Friday, May 8, 2015

7 Lessons for Creatives from the Life of J.R.R. Tolkien, Part 1

Vonda here: I’m pleased to share Part 1 of a post from Trevor McMaken, pastor and artist at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, IL. 

He has a passion for pastoring artists in the church and equipping them to grow in their gifts and in their relationship with the Lord, and releasing them to serve the church and the world with their creativity. 

Follow the McMakens’ writing and music at

7 Lessons for Creatives from the Life of J.R.R. Tolkien, Part 1 
by Trevor McMaken

Like many in my generation, I have spent countless hours following diminutive folks with hairy feet around the magical, yet familiar world of Middle Earth. As an artist, I’ve often wondered how anyone could create a world so immersive—complete with millennia of histories and language lexicons—and still so personal and spiritual. In the face of such genius, I often feel insecure in my own meager artistic endeavors. How could I ever create something of such lasting depth and beauty? But after reading J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter, I came away refreshed and recommitted to my own art.

Here are seven ways in which reading about Tolkien’s creative life has inspired mine.

Art is a Lifelong Discipline
1. Art Is a Lifelong Discipline
Tolkien did not initially set out to write fantasy novels and create an entire world. He first ventured into it when he read the phrase “Middle Earth” in an Old English manuscript and it inspired a poem when he was twenty-two (1914). Three years later (1917) he wrote “The Fall of Gondolin” which was the first story of his mythology.

If three years sounds like a really long time, hold on, cause we’re just getting started.

Thirteen years later (1930), he began telling his children a bedtime story about a hobbit. It was published seven years later (1937). The publisher immediately asked Tolkien for a sequel and twelve years later he completed the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (1949). The trilogy was published five years later (1954), forty years after he first saw the phrase “Middle Earth.”

In a youth-focused culture like ours, I sometimes feel like I haven’t accomplished enough at a young enough age, and therefore I never will. As a (nearly) thirty year old, I have no idea what it would mean to work on something for forty years! Tolkien was no child prodigy, but he was a master.

His story reminds me that our path as artists take many twists and turns (i.e. the road goes ever on and on) and that our greatest artistic endeavors may yet lie ahead if we keep on the adventure.

Are you ready to devote the span of your life to your art?

2. Inspiration Can Come at Anytime
Tolkien had been developing his mythology for years. Then one day he sat down and penned the phrase, “In a hole there lived a hobbit.” What was a hobbit? Nobody knew! Perhaps Tolkien didn’t even know. His biographer wrote,
“Not until the [Hobbit] was finished and published—indeed not until he began to write the sequel—did he realise the significance of Hobbits, and see that they had a crucial role to play in his mythology.” (Humphrey Carpenter, 198)

Tolkien found that hobbits had crept into Middle Earth at the most pivotal moment of his life and writing.

Inspiration can come at any time, but it can only be transformed from idea to art if we are already developing our skills as artists and cultivating the space to be creative.

Are you ready to capture inspiration when it comes?

Your art might not be your day job.
3. Your Art Might Not Be Your Day Job
Tolkien never wrote fiction as his day job. Year after year he worked as a professor faithfully supporting his family. Certainly his professional work provided the foundation for the languages and histories that he developed for Middle Earth, but his greatest artistic achievements came when he was off the clock—in the middle of the night after spending his day giving lectures and grading papers, and his evenings with his wife and family.

After the demands of work and family, do you still find yourself sitting down to create? Maybe it is five minutes before breakfast sketching an idea and then 15 more minutes over lunch; three months later during a holiday you have an entire morning; and then it’s a month before you can get back to it. But you always do come back to it because it’s your air and you’ll suffocate if you don’t.

Tolkien discovered how to be an artist amidst the common responsibilities of life. And I think that it is out of these ordinary, mundane moments that extraordinary art is created.

How do you keep practicing your art in the midst of everyday life?

4. Practicing Art Means Setting Priorities
Tolkien’s colleagues often bemoaned that he devoted so much spare time to his invented languages, poetry, and children’s stories instead of applying his considerable philological expertise to his academic field. Perhaps he could have been a giant in the field. His contributions were certainly respected, though there was only a relatively small body of his academic work. But Tolkien’s heart was in another world, and it was there that he set his priority.

What are your priorities as an artist?

Which of these lessons from Tolkien do you relate to? Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Don’t forget to join the conversation!


Vonda Skelton is a speaker and the author of four books: Seeing Through the Lies: Unmasking the Myths Women Believe and the 3-book Bitsy Burroughs mysteries for children 8-12 yo. She’s the founder and co-director of Christian Communicators Conference, offering speakers’ training and community for Christian women called to ministry. Vonda is a frequent instructor at writer’s conferences and keynotes at business, women’s, and associational events. You can find out more about Vonda, as well as writing opportunities and instruction at her writer’s blog, The Christian Writer’s Den at


  1. Love this, Vonda. Before I started writing, I used my creativity to write funny poems for my bosses clients. That's when I began to realize, like #3, my day job wasn't my art. I could write!

  2. I started out doing those same things, Ane! I KNEW we were sisters!

  3. Storytelling has always been my other world. My parents and grandparents were storytellers. We’ve a story to tell to the nations...what better way than through stories?
    Thanks for posting about J.R.R. Tolkien.

  4. That's the way my family was when I was growing up, Marjorie. I'd sit with my cousins in Grandma's porch swing, telling stories and laughing at everything. When we weren't doing that, we were putting on talent shows and creating mysteries that I literally got lost in. I miss that front porch. Thanks for joining the conversation!

  5. Great post. What a joy--to escape in good storytelling--either reading it or writing it.