Heaps and bonfires

Reading and writing are two faces of the same coin. They are inseparable—one brings the other. My favourite metaphor that illustrates this relationship comes from a book called The Proverbs of Middle Earth.

“A writer’s role is usually limited to telling gripping, gratifying tales, but Tolkien went beyond that, also creating original creatures, cultures, and landscapes of eye-watering depth and invigorating beauty. Not surprisingly, he was often asked to identify his sources of inspiration. In response, Tolkien wrote that ‘such a story … grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind… what one throws on one’s personal compost-heap.’ “

Tolkien was able to create such rich worlds and stories because his heap was humongous—he read both widely and deeply. His abstract, concrete, vicarious and empirical experiences all went onto his “personal compost-heap”.

However, I’d also like to introduce another metaphor: a bonfire. Every bit of experience, every nugget of narrative, every chunk of reality we personally consume is a piece of wood or kindling that goes on the pile. For years we add to it and add to it, occasionally admiring the size it has assumed but mostly ignoring the mass of material that accumulates. Until, one day, we decide to light the thing.

An opportunity arises, an idea enters our head, a technology unlocks a possibility and whooomph. The blaze is born and everything we previously placed on the pile contributes to the ferocity of the bonfire.