Writers, dancers, painters, and musicians all have something to teach us about how create. That’s why I read my way through The History of Middle-Earth: Volumes 6 – 9. These books are about how J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his masterpiece Lord of the Rings. They try their best to show when and how he came up with the ideas that make up Middle-Earth and the War of the Ring that fans have loved ever since the book was first published.
It’s easy to get daunted by a large creative project. You have a big idea, a vision of something complex that is going to take a lot of time to make, and you hesitate. The Lord of the Rings is a prime example of this. How did a living breathing human create something so intricate, moving, and beautiful?
Fortunately, I found some big lessons reading my way through Tolkien’s published drafts. As a writer, I learned a lot about how he thought and worked from seeing his ideas germinate on the page. But the lessons he had to teach me are not just for writers. They apply to us all.
You don’t have to know everything about your project to get started. From his drafts, you can see that Tolkien did not know where he was going when he started writing. He knew that the story would be about destroying The Ring, but what it was and why it was important came to him as he worked. When he had finished a chapter or two, he would make a list of the events that might come next. Then he would write the next chapter. The “what’s next?” list got edited over and over again as he moved forward and his ideas evolved.
Uncertainty about the choices you make along the way goes with the territory. When he first came up with the idea of Bree, he intended it to be a village where both Big People (men) and Little People (hobbits) lived. He changed his mind at once, turning Bree into a home for hobbits only, probably because his publisher had asked him to write a sequel to The Hobbit. But it wasn’t very long before he went back to the more interesting and final version of Bree, one where men and hobbits both lived.
In the beginning, a new creation can be ungainly, even ugly. It will get prettier with time. I was amused to see that Tolkien’s drafts refer to the character of Aragorn as Trotter. Originally, the ranger who led the hobbits into the wild was another hobbit, but a well-traveled, experienced one. Eventually Tolkien realized this character should be a man, but he didn’t rename him Strider until he’d nearly finished the book.
Keep going. If you have to stop, come back to the project again when you can. It took Tolkien twelve years to write The Lord of the Rings, with many fits and starts. He was working as a professor at the time and had to deal with other issues we can all relate to, like moving and illness. But he didn’t give up on his project. He kept coming back to it and pushing forward until it was done.
I don’t recommend The History of Middle-Earth for light reading. The series is so rich in detail that reading these books can be a real slog. I do recommend studying your creative idols, not to mimic them, but to see how they go down the trail and learn from their methods how you might approach blazing a trail of your own.
What has Tolkien taught you about the creative process?