What Do We Talk About?

I was watching a documentary about C.S. Lewis, and it mentioned that he used to go for long walks with J.R.R. Tolkien. The two of them would walk for hours, discussing mythology and legends and religion.

That, to me, was amazing. The man with Narnia in his head and the man with Middle Earth in his head talking together. Did they just discuss Celtic and Norse mythology, or was there a day when Lewis turned to Tolkien and said ‘Have you ever wondered what is behind the back of a wardrobe?’ and Tolkien turned to Lewis and said ‘What kind of a creature do you imagine lives in a hole in the ground? A nice, clean hole, mind you.’

It’s not the first literary friendship I’ve heard about – Dickens and Wilkie Collins were friends, as were Charlotte Bronte and Harriet Martineau. And of course there’s Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But I’ve always wondered what they talked about. Did they talk about writing, the difficulties and the joys? Did they recommend publishers and printers? Did they discuss the plots? Or did they avoid writing altogether, talk about anything but damn books!

When I get together with writers, I will happily talk about the technicalities until the cows come home. However, I don’t like to talk about my characters or plots. I like to keep the actual stories to myself. On the other hand, I have met writers who immediately launch into a detailed exposition of their stories. They suddenly start declaring ‘I’ve got this story about this cat, with a top hat, who lived in a shoe shop…’ and I immediately put my hands over my ears, crying ‘copyright, copyright!’. Because if I then thought of a story about a cat with a top hat who lived in a shoe shop, they could quite rightly say I got the idea from them.

So what do you do? Discuss the practicalities (never use cheap paper!), discuss the story (Surely the shoe shop must be next to a fishmonger), or leave writing alone altogether (I never want to hear another word about books. How do you feel about turkey ice cream?)

Mind you, I still really wish I could have eavesdropped on C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien the afternoon they both said to each other ‘I’ve been working on this book..’


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