As I progressed through the early chapters of this book, I knew with dread that the hardest part to write would be Tolkien's experiences in World War I. Not only am I not quick to understand the politics, maneuvers, and battles that mark any war, this war was particularly intimidating. I already knew a lot about World War II. It was much easier to grasp Hitler's Third Reich, the Jewish genocide, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor than it was to grasp the reasons for World War I. While World War II was a war on humanity itself, one in which everyone had to do their part, World War I was a war more about political complexities that seem tragically meaningless to me.
I had a solution, though! Rather than bumble my way through an emotional and political landscape that I didn't feel able to adequately convey to young readers, I would simply lead to Tolkien's entrance into the war and then neatly skip over to the other side, like Jack jumping over his candlestick. Voila, problem solved!
Then I read deeper into Tolkien's creation of Middle-earth and his epic tales, and I immersed myself in the world he inhabited in 1914. And it was then that I came face to face with the hard truth. I couldn't skip the war. Those years, 1914-1918, were so important to Tolkien's development as a writer and especially to his creation of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, that skipping to 1919 with just a few swift brushstrokes would be an injustice to both Tolkien and my future readers. There was no way out but through the darkness, confusion, and gloom. It was on me to figure out how to tell the story of those formative years in a way that would be both meaningful and age-appropriate.
Just a couple of days ago, I finished this section at last. It took me about a month--maybe a little more--to finish the approximately 8,000 words that I finally churned out. They are some of the most difficult words I've ever had to write, and at times I wondered if I could do it. My research was painstaking but also painful and plodding. Sometimes I would literally sit with my books and write sentences as I studied, as if I were a translator from one language (adult expository) to another (children's story).
Of course, I worry that it's no good, but that anxiety is part of every writer's lot, and I have learned to ignore it for the most part. I gained the discipline long ago to make myself sit down and get something down on paper, no matter how bumbling it might be. Bad writing was still writing--a lot better than blank pages--and they could be revised. So right now, filling those blank pages is a thrilling victory I can celebrate, and it is enough. For a little while I can breathe again--until I begin the next chapter.
It seems my procrastination knows no bounds these days. I have been intending to post another update for about a month, now, and either something always crowded it out of my mind or else my laziness convinced me that I'd do it "tomorrow." Well, after a whole lot of tomorrows, I finally decided that I couldn't begin my regular work for today until I posted this.
That said, I'm proud that I can report good progress on my Tolkien biography. I was writing about a chapter a week until a couple of weeks ago, when I hit a wall. This time, though, it wasn't about procrastination but about the difficulty of writing adequately about Tolkien's experiences during World War I. I've seen plenty of movies and read plenty of books to give me sufficient mental images of this period, but the complexity of Tolkien's life during this period has daunted me. In 1914, the year the war began, he saw his future wife confirmed in the Catholic Church, became officially engaged, began his final year of undergraduate studies in Oxford, began writings that would eventually blossom into his invented world of Middle-earth, joined the Officers' Training Corp on campus to prepare for eventual enlistment, participated in the final and most important meeting of his high school club, the T.C.B.S., and more events that I am forgetting. All that was just in 1914! In addition, 1915 and 1916 were also important years in his life, leaving me to wonder how I am ever going to finish this book within the allowed word count, let alone cover these sensitive years in a way that is appropriate and interesting for middle grade readers. He didn't even start writing The Hobbit until 1930! It is tempting to skip forward through the war, but I've realized that I actually must slow down due to its profound impact on his life. I do not want to skip anything that contributed to his development as a Catholic and Oxford don or to his creation of Middle-earth, Bilbo, and the One Ring.
The tentative conclusion I reached last week--and one that I hope will be realistic and acceptable--is that I will need to conclude the book with the publication of The Hobbit and add an epilogue about how The Lord of the Rings came about, which happened many years later. I will also need a "What happened after that?" informational section, such as what I added to the von Trapp biography. There is no way for me to cover in details the many decades following The Hobbit, and to be honest, I don't think kids would find it particularly interesting. The main drama of Tolkien's life and the experiences that led him to the creation of the Middle-earth sagas happened early in his life. For most of his career he was just an ordinary Oxford don with little to distinguish him from other Oxford dons. Only friends like C.S. Lewis had glimpses of the genius he really was.
And onward I go, continuing on this journey that has suddenly become steeply uphill. But I know the view from the top will be beautiful!
This past few weeks has been a little discouraging in terms of this project. One of the biggest challenges that many authors face is finding enough time to work, because most of them are unable to devote their days to their projects. A few are able to treat writing as a full-time job, because their financial needs are already met or because their writing has generated enough income over the years to equal a "day job" salary. The vast majority of authors, however, must find pockets of time in their lives to work on their writing projects, because they work at regular jobs or tend their children full-time. This has been the case with me my entire life. I have been writing either for fun or for profit since third grade, and I have always had to work around school, jobs, and children. My writing courses, in fact, were written mostly at night after my children had gone to bed or during my planning periods when I substitute-taught. It has been hard, but it is normal.
My Tolkien biography is no exception, but the past couple of months have been particularly difficult because my teaching duties have been so consuming. I finished Humphrey Carpenter's biography only about a week ago--long after I intended--and now I have done nothing at all for a few days. Yet it is late May, and time is a-ticking. My plan from the beginning has been to work full-time on the book through the summer, as if it were a regular job, but I have come to realize that my commitment to this plan will have to be almost fanatical if I am to make it work, because we have decided to move to another town in Tennessee. This alone will take up much of my time and attention, plus I will have to devote some time to my planning for next year's classes, PLUS I am still not finished with this year's teaching duties. It is time to refocus and redouble my efforts, if I am going to make a lot of headway on the book by late August. And I must, because the new school year will also be busy. Argh!
In addition to the struggle for time, I also experienced a setback in my research. To get my facts straight on Tolkien's life, I need to research some of the places associated with him in England. I received some generous help from Sarehole Mill last year, when I was preparing my book proposal, but when I reached out to King Edwards School in Birmingham, I was flatly turned down. I had asked for an interview with the archivist or someone else there who could answer some questions about the school at the turn of the 20th century, such as how entrance examinations were conducted. I was sure that someone would be willing to talk to me for at least a few minutes, since their school would be featured in the book, but nope. I received a little helpful advice when I gently persisted, but that was as far as I got. I got the impression through that exchange that it probably wasn't a rejection based on disinterest as much as a lack of resources or time; still, I was left frustrated. I still don't know where I'm going to get the information I need to write accurately about Tolkien's time at King Edwards school. I can certainly take enough artistic license to imagine it all based on any general information that I do find, but I want it to be realistic.
Well, enough is enough. My fretting must come to an end right now. I have let it all out, but now I must move forward again. There is no time for self-pity or worry. There is only one way forward--my backside in my chair, my fingers on my keyboard, and my low confidence stuffed into my mental storage closet. It's showtime.
Author of Before Austen Comes Aesop: The Children's Great Books and How to Experience Them and Maria von Trapp and Her Musical Family