When I first read The Lord of the Rings as a kid, I was absolutely spellbound. Gandalf and the balrog! Frodo and Sam! Sauron and the Dark Tower and the Ring and the Mountain of Doom! And the Ents, man – the Ents!
Amidst all that excitement, I thought something else, too: I could do that.
I could write a novel. It’s only words on a page; I totally know how to write words. Besides, Tolkien had left plenty of room for improvement. Boromir? More like Boring-mir. And all those endless pages about Gondor or Rohan or Minas whatever when I was just going Come on, get back to Frodo and Sam, I would totally leave out all that stuff.
Some standup comedian (Seinfeld, maybe?) has a joke about the black box on a plane. It always survives, so why don’t they just make the whole plane out of that stuff? This was basically my feeling about LotR. If Tolkien can write scenes of pure awesomeness (like the Ents attacking Isengard), why doesn’t he just make the whole book like that?
I didn’t attempt my own novel until high school, and it turned out just as bad as you’d expect. Discouraged? Me? No way! For one thing, I didn’t realize right away that it was horrible. That realization was a very gradual process. By the time I did figure it out, I was already on to my next writing project, and that one was going to be totally awesome. I was always just on the brink of awesomeness, perpetually on that final effort that would push my work into something amazing.
By now, of course, the rational side of my brain has figured out my place in the universe; I don’t write as well as Tolkien, and if I ever want to get that good, it’ll take many more years of hard work. But the irrational (read: crazy) side of my brain is still gleefully convinced that this is easy, this is so easy, I’m so smart, I’m so close, I’ve just gotta get there!
I think this insanity is basically a good thing.
See, somebody could have told me early on that I was crazy. (Heck, maybe they did.) Perhaps, when I was young and impressionable, they could even have steered me away from writing entirely, just by making me understand how very difficult it is. But because I was (and still am) caught up in the joy of hubris, I just kept on going, and by now I’ve figured out that I’m never going to stop.
A year ago, I read two books about Zen Buddhism that gave me a great overview of the history, the philosophy, and most importantly, the practice of Zen. I was very curious about meditation, and absolutely fascinated by the concept of enlightenment. And I thought: I could do that.
Blah blah, decades of hard work, apex of spiritual awareness, almost everyone who tries it fails, blah blah blah. My rational brain knew that stuff, but whatever. Sit and stare at a wall for thirty minutes? Man, that’s easy. I am in. I am, like, all over this enlightenment stuff. And you know what? I’m still meditating, still hoping to achieve enlightenment someday. My quest to extinguish the ego is fueled by overwhelming ignorance and pride. I’m sure Siddhartha would have a good laugh over that one.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re training to run a marathon, maybe you don’t realize right away just how crazy hard it is to run twenty-six miles. And maybe that’s all right.
Okay, Reader: is there anything crazy you’ve been driven to attempt by your own blissful ignorance? Tell me in the comments!