J.R.R. Tolkien is the reason why I write

tolkienI’ve no interest in writing epic fantasy, have gotten past the days when I wanted to construct a complex mythology, and hell, haven’t even rolled a 20-sided die in many years.

Yet I would not be writing today in any capacity were it not for the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Middle-Earth first entered my consciousness in the sixth grade or so. The Hobbit was assigned reading. Unlike most students, I didn’t consider assigned reading a form of torture. (Well, except when the books sucked — which they often did.) I liked reading, and the books we had to read were often excellent. The Outsiders, Lord of the Flies, The Pigman, 1984, and many other books I still cherish today were introduced to me through school assignments.

The Hobbit, though, was something different. I’m sure I devoured it in a day or three. Noticed a classmate reading more books by J.R.R. Tolkien, this Fellowship of the Ring thing, and naturally dove in myself. (The classmate was Jason Dixon, our elementary school’s best cartoonist. I don’t know what he’s doing today, but I hope he’s still drawing.) Like millions before me, I was swept up in Tolkien’s saga about hobbits and rings and orcs. Yet there was something more here. A profound sense that this work was somehow different. That this place existed in a way fictional places aren’t supposed to exist. That someone “discovered” it, in a way, and set it down on the page. It wasn’t merely a story, it was a grand, majestic construction intricate beyond imagining.

I’d been hit by a bolt from the heavens. Reading would again again be the same.

Something about Tolkien’s work opened my eyes to what the act of writing could be. It showed me that writing wasn’t merely putting words on paper, it was a powerful act of creation. You built entire worlds when you wrote. You constructed dreams. You invented places for other people to explore. You etched out other realities and invited people to enter them.

I wanted to do what he did. I wanted to create other realities. Wanted people to get lost in my worlds. Wanted to build a vast and wonderful and mysterious landscape and say, “Look. You can go here.” And I wanted these creations to be my life’s work. To be my legacy. To be a piece of me left behind after I died, living on, engaging people long after I’d rotted away.

Like so many others inspired to write by fantasy literature (and by Tolkien in particular), my earliest “I’m serious about writing now” works were feverish fanboyish imitations. Semi-elaborate knock-offs with one-dimensional characters, cliche-riddled plots, and stunningly poor writing. They were horrible. That’s not false modesty talking. They were and remain awful.

That was in part because I hadn’t developed the skills needed to write well, but even more it was because I had yet to find my voice. I had yet to discover the kind of stories I wanted to tell.

It took a lot of years of pecking away at the keyboard before I realized that I didn’t need to write like Tolkien to be deeply inspired by him. Turns out I didn’t really want to tell Tolkienesque stories. He inspired me. Still does. But he is not the writer I want to be, his stories are not the stories I want to tell, and his legacy is not the legacy I want to leave behind. I’ve got my own voice and my own stories to tell.

Yet I still dream of sweeping people away. Of placing them in other worlds, albeit briefly, and giving them an experience. And regardless of my waning desire to write fantasy literature, I owe that to J.R.R. Tolkien.

Oddly, despite his influence on my desire to pursue writing, over the years I haven’t written much about Tolkien. Not formally, at least. A two-part essay contrasting it with Alan Moore’s Watchmen and this blog post about J.R.R. Tolkien and beer, but that’s it.

Maybe one day I’ll rectify that. Maybe this post is a start.

Some essays about the work of J.R.R. Tolkien penned by yours truly can be found in Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture. Check it out. It’s a good book.


  1. Zaki

    I think every writer hopes to one day envision a universe as expansive and detailed as Tolkien did. The problem is that he made it look so easy that we don't realize until we set about trying to make it happen just how difficult it actually is!

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