Posts Tagged ‘Tolkien’

More Paintings

December 28, 2010

Well, here we go. As Christmas presents for some friends here this year, I decided to get out the brushes and canvases again and attempt to create one-of-a-kind, personalized gifts. (Notice that I didn’t say “great artwork” anywhere in there!) It has been relaxing and therapeutic to paint after the big push to finish The Star Shard on time. (Not that I was particularly tired of writing — but deadlines help, and the swift approach of Christmas with its need for presents was another great motivator.)

I have to apologize in advance for the quality of what you’re about to see. For one thing, these three paintings would be better if an actual artist had painted them. For another, it’s much harder than you might think to get painted images into an electronic format and post them onto a blog! When I asked about professional scanning at a couple different places, there was a lot of inhaling through teeth (which means, “You’re asking something difficult; I really wish you weren’t asking me that”). The pros were worried about shadows created by irregularities in the painted surfaces, etc. The upshot was that it may or may not be possible, but it would certainly involve sending the paintings away to the lab; it would take a long time; and it would be very expensive. [I’d gone into the first place with the merry idea of having them scan the paintings while I waited and then ordering cheap posters for all my friends . . . um, no. Live and learn!]

I tried using my own flatbed scanner — which, of course, is not nearly big enough for the canvases. They are A3 size, and it can only handle A4. But I thought I might scan the paintings a quadrant at a time and have good, digital images of the details. Again, not. For some reason, even when I played with the brightness control and weighted down the scanner lid with a stack of books, the scanned images came out very dim. Hmm.

So I resorted to taking digital photos of the paintings with my camera. Again, Murphy’s Law was strictly enforced. For one thing, it is winter in the northern hemisphere. That means that the sun over Niigata will next show its face in . . . maybe May? If we’re blessed. So I had to use the gray daylight on the edge of my tiny verandah. As I was jockeying into position, icy rainwater dripping off the edge of the roof hit the back of my coat and neatly splashed over the canvas. Grrr! (No damage, since the paintings are protected by nice finishing varnish.) I took gray daylight shots, and then I tried another series indoors by electric lighting. You’ll see a combination of both.

Problem #2: My preference for varnish is high-gloss. Not just “gloss,” but “high-gloss.” It’s beautiful to look at, but a nightmare to photograph. It’s like pointing your camera at a mirror. FLASHHH! That’s why you’ll see these images at all sorts of odd angles. I’m standing on my head with the camera, trying everything I can think of to avoid reflections.

Okay, I think that’s my full battery of excuses. I’m not an artist, I’m not a photographer, I’m poor, I have no patience, I live in a perpetually-cloudy region, and I like high-gloss varnish. May all that serve to predispose you to look kindly and mercifully on these humble paintings!

"What a Lot of Things You Use 'Good Morning' For!"

So here’s Gandalf talking with Bilbo at the beginning of The Hobbit. (I’m clearly not in any danger of being commissioned to do a Tolkien calendar anytime soon!) Sorry about the framing — because of the odd angle, I had to crop like mad, so you can’t see to the edges of the canvas. [This is precisely why Marquee Movies will tell you: always go with letterbox format in your movie rentals and purchases — never settle for the “pan-and-scan,” full-screen versions. Unfortunately, these are pan-and-scan versions of my paintings.]

I do like the expressions on the faces of these two. And the Shire looks sort of inviting. (It looks MUCH more so on the actual canvas, where the colors are brighter and everything looks 40% prettier.)

I like Bilbo’s fat stomach! The influence of the Peter Jackson films is quite evident in the hairstyle, huh? For that teacup, I used a color called “English Lace,” and I didn’t even have to mix it. I like the moss effect on the stone porch-thing. See my signature there in the corner? I always do it in gold, an “F” and a “D” together.

This was the outdoor shot, with a big glare on the canvas. (I took several, and believe it or not, this was the best. Sigh!) No, I don’t think that’s the Party Tree in the background. It’s just a tree. I like the purplish stuff in the hedgerow, and I hope that on your computer it looks better than it does on mine. It’s nice in the original, as is the sunlight on the grassy slopes.

The Eternal Now

This is a picture of me and my two closest friends on this side of the Pacific. (Can you tell which one is me?) It represents both Heaven and those “moments of Heaven” we experience at times in this life.

This is by electric lighting. Of course in Heaven it will be midsummer all the time (heh, heh — Mr. Snowflake is away, so I can say anything I want!) — but maybe the cherry trees in Heaven bloom in the midsummer. The sakura blossoms themselves were easy to paint: I used a large, soft brush like the tuft on a lion’s tail, and when I had the paint mixed to the precise color I wanted (white with the tiniest touch of crimson), I just puffed the brush all over, above every trunk I’d painstakingly drawn first. I like how the most distant trees seem almost a mist. (Those trunks took forever!)

What’s “Heavenly” about this image is that there aren’t crowds of people. There’s the picnic, and then just trees, trees, and trees, as far as the eye can see — and friendly blue hills in the distance. There are no responsibilities. There is only a picnic, and close friends, and good books, and a baseball and ball gloves, and time that does not pass: the Eternal Now. A golden moment unending.

This picture allows you to see the two bicycles in the foreground. The thing about cherry trees is that they bloom for a very short time. It’s like about a week at the most — and if there’s rain or wind during that time, the petals can fall prematurely. For the sakura to look beautiful, a blue sky is required. So in most places, people are very fortunate if they have one or two good viewing days during cherry blossom season. That is a large part of their allure, I suppose. Like a human life, they are here for one shining moment, and then they are gone. A breath. A day and a night, and then Eternity.

The peak of the blooming is called mankai, when every blossom is open, and the boughs look positively heavy with flowers, and every tree is poised in that one breathless instant before the pink rain of falling petals begins. If you get a blue sky on the day of mankai, you have received a wonderful gift. For this painting, I chose the moment when the first few petals are falling — the threshold between the perfect beauty of mankai and the perfect beauty of the pink rain.

The Eternal Now

And now we return to Middle-earth:

The Bridge of Khazad-dum

The classic confrontation between Gandalf and the Balrog is a favorite of artists. But I have yet to see a rendition of this scene that doesn’t ignore Tolkien’s description that the Balrog’s limbs have the coiling property of serpents. Have you seen anyone else tackle that? I’ve attempted to show that here, and I think my design is plausible.

Flame of Udun

The Balrog should be a combination of shadow and flame. See my little orcs streaming down the stairways in the background?

The Balrog

You can pretty much tell that what I love the most about this scene is Moria itself. Moria is the place in Middle-earth that I’d most like to visit. I mean Khazad-dum in its heyday, of course, before it was full of orcs. The folk of Durin! The great city of Dwarrowdelf! (Is it an accident that there’s only one letter difference between “Durin” and “Durbin”?)

Fleeing Companions

Frodo doesn’t want to leave Gandalf. Sam isn’t about to leave Frodo. Aragorn is trying to get them both out of harm’s way. We see Legolas and Gimli here, and I guess the blond hobbit must be Pippin. (Merry wouldn’t be blond.)

In the actual, I love these colors of the stonework.

Nice chasm, huh? ūüôā

And there you have it. Once again: if your computer works anything like mine does, if you click on any painting, you can view a magnified version of it. Click again, and you zoom in further. I haven’t figured out how to “click back out” without shutting down the whole window, though . . .

In the previous post, I introduced a quotation from Tolstoy in War and Peace and invited reactions. Thank you to those who offered your thoughts! Here’s the quote once again, and then my two cents:

“Everything I know, I know because I love.”

To love is to step forth, to reach out, to emerge from one’s isolation. It is to sense and savor the world around us. It is to embrace the joy that comes from places, from objects, from activities, and especially from other people. To love is to take a risk — for only when we love do we have something to lose. When we love we are involved; we are invested. Triumph, awkwardness, anxiety, exultation, fear, anger, joy . . . all these emotions that mark us as human beings — are they not all traceable to our loves?

In the movie The Name of the Rose, Sean Connery’s character William of Baskerville says to his novice, “How simple life would be without love, Adsol — how safe, how tranquil . . . and how dull.”

“Everything I know, I know because I love.”

I think Tolstoy was right.

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A Writer’s Life Considered

January 30, 2010

A writer’s life, like any life, should be well-considered. We should take stock periodically and ask ourselves what we’re doing, where we’re going, and if we’re on course. Is there a better route we might be taking? Do we have exactly the things we need in our packs? Should we be walking faster? — slower?

A comment came in yesterday by regular contributor jhagman that encourages just such an assessment. It was written in response to my previous post, “Durbin Finishes Reading a Book!” You can read the original comment there, and I’m going to quote it here in its entirety, but the gist is that jhagman takes me to task for my slow reading speed.

Let me preface this by saying I in no way intend this as a “counterattack.” All civil, legitimate expressions of opinion are welcome here. And I’m fully aware that the commenter meant it constructively,¬†implying that s/he’s waiting for my next book and calling me one of jhagman’s “favorite writers.” So, thank you, jhagman! I do appreciate the thoughts! I offer this post in a friendly spirit, as the self-reflection they triggered. Here’s the comment:

Fred, reading this post made me sad! I think it was Samuel Johnson who said, “It takes a half of a library to make one book.” At your rate of reading, it might be a lifetime of 100 years before we see another book! While reading ESL papers of students does constitute “reading,” unless they are like Joseph Conrad, you spend the bulk of your year not reading literature . . . ugghh! Can they pay a person enough to live like that? When I was at Fort Benning (paratrooper school) I got through two books — The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy, and David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, and the school I was in was for me no picnic. If I can do it, you can do a lot better with your reading! Lecture over, but when one of my favorite writers reads a book a year. . . . Enough said.

First, jhagman, you know from this blog that I’m the first to lament my slow reading pace. Two or three times I’ve studied books on speed-reading techniques and have tried to master them, but it’s never worked out for me. Fiction is just too precious to me to zoom through without looking back. I agree with you that I should be reading more. If I knew a way to do so, I would.

But consider this: I have a friend, also a writer, who reads tons of books — book after book after book — and she feels she should be reading more. We could all be doing better. You should be reading more, jhagman! Why didn’t you read ten books in paratrooper school, you slacker? Think of¬†all that time you have before pulling the rip cord, when you’re just twiddling your thumbs in freefall — what, may I ask, were you doing then?! ¬†ūüôā There are uncountable great stories and characters out there, waiting for us on the shelves, that will be waiting forever. We’ll never have the pleasure of most of them. We are limited creatures. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King acknowledges this. He allows himself time to read for pleasure in the evenings, but he says that at his age, he’s had to become much choosier about what he reads, because he doesn’t have time to read it all. (I “read” King’s book on cassette tape while walking, jhagman — do I get some points for that? :-))

I love the Samuel Johnson quote! — half a library to make one book.¬†Richard Peck said, “We write by the light of every book we’ve ever read.” And Tolkien, of course: “A book like The Lord of the Rings grows like a seed in the dark, out of the leaf-mould of the mind.” Oh, I do not doubt that we become better writers the more we read.

But I would caution that that’s not everything. There was a joke (I think it was a joke) I heard about an aspiring violinist who couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t more successful, because he went to symphony concerts every night and sat in the front row. See the point? Reading books is fine — it’s necessary — it would be hard to be a concert violinist without ever having attended a concert as a listener. But sadly, there are aspiring writers who have read a hundred times more than I’ve read, but who never seem to get the pen to the paper, who never seem to finish a story of their own.

Another good friend, also a reader of this blog, once said to me that she feels she doesn’t have exceptional musical talent, but that she has the gift of truly enjoying music. Some people listen to a lot. Some people read a lot of books. Some go through whole DVD stores seeing every film that catches their interest.

Ultimately, I don’t think it’s about reading volume. There’s this famous advice to writers: “Don’t read 100 books. Instead, read your 10 favorite books 10 times each.” I don’t reach that goal, either. But when I do read a book, I digest it pretty thoroughly. I study nuances and structure, and I think about it carefully, while I’m reading and for weeks afterward. I often sigh with momentary envy at friends who are not writers, who can read without their crafter’s eye and mind automatically engaging — who can read irresponsibly, just dashing through the book. But my envy is momentary. (It’s like those times in the years we played Dungeons & Dragons, when now and then I’d want to enjoy the wild abandon of playing as a player-character, not running the show from behind the DM’s screen; so I’d beg some other member of the group to launch an original, separate campaign, and I’d play as a character for a meeting or two, swinging my sword and puzzling over riddles, finding delight in exploring the unknown¬†— but then I couldn’t wait to get back into the DM’s seat.) In the end, what I love to do is write books. If that means the sacrifice is that I can’t read like a 12-year-old, barefoot and carefree — so be it. Heaven is coming in four or five decades at the most, and I’ll catch up on reading then. For now, I’ve got writing to do.

There was a year when I worked full-time at a Japanese company. It was ostensibly a “school,” a senmongakkou, but it was a company: the management’s only goal was extracting money from the students. Still, there were some dedicated teachers there trying to teach between a rock and a hard place, and I did my best to be one of them. That year, I was so physically and emotionally drained every day that there was no way I could write. That’s the one year I did quite a bit of reading. I read like a normal person — almost every night, and on the weekends. I finished reading quite a few books that year, and¬†doing so¬†was very nice — very calming and anchoring.

But it’s a tradeoff. For me, I think it’s possible either to read regularly or to write regularly. Reading is “for me” — it’s fun, and it feeds me. But writing is a calling. Writing is what leaves something behind in the world, something that I hope others may enjoy and benefit from. When I have to choose, I choose writing. Is anyone out there inclined to blame me? [Achilles: “Is there no one else?!”]

I was happy to hear Barbara Hambly at the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary say that when she’s writing, she has no time to do any reading; and she’s writing constantly — has been for decades — so she confesses that her knowledge of the genre is almost entirely from the books she read in her youth. So I figure if I’ve got Garth Nix on my side regarding character creation, and Barbara Hambly on my side concerning reading, I’m not alone.

Next, about the issue of day jobs: back in college, two of my closest friends and I made a promise to one another that we would never in life work long-term at jobs “just to make money” — that whatever we set our hands to in life, it would have merit, it would be worth doing. It would somehow glorify God, use our talents,¬†and serve humanity. Except for a very few brief transitional jobs that enabled us to get from one situation to another, all three of us have kept that oath. (And that’s by God’s grace, of course — I can see now that there was youthful idealism and impetuousness in the vow, and there are plenty of people in this world who have no control over what they must do to keep food on the table. The three of us have been blessed that we were able to keep our rash vow.)

So, no, jhagman: at the senmongakkou, they couldn’t pay me enough to not-write. Once my contract was up, I was out of there, and I had a wonderful time explaining in great detail to my bosses why I didn’t want their juicy contract renewed. I took my soul and left. But now, at Niigata University, it’s my privilege to have classes full of excellent students who are, for the most part, eager to learn. I’m able to give them something. I know now what my gifts of perception, language, sensitivity, patience, flexibility, tomfoolery, clarity of explanation, compassion, organization, and¬†dramatic performance are for. When I’m teaching writing, I’m teaching something very dear and real to me; and when I see the students’ final drafts, I know why it’s okay that I’ve labored over their rough drafts and answered their questions.

What value, you may ask, is there in English conversation? Well, I won’t get into the usefulness of communication in English in today’s world, but I will simply say that a university classroom is an overall experience. Some of the best things I got from classes in college had little to do with the content of the courses (and some did). When I was a student, I took notes on my favorite professors’ personal stories and philosophies just as eagerly as I took notes on what we were there to study. It might be said that my college major was “Froehlich and Lettermann” with a minor in “Sorensen.”

I’d like to believe that I’m helping my students a little farther along the path of learning “how to suck all the marrow out of life” . . . helping them to figure out what it’s all about, and how best to spend their time on this spinning rock.

Can you pay a person enough to do that? Well, no. I’m glad they do pay me something, because I have to pay bills. And I’m glad I’m doing the job.

But the story doesn’t end there. A university job allows more free time and autonomy of mind and spirit than any other job I’m aware of. I was able to write The Sacred Woods — a full-blown novel — during my first semester this year. As to whether or not you’ll have wait “a lifetime of 100 years” for the next book — well, I’m writing them, but I can’t control what publishers buy. Writing the books is the only thing I have any degree of control over. (And we do know that The Star Shard is still scheduled for Fall 2011 — so put that on your calendar!)

So, jhagman, shake my hand before we go away this week: we’re friends, you’re among friends here, and your comment is well-taken. You are not wrong. I will try to do better. Let’s all try to do better, each in our own vocations. As dear Professor Lettermann said (which¬†probably had no direct connection to the class at hand): “One of the best things about our theology is that we don’t have to be what we’ve been.”

Or, as Scarlett O’Hara says, “Tomorrow is another day.” (But that’s in some book I haven’t read.)

But at the same time, I’ll go on making the decisions I have to make. Time is limited, and as I see it, the books I’m waiting to read are friends I can depend on. They’ll be waiting for me, whether I live long enough to open them or not. Their words and their writers, some long dead themselves, are cheering me on in my own task.

“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” (Whitman, quoted in Dead Poets Society.)

The books that need me most are the ones waiting to be born.

Where the Ceiling Is

January 23, 2010

A good friend, being complimentary of my writing, once said, “In your stories I always know where the ceiling is.” We were discussing settings and descriptions of place in the books we loved, and she meant (and I agree) that in my stuff,¬†a firm grounding in the physical surroundings is essential. I’ve said it before on this blog (probably dozens of times now, in various ways), but I am truly a writer of place.

Almost invariably, my story ideas start with places I’ve been to . . . or places I’ve read about . . . or places I imagine. I’m often inspired by pictures — ones seen recently or remembered from childhood — photos, illustrations in books. Some settings just beg to have stories to take place in them.

I frequently linger and gaze into some lonely ditch where water gurgles from a culvert as if from the mouth of a cave — or where weeds stand thick in the tepid mire, a jungle in miniature laid out there just beside some ordinary road. I stop in mid-stride to peer into a thicket on the university campus (Niigata’s is wilder and woodier than most). The shade is deep under certain trees, with light shimmering somewhere beyond, as if somewhere among the tangles, a door into Faery has been left standing ajar. I know I’ve written before of the staggered line of potted pine trees on the traditional Japanese Noh stage — the differences in distance from the viewer meant to suggest passage into another world. These trees border the covered walkway by which certain characters enter and exit. If a ghost passes the trees, it is coming into this world from the realm of spirits. And that leads me to think about how so many writers throughout history have made use of forests as the avenues of passage into a supernatural dimension. Shakespeare, Hawthorne . . . I’m sure you can come up with a better list than I can.

And for what forests can’t handle, we’ve got caverns! And then there are rivers, the sea, and mountains. Do you follow me? My point is that, with the natural world on his/her palette, the painter of fantasy can do anything!

But coming back to “I always know where the ceiling is”: it’s not enough simply to evoke a setting and tip the hat to it only occasionally. I believe it has to be an inseparable part of the story’s fabric. The setting is always there from beginning to end, influencing — often determining — the things that happen. We can’t forget it any more than we can deny the real spaces we occupy¬†in our lives. Oh, we can get lost in conversations or ideas, for sure, and that’s good to do. A story isn’t a real estate brochure, and if you stop with the setting alone, you don’t have a story yet. But if we forget where the ceiling is, we’ll bump our heads sooner or later. And we daren’t forget the yawning stairway.

Whoever does not fully appreciate the crucial importance of setting to story would do well to read Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” or most of Lovecraft’s stories, or watch Lawrence of Arabia or Field of Dreams. . . . Again, I’m sure you can make a more intelligent list than I can.

What I find quite often is that a vital consciousness of the setting helps to generate story ideas every bit as much as the actions and personalities of characters do. Having a map — and thinking about all that it was telling me — helped me immensely with the writing of Agondria. So did having my cousin’s graphite sketches, which spoke volumes about the characters’ surroundings.

I recently came up with this advice when another good friend and I were talking about writer’s block: I’m sure this isn’t original with me, but I suggested gathering some pictures that the writer found intriguing or inspirational — magazine photos, pictures from the Internet, whatever — and pretending that they were illustrations for the story under construction. There’s something delightfully satisfying about such a technique, isn’t there? It’s like making a mold of some object, then pouring some substance into the mold, then breaking the mold when the substance has hardened. We’ve made use of the intermediary vehicle — the visual images — to create something else, something of our own.

During the year¬†that “The Star Shard” was being serialized in Cricket, I had the delightful privilege of answering questions from young readers on the magazine’s website; and a good many readers of Cricket are themselves aspiring writers. One question I was asked over and over again was, “How do you keep a story going? How do you know what to write once you’ve started?” My advice is that a stalled story can quite often become unstalled by the writer’s imagining him/herself to be in the story, a part of that described world. Look around, and pay careful attention to the details. Chances are good that, within minutes, you’ll know what has to happen next for your characters — and what has to happen after that, and after that. . . . I’ve noticed that, at times when the writing is going badly or I don’t know where the story should go next, it’s quite often because I’ve lost a sense of being in the setting — I’ve begun writing from some outside point. If the story becomes an abstraction, it suffers — at least in my writing.

“Where the ceiling is” makes me think of two other titles that put “Where” to good use: Where the Wild Things Are, which I’m planning to go see about 90 minutes from now. (It was one of my mom’s pet peeves when she’d ask schoolkids if they knew [she’d say the title of some wonderful book], and the kids would say, “Oh, yeah! I saw that!” — It bothered Mom that they knew the story only from its movie or TV incarnation, and had no idea that it was a book at all. Of course she didn’t take her irk out on the kids, but you can be sure she made them aware.)

For the record, I have read Where the Wild Things Are, so I’m allowed to see the movie. Yes, I’ve read the whole book! Yes, cover to cover. More than once!

And the other “Where” is Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein. Isn’t that a perfect title for a book of fanciful poems for children? That title alone should win prizes. It evokes the little grassy areas where kids play, where order and adult-determined pathways end. We all have such places somewhere near our homes when we’re kids — those pebble-strewn verges where dreams begin. The ground is always uneven there, isn’t it? It’s never level, and the grass doesn’t grow uniformly. There are taller clumps, there are old stumps, there are places worn bald by stones or by our feet, there are squishy places when it rains, and there are bright places that the sun bakes. I remember coming upon one such place in Niigata years ago, when a friend and I were making a bicycle odyssey to follow the entire perimeter of what’s called “Niigata Island” in a complete circle, heedless of typical routes. There was a place, on a windy ridge facing the sea, where the paved sidewalk just . . . stopped. The wind blew, and the grass riffled, and the sun sparkled on the waves — and there was simply no more pavement. It was pretty cool, and I thought at once of Shel Silverstein.

In all this issue of settings, I was thinking again of The Lord of the Rings. (How often our discussions of great stories lead us back there!) It’s been said by more than one scholar that The Lord of the Rings isn’t primarily a character story; it isn’t even really a plot story at heart. It’s a milieu story, and that means that we re-read and re-read it because what we love is Middle-earth. We want to go again to those wonderful places and hear the poetry and steep ourselves in the legends and histories and interconnectedness of it all. Tolkien knew where his ceilings were . . . and where the mountains were . . . and what was beyond them . . . and what the other names for everything were . . . and why. . . .

And I’ll go you one step further. (Is that even a legitimate expression?!) Much of what we’re enjoying in Tolkien’s¬†settings isn’t something fantastic, exotic, or overtly magical. It’s an echoing stone chasm, a¬†mighty waterfall, a mountain range, light slanting through quiet forest spaces, or landscapes rolling away under shifting clouds. Tolkien recognized that what is most numinous about the world is right here in our own world, and he knew it intimately. Tolkien, too, was a gazer-into-woody-corners. (I wonder if the Oxford of his day had any brushy nooks between buildings?) The story is told of how, when Tolkien and C.S. Lewis would take walks in the countryside together, Lewis preferred to stride along at a good clip, but he was forever having to stop and wait as Tolkien gawked at a tree or crouched to study some leafy shoot or patch of moss.

I’m going to quote here from Ted Nasmith, in his remarks prefacing this year’s extraordinary Tolkien calendar, which Nasmith illustrated:

“Other authors have well-developed descriptions of the lands their characters move through, both real and invented worlds alike, but somehow the combination of Faerie Tale structure wedded to a distinct delight in the minutiae and moods of nature has raised Tolkien’s sub-creation to a level few authors achieve. Some have even commented that Tolkien’s landscape constitutes a character of sorts, and this may be partly due to the tendency of the author — in fine faerie tradition — to blur the lines between his characters and creatures and their environment. . . .

“Clearly nature and animals interact with ‘people’ repeatedly as a central motif in Tolkien’s invented world, and since nature has long been a universal source of artistic and creative inspiration, visual artwork inspired by Tolkien’s works would not be satisfactory without making sure that illustrations also integrate the characters with the settings.”

What other writers do this well? This would be a good time to tell us, dear readers, about the authors and books you love. What are some other tales in which you always know where the ceilings are? Examples are quite welcome, too!

Thunder and Providence

July 3, 2009

Do you know what’s coming next Wednesday? In the early morning hours — to be precise, at six seconds past 4:05 a.m. —¬†the time and date will be:

04:05:06/07/08/09.

Aren’t you glad you found that out? Otherwise, you would have missed it entirely — you probably would have been sleeping or something. Now you can celebrate the moment by running around your yard shouting, waving a couple of sparklers you’ll save from the 4th just for the purpose. That’s what I’d be doing . . . if I had a yard.

Anyway — Happy Fourth of July!

I’ve been thinking hard about this holiday over the last few days.

Not long ago, I read an article about George Washington,¬†which described¬†how he miraculously escaped death on¬†several occasions, both as a young¬†man and during the Revolution. I’m talking¬†miraculous¬†— he should have been toast, but wasn’t — close-range bullets strangely not hitting him, and one instance in which a British soldier had him in the sights of a newly-developed, far-shooting rifle . . . but didn’t realize who this tall, imposing fellow was, and decided it just wasn’t decent to kill a man in such a way. And without the leadership of Washington, it’s very possible — even probable — that the nearly hopeless American army would have been completely hopeless, and the war lost.

A friend this week was telling me about how, by nearly any historian’s estimation, the Revolution was a war that the Americans never should have won. They were outnumbered, outgunned, and severely lacking in training, battle experience, and seasoned leaders. They suffered some terrible defeats. What saved them again and again — and eventually turned the tide of the war — was geography, and the weather, and what many great minds of the time could only attribute to Divine Providence: the hand of God shaping human history.

Throughout my life I’ve connected Glory Day — July 4th — with freedom. But for me growing up, that meant “freedom from school.” I linked the holiday to the fun of fireworks and cookouts and spending time with friends and relatives met only rarely. Fun, fun, fun: but that fun and that freedom were bought at a heavy price.

There was a scene in the movie The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, that really brought the impact of the Revolution home to me. Mel Gibson’s character, an American farmer, comes out onto his porch and sees a line of British redcoats advancing¬†into view¬†from among the trees in his pasture. As I sat there in the theater, that scene jolted me to the core. THAT was the Revolution: enemy troops in your pasture, stepping around the trees you climbed as a kid. Enemy troops in your yard. Shooting at you.

That was the reality then, and it’s the reality today for many people in the world.

It’s about a different war, but I know anyone who saw Saving Private Ryan on the big screen will never forget it. Yes, I mean the first half-hour or so, the intensely realistic depiction of the Allies coming ashore on the beaches of Normandy, under the muzzles of the German guns. When I saw that film, I seriously questioned what I was doing as a writer. At the time, I was working on The Fires of the Deep, a fantasy that takes place during a war. My book included¬†several large-scale battle scenes of precisely that type. The movie made me ask myself whether I had any right to be doing that — to be using war as a part of a fiction book written to entertain readers. I, who have never fought in a war . . . writing a book about war . . . war as entertainment. I felt I should burn the manuscript and go start apologizing to veterans.

Tolkien had far more of a right, if anyone does: he fought in World War I, lost something like three of his four closest friends in the Battle of the Somme, caught trench fever, and was invalided home. So when he writes of battle, it’s quite real. He knows whereof he speaks, and he never misrepresents war. When we read LOTR, we come away knowing that war is a dark, sorrowful thing.

It’s true that¬†martial conflict¬†has always been an element explored and utilized by the poets and writers of the human race, because war is what we humans do, as much as we do anything else. Certainly its drama, its consequence, and its absolutes help to define characters, and writers love to work with stuff like that.

It’s also true that Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, one of the best-known and enduring novels of the Civil War, was written by a man who was not a soldier and had no firsthand¬†experience of the war.

So I haven’t given up writing about war (and I didn’t burn the manuscript), but I hope I handle¬†combat as the sad and horrifying inevitability it is in this sin-darkened world.

I have a cousin who is a veteran of Vietnam. Like Tolkien, he lost very close friends in the slaughter. He came home full of metal fragments for which, even now in July 2009, he is having surgeries. He hates the 4th of July — not for what it means, but because of its physical stimuli: in hot, sultry, steamy weather, the sky is full of explosions, and the air is laced with the smell of gunpowder. It’s far too close a reenactment of what he experienced over there. The 4th is a holiday he grits his teeth and gets through.

When he read my story “Seawall,” the climactic battle story at the end of the Agondria cycle, he offered me his experience. “Let me tell you some things about what a person thinks and feels just before and during combat.” I would never have asked him to relive such things, but you can believe I listened with both ears and took very thorough notes. I revised “Seawall” accordingly — so if you read it, you’ll know that the battle parts are as close to the real thing as I can get them — I who do not know war and have no right.

While we’re on this topic: people ask me, since I live in Japan, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “What’s it like?” . . . “Have you been there?” . . . “What do people think?” Yes, I’ve been to Hiroshima, but not to Nagasaki. I’ve seen the “Atomic Bomb Dome” — the one gutted, domed building that was left standing in August of 1945, because it was in the blast shadow, directly under ground zero. I’ve seen the Peace Park and the museum there, and that, too, is an experience I’ll never forget. Aside from all the written accounts, the films, the photos, and the half-melted artifacts on display there, three things in particular are etched in my memory:

One is a 360-degree photo, floor to ceiling, that covers the wall of a circular room in the museum. This picture (probably a carefully-pieced composite) was taken at the blast center. It shows flat, charred wreckage to the horizon in every direction. Where there was once a city full of people.

Another is a wall of maps for comparison. The maps are of several major cities in the world, with different colored circles showing you the effects of a bomb equal in strength to that dropped on Hiroshima. I picked out Chicago, where I’d gone to school for four years, and I spent quite a while studying which suburbs would be vaporized, which would be flattened, which would be set ablaze. . . . When it’s a city you know something about, there’s a lot you think about.

Finally, the museum has¬†a long, long wall of illustrated accounts of the atomic explosion and the days afterward . . . done by children. Children who lived through it — what they saw, what they thought, what they felt, what they did. Big, childlike letters and colorful pictures. The pictures are very much like the gruesome scenes we kids (okay, we boys) drew for amusement, from our imaginations. But these were scenes that kids like ourselves actually saw.

The single most memorable piece we played in junior high band class was an arrangement of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It started out through a few verses with beauty and grandeur and mounting tension — a brave young country careening toward internal war. In the middle section, after the melody had risen to a kind of scream, all the wind instruments dropped out, and a grand timpani solo took over. The percussionist pounded the kettledrums, rattling the windows. Hooves, rifles, cannon fire . . . North and South, clashing headlong . . .¬†John Brown, convinced “that the sins of this guilty country cannot be purged away but with blood.” Then the shots faded, the smoke rose, and a muted trumpet played a sorrowful lament. Finally, the other voices came back, reacquiring harmony, gathering strength. As a kid in junior high, I got goosebumps every single time we played it.

This isn’t a post about delight and enchantment this week. Maybe it’s a theme I should have saved for Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day. But I thought Glory Day, this time¬†at the height of summer when we live to the fullest and read and write, watch movies, travel,¬†and dream, would also be a good time for us all to remember a respect for our materials, whatever they may be. Those materials come to our hands at a price. Our freedom is the result of sacrifices made on our behalf . . . and it is the gift of a Power greater than ourselves, ordering our days.

Near the end of Saving Private Ryan, the Tom Hanks character delivers a stern speech to Private Ryan, reminding him that his life, too, has been purchased at a great cost, so Ryan has a duty now to use his life well.

Is that not our¬†only response to Providence? G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Here dies another day during which I have had eyes, ears, hands, and the great world around me. And with tomorrow begins another. Why am I allowed TWO?”

And in the words of the unforgettable Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society:

“What will your verse be? Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Trees

May 23, 2009

I’ve been thinking about trees. That’s probably because they figure largely into the story I’m working on now. The more I reflect, the more I become convinced that trees may well be our single most significant (natural) connection to the numinous. I say “natural,” because our other connection is books–or, more accurately, stories–which is a link we humans have made. But trees are there all around us, shading us and whispering to us, breathing out oxygen to make our air sweeter, and beautifying our landscape . . . and perhaps their gifts to us only begin there. Walk with me, if you will, as I¬†expound my theory.

I’m going to quote from Hope Mirrlees in Lud-in-the-Mist. She’s talking about a “pleached alley” here, which is a path between two rows of trees, with the trees all intertwined and roofing the road over, so that you have a shady tunnel. Here’s the quote:

“There was also a pleached alley of hornbeams.

“To the imaginative, it is always something of an adventure to walk down a pleached alley. You enter boldly enough, but soon you find yourself wishing you had stayed outside — it is not air that you are breathing, but silence, the almost palpable silence of trees. And is the only exit that small round hole in the distance? Why, you will never be able to squeeze through that! You must turn back . . . too late! The spacious portal by which you entered has in its turn shrunk to a small round hole.”

To pass into the trees is to enter the realm of magic, mystery, and things beyond us. Is it any wonder that trees are so prominently placed in the cosmologies of so many peoples throughout history? Norse mythology tells of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, which supports and is itself the pathway among all the realms of gods, giants, monsters, and men. The Ragnarok, the end of the Universe, happens when Yggdrasil is eaten through by its enemies and comes crashing down.

Judaism and Christianity look back to Eden: the one time when the world was perfect was when the first man and woman lived in a Garden, and at the Garden’s very center were two trees. Trees sustained the lives of Adam and Eve by providing fruit for their food.

For a cultural anthropology class in college, we read a book about the Grand Valley Dani of New Guinea. A belief of the Dani people that I’ve never forgotten is that the human race was made from trees that were brought to life — trees given animation,¬†eyes, and hands.

It’s often said by Christian scholars that all peoples throughout history have arrived at parts of the Truth; if you live in this world and look around and think, it’s nearly impossible to avoid figuring out some of it, even without divine revelation. And one thing that almost everyone “gets” is that trees are extremely sacred.

Then I began to think about trees and fantasy fiction . . . particularly, how trees relate to the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. There’s so much to be explored there that I wondered this evening if any scholarly research has been done on the subject. Seriously — someone should write a thesis or dissertation on Tolkien’s Trees. [Nicholas? Has it been done?]

In one real sense, I believe it was trees that drew me first to read Tolkien’s books. I remember illustrations in fairy tale books from when I was very young — enchanting pictures of the deep, dark forests in which various protagonists were either lost or out cutting wood. And when I saw the Ballantine editions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — those marvelous paperbacks whose covers bore illustrations by Tolkien himself — I knew I had to read them. It was the very same stuff from those childhood pictures that had captured my imagination.¬†The Hobbit‘s cover was Bilbo riding his barrel down the River Running, gliding beneath those gorgeous, fantastic trees. The Two Towers had that picture which is probably my favorite of all Tolkien’s artwork, because it’s all trees, nothing but trees! Yes, it has two tiny figures down in the corner . . . figures who are, depending on which of Tolkien’s notes you believe, either Merry and Pippin in Fangorn Forest or Beleg and Gwindor in Taur-na-Fuin. (Tolkien adamantly resisted drawing clear or up-close pictures of his characters, because he wanted to leave them to the reader’s imagination: but he had no compunction about drawing his trees in every loving detail!)

So, then: Tolkien’s books, I say, are a journey from tree to tree to tree! That’s what drew me in, because I already knew as a child that trees were the real things: trees were the door-posts of Faerie. My favorite part in The Hobbit is the journey through Mirkwood. There are times even now when I think about Mirkwood and can still get that shivery, watery sense of delight in my lower chest that we feel all the time as kids but so rarely do in later years. You know the feeling I mean, right? Mirkwood and Fangorn and the Old Forest can still do that for me.

The Lord of the Rings — what is more beautiful and tree-filled than the descriptions of Lothlorien? But let’s go deeper still: the story begins and ends with a tree. Right? Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party takes place beneath the Party Tree, the symbol of all that is good and wholesome and stolid and warm and homey and peaceful and comfortable about the Shire. And at the end of the book, the terrible cutting down of that Party Tree is the last straw: that’s the signal that the world is irrevocably changed, that the wounds sustained in this vale of tears will not be healed on this side. It’s the sight of that tree cut down that brings Sam to tears.

The Silmarillion, with its Two Trees of Valinor: like Eden, that was the one time when the world was perfect and right, when those Two Trees gave their mingled light. It’s their light, mind you — the light of trees — that’s in the silmarils.

Back to LOTR: Gondor has its White Tree. When it withers, the realm is in deepest trouble.

What shows us that Mordor is the land of evil? What’s the one thing that Mordor has none of? Yup. No trees.

What does Saruman do when he goes bad? He takes down the trees. Then the trees take him down, when Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane, or . . . something like that.

And that brings us to the Ents. The Ents are “Earth-born, old as mountains,” second in antiquity only to the Elves. Treebeard refers to “young Master Gandalf” and “young Saruman down at Isengard.” [I love how Celeborn addresses Fangorn as “Eldest.” Man, that gives me goosebumps!] Ents are the shepherds of trees — tree-herders. Think of the implications of that. The function of these ancient¬†sentient creatures in Tolkien’s world is to look out for the trees. It’s as if Tolkien meant the Ents to be representatives of the Earth itself.

My favorite Dr. Seuss book is The Lorax (and not just because of the Onceler). It’s for all sorts of reasons that tug at the dreamer’s heart: the fact that there’s a crumbling platform out at the end of town, overgrown by grass, which is all that remains to show where the Lorax stood, and from where he was “taken away” (by lifting himself into the sky by the seat of his pants) . . . but most of all, the fact that the Lorax “speak[s] for the trees.”

So, then, here are some of my tree memories:

I grew up on Old Oak Road, right, named for its abundance of ancient oak trees? I think I’ve told this story on this blog before, but near as we can figure from a perusal of very old maps, Abraham Lincoln himself may well have passed within sight of where my house now stands, as he rode along on his 8th Judicial Circuit route from Allenton (now vanished) to the up-and-coming little hamlet of Taylorville. And if he did, then it’s likely he looked right at the two trees that shaded my front yard when I was a kid. They would have been younger in Lincoln’s day, but they would have been there: oaks live a long time and grow slowly. Perhaps the lanky young lawyer even rested beneath one and drank from his bottle of Gatorade.

What impressed me about those oaks as a kid was how they harbored a whole other world up in their crowns, 20, 30, 40 feet above the ground — a world of limbs and leaves that I could glimpse from afar, but could never reach. (Isn’t it that precise longing for the misty realm on the horizon that has always fueled our romances? Avalon . . . Lyonesse . . . Mu . . . Lemuria . . . Shangri-La . . . Atlantis. . . .) The world was always there, always visible at the top of my tire swing’s chain. I climbed up that chain more than once — all the way up, scraping my bare feet, painting them orange with rust — I climbed up and clung for a moment to the earth-most giant limb of that world of squirrels and birds. But even I had the sense to go no farther, for it would likely have been the death of me.

There was a hole at the base of that oak tree, one of those little caves that often form in old trees. I imagined wee folk who lived inside the trunk in many-storied mansions. I used to go out with a lantern and look for them on Midsummer’s Eve. (You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.)

There was a willow tree in our north yard that my nextdoor neighbor and I used to climb. It had a friendly array of branches that were like a basket for holding little kids who wanted to play above the yard. That tree was like a Phoenix: its trunk snapped completely off at ground level during an ice storm, and my parents thought that was the end of it. But the whole tree grew again from the stump.

I had a reading grove in the northwest corner of the front yard. I’d sit in a lawn chair and put my feet in the fork of a young oak tree that is not so young now. I remember writing a lot of The Threshold of Twilight there and reading a lot of Stephen R. Donaldson. My good dog Hooper is also buried in that grove.

I remember gazing always at that great wall of oaks to the south of our property (see the aerial photo in the previous posting). It was a mighty, rolling green cliff, full of twilight caverns signifying mystery. That, to me as a boy, was the rampart of Mirkwood.

To the south of our place along the road there was a gigantic oak that I always called the Silhouette Tree. Apparently “silhouette” was a word I learned early on and especially loved, and I’d point to that tree at sunset and use the word. (That tree has just been cut down in the past year–I noticed it gone the last time I was there.)

In the middle of the field between my neighbor’s house and mine was another old, gigantic tree. We used to play there, building secret little clubhouses around its base. It was especially nice when the field was in corn, and we had to pass through the whispering stalks to get there, its towering height guiding us as a landmark as we navigated toward it, and the field shutting out all the world. My dad always cautioned us to be careful, that a lone tree in a field could¬†indicate the site of a long-vanished homestead, and thus that there might be an abandoned well somewhere in its shadow, perhaps covered by a now-rotted layer of boards. (My dad was among the greatest worriers in human history.) That always added to the charm for us, that at any moment the ground might collapse beneath our feet. We used to prod and search and hope for that long-lost well, but with no success.

Mom had a grape arbor, and the vines quested out and climbed a maple tree at the back corner of the tin shed. In the arbor’s heyday, the tree itself was full of grapes. It was a grape tree. My nextdoor neighbor and I used to sit up there, high above the world, and eat them.

And here’s a story for you: at my grandma’s house in town, there was a birch tree. During a storm, the trunk shattered, and the tree was left leaning over the street and sidewalk. The trunk was completely severed, so it had to be cut down. Grandma enlisted me and all the neighborhood kids to do the job. That will forever remain as a “photograph of the heart”: there we all were, a scruffy, barefoot kid on just about every limb, each equipped with a saw, a hatchet, or a pair of clippers. Many of us were vigorously sawing through the limbs between ourselves and the bole. Every so often a kid would plummet earthward with a shriek. And down on the ground, there was the biggest boy in the neighorhood, methodically sawing through the trunk with the biggest saw. We all lived, and none of us were hurt.

So, dear readers — tell us your tree stories! Did you have a treehouse? Did you climb trees, maybe with a book in your pocket? Did you have a secret clubhouse sheltered by tree branches? If so, take us all there, so that those worlds may live again!

Frody Bagger and the Terrible Ring of You-Know-Whom

November 28, 2008

Lest this blog be accused of taking itself too seriously, the following posting is entirely silly.

The other day, some friends and I were toying with the utterly frivolous question of “What if H.P. Lovecraft had written Jaws?” (If you survive this posting, maybe I’ll subject you to my answer to that question next time around.) (This is the sort of thing writers do when they should be doing more responsible things like meeting the deadline on the chunk of the grammar dictionary they’re supposed to be editing.)

So gather ’round, Gentle Readers, and before you drop off to sleep tonight, I’ll read you a little story. The question before us is, What if J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling had been collaborators? What if, instead of the works they’re most famous for, they put their talents together and came up with the epic romance suggested by the title of this posting? [Writer’s note: in light of some of the responses I’ve been getting, I feel it’s necessary to say here that the following is a loving sendup of two writers whose work I greatly admire. It’s not intended as an attack on either one of them. I hope fans of either or both will find a lot they recognize here, perhaps with a twist or two that may induce laughter.]

Here we go, then — here’s what might have resulted. We pick it up in medias res:

Frody Bagger and the Terrible Ring of You-Know-Whom

When everyone had settled down after the excitement, Gandalf clinked his pipe on his water-bottle for silence.

“Hsst! Frody!” whispered Merry. “Have you heard the one about the traveling salesman from the Westfarthing?”

“Shush!” said Legolas, scowling as darkly as his fair countenance would allow. “Gandalf’s going to speak.”

Gandalf cleared his throat and looked solemn. “Before we begin the next phase of our journey — which I think, given the lateness of the hour, shall involve resting first — I regret to inform you that the doors of Moria are now firmly closed behind us, and we have no choice but to go forward into the dark.”

Groans passed throughout the Fellowship. Boromir caught Frody’s eye and shook his head. “I told you all we should have made for the Gap of Rohan, but noooo.”

“Shush!” said Legolas.

“I think we are all tired,” Gandalf finished, “so I shall conclude my remarks with the advice that we all get a good night’s sleep. Moria is not to be trifled with, and many of your parents are already concerned that this Quest is dangerous.”

“Parents? Concerned?” murmured Merry. “Mum thought this would be good for us. Whose parents have got their shorts in a knot?”

“Don’t look at me,” Frody hissed back. “My parents¬†drowned.”

He was still feeling peevish from his soaking in the pool outside the gate. While Sam spread the bedrolls, Frody wrung out his shirt. “Sam,” he said under his breath, “why d’you suppose that tentacly thing singled me out? D’you suppose it has something to do with this burden I bear?”

“Oh, go on there, Mr. Frody. Everybody turns fifty sooner or later. It’s not so bad. Why, look at Mr. Gandalf. . . .”

“I meant the ring, Sam.”

“Oh! That I wouldn’t know nothin’ about.”

Across the camp, Gimli scrunched his brows, appraising Legolas’s bow. “Well now, Leg’las,” he said, “How did yer know ter use arrows agains’ that Thing in the water?”

The elf rolled his eyes. “If you’d read the Quest Manual, you’d know there’s a whole section on ‘Attacking Enemies From a Distance.’ It tells all about the bow and arrow. Tsk! Honestly, do any of Durin’s folk ever crack a book?”

Gimli patted the head of his war axe. “We c’n crack purty much anythin’, Master Elf, if yer take my meanin’.” Gimli was a stout and formidable warrior — a Giant Dwarf, which made him exactly 5’10” in height: precisely as Ralph Bakshi had portrayed him.

Legolas threw up his hands and stalked away to his own space.

Frody and Sam sat awake for a short while in the Common Area of the camp, beside the fire.

“Here, then, Mr. Frody,” Sam said. “Have a cup of pumpkin juice and a bite o’ these conies and taters. Things’ll be better once we’re through this dark — you’ll see.”

“You’re a bonzer friend, Sam, and an amazing hobbit. Where would I be without you?”

“Oh, go on, Mr. Frody.”

“No, it’s true, Sam. When the pony was making all that fuss earlier, you knew he needed feeding.”

“You’re makin’ me embarrassed, Mr. Frody. You know that was just because I took that there seminar Master Elrond arranged for us — that there ‘Care of Ordinary Creatures.’ Sharp folks, them elves, if you ask me. Knowin’ just what — crikey, Mr. Frody, what’s that?

They sprang to their feet as a pair of luminous round eyes flashed in the dark. Frody checked his new sword, the Sting 2009, but it wasn’t glowing blue, as it did when goblins and such were about. It did, however, launch into the current time and temperature until he re-sheathed it.

“Oh, relax,” said Frody, taking a second look into the spooky shadows of Moria. “It’s just Golly.”

Whining and wringing his bony hands, Golly slinked into view and sidled up to the fire.

Sam growled, and Frody sighed heavily. “Hullo, Golly,” said Frody.

Golly rolled onto his back with an ecstatic shriek, kicking his gangly feet in the air. “Aaiiieee! Golly is tremendously honored that Mr. Frody Bagger deigns to speak to him! Oh, fortunate, fortunate Golly! But Golly is undeserving, Sir! Golly would prefer Mr. Frody Bagger’s fist against his jaw. Golly’s teeth should fly! Mr. Frody Bagger should hold Golly in the fire until he scorches, Sir!”

Golly had followed the Fellowship for many leagues. He had originally called himself a House Elf until Legolas had asked to see his Elf Card. Having none — nor pockets to carry a card in — Golly immediately declared himself a House Golem.

“Golly, please!” cried Frody. Golly had seized Frody’s ankle and was using Frody’s foot to kick himself in the stomach.

“Mr. Frody Bagger –” said Golly, between gasping retches as the boot pummeled him — “must not — go into the Wild. Must not — go anywhere — but to Cirith Ungol. Yes! Straight Stair, Winding Stair! He is safe there, is Mr. Frody Bagger. Panic room is there. Lead-lined vault, full of provisions. Pipe leaf, yes! DVD player! Hole up for the duration of nasty war! Keep the Precious safe! Golly comes to lead Mr. Frody Bagger there!”

Boromir’s horn sailed through the air and beaned Golly on the noggin.

“Ooooh!” squealed Golly. “Golly is thanking you, Sir!”

“If we can’t go to Gondor,” grumped Boromir, “we’re not going to your ‘Cirith Ungol,’ wherever that is.”

“Tsk!” called Legolas. “Some of us are trying to sleep!”

As¬†Golly carried on, returning the horn to Boromir and offering his head as a target, enthusiastically inviting a second shot, the hobbit twins sneaked up behind him. Laying hold of the sinewy creature, one lifted him bodily and dropped him into an open well at the chamber’s corner. Golly’s piteous scream faded into the depths. Somewhere far below, an ominous drum began to beat. Doom . . . doom . . . doom. . . .

“Fool of a Took!” snarled Gandalf. “Throw yourself in next time!” The wizard disentangled himself from his bedding, and as he stood, he seemed to grow taller and darker in his anger. (It was rumored that at meetings of the White Council, the Wise had “Get Momentarily Scary” contests. Gandalf and Galadriel generally traded off the trophy back and forth, year by year, throughout the Third Age.)

“Ah, ha, ha, ha!” laughed the other twin, slapping his knee. “He’s not Pippin! I’m Pippin!” But seeing the stormy shadow pass across Gandalf’s face, seeing the wizard’s eyes blaze with wrath, the hobbit changed his tune. “Just kidding. He’s Pippin.”

Slowly, the drum beats faded to silence.

“Likely they was just practicin’,” said Gimli. “Or horsin’ aroun’ wi’ an ol’ kettle drum. Our folk always carry aroun’ their music’l ins’ruments. Bass viols, an’ such. Bombur prolly left some percussion stuff set up down there.”

“Regardless,” said Legolas, “it was foolish, Master Took. Like that time you threw all our chocolate at the troll.”

“How was I to know,” said Pippin, “that chocolate only works against the Wraiths of the Land of Serious Black?”

“Right!” added Merry. “And chocolate sort of worked against that horrible thing with the one wheel — that wheelbarrow-wight.”

“At any rate,” said Legolas huffily, “we’re without chocolate until we get another package from your mum.”

Boromir was looking forlornly at his horn, which had broken in two after its impact with Golly’s head. It lay now in two neat halves, as if it had been cloven with a blade. “So much for that,” he said with a sigh, tossing¬†the pieces¬†into a sewer that drained into the Great River Anduin. “Hope my dad doesn’t find out.”

“Ahem!” said Gandalf. “Bed? More questing early tomorrow? Do I have to come over there?”

Everyone lay down again except Legolas, who sat reading the Quest Manual, and Frody and Sam, who returned to the fire.

“Gandalf?” called Pippin meekly in the dark. “How d’you figure on getting us out of these mines?”

“Not to worry,” said the wizard soothingly. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Now do try to sleep.”

Again, when all was quiet, Frody sighed. “I wish Aragorn were here. I have so many questions for him.”

Sam looked wistful. “Strider — your godfather, yes. He’s a good feller to have on your side in a scrape, an’ no mistake. Can’t say as I trusted him at our first meetin’, though.”

“Sam, I know he looks foul. But he can’t come in out of the Wild and wash his hair, because the Ministry of Stewardship is still after him. They don’t like this business of ‘Heir to the Throne.'”

“Why don’t you write him a letter, Mr. Frody?”

“Crikey, Sam! That’s brilliant! You’re a genius!”

“Oh, go on then, Mr. Frody. Don’t be makin’ fun.”

Smoothing out a piece of parchment, Frody uncapped his ink bottle, dipped his quill, and began to write.

Dear Aragorn,

Our Quest is going well. I miss you and wish you were here. Join us when you’re able. We are now at 35 degrees 7 minutes east longitude, 40 degrees 3 minutes south latitude, and doing our best to stay hidden. Secrecy is of the utmost importance, Gandalf says.

By the way, in case you’re worried, I still have It safe — you know, the Thing I’m carrying that You-Know-Who wants.

Hope to see you soon.

Frody

Sam read it over Frody’s shoulder. “That’s perfect, Mr. Frody, but how are you going to get it to Strider?”

“I think I can just throw it out that window,” said Frody, pointing to an aperture in the stone wall. “Aragorn’s all over the Wild. He’s the guy out there. If something’s in the Wild, he’ll find it.”

“Right!” agreed Sam.

Tiptoeing to the window so as not to wake the others, they peered out into the night beyond the walls of Moria. Frody¬†flung his letter into the breeze,¬†and it zigzagged toward the ground — until a huge, black, reptilian shape swooped out of the clouds, and a cowled figure on the monster’s back snatched the parchment in a skeletal hand.

“What d’you suppose that was, Mr. Frody?” asked Sam, sounding a little worried.

“A friend of Aragorn’s, I expect,” said Frody. “He’s got many friends.”

“And many names,” added Sam.

“He says that’s to stay ahead of the bill collectors.”

“He is so cool,” said Sam.

Their gazes drifted downward to the winding path leading up to Moria’s side entrance. A red carpet lay unrolled on it, and along this carpet trooped a host of shadowy figures — mythical creatures, all having come to make gratuitous cameo appearances in the story, so that an entire generation of readers might grow up believing they had appeared here first. Frody and Sam stared in wonder at centaurs, gargoyles, griffins, hippogriffs, Ki-Rin, fauns, platypi, talking beavers, Daleks, and mermaids flipping and thrashing, dragging themselves forward with their hands. There were owlbears, wyverns, sphinxes, a couple of Shoggoths, banthas, Jawas, Untowards, chupacabras, and¬†a Sasquatch.

All these fabulous beings were emerging from an endless line of arriving limousine carriages powered by invisible engines — or so one could only surmise. There were misty, empty spaces above the front wheels, where the motors and bonnets ought to be.

Paparazzi sprang now from the bushes — the fell paparazzi of the Misty Mountains, a strain of their vile kind that You-Know-Who had cross-bred with Men, that they might go about in daylight and march over great distance beneath the weight of camera bags. Their cameras flashed now, lighting the forest with an eerie radiance like a false dawn.

More mythical celebrities arrived on the carpet. Scylla and Charybdis had obviously tried to outdo each other with their off-the-shoulder evening gowns. Nosferatu sprang up end-ways out of his hearse-bed limo. Pan waved to the crowds, looking chic in his designer shades, a fur-draped chimaera on his arm. Her breath incinerated one of the paparazzi who got too close. Dr. Zaius, with distinguished silver highlights in his orange mane, was obviously playing the elder statesman.

“Mr. Frody! Is that . . . can it be. . . .?”

“Yes, Sam,” said Frody with a smile. “That’s Grendel.”

“Oh, I’ve always dearly wanted to see Grendel! But — but who’s that he’s with?” Sam’s face contorted in revulsion. “Oh, that would be gross, an’ no mistake!”

In the light of the moon and the flashes, they saw that Grendel was escorting Medusa. When she lifted her own shades to glare meaningfully at a cameraman, he promptly turned to stone, camera and all. She was wearing high-heeled feet, which were all the rage since Angelina had worn them in Beowulf.

“She’s put on quite a few pounds,” said Frody. “And can you believe that? — Botox for every one of her snakes.”

“And that dress, Mr. Frody. That’d be just wrong in my book, if you take my meanin’. ‘Mutton dressed as lamb,’ as my old Gaffer always says.”

 

When at last they pulled themselves away from the view of the bizarre menagerie, they discovered Gandalf sitting at the divergence of two corridors, one descending to the left, the other climbing away to the right. He was clearly confounded.

“Hmm,” he said broodingly. “If only I’d brought along the Hallway-Sorting Hat.”

Merry sat up, yawning. “Maybe you should try saying ‘Friend’ again.”

Pippin high-fived him from the adjacent bedroll.

“Tsk!” said Legolas.

“I have it!” cried Gandalf, bounding to his feet with a laugh. “Gandalf, you old fool! I have the solution to everything!”

“What is it?” they all cried, gathering close behind him.

“There are too many adults here!” He danced from foot to foot, rubbing his hands together in glee. “We’ll never advance the plot that way! These books always start to move when you young folks are left to your own devices. Hobbits, take the descending path.” He clutched Frody’s shoulder soberly¬†and patted the ring through Frody’s shirt. “Keep it secret. Keep it safe.” Then he brightened. “The rest of us will go this way, up this tunnel marked ‘EXIT.’ We’ll be back for the denouement — to thump you on the backs, make some pithy philosophical comments about life, devotion, and friendship,¬†and tell you ‘Well done, but now things are going to get darker.'”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Legolas.

“But –” Frody began.

“Gimli,” said Gandalf, “you’d better go with the kids.”

Gloin’s son blustered. “Yer hadn’t ought ter send me away, Mr. Gandalf!”

“Ooo,” said Legolas — “short-tempered, are we?”

“Now, now,” said the wizard, “enough talk. Everybody, do your thing. We’ll see you on the beach. Let’s do some good.”

THE END.

Wisdom from World Fantasy

November 12, 2008

As promised, here’s a little tour through my notebook — stuff that I wrote down while listening to panels at the World Fantasy Convention 2008 in Calgary.

David Morrell, one of this year’s Guests of Honor, the creator of Rambo in his novel First Blood (1972), has a book out on writing that I’d love to read: The Successful Novelist (2008).

He says the keys to writing success are talent, discipline, hard work, and luck. (No real surprises there, but I thought it was worth writing down, because it’s true. Or rather, mostly true: it depends on your own interpretation of the “luck” part. As Obi-Wan says, “In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.” Again and again in my own writer’s path, things have happened that, to many, would seem like sheer dumb luck. The right thing is written on the silliest whim at the right time, sent to the right editor at precisely the right time, etc. — my own interpretation is that there’s an overarching plan — yes, it’s my blog and I’ll say what I want. I believe that God works things out, opening doors at just the right moments. But certainly the parts about talent, hard work, and discipline are indisputable.)

David Morrell says that, because of who we are and the life experiences we’ve had, we all have a dominant emotion. He compares it to a ferret — a ferret that lives inside us, trying to get out. Our task as writers is to identify the ferret. Figure out what it is you’re supposed to be writing. It may take a lot of trial and error, but keep listening, keep trying to sight the ferret, so that you know what it is.

It’s the daydreams that lead us. Your ferret will likely identify himself most readily when you’re not thinking about him. Be aware of your daydreams — of the things that come up and come out again and again in your writing. In a sense, your body knows what it should be writing.

David Morrell: “Be a first-rate version of the person you are, instead of a second-rate version of someone you’re not.” That one’s good. We should all think hard about that one. I spent a few years stewing over how I could be “like J.K. Rowling.” But I’m not like her, and I shouldn’t be. There are other stories that I’m meant to tell. I’ve got a ferret of my own. [This analogy is particularly funny to me because there is an actual ferret living in my house in the U.S. — an old ferret that sleeps most of the time, kept by my cousin, who’s renting that house from me. I hope my inner ferret is more active than that one! But at least I know what a ferret looks like. . . .]

Morrell again: “Serve the story. It will tell us what’s important.”

Morrell: “It’s the journey that’s important. All we have is the moment. Enjoy every day that you’re doing what you’re doing.” That’s profound, isn’t it? My dad used to say, “Having is never as good as wanting.” I’ve had some heady, wonderful moments as a writer, for sure. But I’ve come far enough on the path to feel the truth of this quote. If I didn’t enjoy the creation of the story — the daily setting of words on paper, of shaping a tale where one didn’t exist before — of striving to make it better through revision — then there would be no point to this. There are far more efficient ways to make money. The wonderful thing about being a writer is that I get to be a writer. And sometimes people like what I write, and that’s icing on the cake! And sometimes people pay me for writing, and that’s icing on the icing. But it’s the journey . . . that’s what it’s all about. “How can I solve this plot problem?” . . . ”¬†Wouldn’t it be cool if. . . .?”

Frank Sinatra reportedly had this sign on his door: “If you’re going to knock on this door, be sure you have a damn good reason.” Yay, Frank! I didn’t realize we had so much in common! I thought it was just the blue eyes.

Morrell recommends these writers, important in the history of horror: Richard Matheson, Jack Finney, Ira Levin, and Thomas Tryon’s The Other and Harvest Home. He says Dracula is one of the best novels ever (Bram Stoker).

A ballet dancer on one of the panels used a ballet model of writing: a story is like the High 5th Position in ballet (arms arched high over your head, fingers of your two hands pointing toward each other): the story starts at your left elbow. Your head is at the center, between your arms. The story goes up one arm and comes down the other, ending at the other elbow. That is to say, you don’t want to dump too much into the story at the beginning. Let it start small and build — let it climb — the main stuff happens in the middle (your head) — and also there shouldn’t be too much overwhelming stuff at the end. Let the story diminish to its graceful conclusion at your other elbow. The dancer didn’t say this, but remember the “lady” on the Monty Python episode who had the theory about the brontosaurus? “The brontosaurus is thin on one end, gets very thick in the middle, and is thin again on the other end.” Take your pick: ballet or brontosauri.

From (I think) a young-adult fiction panel: If something is done extremely well, it doesn’t have to be startlingly new. As Fujiwara no Teika said long, long ago: “Don’t strain for novelty.” Stories that have been done a thousand times have been done a thousand times for a reason: the pattern works. But characters and the details you bring to the story are infinite and unique. You alone see the world through your own filter. The book you write will be different from the book anyone else writes, even if the plot, examined on a lab table, isn’t anything Earth-shakingly original.

People reread and reread Tolkien. Write books that people will reread. I’m never happier than when a fan tells me s/he rereads Dragonfly every October. And one of my favorite fan letters for “The Star Shard” in Cricket was one saying this was a story the reader would curl up with on a rainy day no matter how many times she’d read it before.

Today, there’s a huge focus on plot at the expense of the characters and the richness & atmosphere that makes people reread a book. We’ve all seen this, right? Many movies nowadays are made with about three or four different surprise plot twists at the end — I suspect many books are the same — writers are clawing desperately to find “surprising” plots. But if plot is all you’ve got going on, people will read the book once. If you build a rich world, people will come back again and again, because they’ll want to live there.

You have to nail the pacing. Keep it moving, especially young-adult fiction. Keep things happening.

Terry Pratchett says writing/plotting a novel is like looking down into a valley full of mist. You can see a treetop here and there, and maybe you can see the exit to the valley, but you can’t see all the stuff in between, down below the shroud of the mist. You have to discover that as you go along. I have certainly experienced that! Things become clear at the time they’re supposed to. Writing is a journey of discovery.

My agent says January is a good time to submit manuscripts. So is “back-to-school” time in September. The worst times are December and August, when people are out of their offices.

“The French language is of critical and sometimes disproportionate importance to the French.” — Barbara Hambly

Dave Grossman has two books titled On Combat and On Killing. David Morrell and David Drake made the point that one mistake frequently made in thriller fiction is that an ordinary person, when faced with a life-threatening situation, is suddenly able to kill like a soldier. In fact, humans have a kind of shield in their minds that prevents them from killing. Our instinct and tendency is to preserve life. It’s wired into us for the preservation of our species. Long ago, the Army used to train soldiers in marksmanship. But they found that even soldiers who could consistently peg the bullseye of a target wouldn’t fire their weapons in combat. [I’ve heard findings about how owning a gun for self-defense doesn’t usually work out. What happens most often is that a criminal, breaking into a person’s house, uses the defensive homeowner’s gun against him/her.] Now the Army trains soldiers to kill — to kill instinctively. It uses video games — you see an enemy, and you react. People who haven’t been trained in that way have an awfully hard time shooting or stabbing another human being. Our instinct is to preserve life. Our brains sabotage our deadly force. The chilling flip-side of that coin is: What about the generation of kids who are being trained by video games to see enemies and react?

Sharyn November makes the point that writers have an internal age they gravitate towards. “It’s interesting to see what people’s internal age is.”

Garth Nix says it’s all about an emotional connection. That’s why some books are successful. Readers make an easy emotional connection with the characters. That is quite profound — don’t gloss over this idea. How can we create that connection in our writing? That’s worth thinking long and hard about.

Peter Pan is a beautiful book, says David Morrell. So is The Prestige.

Emotional honesty. Dickens’s Bleak House. “The man could write,” says Morrell.

He also says, “God rewards the brave.”

Hollywood: “Against a backdrop of war, they fell in love.” Fantasy fiction: “They fell in love, but in the meantime, they had the dark lord to defeat.” Characters in fantasy are revealed through how they deal with some external thing.

A character who’s a stranger to the fantastic context allows you to describe it. An indigenous character doesn’t give the fantastic context a second thought. Boy, do I wish I’d thought of that before all those drafts of The Fires of the Deep!

Argument is manipulation.

Lovecraft’s stories are all: “A certain family are probably descended from monsters.” Heh, heh, heh! But look back up there to a point made earlier: Lovecraft could do that plot again and again, because his ominous atmospheres are so much fun to experience: all those sagging gambrel roofs and narrow alleyways, those tombstones thrusting up through the soil like the bleached claws of some enormous buried hand, those weird swamps with preternatural glows, that non-Euclidian geometry. . . .

I want to track down a poem about two corbies (ravens) talking about going to feast upon a dead knight in a field: “Where shall we go and dine today?” It sounds wonderful.

Someone asked Stephen King, “Why do you write horror?” He replied, “What makes you think I have a choice?”

“Horror is a genre of tone.” — Barbara Hambly

I was SO RELIEVED to hear Barbara Hambly say that when she’s writing, she doesn’t have the time or the emotional energy to read fiction. Thank you, Barbara! People act like reading fiction is easy. I love it, but for me, it takes focus and energy. I’ve always felt like a cretin for not reading more. Hambly says what she’s working with is the memory of those genres before she started writing professionally. There may be hope for me yet! That’s so refreshing and inspiring to hear, after hearing so many writers who say, “Oh, yes (yawn): I read ten novels a day. I just can’t help it.”

Let a book be what it wants to be. Don’t try to force a particular genre on it. Write it, and then worry about where it fits in.

Vampire fiction: now that the religious aspects are essentially gone, vampire novels are romances. That’s pretty much all that’s left.

And cycling back to David Morrell: “The destination is not nearly as important as the voyage.” It’s worth saying twice!

Summer Nights and Reading Spaces

July 11, 2008

I remember the first time I noticed that a bright moon can throw your shadow as sharply onto the ground as the sun can. I made that discovery because I was out in a summer night, reveling in the cool breeze, the warmth rising from the land, the symphony of the crickets, and the smells of mown grass and horses and leaves.

In Japan, autumn is said to be the time for reading. Of course it can be done year-round, but for me, books and stories called most insistently when the world warmed up in spring, and when the spring unfurled into glorious summer. Naturally, there was the pragmatic reason: kids are burdened with school for most of the year, and it’s summer that offers the freedom to read unchecked, unhindered by that travesty that is organized education. In Japan, to describe hot, perfect summer weather, I still use the phrase bunshou no tenki — “writing weather” — which, yes, raises some eyebrows, since most people see no correlation between sweating profusely and a celebration of the arts. Sigh.

But as a kid, warmer and longer days meant that it was time for me to grab a book and go outdoors. Out in the shade of trees, out in that immemorial green light, was the truest and best place to escape into the worlds of stories. I can recall reading The Martian Chronicles in the open doorway of the barn’s hayloft, my bare feet swinging in space. I read Avram Davidson’s The Kar-Chee Reign and Rogue Dragon (a “double-feature” book that flipped in the middle, one novel beginning from each end) sitting cross-legged atop a barrel on the grounds of our local historical museum, where my mom was ever active. I read some of the post-Jaws rogue animal books there, too, on the steps of the courthouse where Lincoln himself once practiced law.

I had a “reading grove” in the northwest corner of our front yard (where my dog Hooper was later buried). I would sit there on a folding chair with my feet propped in the fork of a young oak, reading Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. In the same spot, using a lapboard, yellow legal pads, and a soft mechanical pencil, I wrote a great deal of The Threshold of Twilight, my first full-length novel manuscript.

Ooh, check out this picture! This is in the backyard of my house in Illinois: the gate from a long-gone corral, leaned against young maples in years gone by, half-swallowed by the growing trunks. This tendency of nature to reclaim human artifacts has always fascinated and thrilled me. I was thinking of such things in college when I wrote the lines, from “Urban Requiem”:

“In the rainy end of days the satyrs

Came and rolled on spools the broken wires,

Rekindled the old infernal fires,

And scooped clean soil over oily matters.”

But I digress. I read a whole lot of Lovecraft in various places in the yards. I read most of Stephen King’s It on the banks of our pond and on the back porch. I read on shed roofs, in trees, on the hoods and trunks of cars, in the tire swing, atop the root cellar, and everywhere in between. When darkness forced me indoors, yes, I read there, too.

When darkness fell, though, sometimes I’d wander back outdoors, not reading now, but marveling at this wonder that was summer. As a teenager, I was quite taken with celebrating Midsummer’s Eve. It’s a big deal in Tolkien’s works, and I think those are what introduced me to the concept. “Elvish singing is not a thing to miss, in June under the stars. . . .” Pretty much all folkloric sources agree that it’s probably the most favorable time of year for encounters with the Good Folk. The question arises, though,¬†as to when exactly Midsummer’s Eve is. Some say it’s the night before the solstice — June 20. Some prefer the night of the solstice — June 21. Some Christians choose to go with June 24, the eve of the celebration of John the Baptist’s birth. I say that whole week is fair game. Go with whatever night it isn’t raining.

Yes, I haunted the yard on Midsummer’s Eve. I’d take along a lantern — an oil-burning lantern, not just a mere flashlight, though I usually had one of those, too; I’d take a wooden staff I’d found in the woods, a fallen tree branch that I’d sanded and varnished. I’d take a copy of Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder and another book, the front cover long gone, so I don’t even know the title; but it was a collection of stories and poems about fairies. And I’d take stationery and a pen.

I’d wander along the hedgerows, run my fingers over the oak bark, gaze up into the trembling firmament of leaves and stars; I’d raise my lamp and stoop beside the knothole among the roots of the two-hundred-year-old oak, which seemed indeed a likely place for wee magical folk to live. I’d sit on the picnic table and read from the books. Then I’d write myself a Midsummer’s Eve letter, describing the sights, sounds, feels, smells — the whole of the night, as best I could; and I’d tuck the paper into an envelope, to be kept with the books and read again on the next Midsummer’s Eve, along with the other letters from previous years.

After coming to Japan,¬†for three or four years I dragged a group of good-natured friends along and combined¬†this letter-writing custom with the practice of reading poetry aloud, a la the movie Dead Poets Society.¬†But that’s moving on into another set of stories.

Finally, I should add that summer goes on for a long time: there’s no need to confine the celebration to one week in June. July brings what I call the “Deep Summer,” and August brings the grand Dog Days. It’s the best of all seasons, and we shouldn’t miss a moment of it. Garrison Keillor advises, too, that we should make the absolute most of it: “Don’t¬†try to¬†sleep in the summer. You can sleep in the winter.” I remember a particularly nice June Eve, the last night of May, when I celebrated by watching Field of Dreams with my dad. If you’re blessed to still have your dad with you on this side of Eternity, that’s a really good movie to watch with him.

So, the discussion questions are two:

1. Does anyone care to tell us what is your best/favorite place to read in, either now and/or when you were a child? (It doesn’t have to be outdoors. Indoor reading is also condoned and encouraged.)

2. If summer nights are magical for you, what’s a way you’ve found to capture and enjoy that magic? What do you do (assuming it’s fit to print) to enjoy a night in summer to its fullest?

Intersections

May 12, 2008

When you live without a car as I do here in Japan, you pay a lot of attention to the weather. What the weather is doing makes about a forty-minute difference in what time I leave my apartment to get to work. It makes a difference in what I wear (all the way down to my shoes), how I pack my book-bag, and what I carry.

So, here’s a glimpse at the first twenty seconds of my day: my alarm clock rings. I struggle free of my futon, shut off my alarm, and then cross the tatami-mat floor to my window. Instead of curtains in my sleeping room, there’s a traditional wood-lattice window covered with opaque white shouji paper. I slide it open (standing a little to one side to peek out, since I get enough attention from the neighborhood without showing everyone what I wear to bed)–and I take a good look at the sky and the pavement. Is it mild and sunny, or are leaves, cats, and small children blowing down the street in a white squall?

This morning, at about 6:40 a.m., I glanced out at the precise instant an elderly man was walking his two bulldogs. You know how people say that pets and their owners begin to resemble each other over time? This was certainly the case–this man and his dogs clearly belonged together, all businesslike gait and bouncing jowls. Yes, yes–I know that with my kewpie-like futon hair I looked a lot funnier than anyone outside–but I had shouji to hide behind. Anyway, the scene got my early-morning mind to thinking.

If I’m doing the math right, there are 86,399 seconds in the day when I’m not looking out of my window. I don’t mean that it’s miraculous that I saw a man and his dogs. There’s a steady flow of traffic up and down my street throughout the day. If I’d looked out at another time, I’d have seen something else. But the point is, that particular man, those particular dogs and I all converged at 6:40 on this particular Monday morning.

Even when fully awake, one has to wonder to what degree such “chance” alignments are purposeful.

I remember being a little kid on car trips, looking out the back window at the Midwest farmlands flashing by; and I remember being staggered more than once by this thought: I’d pick out some house on a side street of some tiny town–or I’d find a lone tree growing far out at the edge of some field–and I’d marvel at the idea that the people in that house had lives of their own. They had whole histories, families, lifetimes of experience–but they had nothing to do with me. If you grew up with siblings, you likely weren’t as amazed by this revelation as I was, being an only child. It was eye-opening for me to figure out that entire vast populations of the world were getting along fine without ever knowing or interacting with me. I’d look at the tree in the field zooming past, and I’d think (with a bit of wistfulness) that I’d never stand beneath it; I’d never climb it or know its shade. I’d never see what the world looked like from just beside its trunk.

My point is, isn’t there something wondrous–something numinous–about the intersections that we do experience in life? I’ve always had a strange, inexplicable sense that I’m living at precisely the time and in the place that I was meant to live. Perhaps it’s just that old only-child egocentrism at work . . . or perhaps it’s not.

Tolkien’s work is built on the underlying belief that certain things are meant to happen. Bilbo was meant to find the ring; thus, Frodo was meant to have it. . . .

At the end of the film The Untouchables (the one with Kevin Costner), a reporter asks Ness for a comment on his triumph as the man who brought down Al Capone. Ness says, “I was just there when the wheel went ’round.”

We live every instant in that moment: the time when the wheel comes ’round. I certainly feel it with the students I meet in my classes. Each of our lives is like a looping, curving line going in all directions, but all those lines intersect, for one brief semester, in a particular classroom. That’s something not to be taken lightly. What we do with our time matters.

For us as writers, too: we each bring our own unique background to the writing table. We are the only people in history who have done exactly what we’ve done up to that point. We’ve grown up on our side streets; we’ve seen the world from under our trees. At any given time of life, there’s a story we can write then and only then.

Need I say more? I’ll grab my pen if you’ll grab yours!