This is not one of those posts meant to make you feel better by allowing you to compare yourself to the failure of "stars" before they made it big. Actually, I hate those posts. I don't care how many times Rowling or Dr. Seuss or Stephen King or John Grisham were rejected before they met with success. If it makes you feel better when you get a rejection, well, good for you, but that's not what this post is about. Personally, I just don't find those kinds of stories all that inspiring, but, maybe, that's because I don't have an issue with persistence. Or maybe I just believe in the value of what I'm doing and don't care so much about the outside validation. That's probably closer to the truth. I do what I do because it's what I do, and I see the value in it, so I don't care as much whether other people do or not.
Sure, I'd like it if other people value my work, because, you know, it would be nice to actually make a living, well, even half a living, from writing, but I don't derive my worth from what other people think of my work.
I think it's vital that we don't derive our meaning from other people's opinion of what we do. After all, there's Van Gogh. Completely not appreciated in his own lifetime. We just don't, can't know how our work will be perceived later on.
Which brings me to Tolkien...
It might seem surprising, but Tolkien considered himself a failure in his literary life. Yeah, that's difficult for me to imagine, too, but it's true. But, then, it all comes from how we define our success, which is something I've mentioned before. The importance of knowing what it is you want when you start all this writing business. If you don't know what it is exactly that you want, you are sure to meet with failure, because you're going to layer over the world's idea of success over your life rather than your own.
Which isn't actually what Tolkien did, but, still...
So what happened with Tolkien?
The main thing to realize with Tolkien is that neither The Hobbit nor The Lord of the Rings was what he considered his real literary work. In many ways, those books were accidents. No, Tolkien's real work was The Silmarillion and his history of Middle Earth, work which never saw publication during his lifetime. So, despite the wide success and popularity of his two most famous works, he never believed he'd been successful because of the repeated rejection by publishers of his "real" work.
To put this slightly more into context: When Tolkien originally wrote The Hobbit, it had nothing to do with Middle Earth. At all. It was a bedtime story for his kids. He didn't ever really mean to publish it. Only by the insistence of his friend, C. S. Lewis, and the accidental discovery of the manuscript by the publisher's son did it end up being published at all. Tolkien didn't take it all that seriously, and, like I said, it wasn't related to Middle Earth, which had already been his writing project for 20 years by the time The Hobbit was published.
The Hobbit was successful enough that the publisher wanted a sequel. Tolkien tried to give them The Silmarillion, but they turned it down. No, they wanted more hobbits. Tolkien sat down and began to work on that sequel: An Unexpected Journey, the book that eventually became The Lord of the Rings. See, as he was writing it, he realized that the stuff with the rings was the stuff from the end of The Silmarillion, and it was at that point that it all became a part of Middle Earth. It was an accident, and Tolkien had to go back and revise The Hobbit to make it part of the narrative. Because, you know, it wasn't.
So, see, George Lucas is not the only one to go back and change things after the fact. That ring Bilbo found really was just, initially, a trinket. Something Tolkien threw in to enable Bilbo to escape from Gollum. He had to go back to the already published manuscript and make the ring important. Make into the One Ring.
Of course, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings became more and more popular. This is despite the overwhelmingly negative reviews when the books were published. Well, not so much with Hobbit, everyone loved The Hobbit when it was released, but, initially, the critics and reviewers hated LotR. But people did not, and they became great best sellers.
But it didn't matter to Tolkien, because, despite their success, he still couldn't get anyone to publish Silmarillion. He spent the rest of his life working on it and the other histories of Middle Earth, and no one would agree to publish it. To himself, he was an artistic failure. It would be rather like painting a great, intricate painting and not being able to get anyone to look at it, to study it, but, one day, sitting down with a kid and making a doodle for him and having everyone go crazy for the doodle. Tolkien was saying, "Look at this! Look at this!" and pointing at Silmarillion, but everyone was busy waving his doodle around saying, "But we like this!" And that is how things stood when he died.
It was only after his death that his son succeeded in getting The Silmarillion published.
So what is it I'm getting at here? Well, a couple of things, actually.
1. I think the thing that more people really need to do before they start writing is figuring out what they want to get out of it. I mean, what they really want to get out of it. Is the actual goal popularity? Is the actual goal to get rich? Is the goal immortality? Is the writing a path to something else or is the writing the goal? If more people knew this ahead of time, they might be more satisfied with their journeys.
Here is where Tolkien knew what he was doing. He knew what his goal was, and he didn't achieve that, so the success of his published works didn't matter so much to him, because those things were not his goal. He did actually fail to achieve his true goal.
2. Be malleable or flexible. Be able to acknowledge the things you do actually succeed at. Recognize your triumphs and adjust your goals to fit with where you are succeeding.
This is where Tolkien did not know what he was doing. His purpose was so single-minded and he was so unwilling to adapt that he was never happy, and he could not acknowledge the success of his two books. His creation, his Middle Earth, is brilliance. The scope of what he did is beyond what anyone else has ever done, and I'm not sure it's something that can be done again. Well, perhaps Asimov achieved something of the same thing with his robot and Foundation books. At any rate, so focused was Tolkien on the foundation, on The Silmarillion, that he could not see how The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings rested on that foundation and how much they relied on his entire body of work. They were a part of that whole; I think he just chose to ignore that.
The thing is, Tolkien's goal has actually been achieved; he just wasn't around to see it happen. The Silmarillion has been published along with so so so much more of his work. It's actually quite incredible what Middle Earth has become. It's too bad he wasn't around to see it happen, but... But.
That's kind of the thing, he did what he wanted to do and what he believed in, and, even though it took people a while to recognize it, they did recognize it. I think he would be dumbfounded to find how... pervasive... Middle Earth has become on a cultural level. Which is what he wanted. He wanted to create a mythology that would speak to people, and he stuck to it, and, in the end, succeeded. Beyond anything he might have imagined, I'm sure.
But, see, he knew what he wanted, knew what his goal was, and he stuck to that thing. I think the real achievement is being able to look at your work and know that you have done what you wanted to do. Which is why you have to know why you're writing. And, you know, if you are writing for fame and fortune, not because you want to write, maybe find some other way to get there, because writing isn't a great way to go about it.