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.