Psychology and The Writing Process

Lord of the Rings Books

Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.

Genesis 2

It always astounds me that people believe that any created work – nearly anything, really – has its origin in some psychological disorder, or personal experience, or something to that affect. Apparently, an author has neither the will nor the inclination to think for himself, know his own circumstances, and maybe even write a book or develop a world with a particular intent. We haven’t gotten to that point with the video game, though that’s certainly coming to the fore. That intent does NOT necessitate some psychological disposition or train of thought; rather, it can come from anything or anywhere. The author may have a hobby he much enjoys; he wishes to add content to a world, or make his own and place his own ideas, thoughts, exciting ventures, and whatever else comes to mind.

Are we shaped by our experiences? Surely we are! But that, in NO WAY, determines the content of what we produce. My inclinations torwards Christianity come through in the writing here as a conscious decision. I probably wouldn’t include them at all if I didn’t believe in my own strict writing parameters. Haven’t you noticed that I use a Bible reference in nearly EVERY piece of writing produced on this blog? You’d think it would merely come from coincidence, but that’s not the case! I work long and hard to think: how, exactly, do I represent the point of the article most accurately? How do I use the Bible in a way accurate to the context and the meaning of the passage(s) used? This does not come easy – many articles do come together in a wholly fulfilling and natural way. Other times, parts must be completely rewritten in order to fit a new point. These are not enviable portions of the writing process. These require hard work and long bouts of intense thought.

There’s nothing natural about the fusion between theology and video games. This has become uncharted territory over the time that I’ve started the project. I am NOT interested in surface-level examination of possible Christian themes in games. Rather (and boy, have I used that transition more than I should!), I see the end-goal as an integration of the unique elements of video games (both the aeshetic and the mechanical) into a fully formed and explicated idea. That sounds like a pretensious project by any measure, but I don’t want to do this at all! I’m attempting to make my thoughts as accessible as possible.

By embarking on this project, I am starting to understand what the task requires. First, I am beginning to understand what I like about video games and, more importantly, why I like video games. Reading reviews around the Internet convinces me that people don’t quite understand the latter point. What makes a game good? Bad? Does it all merely come to the eye of the beholder? With such a set-in-stone process like electronic entertainment, we have both knowledge, experience, a wealth of comparisons, a long history, and many critical tools to enhance that understanding. Most reviews base it solely on the level of experience – that’s where I get off the train. You can’t view video games in a vacuum, but every review assumes the audience has no understanding. They remain product reviews at best, when they could communicate and inform about the game’s relative quality to other mechanically or aesthetically similar games. I try to do this in my reviews as much as possible; may others come along and do better.

Excuse me if I'm a little cynical regarding game criticism.

Excuse me if I’m a little cynical regarding game criticism.

Secondly, there’s an idea that things come out of thin air when it comes to the production of content. It’s what I call the “genius” stereotype – that a person magically knows everything in the universe. You’ve seen this same stereotype in every form of entertainment media, from sitcoms (Big Bang Theory) to every kind of bizarre science-fiction police procedural (Fringe). A character is an “expert” – by default, they know the solution to a problem by default, and an epiphany (a rare occurrence in the real world) brings fort the end of said problem. That does not happen in real life, nor in writing. Even the experts invest a great deal of time. The “Renaissance Man”, so called, does not come out of the ether as a messenger from above; they WORK at their chosen fields. A writer must also develop their writing style. Verbal and written diarrhea coalesces into something readable that fulfills the author’s intention over time.

Perhaps these thoughts came to me because of Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien’s ken was the world of Angl0-Saxon myth and legend. He had a keen eye for the details that make those stories meaningful AND gave reflection on one’s human condition. Yet, Tolkien knew he would creep up against the claims of psychology – that he wrote in allegory of his own personal experiences or metaphors for his own commentary. Or maybe he wrote about World War II, that must certainly be it! Maybe he just wanted to write a story! As the second foreword states (in long form, sorry!):

The Lord of the Rings has been read by many people since it finally appeared in print; and I should like to say something here with reference to the many opinions or guesses that I have received or have read concerning the motives and meaning of the tale. The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often at fault. Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer. But even from the points of view of many who have enjoyed my story there is much that fails to please. It is perhaps not possible in a long tale to please everybody at all points, nor to displease everybody at the same points; for I find from the letters that I have received that the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved. The most critical reader of all, myself, now finds many defects, minor and major, but being fortunately under no obligation either to review the book or to write it again, he will pass over these in silence, except one that has been noted by others: the book is too short.

As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. As the story grew it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches: but its main theme was settled from the outset by the inevitable choice of the Ring as the link between it and The Hobbit. The crucial chapter, “The Shadow of the Past’, is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted. Its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in the war that began in 1939 or its sequels modified it.

The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.

Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous. It is also false, though naturally attractive, when the lives of an author and critic have overlapped, to suppose that the movements of thought or the events of times common to both were necessarily the most powerful influences. One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead. Or to take a less grievous matter: it has been supposed by some that The Scouring of the Shire reflects the situation in England at the time when I was finishing my tale. It does not. It is an essential part of the plot, foreseen from the outset, though in the event modified by the character of Saruman as developed in the story without, need I say, any allegorical significance or contemporary political reference whatsoever. It has indeed some basis in experience, though slender (for the economic situation was entirely different), and much further back. The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten, in days when motor-cars were rare objects (I had never seen one) and men were still building suburban railways. Recently I saw in a paper a picture of the last decrepitude of the once thriving corn-mill beside its pool that long ago seemed to me so important. I never liked the looks of the Young miller, but his father, the Old miller, had a black beard, and he was not named Sandyman.

Like Tolkien, I find their claims disingenuous. They assume a kind of human being who has no control over their own impulses, endlessly narcisstice and always dwelling upon themselves and their own status. I, for one, cannot accept that kind of human being. Are we just animals that, inevitably, find ourselves controlled by the caprices of fate, chance, and instinct in even the most minute of ways? Ever the contrarian I am, I say a writer writes exactly what he’s writing, no more and no less. It may develop over time, and it may become something the author did not anticipate at first, but these are his/her ideas, not some subliminal force guiding him into proper directions. A proper structure and a well-written take on a subject become the important part, and these do not happen without practices, ideas, and thought guiding them to this point. What I write can work in the realm of applicability, however! That I do not doubt.

Still, God didn’t create psychologically-driven automatons; He created people, not bundles of influences. And that lends itself directly to the creative process.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.