What I learned from Tolkien


Last month I posted about thirty novels that have been important to me as a reader and a writer. The Lord of the Rings was on my list, but each time I tried to boil down my indebtedness to this book in a single post, I discovered there was more I wanted to say about it. So in the end I decided to save Tolkien’s masterpiece for later, and address it in a series of posts rather than just one. Today is the first installment of “What I learned from Tolkien”, and I want to start with names.

One thing a reader of The Lord of the Rings notices pretty quickly is that most of the important people, places and things in the story have multiple names. Take Aragorn for example. He’s known to different people at different times as Strider, Aragorn son of Arathorn, Estel, and Elessar. And we learn he probably went by other names during his long years of errantry.

Gandalf, too, has a pocketful of names. Even his sword has at least two names. It’s Glamdring, which translates as Foe-Hammer, and it’s a sword that once belonged to Turgon, King of Gondolin. The mines of Moria are also known as Khazad-Dum, the Dwarrowdelf, and Hadhodrond. Frodo himself, who begins as an “unimportant” hobbit, begins to collect different names as the story goes along: Mr Underhill, the Master (to Gollum), and the Ringbearer.

One of the effects on a reader of all these names is to increase the credibility and authenticity of Tolkien’s imaginary world. We believe in these people and places a little more strongly with each name they’re given because the names bring with them layers of meaning and hints of backstory. The characters gain depth and complexity not so much from realistic psychological details as from the meanings and history behind their names. (But the multiple names do add a kind of “realism” to the story, as well, because we all have different names at different times in our lives and careers. I was “Tommy” as a child, I’m “Thomas” as a writer, and to my kids I’m “Dad” or “hey, you.”).

As a writer of fantasy I’ve learned many things from Tolkien, and one of the most crucial lessons has been the importance of names. You’ve got to find a good, strong name for a character, a name with resonance and a hint of who they are (or what they might become). But finding that one name isn’t enough. Your characters are going to need other names as the story progresses, names that mark important moments of their adventures, of their passage through life.

Giving characters and places multiple names is a strategy that contemporary editors frown on. They worry that readers may be confused by all the different names. Fortunately for us all, Tolkien’s editors were wiser than that. They must have understood that the real wizardry of the novel was in the beauty and power of its language, and that much of that power was carried in names.


Stories as mirrors


I received a strange and wonderful letter the other day, from two readers in Italy named Alberto and Elisa. They had read the first book in my trilogy, The Shadow of Malabron (in Italian, L’ombra di Malabron) and wanted to let me know what the book had meant to them. It seems that the story of Will and Rowen reflects their own lives in certain coincidental ways. They told me that Alberto shares the same birthday with Will Lightfoot, and that as he grew up Alberto saw “his dreams break into a thousand pieces like mirrors” much in the way that Will’s life seems to have shattered after his mother’s death (the tree hung with shards of mirror becomes a symbol in the book of that event).

Alberto and Elisa met by chance much the same way that Will and Rowen do in the novel, and they even felt that my description of these characters resembles them.

I’ve had similar experiences in the past, in which readers told me that incidents or characters in my books mirror their own lives. After I published my first novel, Icefields, I met a man who had fallen into a crevasse on a glacier, much as my main character, Doctor Byrne, does in the book. And the result of this accident was a profound change in the life of this man. Much as it was for Byrne in the novel. Talking to this man I had the strange feeling that my own fictional character had come to life before me.

As a reader myself I’ve had such experiences, too, finding deep and surprising connections between my own life and certain books. I don’t know what to think about these kinds of coincidences and connections, other than that they must have much to do with Story itself, and how our own lives are woven of stories (the stories we tell ourselves, or are told by others, or find ourselves in, the stories of history and culture and religion…).  As Elisa said in her message, “the universe works with us in ways that the human mind cannot even dream.” I believe that’s true. And I believe that stories are one of the ways that we attempt to dream the universe and understand how it works.

I'm still putting the finishing touches on the third book of the trilogy, and now I find myself in the strange situation of wondering whether the adventures of Will and Rowen in Book 3 will in some way continue to mirror the story of these two readers. 

Thank you for the magical letter, Alberto and Elisa.

To become a hero


To become a hero, first you need a story.

That’s the unacknowledged message of almost every story we encounter when we’re young. Where do you find heroes? In stories. Even in the real world, when we’re told that someone is a hero, we want to know: what did he do? What’s the story?

By “hero” I don’t just mean someone who wins the championship game for his team or rescues people from a burning building. I mean it more in the sense that Joseph Campbell often used the word when he talked about the hero’s journey as a pattern embedded deep in the human psyche. That is, a hero is someone who discovers the potential within herself and sets out to fulfill it, no matter how difficult the journey. And that potential can be anything. Athletic. Intellectual. Creative. The ability to bring people together. The desire to help others. It doesn't have to be something "great" in the eyes of the world. What matters is that it's a path, a story, that you've chosen for yourself.

You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there is a way or a path, it is someone else’s path. You are not on your own path. If you follow someone else’s way, you are not going to realize your potential.   

-- Joseph Campbell

To become the hero of your own life, you might start by asking yourself what story you believe you’re in. Whose story is it? Where did it come from? Is it a story you truly feel you belong in? As I mentioned in a previous post, as a kid I tried to live by a story that said in order to become a man I had to be good at sports. Then I discovered that my true potential actually lay somewhere else, and I stopped trying to live someone else’s story.

William Blake wrote “I must create my own system, or be enslav’d by another man’s.”

I would alter that ringing statement slightly:

“I must create my own story, or be enslav’d by another man’s.”

The only true story ever told

I think a lot of people, and not just young people, would like to do more with their lives than just eat, sleep, work, and consume. But they’re stuck in an old story about themselves, one that tells them “You are this, and nothing else.” Like Bilbo before Gandalf came along and disturbed his quiet, pleasant little life, they won’t take that step out of the door into the unknown, even if deep down they feel they could become something more, something greater than what they are. So they stick to what they know, and when the need for adventure and purpose grows strong, they watch movies and TV, or play video games. The show or the game feeds the desire to be something more, to be greater than what they are. At least for a while. A game makes it so easy to be a hero … in the game.

On some level we all wish to be the hero of our own life story. But when we turn off the TV or the game, we find ourselves back in a world in which we’re not the hero. Other people are famous, successful, brilliant, and we’re not. Someone else is playing the character we wish we were.

Or we believe there are no real heroes. We grow out of the stories of our childhood, the fairy tales and comforting happy ending stories, and that’s as it should be. One way in which we grow up is by opening our eyes to ways in which real life, our life, isn’t like those stories and is never going to be. But sometimes when people discover how life isn’t like those old stories, they abandon everything the stories have to teach. They come to believe they’re living in a world where the only true, meaningful story ever told is the very short one that goes like this: “Me first.” If you’re not living that story, then you’re a sucker, a fool, a loser.

But I think those old stories really do have something to teach us about how and who we might be, in this world. Something greater than "Me first." And come to think of it, so do the movies, TV shows and video games, since so many of them are based on those old stories.

To be continued...


The stories that tell us

Why do I think it’s important that we pay attention to the stories that tell us who we are, or the stories we tell ourselves? Because if we don’t notice the stories we’re in and begin to take charge of them ourselves, or find new ones that suit us better, then we remain controlled by other stories. We’re characters in them, but we’re not the authors. Someone or something else is narrating. Someone else is running the show, and we’re only playing a part.

I believe a lot of people, especially young people, are unhappy because they’re living inside a story that doesn’t suit them, and often they don’t even realize it. I grew up in a place and time in which one of the dominant stories was that boys should be tough and good at sports. I wasn’t. I didn’t enjoy competition and physical roughness. But the story said that’s how a boy should be, so I tried to be like that. It didn’t go well. Eventually I realized my interests and talents lay elsewhere. I found a new story. The story of the artist. The creative person. Like a lot of people who never felt that they fit in, that story suited me better. I don't know the ending of this story, and that's fine, too. It's an open-ended story that takes me to places I never imagined I might go.

More on this topic to come...

Image by T Wharton

Story Wars


There are so many kinds of conflict in our world. Battles. Wars. Causes. Crusades. Protests. Struggles over faith, politics, money, ideas. We're either in the middle of these battles or we hear about them on the news.

There's another struggle that takes place all over our world on a daily basis, a struggle that might just be at the root of all of the others. But it’s a struggle that’s invisible to most of us most of the time.

It’s the war between stories.

Let’s say I’ve grown up with a story about how your people are my people’s enemies. If I’ve heard this story all my life I’m likely to believe in it without question. To believe that it is the way things really are. I’m not likely to even be aware that it’s a story. That is, a constructed narrative that selects certain details and omits others. A tale. A fiction. And you may live by a similar story, only in yours, my people are the bad guys.

Some of these stories have been told to us since we were infants. About who we are and how the world is, and what's important. Or they’re stories we’ve told ourselves about the way things are. The way we are.

We think and act by way of these stories. Every faith, creed, and political system, whatever else it is, is also a collection of well-polished stories. My own life history, my identity, is a collection of stories I call memories. We cling to our stories because they give the chaos of the world shape. They provide the security of meaning. They have the comfort of a beginning, a middle, and very often an end. Or the stories cling to us because we’ve told them to ourselves so many times they become our default script (I’m too fat. Life's not fair. I don't deserve to be happy.)

Inevitably, however, we’re bound to run up against other stories that tell the world differently from ours. The sharp edges of someone else’s story poke through the well-constructed walls of ours, threatening its integrity. And the conflict begins.

We really need new stories on this planet. Including a story about how we live by stories, and how we might step outside them and see the world differently.

Illustration by T Wharton

Dreaming up a novel

When I started working on my second novel, Salamander, I didn’t have any idea of where the story was going to go, or what the story was in the first place. All I knew was that it was set in the 18th century, and the main character was a printer who was trying to print an infinite book.

I had to find my way slowly into the story, which involved many false trails and blind alleys. But I wanted it that way. I wanted to create a strange, dreamlike world, to suit the fantastical nature of the printer’s quest. So I didn’t want to know much about what was going to happen ahead of the actual writing. In effect, I wanted to be the story’s first reader. I wanted to be surprised as the book came to be.

But with a working method like this, I often got stuck. Sometimes for long periods of time. I’d get my characters to a certain point and then I wouldn’t know what to do with them next. At times like that, I turned to my collage book. This was a hardcover artist’s sketch book, full of blank pages. Whenever the novel ground to a halt, I would take images from the Internet, or cut them from an old, worn-out book about the 18th century, and move them around on one of the blank pages. My goal was to think about the scene I was working toward, but from a different perspective. A visual, fragmentary perspective, like a dream. 

Eventually, after moving the images around for a while, something would click. There’d be an “aha!” moment and I’d have the idea I was looking for. Then I would take glue and fix the collage in place. So the collage book became a record of these moments of inspiration. This book of collages, in a sense, is the novel, reflected through this dreamlike, associative logic of images.

My wife eventually discovered me making these collages and she wondered why I was wasting my time with scissors and glue when I was supposed to be working on the book. I told her that I was working on the book.

The trouble with editors 2

The trouble with editors, part 2:

Not every experience I’ve had with editors has been uniformly wonderful. Even when the editor is good at what she does, there are going to be tensions. The editor may ask for a change that you don’t agree with. Sometimes this can be a radical change. The process can quickly become a tug of war, or a butting of heads. I've gone through an editing that felt more like a mauling. Or a muzzling.

I’ve also worked with editors who clearly weren’t sympathetic to what I was doing, or even interested. Then there are the editors who may be very good at their job but who have no tact, or who are convinced their role is really more important than yours. They may have had valuable insights but they tell you what to do instead of making suggestions.

(I once asked an editor to tone down the peremptory tone of her comments. E.g., not “DO THIS,” but “try this.” She responded with an imperious letter in which she accused me of not approaching the work in a spirit of cooperation. We were going to be working together for the long haul, she said, and that’s why a spirit of mutual respect was so important, I had to let her do her job, etc. Some time later she abandoned the project without a word of explanation or apology. So much for mutual respect.)

When you’re new to writing and you work with an editor, it can be difficult to stand your ground when a change is requested that you don’t agree with. You may feel that if the editor has more experience than you, his opinion should carry the day. Ultimately I think it’s good to be in this situation because it forces you to think deeply about why you wrote what you did, and what it means, and what’s most important to you in a piece of writing. 

My favourite editors haven’t always been the easiest ones to work with, but they were always great readers. With a few words they could illuminate the way forward, or get to the heart of a scene you’d worked over so many times you’d lost sight of what it was really about.

I’ve worked as an editor myself. It’s been a valuable experience, negotiating this delicate partnership from the other side. Sometimes you can feel so strongly about someone else’s book, and get so deeply invested in it, that you start to think of it as a writer rather than as an editor. You attach to it as if it's your work. Then it can be difficult to maintain your distance when you see a major flaw, or a wonderful untapped potential in the story, and the author doesn’t see what you see.

Once I was on a panel about writing with Alberto Manguel, who offered the opinion that there is too much editing in the literary/publishing world. When editors (especially for big publishing houses) get at a manuscript, he suggested, they tend to shape it to suit trends and tastes and marketing strategies, and the result is that often what’s truly original and powerful in a writer’s voice can get smoothed over. Maybe those rough edges should be left alone. Another writer on the panel said to me later, “I agree in principle, but by the time I’ve got an entire novel drafted I’m so worn out and tired of it that I want someone to help me polish it.”

The trouble with editors

The Trouble with Editors

If you're a young writer working on a manuscript, you may think that once you've finished the writing, the next step is finding a publisher and then seeing your words in print. Let's say your book does get accepted by a publisher. Even then, your work is far from over. 

There's still the editor to please.

The trouble with editors is that they’re so often right. You thought your job was done, but the editor has found a problem, a flaw, a weakness. At first you’ll probably resent this. You may deny there’s a problem at all. But if the editor is good at what she does, you’ve learned to trust her judgement, and you’ll eventually come around to accepting that you still have some work to do. Maybe even a lot of work. You’ll probably even admit that deep down you knew there was a problem in the story or with the writing all along but you didn’t want to face it, and so you rationalized it away or pretended it wasn’t there.

That’s the trouble with editors. A good editor is first and foremost a good reader, and the best editors are careful, passionate, thoughtful readers who notice everything. They won’t let you get away with anything less than your best.

There are certainly times when I resist an editor’s suggestion or I try to find a compromise, and the usual result is that by going back to the manuscript and working it over, I discover something else entirely -- a new and better direction for the story that isn’t what either I or the editor had in mind.

As a writer I’ve worked with many different editors. Most have been superb readers and consummate professionals. I’ve had editors who were honest and meticulous about every last little detail, and some who were almost completely hands-off. Both experiences were valuable in their own way.

Next: more trouble with editors ...