Why Writers Must Bother
Behind Me the Shire
Groping Toward the Path
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.
And I must follow, if I can.
If I can. That is the great question for writers, isn't it? Can I really do this?? A book--or a short story or poem--starts with a creative fire sparked deep inside the soul. Sometimes it fizzles out, as so many of my own creative fires have done over the years. The writer is left with ashes from the fire to ponder and even mourn a little. How many fragments of long-extinguished fires lie buried in my momento boxes and computer files? More than I care to count, I am sure, because each one represents the death of one of my creative fires. I can't help but mourn the dying of those flames, because I had such high hopes that I could forge something beautiful and lasting from them. Some of them I know were truly good ideas, and I wonder if I could possibly fan them back to life.
But right now I have this project before me--a children's biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, one of the greatest contemporary authors in the world, as well as a faithful Catholic. This is a fire I cannot allow to go out, because I have made a promise to see it through to the end. This is a road that stretches far ahead, and I truly must follow, period. There is no "if I can" in a contractual assignment.
The challenges of real life, though, are heavy obstacles, and my previous successes do not ensure this one--only boost my confidence a bit. I know I'm not alone in this struggle; every author is in the same quandary. This actually gives me some comfort, because they still often produce such incredible work. Still, the road is already bumpy for me, and I've barely begun. Teaching duties, family responsibilities, personal anxieties, and other distractions have kept me from making a deep plunge into this project thus far, and I am still not finished reading my first biography on Tolkien.
In a way this doesn't matter, because most of my other sources won't be relevant until I've reached certain segments of Tolkien's story. On the other hand, I'm starting to feel a familiar deep, rumbling anxiety that is always my signal that I am procrastinating too long at a task and will pay for it if I don't pick up my pace. Fortunately, I have a second chapter already well in hand, because my sample chapter for Ignatius had to be cut for length. That makes me feel a little better--or would, if it didn't involve reaching out to King Edward School in England for an interview on facts about the school in the early 1900s. But it does, so (gulp) that is the next bump on my path. Being a bit shy and concerned that I might be inadvertently break some rule of British etiquette, I am definitely not looking forward to this. Even so, I must follow the road, wherever it goes and however far in the distance it stretches. There is no "if I can."
Now far ahead the road has gone...
It's been a little over a week since I officially began my journey with Tolkien, and I have already run into an obstacle: my own laziness. Since I posted last, I received what I think were the rest of my books for research, and I breathed a small sigh of satisfaction--like I'd reached a goal, even accomplished something. But I hadn't. The line only shifted, like a mirage in a desert, and I realized that I actually had to open the books and start reading. Ugh. So I procrastinated that day and the next and the next and probably for a couple more days after that, comfortable in the knowledge that my deadline is a long way off with many weeks and months filled with empty time. The mirage grew.
Then, a few days ago, the responsible part of myself remembered: I barely made my last deadline. This book will be even harder! What was I doing, waiting even a single day to begin? No, I didn't have time. True, I had classes to prepare, papers to grade, emails to handle, a kid to homeschool, and a household to run--but I also had a book to write. So, finally I pulled out a book from the stack waiting for me. Tolkien: The Authorized Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter. I grabbed the first pen I saw for annotating, and I made myself sit down to read at last.
The road stretches far, far away into the distance. I see mountains and forests ahead that look a little forbidding, and I am not a little nervous about the ordeal I have signed up for. Doing justice to the master of high fantasy's life story will not be easy, even if it is "just" for children. But the road waits for me to follow where it leads, and so I will keep walking onward. And maybe, just maybe, it will even be fun.
Author of Before Austen Comes Aesop: The Children's Great Books and How to Experience Them and Maria von Trapp and Her Musical Family