“One writes such a story [The Lord of the Rings] not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mold of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps. No doubt there is much personal selection, as with a gardener: what one throws on one’s personal compost-heap; and my mold is evidently made largely of linguistic matter.” - J. R. R. Tolkien
To put it simply, the question at hand is: What influences you, and what are you doing with the product of that influence?
We can’t know all of it, there’s too much to take in. But, in our fiction there are a great many references to our lives, intentional or otherwise, because we can only write what we know. I laugh a little, quietly of course, every time I hear someone say, instructionally, ‘Write what you know.’ I laugh because that’s as ridiculous as saying, ‘Speak using words you’ve learned.’ Kind of unavoidable really … if I don’t know the word, how can I know to use it? Similarly, if I don’t vaguely, in some form or fashion, know what I’m writing about, then how would I be aware enough to write it down at all?
I suppose the problem stems from people misinterpreting that advice to mean that one should write about things one is familiar with, or well-versed on.
That’s not the point.
Oh, I’m sure some who say it mean it that way, but that’s a narrow way of thinking and we don’t encourage that sort of thing here at the asylum. When you hear ‘average’ advice, we want you to think about what’s being said. Really think about it. Don’t just shrug and accept it at face value or immediately jump to the easiest explanation. In other words, spend time and interpret the words yourself. What does that guidance mean to you personally?
This brings me back around to why writing is so deeply connected to our personal lives … this compost pile, this mold that Tolkien referred to, is part of our whole being, not just our writerly selves. We are more than authors, you know. In a sense, we are the truest kind of human beings because we take all of our experiences and we catalog the liveliest, loveliest, darkest and most beautiful pieces and then file them away to be examined and picked apart and appreciated later. I suppose artists are the same, but still there remains something visceral in the sheer monotony of words. I say monotony because they all use the same letters (OK, not if you’re comparing Japanese to say, English, but you get the drift). The stark sameness of our materials, those letters and words, forces us to get our hands dirty in the muck and mire of our past and of our imagined future. Usually, if we write fiction, this is through the exploration of someone else’s past and future, an imaginary someone, but someone else nonetheless.
As fantasists, we are not exempt from writing what we know, even if we’ve made a great majority of it up. It’s still patchwork pieces of the life we’ve lived. Things we create are kind-of-like-but-not, everything we’ve ever touched or tasted or screwed or slapped or kissed. Sensory tools are all we have in gathering our materials from the compost heap in order to form them into a deliverable story.
The story is there, to us, from the very beginning … from the moment we pull the little scraps and clippings from the pile, the leaves from the mold, but our task as authors is to weave enough of a foundation around those things to give the story a reference point and to make it understandable to others. We’re, in a sense, telling the onlookers what all the pictures in our scrapbooks are of; where the tuft of fur is from, what the golden thread means, what the feathers are for.
Our novels, even the most outrageous ones, are like giant scrapbooks of our lives. Sometimes we lie about what’s on the pages and why … but those things are still ours. They belong, utterly, to us in ways that can only be explained through emotional and physical attachments.
And they say it isn’t personal.
The author, clutching her book of scraps, those bits of bone and shreds of soul all bound up, laughs at this too. She laughs because she knows better. The only things that aren’t personal are the blank pages of the book, the glue in the binding and the leather of the cover. But, the contents … oh the contents are the very definition of personal. Pity those who cannot see it this way, for they truly cannot understand the deeper meaning of art and I wonder, since they cannot see the reasons, are they capable of seeing life as a personal experience at all?
I suspect not. They’re the sort of people who take things at face value … they laugh at jokes they don’t get, comment on medical reports that they haven’t read, news stories that they don’t understand and they hate and love with equally blind devotion. They are not capable of making up their own mind on anything. And so, they bristle to hear that you’ve done so, to hear that you’ve claimed something not only for yourself, but as something that is uniquely and irrevocably yours. It is simply beyond their comprehension.
But … as authors, storytellers, it is also our task to keep that pile cultivated. We have to do more than just exist. We have to live … really live. I know it’s been said a hundred times before, to breathe deeply, love unconditionally, laugh hard, but don’t take this bit of advice at face value either. There is more to just living than reveling in the experience of it. Yes, laugh hard. Yes, love deeply. But, more than anything, don’t waste your time. You only have a limited amount of it, and unfortunately most of us aren’t aware of just how much time that is. So, spend every moment you can of that time you’ve been given either cultivating things to go into your scrapbook later, or weaving what you’ve already saved up into whatever tales you plan on telling.
You’re the only one with that particular compost heap … that forest mold … those leaves … so, that story, the one that’s been placed in your hands and in your pile, can only be told by you. No one else on this earth has your exact set of experiences. You are, despite however much you might have in common with others, unique. So, if you don’t tell that story … if you don’t gather up your scraps and bravely set forth to show them to others, then no one ever will.
No one ever will.
Every moment you waste in fear is a sentence that will never be crafted. Every afternoon you fritter away by worrying about whether or not your writing will be read and loved by others, is a scene that dies an untimely death. Every week that you don’t grab hold of, is a character or plot arc that will never get a chance to breathe. Every month you spend not writing, is a story that fades into nothingness. Every year you allow to pass by, is a world you’ll never create. Every decade is a career milestone that you’ll never reach. Eventually, you’ll run out of things to forego and there will be nothing left but the wishing.
You will not get better by thinking about it. You won’t progress by stalling and crying and hoping or pleading with others to share their secrets. There are no secrets, there is only the act of putting words onto a page, one letter at a time. Your ideas won’t come to life just by remaining in your head unseen and unheard. Fads will come and go, trends will wax and wane. Your style won’t improve just because you get older and mature. You won’t suddenly wake up one day, miraculously inspired, and find that you’ve finally become a writer. It doesn’t work that way, but you’d think it did judging by the sheer volume of ‘writers’ who are … well … not writing. They’re wishers, not writers. And they’re excellent at it. They’ve hoarded an absurd amount of materials in their compost pile, their mold is fermented and ready for use. They are some of the most talented people I know, if only they would brave that first step. There’s nothing there but the dirt to step on … no hot coals (those don’t come till later) … just moss and leaves.
So, what are you waiting on?
Step out. Stop wishing. Start breathing. Start living. Start writing.