“Leaf by Niggle,” a short story by J.R.R. Tolkien, contains a poignant message about the difficulty artists face in completing work to their satisfaction. Here’s a passage that had me nodding in vigorous agreement:
One day, Niggle stood a little way off from his picture [a painting of a tree he’s been working on for years] and considered it without unusual attention and detachment. He could not make up his mind what he thought about it, and wished he had some friend who would tell him what to think. Actually it seemed to him wholly unsatisfactory, and yet very lovely, the only really beautiful picture in the world. What he would have liked at that moment would have been to see himself walk in, and slap him on the back and say (with obvious sincerity): ‘Absolutely magnificent! I see exactly what you are getting at. Do get on with it, and don’t bother about anything else! We will arrange a public pension, so that you need not.’
Mmmm, a public pension. Can I haz one plz?
Also from Tolkien: a wonderful passage from his essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” rejecting the idea that every fairy story worth telling has already been told. Tolkien delivers the point after explaining why the academic study of fairy stories won’t necessarily prepare you for enjoying them, let alone concocting one of your own.
The analytic study of fairy-stories is as bad a preparation for the enjoying them or the writing of them as would be the historical study of the drama of all lands and times for the enjoyment or writing of stage-plays. The study may indeed become depressing. It is easy for the student to feel that with all his labor he is collecting only a few leaves, many of them now torn or decayed, from the countless foliage of the Tree of Tales, with which the Forest of Days is carpeted. It seems vain to add to the litter. Who can design a new leaf? The patterns from bud to unfolding, and the colours from spring to autumn were all discovered by men long ago. But that is not true. The seed of the tree can be replanted in almost any soil, even in one so smoke-ridden (as Lang said) as that of England. Spring is, of course, not really less beautiful because we have seen or heard of other like events: like events, never from world’s beginning to world’s end the same event. Each leaf, of oak and ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, and for some this very year may be the embodiment, the first ever seen and recognized, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men.
Per Ecclesiastes, nothing is new under the sun; and yet you can work within the literary tradition of fairy to add your own voice and a fresh take. This is sort of a point I have made before, albeit in a rather different context. Needless to say, Tolkien put it better than I could.
And now for something completely different. A few weeks ago I met the mind behind a rather unique piece of art which those in the Northern Virginia area may have seen on the road. Behold, The Moped Guy:
The artist who made this figure is Juan Chavarilla (spelling?). I met Juan randomly at a FedEx store, and learned that he got the idea for it from an amateur DC artist who created more passive figures. Juan thought he could do a better job, and wanted to craft a figure in a more a active pose. So he entered an art contest in NYC, and he finished the piece even though contest got canceled halfway through. His method was to wrap packing tape thick around the limbs, cut the layer off, then reassemble it. Somehow he constructed it so that the rider could with stand 40mph winds. (The tape is not naturally white; that comes from the bleaching of the sun.)
Juan said that he rides with it to brighten people’s day. He certainly brightened mine. He’s a personable, kind, and fascinating person to talk to. (Though when I later told a coworker about the conversation, she said she saw the Moped Guy once and was surprised / freaked out by it. So, yeah. People have different reactions.)
What I’m reading: My reading list has exploded in the past couple weeks. I finished Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, and am now onto the next in the series, Words of Radiance. I’ve been bursting with ideas for my own work ever since starting it.
At the same time I’ve been drawn into a bunch of shorter books, all of them rich and engaging in their own ways.
- Poems and Stories, a collection of (you guessed it) poems, essays, and short stories by J.R.R. Tolkien. This is where I found the quotes above. I am now on the last story in the collection, “Smith of Wootton Major.”
- Binti, a sci-fi novella by Nnedi Okorafor about a Himba math genius who gets accepted at a top-tier interstellar university. It’s short and I’m enjoying it immensely. I learned about Okorafor after completing an audio lecture series about what makes great sci-fi.
- The Great Divorce, a dream vision by C.S. Lewis. It’s kind of the reverse situation of Dante’s Inferno, in which the protagonist goes to heaven and witnesses conversations between inhabitants of heaven and hell. An incredible feat of imagination. I finished it last week, and cried at some parts.
- The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, a tiny booklet by Tim Keller. A woman at my church recently reminded the congregation of this small but powerful message, so I decided to re-read it. It only takes about 15-30 minutes to finish, but the application can change your life; I ended up going through it three times. Keller compares how ancient cultures grappled with pride to the modern therapeutic approach. It’s relevant to anyone who struggles with self-esteem, which is all of us.
- Every Page is Page One, by Mark Baker. This one’s for my job as a technical writer. Contains excellent insights on how people really search for information on the web and what that means for documentation.
- The Poems of George Herbert, an old book I purchased years ago at a small bookstore in Cambridge, England. I’m taking it one page at a time during my morning devotionals. Here’s a bit of verse I’ve been turning over in my mind: “How should I praise Thee, Lord? How should my rymes / Gladly engrave Thy love in steel, / If, what my soul doth feel sometimes, / My soul might ever feel!”
What I’m writing: I’m focusing exclusively on my fantasy novel in my spare time. I took a close look at the story last week and identified a few new chapters I need to write, as well as some critical inconsistencies to resolve. Then this past weekend I got some extended time (thanks to a wonderful friend of ours who babysat the kids) to head to the library and knock out most of a new chapter.
ICYMI: I recently published an article about content strategy and sales enablement in the Society for Technical Communication’s Intercom magazine.
Favorite article(s) from last week:
- “How San Francisco Broke America’s Heart.” A vivid, hard-to-read story about how big money and fast-paced tech is transforming one of the most enviable (or perhaps not so enviable anymore) cities in America. This one hit me because I work tech and live in a city that is seeing a lot of change, including a new headquarters from Amazon. I kept asking myself: Will this happen where I live? If so, then by Jove, what can I do to stop it?
- “I’m pro-life. That means protecting the unborn from abortion and also caring for women.” I know this will turn off my friends of a more liberal persuasion. Nonetheless I recommend it because it articulates a middle ground where I believe that pro-lifers and pro-choicers can work together despite their disagreement: building a culture that cares holistically for children and moms, and rejecting any binary that insists you choose one or the other.