Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Who am I?
Last year I went through a period of hardcore writer's block lasting for most of the year. The main reason for this was personal life issues. The energy I had to invest in learning to be the mother of an Asperger's child left little creative energy. However, as I've been adjusting to my new reality, I've also been spending a lot of time pondering who I am, what I want and where I am going in the context of my creative urges.
(Kudos to anyone who gets the references in the images.)
My identity as a writer has always been strongly linked to my love of everything written by J.R.R. Tolkien. It was The Lord of the Rings that made me fall in love with the fantasy genre and long to tell stories as magical. Over the past year, I've made a serious effort to read some of the other foundational material of the fantasy genre and to educate myself about the authors and works that made the genre popular in the first place. I've discovered a lot of forgotten treasures and learned a lot about what elements of fantasy resound with me most strongly. It's been a fun learning experience.
What I've learned is that I'm decidedly old fashioned in my tastes and preferences. The more I read the older literature of fantasy, things like The Worm Ouroboros, Lord Dunsany's works, the Conan the Cimmerian stories and many others, the more I become disenchanted with the modern fantasy literature being published today. In my opinion, it tends to be far less imaginative than the fantasy of the earlier part of the 20th century and certainly far less magical.
Sometimes I become discouraged because everywhere I go on the internet I see people that disparage the fantasy of yesteryear and praise the strides taken by modern fantasy in the direction of "progress". People seem to want fantasy to reflect modern sensibilities and values. They want Strong Female Characters and racial equality and political correctness and whatnot. Personally, I just want strong characters, whether they are male or female is incidental to the story, and I don't think fantasy stories are the place to make political stands. I hate politics anyway. It takes the magic out of everything. So I worry that if I write the kind of stories that I would like, they won't find favor with modern audiences.
But then I think about how perpetually popular The Lord of the Rings is, despite being pretty much the antithesis of everything people claim to desire in their reading material these days. Something about the story still grabs them and draws them in, generation after generation. So maybe people don't really know what they want as well as they think they do. Perhaps there are universal themes and ideals that reach through to all of us no matter what age we live in. Perhaps there are more people in the world like me despite what it seems like on the internet.
Tolkien's writing style tended decidedly toward the mythological. Now, real myths are developed over thousands of years by hundreds of people within a distinct culture. (Those vague round numbers may be a huge understatement.) They were not authored by any one person and so they belong, if they can belong to anyone, to an entire people. For this reason they tend to reflect human truths better than any other form of art, so Tolkien believed. But Tolkien took it a step further when he decided to attempt, as one man, to create an entire mythology from his own imagination. He also coined the term "mythopoeia" which means "myth-making" to describe the art that he was engaged in. And unsurprisingly, as a life long lover of myths and a die hard fan of Tolkien, I too am drawn to this kind of sub-creation.
The main problem with this is just the epic scope one has to deal with if one seeks to be a mythopoet. I love worldbuilding. I take great enjoyment from it. But worldbuilding is in the background. One still has to decide how exactly one wishes to structure and present their mythopoeia in story form if one wishes to be an author. And this is something I've been struggling with for some time now.
When Tolkien was young, he wrote The Book of Lost Tales, the original precursor to the posthumously published The Silmarillion. The Book of Lost Tales tells many of the same stories that appear in The Silmarillion (though obviously in much more primitive form) but begins with an interesting framing device wherein a human Mariner and explorer makes his way to the Isle where the Elves who once inhabited Middle-earth have withdrawn to. There he becomes part of an Elven household and is told many of their myths and tales of the world and their own history. The first time I read The Book of Lost Tales, this framing device really threw me off. I was used to The Silmarillion. But every time I return to those Tales and think about the framing device, I am really enchanted by it. I like the idea of meaningful tales being told from a future perspective.
Shortly after I began doing research for my worldbuilding, I came across a passage from one of Plato's books which described an encounter between an old Egyptian priest and the Athenian statesman and philosopher Solon. Solon sought to impress the priest with everything he knew about the ancient genealogies of Greece, but the priest merely laughed at him and called the Greeks "children". He proceeded to explain that the Egyptians had been and had watched for long ages while the other civilizations of the world rose and fell due to various natural disasters. It was for this reason that the Egyptians remembered more of the history of the lands of the Greeks than the Greeks did, including the war between the Atlantians and the people who then lived in the region of Athens, which resulted in the destruction of Atlantis.
And thus I was enchanted with another framing device wherein an ancient and knowledgeable storyteller conveys his knowledge of the past to a man from the modern age. That marvelous sense of history, of ancient things lost which may still have meaning for today, of the wise passing on that legacy to the young, is something I love. So I've been struggling with my desire to utilize such a framing device and my fears that this would alienate too many readers who don't like storytelling, only storyshowing. I love told stories and I think too much showing is more annoying than too much telling, but most people seem to disagree with me.
But if there are other people like me, even if we're only a fraction of the market, I believe that there should be stories out there for us. There should be stories for every kind of person. One of the things that has for a long time been frustrating me about traditional publishing (and drawing me to self publishing) is that trad publishers seem to only want to publish two kinds of books: 1. Books that will appeal on a mass scale to whichever type of buying readers is the largest and 2. Books that will appeal to practically no one, but might win an award from critics. This business plan leaves people like me who don't belong to the bestseller crowd in the dust. Trad pub doesn't care about the people who don't fit into their narrow view of readers and so we don't get books published for us.
There's a famous writing quote that says something to the effect of : If the book you want to read isn't written yet, you should write it yourself.
There are a lot of empty spaces out there in the regions of the fantasy genre where I think there might have been books I would have liked, if traditional publishing hadn't rejected or changed them. I really hope indie publishing will fill up those empty spaces. But I also don't want to just sit by and wait for that to happen. I'm only one person, but I want to do my part to fill up some of that empty space for people like me. I want to contribute my own story to the readers of the world that long for tales of beauty and magic and light and wonder rather than darkness and grit and so-called "realism". We all deserve to have the kinds of stories that will be the most compelling to us as individuals out there to read. No one should be excluded.
In the end all this angst leads me right back to where I started: as a person who loves stories and who has found stories within herself that must be told. And they can only be told in a way that I, the author, can be passionate about. It doesn't really matter if no one else will like them. I have to try, to make my contribution. And who knows? Perhaps like Tolkien I will find that my stories will attract a larger audience than I ever thought possible.