What Tolkien Taught Me About Writing

Once upon a time, I thought that productivity was all that mattered when it came to my writing. I would do everything in my power to make sure that I met my word count each and every day (usually somewhere around 1,000 words on a given project). As long as I met that goal, I felt like I had accomplished something. The pressure of deadlines–particularly those in academia–sometimes leads to this frantic pace of composition. My motto was “As long as I met my word goal, I can relax.”

This maxim has largely been true of both my academic and my fiction writing. Once you’ve reached that word goal, you can consider your job largely done. The downside to this productivity model is that it can sometimes (often) be difficult to shift mental gears and get into revising mode. Indeed, for me at least, the shift into revision very often feels less straightforwardly productive than producing words on the page. As a result, I sometimes find that I get trapped in a cycle where I’m just producing endless reams of words, many of which won’t even make it to the final cut of whatever I happen to be working on.

Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal of value to be found in this sort of goal-driven mentality. However, there is also something to be said about the importance of reflection and revision, the former before the writing takes place, the latter afterward. There is something uniquely rewarding about both of these aspects of writing, as you allow ideas to gel somewhat in your mind before setting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and give yourself the time to really attack your writing with a critical eye (as difficult and sometimes painful as that is). And nothing compares to the feeling of trimming out the excess words that inevitably creep in, especially when you are always focused on producing more words (as painful as it may be to let go of those little representatives of productivity).

Tolkien, as many readers of this blog no doubt already knew, was a very deliberate sort of writer, often revising a draft many times over the course of its composition. Indeed, the entire mythos that he developed was spawned during World War I but would be continually revised and expanded right up until the last years of his life. Tolkien understood (I believe) the necessity of letting ideas mature before settling into a final form, and what some may interpret as vacillation I interpret instead as a willingness to engage with the fundamental changes that occur in any work, whether fiction or nonfiction.

This really came home to me last year, when I began the long journey of reading the numerous volumes of The History of Middle-earth (compiled by J.R.R.’s son Christopher). Reading the volumes around The Lord of the Rings in particular, I began to get a sense not only of how Tolkien’s vision changed, but how he would also hold onto certain things, especially names, long after the point where it became clear that they were not longer practical. As you read through these volumes, you definitely get a sense that Tolkien was, in his own terms, a niggler, always fussing and tweaking even the tiniest and most mundane of details (he would even write a thinly-veiled version of himself in the quirky and quaint Leaf by Niggle).

And that, I think, is one of the most fundamental and important lessons that I’ve learned about writing from one of the masters of the craft. It’s okay to have a set idea of what you want to get out of a piece of writing, and sometimes it’s okay to even sketch out an online of the entire project. However, I also think (as Tolkien seems to have), that it’s also okay (and sometimes preferable) to have a more freeform approach, allowing the ideas to sort of sprawl all over the place before you corral them into some semblance of coherence and meaning. Sometimes, it’s okay to not quite know where you are going with a short story, a novel, or even a dissertation, until you actually discover your destination in the midst of writing.

In other words, Tolkien helped me to discover the joy of discovery in writing. And that, I think, is a valuable lesson for all of us who enjoy the act of composition, whether we be academics, creative writers, or some unsettled combination of the two.

Happy writing!

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