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.
- 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.