Christopher Tolkien, last of the Inklings

Christopher Tolkien Hannah Long gives a well-deserved tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien’s son and literary heir Christopher in the latest Weekly Standard. Long’s introduction to Christopher Tolkien’s life work includes insights into what makes the elder Tolkien’s stories so enchanting and timeless.

The junior Tolkien’s task was not easy: He had to organize, polish, and edit 70 boxes of manuscripts his father left behind, many stuffed with scraps of poetry, notes, and incomplete short stories. But out of that chaos, Christopher Tolkien harvested 25 works the world would probably never have seen otherwise, including The Silmarillion and a prose translation of Beowulf. The latest, The Fall of Gondolin, saw publication this August.

Tolkien’s works continue to nourish a reading public hungry for the myths that Tolkien made new, accessible, and meaningful. Tolkien and his fellow Inklings were rebels who waged literary war against the bleak alienation and scientism of their age. As Long puts it in her article:

For the Inklings, the medium of fantasy restored—or rather revealed—the enchantment of a disenchanted world. It reinstated an understanding of the transcendent that had been lost in postwar alienation.

“The value of myth,” C.S. Lewis wrote in an essay defending The Lord of the Rings, “is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’” In this, fantasy did precisely the opposite of what its critics alleged—it did not represent a flight from the real world but a return to it, an unveiling of it. A child, Lewis wrote, “does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods,” but “the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”

And isn’t that what attracts us to fantasy fiction? Today, people find themselves in a blur of gadgets, images, and endless consumption that replaces, rather than enhances, human existence. The enduring appeal of the Inklings’ works, as with all good fantasy, is the astounding news that the enchanted dwells with us, that beauty and mystery surround and enrich us even when we’re too busy to notice.

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Start with short stories, not novels

“Like many science fiction authors, I began by writing short stories, which isn’t the norm any more, at least not among British authors today. Today young authors would rather write novels straight off—and that’s precisely why these novels are mostly so poor. In every job you need a certain amount of practice, whether you’re a violinist or a joiner, and short stories offer writers a wonderful chance to acquire the necessary tools. The Mona Lisa, was, after all, not exactly Leonardo da Vinci’s first painting. In any case I learned what it meant to be a writer by writing short stories; what my weaknesses and strengths are.” J. G. Ballard, author of Crash and Empire of the Sun

I wholeheartedly agree with Ballard here. In fact, I wish I’d read his advice 15 years ago, when I wrote two novels that never found any love in the slush piles. As he said, you have to acquire the necessary tools first, and the only way you’ll do that is to start writing, even if it’s junk. As Chuck Jones once put it, “Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.” Ya gotta pay those dues.

As different as long works are from short ones, both share the same essential features, including:

– sympathetic characters who have agency
– the protag’s goal, or elusive desire
– that thing or person preventing the protag from getting what he desires and
– a satisfactory conclusion.

And of course, to varying degrees, there are those more elusive and more difficult to define factors, such as style, believable dialog, foreshadowing, and all the other literary devices that make the story work.

Even flash fiction must have the same essentials listed above, plus as many of the supporting literary devices you can pack into 1,000 words. And in an age where people are drowning in too much information, it’s vital for a writer to learn how to say more with less. What better place to learn than in short literary works?

Stan Lee, Marvel Comics visionary, dead at 95

The best superhero movie of all time? Easy. That’s the 2002 Spiderman with Tobey Maguire in the title role. The best line? That came from Aunt May, who cautioned her nephew about pushing himself too hard: “You’re not Superman, you know.”

Big laughs from the audience. But I didn’t laugh. To me, that line summarized what made the classic Marvel brand of the 60’s and 70’s better than all the other comics. No, Spiderman was not Superman — he was way cooler. Superman and Batman bored me. Too goody-goody. Too full of their supposed goodness. The bad guys they fought were just — bad. Bad for the hell of it.

Marvel, on the other hand, offered flawed heroes, men and women racked with self-doubt who often got mad at each other. Sometimes the good guys fought with other good guys. Reading Marvel comics as a kid and teen, I thought, wow, these superheroes are like my family. They have faults. They bicker.

And Marvel’s bad guys were more realistic, too, with understandable motivations for their actions, just like other famous bad guys, such as Shylock and Macbeth. In fact, young Stanley Martin Lieber changed his pen name to “Stan Lee” because he had dreams of becoming a famous novelist, and didn’t want potential publishers to associate him with comic books, which many regarded as pedestrian trash.

Guess he showed them, huh?

So it is with great sorrow we say goodbye to Stan Lee, the man who made it all happen. Stan Lee has passed away at the tender age of 95. Thanks for the memories — and the inspiration.

photo by Alan Light

On Trains As Writing Spaces

Train StationHere are some interesting insights on the writing process from author Panio Gianopoulos. I wholeheartedly agree with this:

The exaggerations of the arts notwithstanding, there can be something meditative about riding a train. It’s both soothing and inspiring to feel the steady rhythmic rush of its passage, the thundering momentum as you race past a sun-flecked pastoral landscape and, when you briefly intersect a city, the sudden appearance of buildings rising and falling like the perforated notes on a player piano roll.

One of the reasons I haven’t posted lately is because I’m immersed in my latest project, which has taken on a life of its own. Looks like it’s going to evolve into a novel. I started it back in June, when my wife and I took a meandering vacation from Charlotte to New Orleans to New York. We flew to New Orleans, but took Amtrak the rest of the way. Yes, that’s a lot of time on the rails, and what Gianopoulos says about the rhythm of the rails stimulating the creative process is true. The train rolled mile after mile, and I wrote page after page. And even though the trip is done, the experience generated momentum I’m still drawing from.

Gianopoulos makes another powerful point about the creative process, one that seems counter-intuitive but nevertheless true. Commenting on how productive he is on short train rides, he observes that constraints actually spur him on:

On weekends, once the children have been anesthetized with iPads and I’ve ducked up into our attic with my laptop, I find that somehow I get less writing done in two hours. I’ll get lured into answering emails or researching online, frittering away the brief time before my children demand actual live parenting from their father (the nerve!). Many days, I don’t even make it to the attic; I’ll get distracted by laundry or the mail or yard work, telling myself I can always write later. Having all day to do it, however, means I never end up doing any of it—not even 35 minutes. Perversely, I’m more creatively productive on my busiest workdays. There is something about the entrapment of the space and the temporal limitation of the train ride that animates me. I don’t think I’m alone in this. We are a weird species. Give us vastness and we wilt. Corner us and we thrive.

I’m guilty of this as well. On days when I’m relatively free to write, I often fritter away my time, while during brief writing opportunities, I’m far more productive. In fact, one of the lessons I’ve learned is that getting away from what I imagine to be my optimal working environment often energizes me.

As Gianopoulos says, humans are a weird species. And then there’s that sub-species called writers …