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.
Author of Before Austen Comes Aesop: The Children's Great Books and How to Experience Them and Maria von Trapp and Her Musical Family