Show Up Till the Miracle Happens

51G9v6aJdtL._AA160_These past days, I’ve been under the spell of Rob Inglis’s narration of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Just yesterday, Strider appeared at the Prancing Pony:

“Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits.”

That moment in the book reminded me of Rachel Hylton’s graduate lecture at VCFA. A classmate of mine, Rachel had lectured on creativity and the flow state. In the course of the lecture, she shared letters written by Tolkien in which he said that he “had at times to wait until what really happened came through.” In fact, Tolkien went on to say of writing the scene in the Prancing Pony:

“Strider sitting in the corner of the inn was a shock and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo.”

Peter Jackson nailed it, right?

Peter Jackson nailed it, right?

Now, any of you who’ve read the books or seen the movies know what an important character Strider proves to be. And yet, Tolkien had not planned for his existence, let alone his arrival in the inn.

A few weeks ago, I skidded to stop in my current project. I’d been writing insane amounts of words until I reached a point where questions needed answering or I could not move forward. I stared at my computer for inordinate amounts of time until I finally decided that what I needed was to plot out the novel. I did that. Then, I didn’t write for three weeks.

You would think that because I’d outlined the novel, it would be a piece of cake to open the project, choose the scene that needed writing and Boom! Presto-o Change-o — Novel done! But no. Instead, there was more inordinate staring coupled with useless internet surfing for Answers. Finally, I sat myself down and told myself that I needed to write something, even if it was crap. So I did. I wrote a scene and at the end of that scene Something Happened. I had not planned or plotted that Something and yet it made perfect sense for the character and for the story. The next day I wrote a new scene and Something Else happened. Again, this Thing had not shown up in my outline.

Now, I’m no Tolkien, but I am a writer and that means being open to the process however it presents itself. Sometimes I think that there are as many ways to write books as there are people writing books. In fact, maybe there are even more ways — I’ve finished two books and they were written by very different processes. One of the many pitfalls for unpublished writers is in assuming that a published writer’s way is the One Right Way. That problem is compounded when a published writer’s narrow view is also that her way is the One Right Way.

What works for one writer may not work for another. Neither writer is right or wrong. They are simply different. The only wrong process is giving up. Take time to learn your own process for the project that is before you. Surround yourself with truthful and trusted people. Accept advice that is helpful and leave the rest behind. Above all show up and, to paraphrase Rachel Hylton, be willing to wait for Strider to appear.

(Tolkien, J. R. R, Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Print. Fellowship of the Ring book image from Amazon.com. Image of Strider from fightyourfantasy.blogspot.com)

11 responses to “Show Up Till the Miracle Happens

  1. Love this post!!! You know how I feel about the One Right Way. Glad I am that my VCFA advisors drilled into me the need to learn my process.

    I’m so glad unexpected but serendipitous things are happening in your novel. And I love that scene at the Prancing Pony!!!

  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Laura! And thanks for the reminder, too–I totally need to hear this again. By the way, I got the quotes from the letters (they were to W.H Auden, if you can believe it) from this lovely book:

    Tolkien, J R. R, Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Print.

    • Rachel! So good to hear from you. I added the citation to the end of the post :) Loved listening to your lecture again — made me feel like we weren’t so far away after all.

    • Lyn, excellent point! It’s interesting to me how it seems to have taken time for the experiences at VCFA to fully integrate into my work. It’s only recently that I feel that I’ve actually graduated :)

  3. Laura, thanks for reminding me of Rachel’s wonderful lecture and offering these thoughtful and inspiring ideas! I love the way this post gets at one of the paradoxes of the writing process: that writing involves structure and discipline, but it also involves these organic, miraculous discoveries. And the structure and discipline make the miraculous parts possible. For me, the process of outlining what comes next seems to free me up to make spontaneous discoveries, I guess because the anxious “where is this going?” part of my brain is satisfied that there’s a plan, so it gets out of the way. So glad to hear that you are making some exciting discoveries in your novel!

    • Laurie, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you observe that creating some structure pacifies that part of your brain, allowing space for the spontaneous aspect of creativity.

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