I’ve never understood images of the Muses as seducers. Perhaps I am not truly inspired, but I get the same cold, clammy response from the Muses as I did from girls when I was in Junior High School. Fortunately, I am not seconded to the literary equivalent of a teenage boy drinking Pepsi by himself in the corner and trying to figure out how to afford Clearasil and braces. Now, as a writer, I sit down at my keyboard and write. I do so whether or not the nine daughters of Zeus slide in beside me.
As Steven Pressfield points out in The War of Art, it is far more likely that writers will deal with demons than gods. This generation of writers might face objective barriers to sustenance and success that other generations have not had, but the fear has always been the same. I have heard that James Joyce was seized by terror. Frank McCourt took his whole life to write his first book, plagued by self-doubt. Stephen King wasn’t sure he could write sober. Tolstoy would stare at a blank wall for months between writing books that changed the world.
The fear writers feel when it just doesn’t work is a real thing. Coleridge’s frustration is palpable:
“So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month.—O Sorrow and Shame. . . . I have done nothing!”
I’m not sure if Coleridge, one of the greatest modern poets, ever recovered from this slump.
There is a lot hinging on authors moving past their fear and frustration. Imagine if Tolstoy turned his hand to pottery. Or if J.K. Rowling gave up at the 11th rejection. Or if C.S. Lewis decided writing wasn’t for him when he failed as a poet.
I have already blogged about how close the world came to never seeing The Hobbit. Through the gentle prodding of friends and some unlikely publishing moves, The Hobbit was released in 1937 and was an immediate success. Who could have doubted it?
Well, J.R.R. Tolkien, for one. If there was an opportunity for self doubt, he would take it. Tolkien was terribly insecure about his work in the 1930s. His letters are full of apologies to editors and publishers about the pace of his work, the quality of his writing, the sufficiency of the linguistic substance of the text, and the artfulness of his hobbitish drawings. His strongest words are actually in defense of C.S. Lewis‘s Out of the Silent Planet as it was about to be rejected by Allen & Unwin, the firm that discovered Tolkien. For others, Tolkien can create an appropriate critical appreciation for the work; for himself, Tolkien is hopeless at self-assessment.
The Oxford Elf struggled no less with The Lord of the Rings–even when The Hobbit was obviously well received. Like Moses bartering before the Lord on the holy mountain, Tolkien made his complaint to the publishers. I am going to list here Tolkien’s excuses for not writing the “new Hobbit”–what would become The Lord of the Rings, the story behind all our fantasy stories. I have listed them and taken out a word here or there, adding clarifications in square brackets. But I have added nothing. It makes for a wonderful list not to writing on of the most important books of history.
Reasons for Not Writing The Lord of the Rings
- The Hobbit ought to have come out this year not last. Next year I should have probably had time and mood for a follower.
- The pressure of work as a ‘research fellow’, which has to be wound up if possible by September, has taken all my time, and also dried up invention.
- The sequel to the Hobbit has remained where it stopped. It has lost my favour, and I have no idea what to do with it.
- The original Hobbit was never intended to have a sequel – Bilbo ‘remained very happy to the end of his days and those were extraordinarily long’: a sentence I find an almost insuperable obstacle to a satisfactory link.
- Nearly all the ‘motives’ that I can use were packed into the original book, so that a sequel will appear either ‘thinner’ or merely repetitional.
- I am personally immensely amused by hobbits as such, and can contemplate them eating and making their rather fatuous jokes indefinitely; but I find that is not the case with even my most devoted ‘fans’ (such as Mr Lewis, and ? Rayner Unwin). Mr Lewis says hobbits are only amusing when in unhobbitlike situations.
- My mind on the ‘story’ side is really preoccupied with the ‘pure’ fairy stories or mythologies of the Silmarillion, into which even Mr Baggins got dragged against my original will, and I do not think I shall be able to move much outside it — unless it is finished (and perhaps published) — which has a releasing effect.
- The only [story] I have, quite outside that, is ‘Farmer Giles’ and the Little Kingdom (with its capital at Thame). I rewrote that to about 50% longer, last January, and read it to the Lovelace Society in lieu of a paper ‘on’ fairy stories. I was very much surprised at the result. It took nearly twice as long as a proper ‘paper’ to read aloud; and the audience was apparently not bored – indeed they were generally convulsed with mirth.
- But I am afraid that means [my writing] has taken on a rather more adult and satiric flavour….
- [Instead of a new Hobbit, consider] Mr Bliss. If you think that is worthy of publication. I can bring it back to you, if you wish. I do not think that I personally can do anything to improve it.
- I am really very sorry: for my own sake as well as yours I would like to produce something.
- September seems quite out of the question this year. I hope inspiration and the mood will return. It is not for lack of wooing that it holds aloof. But my wooing of late has been perforce intermittent. The Muses do not like such half-heartedness.
Ah, there’s my problem! The Muses do not like half-heartedness. It is perhaps to be admired that at the end of a litany of excuses, “the Muses” comes last. The fact that we finally got to see the “new Hobbit” we will chalk up rugged determination, self-deprecating patience, and supportive friends rather than the wooing of the Muses.
They really aren’t all separate reasons: one of the best appreciations of Tolkien’s attitude toward his (sub)creations is Nevill Coghill’s essay on Langland in the Tolkien festschrift (included in that volume I believe because NC saw the almost-identity between Tolkien’s attitude and Langland’s). And of course the legendarium tended to infiltrate even Roverandom and the Father Christmas Letters, besides The Hobbit.
You are right that it comes down to really the core of who Tolkien was.
Moreover, Tolkien was always writing. never stop, always moving forward. It was the commercial output which he struggled with.
Why was he in such financial strife at the time? Wouldn’t he be well paid?
Ahh what a wonderful post- I didn’t know any of this- imagine a world without LOTR? (the horror, the horror!)
It would be a sad, lonely world. Like the empty steppes of Rohan–but we wouldn’t even know it was like that!
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Oh gosh yes- what a fabulous way to put it!
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When it comes to the concept of the Muses, I tend not to be too hard, as my basic thinking on the art of writing can best be described as Jungian-Coleridgian.
If I had to figure out why Coleridge never wrote much, part of it (sad to say) would have to be the drug, and related personal problems. Stephen King once thought he couldn’t right sober, however the bigger problem seems to be gaining whatever may be the right frame of mind for creative work, plus the simple physical energy required to carry it out.
The topic of fear in relation to artistic creativity is interesting as for a while now I’ve wondered if it isn’t some kind of experience of “dread” that can spark the ability either to appreciate or create art.
I’m thinking specifically of Wordsworth’s allusions to his experiences of fear opening new vistas of perception in the “The Prelude”. Wordsworth talks how his first experiences with fear seem to make everything appear larger than life, and to be full of hints of some possible undisclosed secrets waiting to be explored.
It all sounds very much as if a prerequisite for art and its appreciation really is the ability to learn a kind of fear, one that sparks both Imagination as well as humility. For instance, the closest I could ever have come to Wordsworth’s experience was a screening of “An American Tail” when I was perhaps no more than 5 or 6. I think that was the moment I was hooked on fiction for life, and I might owe it all to the kind of Wordsworthian Moment it generated in my mind. Needless to say, when I watched “Gangs of New York” I was right at home.
In Tolkien’s case, I wonder if his confidence wasn’t sapped by his experiences in the Somme. I do know a very short indie film called “Tolkien’s Road” that explored just such a possibility. It’s a minor work, yet charming. I also think it neatly touches on the major themes of his writings
Do you think, then, that Coleridge shipwrecked his own writing? King had the struggle a couple of times. Trying to write sober for the first time (in the 80s I think), and then after getting run over by an idiotic driver and the months of recovery. I don’t know if he has recovered fully: I haven’t read anything of his from the last decade, except “On Writing.”
I don’t know about others, but I don’t feel “dread” in creation from a writing point of view. I do feel it regarding my “career” as a writer (which is a mix of popular and academic). Dread bordering on despair. “Fear” is not terribly descriptive from that standpoint.
It takes a kind of maturity to take fear, as Wordsworth does, and slow the experience down enough to make it a shaping experience toward creativity. Does Wordsworth–do you–just mean the “numenous” experience regarding art?
When I read a Swiftly Tilting Planet as a preteen, if felt like my planet shifted. It was a geological response to a book in the heart of a kid.
Looking up “Tolkien’s Road” now.
I think Numenous might be the word that best describes it. Maybe I’m reading too much of my own experience into someone else’s writings, however it seems that Wordsworth’s experiences with fear sort of woke him up in a sense.
He learned something of the potential dangers of life, yet in a way that didn’t turn him away from it, but rather gave him a sense of humility that I’m not sure can be trained into anyone. That kind of thing has to be acquired in a much more fundamental sense.
With Coleridge I don’t know what went wrong, except to say that something was always off for the most part of his life (he seems to have evened out near the end, but his ability to write fiction seems to have vanished).
With King, I think things are more interesting. I’ve arrived at the opinion that he shares the same concerns as writers like Poe, Hawthorne, or Robert Lowell. They all seem to operate on this critic of New England society that exposes the hypocrisy and sham morality of a lot of the culture they grew up in. At the same time, I think the problems of authors like Lowell and Poe stem from being brought up by the very societies they castigate in their written works. I tend to think King might have endured the smae kinds of social setbacks as they did, hence his problems with sobriety.
Just a thought, but it always seemed interesting to me.
Thanks for sharing. You have a good sense of the biography behind the stories. I am pretty limited on the authors that I feel comfortable looking at in the studio.
I too think that imaginative writing is sometimes like the numenous experience, but slower: like rising tides rather than crashing waves.
Looking at the list of the “current standard edition”, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 34 volumes (sketched in his Wikipedia article), I see he was even more prolific than my impression of him. (Imagine six volumes of Marginalia, probably not just for the sake of thoroughness, but also because so many of the notes are interesting!) I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my nibblings in Biographia Literaria – and heard well of ‘the later Coleridge’ (en passant in George Grant, for instance) – how lunkheaded of me not to be trying more… (Alas, nobody at LibriVox has tackled that side of him yet, to ease my way…) Maybe I should try to jump-start myself with some Barfield on Coleridge to haul in two neglects at once…
This quote “Mr Lewis says hobbits are only amusing when in unhobbitlike situations.” seems to be a major factor in getting Tolkien’s inspiration flowing again (see “The Company They Keep” by Diana Pavlac Glyer), lifting him over the “almost insuperable obstacle” of the Hobbit ending “Bilbo remained very happy to the end of his days and those were extraordinarily long”
-> Is a story without conflict at all possible?
And when seen in the light of the WWI horrors, all of the Inkling’s output is truly amazing. But maybe the many battles in the LoR are because of ao the Somme, not in spite of it – a creative way of somehow dealing with those horrific memories?
It’s been a while since I read Diana’s book, but it is at this period, the outset of WWII, that the inspiration moved in and replaced paralyzing fear. Diana would be right that Lewis’ comments are one of the pillars of Tolkien’s conversion from a Hobbit sequel to a new project. Within weeks he is pummeling out work at great speed (for him).
Do you know what page that reference is in Diana’s book, Hannah? I am writing a follow up to this piece.
I found it. It is in chap.5, under the heading “Global Shifts in The LoR”, p. 105.
Through Lewis’s observation Tolkien rewrote a key passage in chap.3, changing Gandalf all cloaked up with sniffing sounds on a white horse, into a Black Rider scaring Frodo with unreasonable fear. With that not only the Hobbit adventure changed but also Tolkien’s experience as a writer … catching his stride ….the story flowing along and getting out of hand.
I also might have found a nr. 13 to add to list of reasons: his perfectionism.
Am looking forward to your follow up!
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Thanks Hannah! I hope the follow up is okay (not as serious as Diana’s work).
Very interesting, and encouraging to know that even the “greats” suffer from writing blues. Definitely fear is part of it – fear of not being as good as you want to be, fear of being rejected, fear of spending so much freaking time doing something that in the end isn’t “successful”, what ever that means. I suffer from all of these fears as a writer. The best remedy seems to be to sit down and write, of course. So I better zoom off and do that and stop reading blogs….but I always have time for yours! 🙂
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I suppose I should stop reading blog comments too!
Thanks for the nice note. In a sense–actually, more than in a sense–this blog is part of that work that I do as a writer.
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In line with that, while I regret Tolkien didn’t manage to retell more of the early stories in the style of LotR, I’m glad for all the letter he wrote, that have been published – Tolkien’s dispersed and proleptic writer’s (and mythopoet’s) ‘blog’?
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For me, my Muse ate the classical muses long ago in my childhood. Nothing substantial came of it. 😉
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