I’m not much of a painter. In my thirty-four years of life I’ve only created one decent watercolor. And that was on accident in the third grade. But as the daughter of a prolific artist I have a deep respect for those who can create beauty with a brush, a bit of paint, and a canvas. I admire the way they dream things into being.
Sometimes I wonder if we place more importance on the being than the dreaming, as though imagining something doesn’t make it real. As though it doesn’t exist if others can’t see it and touch it. Of all people, J.R.R. Tolkien has helped me see that what we imagine is every bit as important as what we create. In his short story “Leaf: by Niggle,” (by far my favorite piece of his writing) he introduces us to a would-be painter named Niggle who wants to create something beautiful and lasting:
“[Niggle] was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees. He used to spend a long time on a single leaf, trying to catch its shape, and its sheen, and the glistening of dewdrops on its edges. Yet he wanted to paint a whole tree, with all of its leaves in the same style, and all of them different.”
I relate to Niggle in many ways. He is tired and distracted and faces constant interruptions. He dreams better than he actually does. And in this story it takes him years to begin painting his tree. Niggle imagines it in a meadow surrounded by mountains and valleys and streams that stretch on right to the edges of his canvas. But he never gets around to painting them. As a matter of fact only a handful of leaves are completed to his satisfaction. Niggle dies while still obsessing over his leaves.
And this is where I lay my face on the table and weep every time I read the story.
But when Niggle is taken to Paradise, he stands in a lush green meadow, so like the one he wanted to paint and:
“Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch.
He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. “It’s a gift!” he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally.
He went on looking at the Tree. All the leaves he had ever labored at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.”
I recently finished and sold my latest novel. I have held nothing back in the telling of this story. From conception to completion it has taken seven years and countless drafts and more effort that I ever dreamed I would put into a manuscript.
Maybe I painted a leaf. Maybe I came closer to the whole tree. But what I know for sure is that the act of creating this novel was the gift. And I’m so very thankful for it.
Your mission (should you choose to accept it) read “Leaf By Niggle.” Just read it. And see if your dreaming doesn’t become doing after all.