After five years of writing about hobbits, elves, and orcs, J. R. R. Tolkien began to worry that he would run out of time before completing his masterwork trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. A detail-oriented creative type, Tolkien was obsessed with language, location, and dialogue. Taken on its own, every page of his book was magnificent, but could he pull it all together?
One night in 1942, he drifted to sleep with fear gripping his soul. In his slumber, a dream came to him about an artist who could never finish his work. Neighbors intruded into his studio, belittled his obsession with his art, and they diverted him from his great work. When he awoke, Tolkien wrote the short story Leaf by Niggle based on his dream.
“Much of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they’ve started.”
We feel unfulfilled in our careers because we over-rely on our job for personal significance. We see our career as the way we make our mark. But throughout history, hobbies and creative work on the side have often been noteworthy. Side projects can unlock joy in our lives and let us leave works of impact and beauty behind us. It may surprise you that J.R.R. Tolkien was not a full-time writer. He spent much of his working hours as a teaching professor at the University of Oxford. Though his life was consumed by lecturing and grading student work, we all know him as the writer of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
If you feel drawn toward creative work, take heed. Even if others belittle your hobby, it could become a valuable part of your legacy. Don’t let the busyness of life and the uninformed opinions of others shut you down. Here are a few things that might help you avoid overwhelm and make progress on your creative vision.
Count the Cost
Jesus Christ warned his followers that it would cost them to be his disciple. In Luke 14, he says, “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” Jesus’ warning for his disciples applies equally to our creative work.
Are you willing to make the many small sacrifices required to become an active producer while your friends pass their time in leisure?
Set Small Goals
J.R.R Tolkien published poems, works of literary criticism, and short stories, including Leaf by Niggle, while completing The Lord of the Rings. I wonder if he would have completed his epic had he single-mindedly pursued it. Its sheer size and the seventeen years he spent on it would have led to stagnation and defeat without other small victories that injected energy into his work.
Small goals preserve your momentum with quick wins.
Find Your Community
Creative work always demands mental and emotional energy, but if we succeed, it exposes us to criticism. Such emotional labor creates a heavy headwind for anyone who wants to launch a creative career. Tolkien had an inner circle of friends called The Inklings, who read his work in process, offered critical comments, and encouraged him to continue.
Without Inklings members C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and others who shared his journey, it seems unlikely we could read The Lord of the Rings today.
Celebrate the Process
Who we become is more important than what we produce, so celebrate the creative process. This becoming is our true legacy, even if we leave behind a compelling creative masterpiece.
A quick visit to the J.R.R. Tolkien website will support my, perhaps controversial, claim. It does not feature his books, poems, and essays as content. Instead, it narrates the story of his life, friendships, and creative process. While it lists his books and publications, the point of the website is to encourage others to follow his pattern of living.
I hope everyone creates a life that leaves a pattern worthy of emulation.
While Tolkien finished his massive saga in time, we must treat our limited time here with the respect it deserves. Tolkien’s character, Niggle, was unable to complete his work. The beauty of his unfinished vista was overlooked and destroyed by the elements. It faded into obscurity until someone discovered a solitary leaf from one of Niggle’s trees. The local community was stunned by its intricacy and beauty, so they displayed it in an art gallery as “Leaf by Niggle.”
Life is short, so use it well, and hopefully, you’ll leave more of a legacy than Niggle. But I suggest that you read the story for yourself because it tells a tale of significance far beyond this mortal life. I’ll let you draw your conclusions about its validity, just as everyone must.
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