critical exercises twice before, but in an effort to safeguard against familiarity and contempt, I took my time and made sure I paid even more attention to the details in a conscious effort to learn all it had to offer…or as much as I was capable of presently learning. The approach paid off in three solid Sentences, more on those later, but importantly it lead me to an important realization and discovery, one that was both alarming and liberating, frightening and affirming.
I have elsewhere related in the Quill how my introduction to fantasy and heroic literature was made as a result of daily reading sessions at home. Under my mother’s watchful eye and guidance, I was allowed to choose the reading material and on the fateful day of our first session, I pulled Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur off the shelf, albeit an abridged juvenile version but Malory in its diction nonetheless. Added to the already fermenting solution of First American stories I’d acquired from the students my father worked with, it is no exaggeration to say that things were never the same afterward.
Though Malory gets the nod for starting my love of epic fantasy literature, it was the Professor, however—J.R.R.Tolkien—who gets the prize for having the biggest impact. Having only had hints of such things in Malory, Tolkien revealed to me just what amazing things could be done with such legends and motifs.
As an aside, I have to admit Scripture’s literary influence on me. As related earlier, I didn’t begin regular church attendance until sometime around the age of nine, but even before that, my grandmother’s Bible stories are among some of my earliest literary memories. As my reading acumen grew, I gravitated toward Old Testament stories of exotic cultures and adventure: the flight from Egypt; the building of the tabernacle and the construction of its furniture in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy; King David’s Three Worthies and their commander in I Samuel; the bloody and gruesome triumph of Jael over Sisera, the Canaanite general of King Jabin in the book of Judges. Later, after Tolkien, I remember copying a list of the monarchs of Israel and Judah because they reminded me of the kings in Le Morte and the appendixes in The Return of the King.
I was so struck by the fabricated mythology upon which the Professor built his deceptively simple and straight forward stories—the myths and histories, the languages and alphabets, the maps and drawings—I was inspired to attempt the same. In the early 70’s, despite nearly living at the local library a block away, I knew of no other author who had embroidered with such detail, though of course, this would rapidly change as the fantasy genre exploded, but that time had yet to come. As a result, I believed that to be a fantasy writer one had to create that same depth as Tolkien had in order to write convincingly. Thus I began a succession of note-books, essays, maps, myths, cultural descriptions, time-lines, and historic, scientific and literary exploration that has lasted to this day nearly 40 years later.
What I did not understand, however, was the true nature of Tolkien’s creativity, that is, why he created his mythology as he did. While young I erroneously thought it was to publish stories, but this proves inaccurate. Though a thorough explanation of his motives is far beyond the scope of this missive or the meager skills of its author, as I understand it, Tolkien wrote his mythology as a backdrop for his conlangs. Though long before he became a linguist, the Professor was writing his mythology, it naturally became his conlangs’ vehicle. While he told his children many stories, e.g. The Hobbit and Father Christmas, the greater elvish mythology, The Silmarillion, in all its iterations, was in the final analysis, a labor of personal interest. Albeit a fascination beyond a simple “hobby”, still it was done for its own sake as a source of self-edification and in conjunction with his delight in language. It was not, as I then thought, written with the purpose of publication.
Thus, as a youngster, I began world-building believing that when my world was finished, I would have the Tolkienian depth required upon which to build an amazing story. What no one could warn me of was how time consuming and addictive world-building could be or that it really had no end game. Each layer of development led to another, each refinement would demand further refinement, and so on and so on.
While I played with language in an effort to imitate the Professor, my forte seemed to be in culture; it’s anthropology and philosophy. I loved creating unique religions and traditions, beliefs and customs. As I grew older and my understanding broadened, I built these in careful layers of evolution so that the end results were based on natural progression and made sense. Many a college course in history and science were taken not only to fulfill GE requirements but with my world-building needs in mind. While I had a great time, and gained an appreciation of this world through the building of my own which I would never have enjoyed otherwise, it was a voraciously time and energy consuming activity. Though I wrote my world’s myths, folk-tales and pseudo-histories, I never seemed to have time to compose full tales of the brave and tragic heroes and god-like sorcerers that lurked in the far background of my mind. I always seemed to have one more history to write, one more detail that needed fleshing out before I could treat my heroes with confidence, but even as I tried to tie off the loose ends, more seemed to rupture and need tending. Consequently my tales receded further and further into the murky distance.
When I discovered table-top role-playing games, my desire to write something like the Professor had in The Lord of the Rings was nearly eclipsed by the type of obsessive world-building which reigns supreme in the hobby. I threw myself into the task with renewed abandon—no canned modules or published settings for me! It would be all original or nothing. I assuaged the accusatory voice inside my head by telling stories, after a fashion, through game-mastering and by assuring myself that all the world-building was for the story I would someday write. Though I cannot begin to describe the hours of enjoyment table-top role-playing afforded me, along with the other wonderful side explorations it inspired, in the end I cannot deny it was a drain on my creative energies that led me no closer to realizing my writing ambitions.
Early in the HTTS course, Holly expressed four key precepts: Safe never starts; Perfect never finishes; Victim never acts and Feel never thinks. Called “…thinking barriers…”, they describe four common afflictions that hamper many writers from fulfilling their literary aspirations.
I believe that as the lesson’s point concerning world-building on the publisher’s dime and only building when a story required it struck home. I came to realize that I was both trapped by my own world-building and ironically using it as “Safe never starts” and “Perfect never finishes” excuses.
I realize now that as long as I choose to refrain from writing my stories until the world-building is finished, until everything is “perfect”, I will never write them. I see that my desire for this perfection is also a way of keeping my ego safe, safe from the possibility of failure and from facing the fact that I will never be able to replicate Tolkien’s feat nor his success, that my ambition to build a world as complex and as deep is indeed beyond my abilities or my years…or what is required to write my stories.
It hard to admit this, but from Lesson 4’s perspective, I can see how my four decades of world-building have been a hindrance to my writing ambitions rather than an inspiration. While I am not prepared to call all my efforts in the area a waste, for many a good thing came of my world-building not the least being hours of creative enjoyment, I have to admit that as far as fiction is concerned, I have produced only a fraction in comparison. In retrospect, I believe my energies would have been better spent in reverse and primarily on writing fiction.
This “revelation” was not the complete surprise I may have made it sound. I believe the realization had been working its way up from the depths of my subconscious for a long time and the Lesson simply gave it that last push to bring it to the surface. Lately I have found the RPG I game master burdensome. My world had grown so vast, that I have trouble keeping up with it in all its detail. I gave become more and more dissatisfied with gaming as a means of storytelling, and that frustration has communicated itself to my players. In short I was no longer having a good time and neither were they.
It is interesting to note that later in life even Tolkien had begun to find his creation a burden as he struggled to finish the last and definitive version of The Silmarillion.
In the 1996 documentary J.R.R.T.: A Film Portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien, his son Christopher spoke on how the pressure to “…write back…” an agreement between the LotR and The Silmarillion was becoming overwhelming in scope, particularly because even as he attempted to aligned the epic with his mythology and establish consistency, it inspired new stories and additions; indeed, the Professor had moved on from the major legends of the mythology—the sundering of the elves, Beren and Lúthien, Túrin Turambar—to entertain metaphysical questions concerning elvish immortality and what it meant to be an immortal incarnate and its implications on the mythology, a theme he wanted to explore in the final version of The Silmarillion. According to his son, however, “…the whole thing had…become too large, too complex…to impose so precise a metaphysical explanation on it; it was perhaps a task for a younger man. The flame began to die down and he hadn’t the energy left for such a huge transformation…” despite deeply wanting to “finish” the work. I sometimes feel that Bilbo’s lament over being too tired to finish compiling his memoirs in what would later become The Red Book of Westmarch, and that all he really wanted to do was write, “…poetry…” was a reflection of the Professor’s own feelings in this regard.
I approached my third go-round of The Sentence exercise with all this in mind, and as hard as it was, I forced myself not to consider my world setting by default as I cast about for story seeds from my SSM. I determined that if an idea came that involved my world as a backdrop that would be fine, but I would be wide open to any suggestion that came regardless of genre, setting or character type. The results were telling. Of the three ideas that I eventually wrangled into The Sentence, only one was set in my fantasy world. The other two, though paranormal in theme, were set in this world in modern times.
To say that I felt a sense of freedom as a result would be stretching things a bit, but it would not be wholly inaccurate. I did feel a release of pressure that I’d not realized I held within me, an anxiousness that somehow I wouldn’t be able to come up with any ideas sans my world. Developing two ideas independent of my fantasy world was both affirming and exciting especially since the idea which stands out as the one that might be a vehicle for the rest of the course is not the one set in my world.
This lesson helped me understand that ultimately what I must do is write and to do that, I cannot confine myself to the limits of my world-building. And while there is nothing wrong with writing a fantasy set in that world, to hinge my definition of what a writing career should look like based on a single setting is to willfully cripple myself as a writer. I will forever admire the Professor and his work and owe him a great debt, but if I am to be successful in own goals, I must keep my options as broad as I can and that may mean breaking the confines of both this world and my own.