Reading an author you love is one of the most remarkable experiences in a reader’s life. It goes from admiring the language to pondering the themes. We often apply our reflections to our own life, and in the best instances, this helps us disentangle our every day worries. But as a writer, having the possibility to see our author’s creative process in action is one of the best things that can ever happen to us and our creative life. Especially when we’re going through times of doubts.
When I self-published my novella three years ago, I knew it was an experiment, because I sensed I’m not cut out for the self-publishing market. Three years later, I know I am not.
I’ve been reading Tolkien with a small band of fellow readers, one chapter a day (almost) every day for the past two years. We’ve just celebrated our second anniversary last week on 18th July.
We started off in 2017 with tens of readers for a read-along of Tolkien’s major works, but a handful of us went on to Tolkien’s minor works and then into The History of Middle-earth. We are currently reading our way through the History of The Lord of the Rings.
It’s been, hands down, one of the best experiences I’d had in these last few years. It was gratifying in terms of reading and sharing thoughts and feelings with my fellow readers. It was also enlightening in terms of understanding where I’m going as an author. And especially where I want to go.
JRR Tolkien: A master storyteller
Tolkien was a methodical man and a methodical author and his ‘behind the scene’ work reflects that. He wrote down his drafts, with all the subsequent changes and evolutions. He also made lots of ‘notes to self’ and wrote a lot of synopses, sometimes exploring alternative possibilities in the story. He wasn’t afraid to rewrite entire passages when he felt he needed to, to go back and rethink episodes and especially motivations and feelings. He halted many times as he wrote The Lord of the Rings, sometimes for extended periods (the pause of almost one year when WWII broke out is particularly notable), but always he came back to his story.
He was a dogged author. He wanted the best for the story, no matter how much time and work that would require. So, even when he thought he was settled, if a new idea arose, one that he thought would benefit the story, he would pursue it, letting it mingle with the rest — no matter how much it was going to change. This is what I think made his stories so deep.
For example: We are reading the end of what is today The Fellowship of the Ring, and from everything we see (prospects, synopsis, first drafts of ideas) Tolkien thought he was nearing the end of the story. He would bring Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom and Aragorn and the rest of the Fellowship at the Siege of Gondor (or Ondor, as the name goes at the moment), and that would be it. A matter of a few chapters to go.
As we know, that’s far from being the case, and I suspect that as he set foot in Rohan, and he realised the Rohirrim were, in fact, his beloved Anglo-Saxons, he was simply swept away by his life-long love and admiration for this people.
Two years of the most enriching adventure of a Tolkien reader
Reflecting on our Tolkien readalong on our second anniversary
Dispelling the doubts of an inept Digital Age author
Witnessing this laborious work, which is in many ways very similar to how I write my own stories, has given me a lot of food for thoughts.
When I self-published my novella three years ago, I knew it was an experiment, because I sensed I’m not cut out for the self-publishing market. Three years later, I know I am not. Self-publishing with any success means being able to publish very often. It used to be a couple of novels a year, but the number is increasing. It means being able to write and polish a novel in a matter of a couple of months.
Not for me. I can’t even write the first draft in a couple of months. And I wouldn’t be able even if I had a lot more time on my hands. Simply, that’s not the way I create stories.
Is it even worth it? Should I really invest all this time in my stories, when I’ll never make anything of it
Lately, this has given me a lot of insecurities. Is it even worth it? Should I really invest all this time in my stories, when I’ll never make anything of it?
I will never be able to rely on my stories to make my life more comfortable. On the contrary, at the moment, my stories are making me feel frustrated because I can’t give them the care and time I’d want.
All things considered, I nearly came to the conclusion that no, it isn’t worth it. I’m not writing the kind of stories traditional publishes want and I don’t have the characteristics that self-publishing requires.
Isn’t this the recipes for a failure?
But reading Tolkien, and especially this part of the History concerning the creation of The Lord of the Rings, has really made me think.
True, Tolkien was asked to write the sequel to The Hobbit by his publisher. He started off by trying to adequate to what the market required, but he ended up writing what his heart desired. The story he wrote wasn’t what his publisher expected and he realised it at a certain point. When he finished it — 12 years later — he knew it was unpublishable. The Lord of the Rings was too long, and too strange, and too unconventional, and probably too incomprehensible if read without the ground of The Silmarillion. But he gave it his everything.
His love for the story gave him the strength and the perseverance to work at it to the end, whatever it would happen next. Tolkien believed in sharing, and he believed he had something to share through The Lord of the Rings, something important, and so went through his laborious process even if he thought it was probably for nothing.
Of course, I know I’ll never write anything remotely approaching The Lord of the Rings, but that’s not my goal. What Tolkien is teaching me is that we should stick to what we are passionate about, because inside our passion there’s always something we can share, and by sharing we become better human beings, not least because of the gift we give.
It is an adventure worth living.
Writing my stories is still worth it. Not because they can change my life in a more comfortable direction, but because they may change me in a way that I think is valuable and because whatever little I have to offer it’s worth offering.
Tolkien is teaching me that writing the story we want to write is more important than making the market happy. Whatever fate those stories will have.
Sarah Zama is a Tolkien nerd and proud of it. She read The Hobbit the first time as a teenager and was a Tolkien fan years before Peter Jackson’s trilogy ever hit the theatres. She’s always been involved with Tolkien groups, both online and in person. In 2004, she founded a Tolkien group in her city, Verona (Italy), which is still meeting and divulging the Professor’s work. In 2017, she started reading Tolkien’s work with a group of other nerdy readers, one chapter a day. They are still on the road together.