Meta on Meta, Part 1: In Which I Try to Convince You to Write Nonfiction

August is the LotR Genfic Community’s annual nonfiction challenge. The challenge is simple: Write and post a piece of nonfiction on any Tolkien-related topic of your choice. Yet this month’s challenge never fails to overwhelm people, even the same people who effortlessly write fiction–including commentary on the legendarium–about Tolkien all the time. Nonfiction–or meta, in fandom-speak–is admittedly intimidating. It shades into the scholarly side of the Tolkien fandom, where fanfic writers often haven’t felt welcome. It recalls high school and college essays, MLA format, grades, outlines, and all sorts of other stuff that fiction writers often unpleasantly recall. It’s a totally different format and tone, and it uses completely different conventions than fiction. One doesn’t simply walk into writing nonfiction! (Well, just like Frodo and Sam did indeed “simply walk into Mordor,” nonfiction is easy and natural for some people, not because they’re better writers but because they are experienced in the structure, conventions, and practices of nonfiction writing.)

I have always loved writing nonfiction. As an undergrad writing minor, my favorite classes weren’t the creative writing classes I took but the nonfiction classes. Because I love nonfiction writing so much and because I am a teacher of writing, I have decided that this year, during LotRGen’s nonfiction month, I am going to post a short piece on writing nonfiction, at least once per week on Tuesdays (and possibly more often). I hope this “meta on meta” will remove some of the misconceptions surrounding nonfiction and empower more people to try sharing their ideas in this way.

There is sometimes a misconception among fiction writers that nonfiction is rigid, strict, and without room for one’s voice. Many people believe it is restricted by rules rather than guided by creativity. That it’s inherently unfun. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Brilliant writers of nonfiction are brilliant because they hold their reader’s attention, often through their creativity and masterful use of a voice that is appealing and relatable to their audience. The worst nonfiction writers, in my not-so-humble opinion, are those who try too hard to sound learned or academic. They intentionally use words that they know will send 90% of their readers scrambling to the dictionary. They use sentence structures so complex that they have to be read multiple times to be understood, and they allude to things that they know most of their readers won’t know. In short, they try very hard to appear smarter than their readers.

Good nonfiction writers–again in my not-so-humble opinion–converse with their readers. That implies a relationship of equals. Even if they are sharing something they know that their readers probably do not, which is often the purpose of nonfiction writing after all, they speak to their readers as equals capable of not only understanding but using the information they present and contributing to the conversation surrounding its significance and meaning.

Tolkien was a brilliant writer of nonfiction. His essays were relatable and engaging. He didn’t use a five-syllable word when a two-syllable would do, he didn’t use jargon to keep non-experts from accessing his ideas, and he didn’t name-drop obscure academics. He used creativity, especially metaphor, to illustrate his concepts. His essays are beautiful as well as insightful. If you’ve never read his nonfiction, reading even part of one of his essays will probably do more to convince you of what can be done with a work of nonfiction than anything I say will. On Fairy-Stories is his well-known theory of fantasy. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics is widely considered to be the most influential work of Beowulf scholarship ever written. (And as a Beowulf scholar myself, trust me–that’s a lot of scholarship and by some pretty heavy hitters.) It convinced critics to stop plumbing the poem simply for historical and linguistic details and to read it as a work of literature. Both essays show his easygoing style, his distinct voice, and most of all, his willingness to let his skill with creative writing aid him in his nonfiction writing as well as his fiction.

As fan fiction writers, we are uniquely poised to write nonfiction on Tolkien. We’re not only extremely well read and knowledgeable of textual minutia but used to putting those details together to express our ideas and theories about the texts. Fan studies scholars recognize fanfic as a vehicle of criticism, and while it is far from that simple in the Tolkien fanfic community, most Tolkienfic writers become experts on one or several parts of the legendarium simply from writing them so much, even if they don’t identify their purpose for writing fanfic as critical.

So, you might ask, if I believe that fanfic has a critical purpose and that fanfic writers are learned about the legendarium–and I do–then why advocate for writing nonfiction? Why not just handle criticism and commentary in our fiction?

  • Nonfiction is a format specific to handling critical and informative topics. In fanfic, we mix our criticism and commentary with a healthy dose of artistry, including imaginative invention. Short of meticulous footnotes explaining where everything comes from and how we arose at every inference, there is no easy way to distinguish in fiction what is critical and what is creative/imaginative.
  • So nonfiction is one way of not only explaining but documenting the ideas that you use in your stories. Sometimes I write nonfiction because I get weary of writing the same explanations over and over again when talking with readers about my work, and it’s easier to point to that particular resource.
  • Nonfiction also expands the resources available to other Tolkien fans, including other fanfic writers. If you’ve ever been assigned a prompt in a ficswap about a character, event, or place you know little about and turned to fan-created resources to help you write your story, then you appreciate the role that nonfiction can play in fanfic. You’re most likely an expert in something about Tolkien’s world and can use your expertise to similarly help fellow writers.
  • Nonfiction opens discussions specifically about canon and criticism. Discussion of a story concerns writing technique and the reader’s reaction in addition to the canonical and critical basis of the story. If you’ve ever wanted to discuss Tolkien’s origins of Orcs or what he meant when he called The Lord of the Rings a Catholic book or why only mortal males get to marry Elves, then nonfiction is a way to open such a discussion.
  • As a fan fiction writer, you view the text different from a Tolkien scholar and are very likely already engaging in ideas that haven’t reached the scholarly side of the fandom yet. I put that in bold because I often feel that fanfic writers don’t believe they have a place at the table when contributing to Tolkien scholarship. And it’s true that scholars engage with ideas that we as fanfic writers really don’t … but just as often, we are engaging with ideas that the scholars aren’t. A different sort of creativity is at the heart of fanfic writers’ readings of the texts, a sort of creativity that isn’t taught to scholars of literature. We have a lot to say, and I hope that some of us will stand up and say it.

This month’s nonfiction challenge is as good a place as any to begin. If you think you’d like to try nonfiction, I hope you’ll join us on the challenge and in the discussion here. On Tuesday, 2 August, I will share some tips on choosing a topic for nonfiction writing, including 101 approaches to writing Tolkien meta.

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17 Responses to “Meta on Meta, Part 1: In Which I Try to Convince You to Write Nonfiction”

  1. Independence1776 says:

    I would like to take part in LotRGfic’s challenge, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to. I have an essay written, but it began life as a response to a Tumblr post and switched to a more meta-like style, so it’s an ugly melding of styles and formality. And only half the sources are properly referenced; I’m going to have to track them down again and maybe find more reputable sources. Add in that it’s an essay in an area where I know little about the topic and there are tons of people more knowledgeable that I am and that I’m in the middle of editing my 2015 Nano… I want to participate but I can’t guarantee it.

    • Dawn says:

      That’s fair enough! I have more nonfiction WiPs than fiction WiPs for precisely that reason. I frequently run into the problem of knowing the sources so well on my topics that I cite them and then have to spend an hour or more adding actual page numbers.

      I’m really curious about your piece, though! I hope you get a chance to finish and share it, even if not for this particular challenge.

      • Independence1776 says:

        It honestly makes me cringe to look at it! I need to revamp the entire thing. For me, the sources were going to be the less rigorous Tumblr standard (just a mention in the relevant sentence of where I got the fact from and maybe a link at the end) but then it turned into an essay (that I did have designs on posting for the MPTT challenge when I switched styles!) but for an actual meta? Yeah, I really can’t do that. If it were just the Tolkien works, I wouldn’t have much of a problem, but it’s websites… and I’m not sure where the paper I wrote the sources down on is.

        My piece was… inspired… by someone on Tumblr saying that Rivendell (book Rivendell!) couldn’t be self-sufficient. I don’t even remember the post now; I only know it existed because I mentioned it in the first paragraph. I looked stuff up relating to agriculture and minimal standards for a few species of livestock to prove that it is. So it’s something right up your alley. And the meta is something I want to post; it’s just the deadline. On the other hand, I’m going to be rewriting it during writers’ group on Thursday because I can’t edit my novel while I’m there. So it might be posted after all.

        • Dawn says:

          It is definitely up my alley! That sounds like a fascinating topic!

          At the risk of coming across as pushy, I would also point out that we have an annual Potluck each January for posting challenge responses that weren’t finished on time. 😀 (One of my nonfic WiPs is something I started for last year’s August challenge, resigned to finishing for the Potluck, and didn’t then either because Thesis.)

          • Independence1776 says:

            You’re not pushy at all. :) I think if I don’t get it done for August, I’m not sure when I’ll work on it because I have other projects I want to focus on. It’s just a matter of when I finish editing my Nano and if I have enough time to work on the meta.

  2. Oshun says:

    Responding to both you and Indy here!

    It is the methodology of the MLA format that kills me–so I will not use it anywhere I am given a choice. We hates it, precious. A simple footnote added when one cites a quotation or fact makes non-fiction easy. (first thing that makes me twitch when I hear non-fiction) As far as style goes, I like a more personal and passionate style. Literary criticism and discussion ought not be dry. The influences cross borders, break rules and boundaries, reflect everything from the rational and beat-counting Apollonian to the sweaty irrational Dionysian. No reason why one needs to write about fiction in a bloodless manner. It is furthest thing from passionless. There is a reason why we call these studies the Humanities–it’s the reflection and consideration of the human condition–a very messy business.

    To Indy I would say crash it out! No one is grading this one. It’s just for fun.

    • Independence1776 says:

      To Indy I would say crash it out! No one is grading this one. It’s just for fun.

      I did crash it out! I’m at the tarting up stage now. 😛

    • Dawn says:

      One of my planned posts for this series concerns citations. There is so much unnecessary (though understandable) stress over it. A citation should provide enough information that a reader can find the original source. To hell with MLA, APA, Chicago, Turabian … unless you’re turning it in for a class or sending it out to be published, none of that matters.

      I really think high school English ruins so many people on nonfiction. I remember being taught a list of rules that one broke at the risk of one’s grade and, as I became a more advanced writer, being told one by one that those weren’t actually rules but crutches for teaching writing. Hey, I teach secondary-level writing: I understand the appeal of crutches! But I also have a fundamental opposition to lying to students and killing any voice they may find in their writing, or suggesting that a person should not speak on a topic if they don’t remember where to put the periods in an MLA works cited page.

      I absolutely love–and totally agree–with your comment on the need to passion in writing: all writing, not just fiction. <3

      • Oshun says:

        I don’t remember being taught how NOT to write until I was well into middle age. There was Strunk & White which was slyly offered by favorite teachers as a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” kind of thing, hinting it contained the secrets of how to look better than one’s schoolmates. Different time, different teaching methods. We were, however flogged half to death with hardcore grammar drilling in grade school.

        Did you ever watch the documentary The Civil War by Ken Burns? A lot of information is communicated by reading aloud from letters from soldiers in the field to their families back home. The writing was devastatingly beautiful and sincere–written by sons of farmers, laborers, blacksmiths, etc., who had left school at 12 or 13 for manual labor and had a handful or less of treasured books in their homes. Says a lot about education at the time and its effectiveness.

        • Dawn says:

          The hardcore grammar drilling was gone by the time I was in school, but writing was posed as very formulaic, especially nonfiction writing, both in process and produce. Deviating from the formula was “wrong.” The most infamous example is the five-paragraph essay. We were also forced to first make an outline, then write a handwritten draft, then go through peer review, then type a final draft. I used to write the essay in a hurry and then make the outline because I hated outlining (as it was taught–again, very rigorous and formulaic–although as an adult now I use a very minimalist version of it frequently to keep myself focused). It was completely counterproductive and took the fun, creativity, and experimentation out of writing and was clearly aimed at the lowest common denominator: a sort of plug-and-play approach to writing.

          Sorry. Rant done!

          I’ve never seen the documentary. I’d say part of it was the style of writing then versus now. I remember publishing my first story in my university’s literary magazine as a wee 18-year-old, and the editor’s comment back to me about why she liked my work was its “old-fashioned” style! Because I used adjectives!

          Minimalist, “economic” style was all the rage then (maybe still is? I couldn’t care less about most modern literary fiction), and while I’ve read a few people who do it exceptionally well, most of it was easily forgettable.

          • Oshun says:

            Literary fiction does not universally suck. But most of it does in this period. I think this is a time when genre fiction often has more heart, class, style, and innovation than traditional literary fiction. (Genre fiction, as I was taught, needed to have formula–not so much these days people can go new places.)

            Thinking of listing a few without hitting google search to refresh my memory:

            Ellen Kushner (sci-fi/fantasy)
            Delia Sherman (sci-fi/fantasy)
            Neil Gaiman (sci-fi/fantasy)
            Sharon Kay Penman (historical fiction)
            Hilary Mantel (historical fiction)
            David Blixt (historical fiction)

            I find I could go on forever. I just noticed two-thirds of my off-the-top of my head list are women. I’ve been swept away by so many books over the last five years and, for the first time in my life as a book worm, most of them are genre fiction.

            I should be working on you-know-what or at very least checking on dinner which I am cooking ATM. One last point — there is also a lot of non-fiction being written with passion and heart, but mainstream publishing isn’t for the most part pushing it. They had better watch out or they will find themselves in history’s garbage dump. People getting better and better at finding what they want on their own without relying on the publisher’s narrow and lazy publicity efforts.

  3. Elleth says:

    After revisiting – just this evening – a wank from months ago because it came up in a conversation I was having, and given the new round of Elwing drama on tumblr, I even have a vague idea for a topic that I might be interested in writing about, particularly stereotyping of female characters in a fannish rather than a canonical context (mostly in response to the idea – not an unpopular one, apparently! – that the way fandom treats female characters makes them boring, disturbing milquetoast copies of each other), but it also is a topic that I am afraid would stir up more wank if I could even do it justice to begin with.

    But it’s tempting, and I do find your post encouraging for giving meta a chance.

    • Dawn says:

      Count me in as wanting to read such an essay, especially written by you! I think characterization of women is often inherently thorny. Both writing too-typical of female characters and writing female characters too like men brings scorn. Making women too boring or too interesting (ahem … Mary Sue). Making women too weak or too strong (ahem … Mary Sue again).

      If it’s any consolation, I find it unlikely that Tumblr drama is likely to trickle over onto LotRGen/MPTT.

  4. Stentor says:

    This was nice to read, because I’ve often felt like I wasn’t quite a real fan because I tend to write meta rather than fanfic.

    • Dawn says:

      I write mostly nonfiction these days and dare someone to tell me I’m not a “real” fan! What does that even mean?! (A rhetorical question, mostly in response to my ongoing frustration with the fandom’s love of telling people the right or wrong way to “do” fandom.)

      • Brooke says:

        Popping up to partly agree with Stentor. Part of the reason my writing is almost solely focused on a couple characters is because while I have feelings/thoughts about more characters (like Turgon), the whole “Well, but why can’t you express those ideas in fic?” I’ve seen a lot in fandom drove me away from writing almost anything about some of them. I don’t want to write fic about Elwing or Eärendil, to be frank, for example. If I write meta, it’s an entirely different investment of time and I don’t have to worry about how to portray the characters’ pov versus my own pov and how to talk about the history of real world cultures with infanticide via abandonment and perspectives on such in a fictional story set in Tolkien’s world.

        Also, I’m lazy and resent being told I should take 10x or 100x the words in fic to express what I could in 1,000 words of meta. I don’t have time to compose stories and epics for every single character I have thoughts about.

        • Dawn says:

          I don’t think it’s laziness. Some topics are better suited to one genre or another. I can’t imagine doing justice to the topic you described in a story. I can see it making a story more interesting and deeper to have those connections to real human societies … but the footnoting to make clear what you’ve done would also be the equivalent of writing a meta in and of itself. I’m generally not fond of footnoting my stories excessively, so if I end up including an element in a story that would require those kinds of footnotes, more often than not, what would have been footnotes ends up here, as a meta or essay! :)

          I’ve said sometimes that I don’t read head canon because I’d rather see it expressed in a story, but meta/nonfiction? (And the head canon thing is strictly a personal preference; I know many people love reading and dissecting head canon posts, and I think that’s wonderful! It’s just not for me.)

          I don’t doubt that people express explicitly or implicitly that meta/nonfiction is a less worthwhile use of one’s fannishness but, at the same time, I have a hard time believing any of them have gone their entire fannish careers without using meta/nonfiction resources provided by other fans, including for story research. Which makes that view highly hypocritical.

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