Though I have posted very little over the last couple of weeks, it is not for lack of writing. I have been brain-deep in Holly Lisle’s “How to Think Sideways” course endeavoring to squeeze as much from my investment as possible. I must say that to do so has required as much dedication, patience and work as any course I took during my college days if not more! And so far, I have learned a lot.
In one of her writing tip newsletters, Holly challenged her students to, “know themselves As A Writer.” The first of two questions she posed to pursue this challenge was a doozey: “What do [you] hope to get out of [your] writing?” I had never really thought about that.
Since I was about nine or 10, I had expressed the desire to write a book. That goal in and of itself was enough to keep me content and journal writing and world building for years. I made no serious differentiation between what it was to write a book and what it meant to publish one until I was significantly older. Up until that point and beyond writing a book, I had never considered what I wanted from my writing.
In a conversation with my wife the other night, I flat out said, “Sometime in the near future, I’d like to quit full-time teaching and write professionally.” This was a bold statement; one that reminded me of the first time I had the guts to say, “I am a writer.” We spent a part of our conversation on what doing so would mean and require and how it might be done. One of my wife’s points had to do with publication. We discussed the merits of short story or essay publication and that, in her opinion, I might need to do that before I tackled selling a book. We came to no conclusions or even agreement, but it was good food for mental chewing and perfect fodder for the above question. While I do not think a career change and publication are a complete answer by any means to what I want get out of my writing, apparently it is two very important facets.
On a very basic level, I suppose I want the prestige of writing and publishing a book, regardless of how well it does monetarily. As a child I saw authors as quasi-divine kami of parchment, ink and idea, who literally worked magic: creating worlds, legends and myths. I wanted, and still want, to be a member of that club.
As with many who have reached the half-century mark and beyond and who admire fantasy and adventure fiction, the urge to do so came after reading Tolkien. I believe I had an advantage over many who have since encountered the modern myth, because prior to reading about Frodo and Middle Earth, I had read The Bible, Le Morte D’Arthur, The Odyssey, The Táin Bó Cúailnge, tales from the Book of Invasions, Ivanhoe and numerous Native American myths (particularly stories of The Sacred Pipe and White Buffalo Calf Woman). Pretty heavy stuff for a ten year old. Some might question this, but let me hasten to point out that in my neck of the woods and at that time, television only had three channels and no 24-hour continuous broadcasting. Stations used to “sign-off” right around midnight. Selections were limited, to say the least, so when I say there was nothing on T.V. worth watching, boys and girls, I mean there was NOTHING on T.V. worth watching. The only alternative, if one’s friends were busy, was reading, which is exactly what I did.
Thus, I came at Tolkien from a distinctly different point-of-view than most modern readers do. The modern mythology that Tolkien created blew me away. The merits or demerits of the plot were not issues I entertained yet, but what I could appreciate due to my reading habits was his depth of background and cultural constructs. I felt like I was reading Beowulf or The Iliad wherein I could sense deeper tales hanging like shadowy backdrops upon which the action took place—the story of Finn in the former and the war of the gods in the later. Poems half written—The Falls of Nimrodel, and the Lay of Gil-Galad—that I could tell were written somewhere in full. It was like a eureka moment for me to think that a modern writer could make myths on par with Gilgamesh or the Icelandic Sagas. I don’t know why I had never entertained such a thought before; I guess I just thought all the cool stuff had been written and now folk wrote books like the Happy Hollisters, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and boring “adult” stuff I wasn’t even remotely interested in. From the moment the Company of the Ring stepped into Moria and Gimli sang part of the Song of Durin,
The world was fair, the mountains tall,
In Elder Days before the fall
Of mighty kings in Nargothrond
And Gondolin, who now beyond
The Western Seas have passed away:
The world was fair in Durin’s Day.
I began imagining my own mythology. The Silmarillion with its elevated style confirmed what I sensed lay behind LotR… what I now found to be just the tip of Tolkien’s mythological ice-berg. It sealed the deal: I would one day create my own mythology and write a book.
RANT WARNING: On a side note, the excitement of The Silmarillion’s publication made Christmas of 1977 particularly merry for me: more maps, more legends. By that time there were more T.V. channels, but thankfully I was hooked on reading and normally sought my entertainment from the page rather than the tube. I want to emphatically state here that I had few problems reading the more elevated style of Tolkien’s posthumous publication as many would-be readers do today. I would argue—and I know I’m going to step on toes here with my assertion, but I will swear upon my life it is true and after having more than 3000 students pass through my classroom over the last 20+ years, I know whereof I speak—I would argue that because I was not raised with television and movies as my primary source of entertainment, I was literate and skilled and critically minded enough to appreciate The Silmarillion for what it was. 30-plus years ago, peers to whom I had introduced the LotR did indeed struggle with the tome. Ultimately they complained that they expected more of the same, another adventure like Frodo’s. A few who had been raised on reading however, did slog through and admitted it made their reading of LotR all the more enjoyable. 20 years ago, students who had read LotR, complained to me that The Silmarillion was just, “…too hard to read…why did [he] make it so hard?” It was the same complaint they leveled against the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Greek Myths, the Matter of Britain, 1001 Arabian Nights, The Worm Ouroboros, etc. Today, many of my students complain that the reading of LotR is “…too hard…” to give it a go, that they would rather watch Jackson’s interpretations over and over or read easy YA. As for The Silmarillion? I don’t even mention it anymore. It would be paramount to assigning the Rosetta Stone as literature as far as they are concerned. What has happened since 35 years ago and now? It is so obvious, I will not even mention it here. The willful dumbing-down of society makes me weep especially because so much of it is deliberate ignorance chosen because “it’s too hard” (add the whine) and, mark my words, as a result society will suffer a descent no less deep and no less permanent than that suffered by Rome. The only difference is that ours will be based on illiteracy and the expectation that everything must be easy and rewarding or it is not worth doing.
Thank you, mother! Thank you, thank you, for putting your foot down and forcing me to read Le Morte D’Arthur at age seven, for shoving a book into my hands and shutting off the television! Of all the gifts you gave me, this is the one I treasure most. Rant over.
During the interim between those halcyon days and those I live now, I learned how important the storyteller is. Tolkien had contemporaries who were great mythmakers: C.S.Lewis, E.R.Eddison, and Lord Dunsany. Indeed there were storytellers who preceded Tolkien such as William Morris, the great pre-Raphaelite painter, architect and designer, who had a strong influence on Tolkien with his “prose romances” of which I read The House of Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains. Howard, Burroughs, Norton, DeCamp, Moorcock, LeGuin, etc., etc. came after, their works impressing me over and over as to the critical role of the storyteller as modern mythmaker. Today the same is true, fantasy or fiction, historical novels or romance, be it stories of female bounty hunters or possession by aliens from a distant star, each requires a good storyteller. I have ever argued that there are no new stories, but there are new storytellers…mythmakers who with their unique voices and wizardry can take well worn archetypes and refurbish them strong and shining. I want to do that too. I find nothing in this world so rewarding or fulfilling, as telling my students a tale that they listen to with rapt attention and are eager to hear the finish of…even staying a few moments after the bell has rung to “hear the rest. The high is incredible. I yearn to tell a good tale, a story people want to read and feel they have not wasted their time in the reading.
At the end of my life, and here in the winter of my time on earth that thought is much more real than it was in my 30s, I suspect I will have far, far less creative successes to feel satisfied with than I will regrets. I do not, however, want this to be one of them. I want to relax into the arms of death content in this at least: that those who mourn my passing will remember me as a good storyteller, a mythmaker, a yarn-spinner…that I did what most folk only talk of: I wrote books and they were good tales. I want to look back and say, “I did it,” not, “I wish I had…”
Thus, “What do I hope to get out of my writing?”:
I hope to create a second career.
I hope to create my own myths and mythology.
I hope to tell good tales and publish them.
I hope to scratch the creative itch.
I hope to give my passing from this life some satisfaction.