Sauron's map of Middle-Earth

I've been reading The Lord of the Rings to my son, and the other day we were speculating on the question, what if Frodo had failed? What if Sauron had regained the ring? We looked at the map of Middle-Earth in the book, and one of my first thoughts was, imagine how different this map would look if evil had been victorious?

It occurred to me that Sauron, or at least his generals and commanders, must have maps of Middle-Earth, too. What do their maps look like? How do they view the lands that we know as Gondor, Rohan, Rivendell, the Shire...? I've always loved Tolkien's maps, and I wonder if he ever speculated on this, too, or attempted to draw a map of his world from evil's perspective.

One thing seems certain, that just as in a capitalist oligarchy of the kind that's prevalent in our world now, a victory for Mordor would mean that everything on the map would immediately be reduced to its economic significance. What resources would each conquered territory bring to the devouring imperial machine?

So I took an existing map of Middle-Earth and made a quick, rough draft of how it might look if Mordor ruled all. If I find some time I might draw a map of Sauron's Middle-earth from scratch, with more detail, to explore this idea.


"This is a dream, you know."


I posted a while ago about lucid dreaming. After I’d had a few lucid dreams it occurred to me: I could be a writer not only during waking hours, but also practice my craft while I sleep. If, while dreaming, I could become conscious of the fact that I was dreaming, then I could shape and direct my dreams as stories. I could let a plot develop, and try different variations of it. I could invent characters and not just write about them, but talk to them, get to know them as if they were real people.

This grand plan to work as a writer both day and night turned out to be more difficult than I’d anticipated. For one thing, first you’ve got to dream lucidly, and that’s not easy to do at all, let alone on a regular basis. At least for me. Most nights my brain is just too tired from a day of activity and doesn’t seem to want to be alert and inquisitive during dreaming. It just wants to drift along with the dream and let it happen. I discovered this in a surprising way one night when I was dreaming that I was back in grade school, which was odd in itself, but didn't make me aware I was dreaming. Then a woman came up to me and said, “This is a dream, you know.”

I should’ve become lucid at that moment. Here was a figment of my own subconscious inviting me to realize that I was dreaming! But I didn’t respond to the invitation. I just nodded to the woman and sat down at my desk, and then the dream drifted on to other scenes. I was simply too far “under” to care one way or another. Like someone sitting half-narcotized in front of a television, my "conscious" mind just wanted to be spoon-fed and let the dream-story go where it would. Sad to think how many people live their waking lives this way, let alone their dreaming lives.

The other surprising thing I discovered about lucid dreaming is that trying to control the dream doesn’t really work all that well. Unplanned events and surprises pop up no matter how much one tries to stick to a particular story. In fact, the best thing about lucid dreaming for a writer, it seems to me, is that the uncontrolled, uncontrollable aspect of the mind, the “wild” mind, can add elements to your dream-stories that you likely never would have come up with in the waking state. It’s as if you have a collaborator, a mysterious other writer within you who comes up with strange and wonderful ideas you almost feel you shouldn’t take credit for.

[Image from Tarkovsky's Stalker. ]


When I heard about this book I just had to get a copy. Plotto is the work of William Wallace Cook (1867 - 1933), a prolific churner-out of pulp novels in many genres. He was quoted as saying, “A writer is neither better nor worse than any other man who happens to be in trade. He is a manufacturer.” To prove his point, he created Plotto in the 1920’s, a book that aimed to help a writer generate every conceivable plot for a story, built around three essential elements: protagonist, conflict situation, and resolution. You start with an initial situation, and then let the book’s organization guide you through various possible plot twists and outcomes.

Despite its dismayingly complex-looking system of letters and numbers, the book was a huge success, and has now been reprinted in a lovely new edition by TinHouse Books of Orgeon. Can one still use Plotto to come up with a workable plot for a story or novel? Yes, you probably can, but one thing you quickly become aware of when using the book is that it’s also a time machine: following its combinatorial logic takes you back to the attitudes and mores of the time it was written, where “A” is always a male protagonist, often struggling to succeed in order to win the love of “B,” the female protagonist, whose stern father objects because “A” is poor... etc. It’s a plot-world of maiden aunts and avenging wrongs and surprise inheritances and the transgression of stratified social classes. It's an entertaining and illuminating book just to browse through, to see what was thought of as a "good story" back then.

Someone ought to try updating the book to the 21st century. What you’d still end up with, of course, is a catalogue for selecting prefabricated, formulaic plots. 

Once upon a shell

In the course on storytelling I taught this year, I challenged the students to combine text with some other medium in order to tell a story in a new or unusual way.

The students responded with a wonderful burst of creativity. They put together photo essays, did spoken word performances, created a participatory storytelling game.... One student turned the classroom into a museum, complete with interactive exhibits. 

Another student developed his own imaginary script, based on the fanciful notion that squid communicate by way of the shapes they can make with their ink in the water. And as if that wasn't enough, he honed his understanding and facility with script-making by copying out passages from various texts in various scripts (Hebrew, Arabic, English, etc) on the shells of eggs.

Maybe this is what happens when you teach chickens to read...

I hope these pics convey something of the painstaking effort that went into this project.

Eggquisite work, isn't it? He really went ova-board with this project.


Popular Posts from the Past: Five Questions

The other day I was looking through one of my writing notebooks and I was struck by how many questions there were in it. There was at least one curly little ? on almost every single page, and on some pages there were many.  Questions about the plot, about what the characters should do next, about other ways the story might go, about why I’m writing this thing and what I’m trying to say.

It occurred to me then, looking at all those pesky interrogative marks scattered like tiny thumbscrews across the pages, how utterly vital questions are to any creative endeavour. How they’re always quietly (or annoyingly) driving the work forward, prompting one to ponder, delve, rethink, push a little harder, venture out of the comfort zone, change course …

So I decided it might be a worthwhile exercise to choose the five most useful, recurring, indispensable questions that come up for me again and again during the writing process. Limiting myself to only five was part of the creative challenge of the exercise.
Rather than tenets or rules to live by, these then are my top five questions to create by:

What if…?
What else?
What’s going on right now?

With the exception of scientists and three-year-olds, most of us probably don’t ask enough “why” questions in a day. If you’ve ever been driven nuts by a kid who keeps repeating that pesky monosyllable after every “final” answer, you’ve felt the power of Why?
            No wonder Why? annoys us: it forces us to do something our easily-distracted squirrel minds would rather avoid: to keep thinking. It’s the question that drives us on beyond our unexamined assumptions and easy certainties. Why? is how I find out who my characters are and what they’re likely to do. 
            While you’re at it, try asking some of the people in your life a “why” question more often. Not as a complaint or a rebuke, just to see what they think about something a little deeper than what needs to go on this week’s grocery list. (Have you ever noticed how rarely adults ask one another Why? unless they’re angry?)

Why? can burrow beneath the superficial skin of daily life and reveals the hidden or forgotten depths in those you think you know, including yourself.  

“What if trees had eyes?” my son wondered the other day as we were walking to the park. That kicked my sluggish mind into gear, as “what if” questions always do.  It’s fitting that we were on our way to a playground at the time, because that’s what What if? does: it turns the real world into an infinite playground for the imagination. It’s the world’s cheapest and most effective de-aging solution.
Okay, I’ll play: what if trees did have eyes? Eyes but no mouths or arms, so they could watch whatever was going on around them but be unable to do anything about it. Would a lumberjack see terror in a Douglas fir’s baby blues as he approached with his chainsaw? Or maybe trees really do have eyes. After all, they’re photosensitive beings: they take in light through every leaf, and use it to grow. What if we thought of a tree’s leaves as its “eyes”? Hey, there may be a metaphor here, or a haiku:
summer sun at noon
with every single leaf 
the elm tree looks up.

... or maybe even the seed of a whole story. Thanks, son.

Related to “what if” is the less well-known but equally powerful “what else?” The discoveries and connections I’ll make in a day, the deepening of what’s already on the page, will come about thanks to the mental nudging of “what else” and its refusal to be satisfied with the easy plot device or the pre-packaged solution. “What else,” to me, can mean many things. What else is going on in this scene? What else does the reader need to know to make sense of this? What else do these words imply? What else do I have to say? Maybe nothing, but I won’t know for sure if I don’t ask.

[Illus. Sean Caulfield]

This question can propel me in two different directions: both deeper into the work and out of it, back into the unwritten world. Both are important for writing. Whenever either I or the work-in-progress seem to have lost focus, that’s the time to pause and ask what’s really happening at this very moment.
In terms of the writing, it’s a way of regrounding myself in the sensory, the immediate, the palpable urgencies of whatever place or situation my characters are in here and now. The question compels me to step inside the story and look around, to see, touch, hear, taste and smell this imaginary world I’m building out of words. And doing that reengages me with the story and the beings in it, and often shows me the way to go forward, from right now into the very next thing that should happen.
             But “What’s going on right now?” is also useful in one’s own life outside the page. I think a lot of people never finish (or begin) that novel they’ve always planned to write because they can’t stay put long enough in right now. It’s where everything happens, of course, but most of us avoid it whenever possible: it’s much easier to live in the past or dream of the great work we’re going to do tomorrow, yes, definitely tomorrow, because today we just don’t feel like it...
            There are times, of course, when it is best to let the work sit for a while and do something else (for five minutes, an hour, a day, a year…?). And asking myself what’s going on right now can help me understand when that’s the right thing to do. The question regrounds me in my own here and now, reminding me that the flesh is mortal and one can only accomplish so much in a day. So get up and stretch, the dog is whining to be let out, go play with the kids, take your long-suffering spouse to dinner at a fancy restaurant. The miraculous thing is that while you’re doing that, your mind will still be working, dreaming, forging unexpected links and taking audacious leaps across synapses, and then, just when you’ve completely forgotten about that problem you sweated over for hours, the answer comes, as if out of nowhere. (When really it comes from all the stuff going on inside you that’s not accessible to the prefrontal cortex. You’re not in control of everything, you know).


This one is the wet rag, the snarky teenager, the sober second opinion. “Cast a cold eye on life, on death,” Yeats said, and it’s good advice for anyone riding the exhilarating windhorse of creativity. He could have added, “cast a cold eye on your deathless creations, too.” That’s what Really? is for. I’m sure I’ve just penned the most magnificent pages the world will ever have the great fortune to read, but the next morning, once the high has worn off, I had better take another look. Once you’ve won the Booker you will never need to doubt your own brilliance again, but until then…
Still, like the other four, this is a dangerous question. It can easily be overused or asked at the wrong stage in the creative process, since it comes from the Critic-Within, that jaded gremlin who will choke off one’s imaginative flow if given too much time and power over the work.
            And like “What’s going on right now?”, the cold eye of “Really?” can be usefully turned on the unwritten world too, and cast at every glossy sales pitch, every last word on the subject, every politician who spins us a golden tale of better days ahead. And once we’ve asked it, we might find ourselves returning full circle to that other question that comes in handy whenever we’re told, by ourselves or others, That’s Just the Way Things Are:

One more thing: don’t forget to say thanks once in a while. To God, or the muse, or the right cerebral cortex of the human brain, or whatever mystical or biological source you believe your great ideas ultimately come from. No one creates anything in a vacuum. Whether there’s an Author behind it all or not, it seems pretty clear to me that this universe is an unfinished, always astonishing act of creativity. Just look at a lilac bush, or a giraffe. The universe came up with stars, galaxies, planets, life, and then it really got going and dreamed up a being that could create universes inside its own head, share them with others, and change the way things are. That’s creativity, and it’s in everyone, and belongs to everyone, so here’s one more question:
What are you doing with it? 

A Journey to Both Poles At the Same Time

(part of a story told to me over coffee one day)

“… So before they knocked me out to put the screws in my ankle, I felt some part of me, my awareness or conscious mind, leaving my body. I was able to float up to a corner of the emergency room and look around at everything, even my own body lying there on the stretcher, with all the blood and everything. 

It wasn’t scary really; it seemed perfectly natural. I thought, Oh, man, I’ve become one of those New Age nutflakes you see on paranormal reality TV. After a while, though, it was like I was able to see even further than the room. My sight went out into the streets of the city, into the hills, up the rivers past towns and villages, into the high mountains, into put it but I felt like everything was aware, everything was conscious all around me and within me. Even rocks and clouds and stuff like that. Like I could read the mind of all living things. 

Then I got scared, but I was excited too. Exhilarated. I thought, now I’m going to get an answer to one of my biggest questions. You see, I’d always felt there was some deep hidden meaning to the fact that the poles of our universe are inaccessible. I don’t mean the north and south poles of the planet, I mean the poles of the large and of the small in our universe. The extremely vast and the extremely tiny. I call them poles because we’re like the explorers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so desperately trying to reach these untrodden places and claim them as our own. 

Looking up, we can see no end to the cosmos. Our instruments can’t reach the pole of the vast and probably they never will. And looking within, we can only get so far in our measurements of the tiniest components of matter. We don’t even really know what they are. So the pole of the vanishingly small is also out of reach. Why should it be like that? That’s what I always wondered, ever since I was a teenager and I watched scientists like Carl Sagan on television. Why are we precisely here, on this perceptual equator, you might say, poised midway between the infinite and the infinitesimal? Anyhow, in that moment before the anesthetic  took me under, I felt as if all I had to do was exert a little more effort and I would be able to touch both poles, the vast and the small. 

I would see and understand the design, if there was one, the purpose behind the inaccessibility that drives us on, keeps us searching, the purpose behind everything. I would understand everything in nature, or maybe I would be everything in nature. Every creature, every rock, every molecule, every galaxy. Every particle of matter and energy. I would no longer know, I would simply be, or it would simply be. Suddenly I was terrified. Absolutely terrified. If I made that final effort, I knew it would annihilate the person I had always been. Over and gone. Gone where? Who knows.

But still I could not tear myself away. I was toppling over the edge. It wasn’t even a matter of my own effort anymore, it was simply going to happen. I was going to be standing at both poles at the same time, and maybe, maybe they were actually one and the same place…. Well, as it happened, sleepytime kicked in and solved the dilemma for me. I went under, and woke up a couple of hours later, groggy and extremely thirsty, but sane, at least relatively. I told myself it was just a hallucination brought on by the drugs in my system, and maybe that’s the truth of it, but still it was … unforgettable. And okay maybe it’s silly, but you know, sometimes I like to pride myself on having gone farther, deeper, than anyone -- Magellan, Marco Polo, Newton, Scott, Amundsen, Armstrong -- has ever gone.”

Hamlet dies?

I haven’t blogged in over a week because my Mac failed and it took me a while to get it fixed. One day it just wouldn’t start -- all I got was the Grey Screen of Indeterminacy. Eventually the problem was solved -- a cable inside the machine had failed and was easily replaced. But in the meantime I got sick, and that, combined with no computer, kept me from writing anything -- or feeling like writing anything -- for this blog.

So now I’ve got the Mac back and I’m feeling better, too, but after almost two weeks with no blogging I discover I’ve gotten out of the habit and I have no ideas, no inspiration. I’m sitting at the table yesterday evening with a blank word document staring me in the face, and my son comes home from his job at a restaurant and I say, “Conor, I need an idea for a blog post. You got anything?”

He thinks it over, and says, “You should blog about how no one reads books anymore.”

“I can’t blog about that,” I say, “because it isn’t true. People still read books. Maybe more books than ever now.”

That gets him started on his English class. They’ve been studying Hamlet. He hates the play. Absolutely hates it.

“There must be a reason why it’s the most famous play in the history of English literature,” I say. “There must be something you liked about it.”

He ponders that. He liked Horatio’s line “Good night, sweet prince,” but only because John Goodman’s character quotes it in the movie The Big Lebowski, so now he knows where the line originally came from.

Anything else? He mulls it over and his face brightens and he says he likes the fact that the play has flaws in it. He grew up believing Hamlet is this GREAT work he should be in awe of, and it was a surprise to discover that there are some really dumb things in it. Like the fact that Hamlet doesn’t do anything for half the play, even though he believes his uncle killed his father, and then when he suddenly decides to act, he kills the wrong guy, stabbing Polonius through the arras. I agree with him. It’s not a perfect play, whatever a perfect play might be.

Conor goes on to talk about reading the play out loud in class, and how half the students can’t even pronounce the words that are still current in English, let alone the Elizabethan words they’ve never seen before. It’s painful, he says, to listen to them stumble over their lines. And then there were the two girls who missed a class and asked Conor to tell them what happened at the end of the play. He told them the ending and they were shocked.

“Hamlet dies? But he’s the hero.”

There’s something almost hopeful about that kind of ignorance. To not know how the most famous play in the English language ends. So that you can discover it for yourself, with no preconceptions. Which means that it still has the power to shock and captivate readers. 

I remember when I first read Hamlet in high school. I didn’t much care for it either. The language was just so hard. A few years later I read it again, for a university class, and I heard something I recognized in Hamlet’s speeches, something familiar and close to home despite the antiquated language. I heard someone speaking of doubt and indecision and pointlessness. Someone who didn’t know what his place was in the world, or why he was here at all, or what he should do with his life. The voice of someone who could have lived in my own time. Someone who could be me.