Sacrifice and Hard Work: the Life of Author and Story

I was recently listening to our own Donald Williams give an interview for a podcast. In the course of his talk he was discussing how today we have libraries of information at our finger tips, while in the time of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien they had to work harder to get at things. They had to read books, not just google them.  In doing so, they came to know their books and the ideas in them intimately.  He also mentioned why he thought this resulted in a better education–and this is my paraphrase:

The students I’ve seen who have the deepest insights aren’t necessarily the most intelligent ones. They are the the ones who are moderately intelligent and have to work at things a little more. They get to know what they’re talking about more deeply because they have to spend time with it. Lewis and Tolkien had that advantage, plus they were geniuses!

The more I think about that–this idea of slow, patient, intimate knowledge, acquired through hard work–the more this strikes me.  We have such an emphasis on getting things now and getting them without effort that often times we often resent the idea of having to work for our knowledge.  It comes to us so easily! As a result, we don’t think things through for the simple reason that we’ve been trained to believe that doing so isn’t our responsibility.  Someone else will do it for us.  Information takes the place of understanding and wisdom, and it is supposed to come at the click of a button (i.e. We shouldn’t have to actually read all those books for that paper!  Who does that?!).  We purchase the next big thing just because it’s new and someone said it’s better (Is it? Microsoft Anything, anyone?). We vote for the next politician because he/she promises to give us everything we want (“Trust me!  I have your best interests at heart!  Just don’t ask what you’ll be giving up in return….”).  We are too often satisfied with wading in the tepid, muddy, mosquito filled shallows when, if we pushed farther, we could find the cool depth of a sea the end of whose grandeur we can never see.

It takes work to reach the peak, but the view you find there changes everything!
It takes work to reach the peak, but the view you find there changes everything!

Is it sometimes any different with our fictional worlds?  Are we in such a hurry, so desperately busy, that we just try to reach in and grab what we can before rushing on to the next shiny thing and expect people to praise our work simply because it is our own?  Do we live in our worlds and get to know every rock and pebble like an old friend, as Tolkien did? Do we see them in our mind’s eye so clearly that we get lost in the details of a scene, like Lewis did? If we ourselves don’t take the time to really dwell in our worlds, to speak with our characters, and to understand them as friends and family–if we simply “process” them and spit out fiction as a result–will we ever write anything really worth reading?  Perhaps more importantly, even if it’s worth reading, will it be worth remembering?

I’m afraid not. But therein lies the challenge: Dwelling, abiding, understanding, feeling, etc. on that intimate a level–all of it takes time and is at points uncomfortable. We have to slow down and be willing to work at it. And that is becoming a more and more difficult thing to do. It takes sacrifice. Each opportunity we choose to set aside to write, even if it is just to “live” in our world in a story we know will probably never see light of day, we have to give something else up.

It all comes down to this:  What am I willing to sacrifice so that my world and my creations might more fully live?


9 thoughts on “Sacrifice and Hard Work: the Life of Author and Story

  1. I agree with you in principle, but I can’t help feeling that I am being lectured. Most people I know fall somewhere between the “instant-gratification-expected” and “patient delver” models you suggest.
    Many people, myself included (and I am not a serious Tolkien fanatic, so I got over it) find the detail in Lord of the Rings to be daunting and difficult to get through. If I want to write stories that have impact AND are read by more than a rare few, I must know my work down to the bones, but be discerning enough to recognize what is important to share, and what is not.

  2. I suppose it was a lecture–but it was aimed more at myself than at anyone else. 😉 For the past year-and-a -half I’ve been so busy that I’ve had to start asking that hard question at the end there of myself if I was going to write anything at all, good or bad. In fact, just yesterday I gave up (most of) a job to have more time to try to write. I hate having to make that choice– take good money or have time to write.

    The state of the culture also may depend on where we are. In my work, I see far more people like I describe above than otherwise. They want the glory of the result without all the hard work and sacrifice that it takes to get there. They expect they have to give something, but they don’t want to pay full price for it. As a result, the definition of “excellence” keeps getting defined lower and lower, to make it easier and easier for the customer to achieve. I don’t like the direction that’s heading.

    Tolkien isn’t everyone’s ideal–it’s my turn to agree in principle. I reveled in his detail. And between us lies the rub. I don’t think that any author will ever perfectly find that balance you mention in such a way as to satisfy everyone. For you, the level of detail he chose to share was too much; I’m one of those who could never get enough.

    In all my praise for Lewis and Tolkien, I don’t want anyone (least of all myself) to copy them. Imitation might be a form of flattery but the literature it produces I usually find to be pale and unoriginal. I do think we can learn from them, and then it gets down to to telling our stories, our way.

    1. I wish I could do that, but alas, it isn’t an option. Perhaps that is a good thing, though.

      I assume you work a lot with students? I do see the bar being lowered, and people who give up very quickly when something proves difficult. However, I am always surprised where I find it and where I don’t. In any case, I am ever wary of generalizations.

      Ah, a typo on my part completely flipped what I tried to say. That’s what I get for posting pre-caffeine. 😉 “and I am not a serious Tolkien fanatic” should be “and I am NOW a serious Tolkien fanatic.” He is one of my favorite authors of all time, and LotR remains one of my favorite books. A few minutes on my blog will easily show that I can’t get enough. I love description and worlds I can sink into, and though the beginning of LotR was difficult for me to absorb at first, I now love it. I wish there were more books that made me I feel as if I can reach in and take out a handful of soil. However, I know many people who have not, and probably never will, enjoy that level of description. It stands in their way like a barrier.

      In my own writing, this means I have to be choosey. I have no desire to please everyone… that way madness (or worse, pointless mush) lies. However, I would rather err on the side of being readable.

      Learn from them? Definitely. I think they would both be raising eyebrows, or worse, at many of their imitators, though.

      1. Yeah, I caught some pre-caffeine issues of my own in this post! The fun thing about “generalizations” is that they are just that: generalizations. The very idea of exceptions comes implicit in the concept! I certainly never intended to imply that “everyone” thinks the way I described above. I’m afraid that is the general trend of popular culture, though. I certainly don’t see too many pop voices calling for anything else.

        Of course, that is also a generalization, and I’m sure there are exceptions! 😉

        On this subject, I’m reminded of the analogy of research as an iceberg. Even if we only show 10 percent of our ideas above the surface, it’s the other 90% that no one ever sees that gives the 10% the buoyancy it has to have to stay afloat and hold together. That’s true of any good history book, and I think it’s also true of much fiction that we’d call “good.” If what we see is really all there is, it’s shallow indeed.

        That said, I also think this is a general principle, not a hard standard of measurement. It’s all proportional to our abilities, goals, and what we do with them. I do think that it’s healthy to look at Tolkien’s accomplishment and feel just a little guilty that I haven’t gotten there yet…and probably never will. At least watching the target will help me to at least shoot in the right direction. I need all the help there I can get!

        1. You use generalizations rightly, then. So often I run into people who do not, and I have developed a habit of prodding generalizations because of that. 😛

          So long as his skill motivates you instead of depressing you, then it is all go. I used to just be depressed by my lack in comparison.

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