Would you believe I completely forgot to update this blog since my last post? My teaching and writing and household responsibilities have driven just about everything else from my mind over these past weeks. I barely finished my Christmas preparations, and I mailed my Christmas cards only today!
Still, the deadline for this book is always in my sights, and any breaks I take in writing it are amply paid for with the stress I feel when I think my looming winter deadline. Can I do it? And after all this work--the hours of painstaking research, the long moments of staring at my screen, the stark fear of writing from the inside of a life that I understand only from the outside--will it even be publishable? Once I submit it, the manuscript will go through an editorial and acquisitions team, and it can be ultimately rejected, despite the formal contract binding us together.
Rejection seems unthinkable at this stage, but the truth is that writers have to expect it at some point. Most dedicated writers will experience it often, in fact. Rare are those who don't experience it at all! In fact, along with honing the necessary creativity and writing skills, every writer must forge an unbreakable weapon if he or she is going to ever find success, and that is a backbone made of iron. Like most authors, I've received more rejection slips than I can count, and almost all of them--maybe literally all of them--were for manuscripts I'd already finished, not just proposals. Not only that, most of my rejections were over a period of years unbroken by any success. Those who aren't willing to experience this kind of rejection should keep writing as just a hobby, and there is nothing wrong with that!
That doesn't mean I don't care about rejection, though. There is always a sick fear behind my shoulder-shrugging that my best efforts may just not be good enough. It takes some stern reminders to myself that my worth does not depend on a successful outcome. When all is said and done, I have been given a duty, and God expects me to fulfill that duty to the best of my ability. That's all He asks of me. The results are another matter.
So, as I approach the New Year, I feel a sense of both relief and dread. I know I am quickly descending the side of one mountain, which fills me with a sense of triumph, but another looms straight ahead. Whether I will ultimately reach the other side is part of the next chapter of my own life story--and only God is the author of that!
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!
Author of Before Austen Comes Aesop: The Children's Great Books and How to Experience Them and Maria von Trapp and Her Musical Family