Leaf by Niggle

I’m one of the best procrastinators this world has ever seen. As a child, I was supposed to clean my room every few weeks–pick up, vacuum  and dust. It should have taken 30 minutes max (I didn’t live like a total pig). Yet I would spend my entire Saturday finding ways to put off my cleaning. There were cool toys to play with (instead of putting away). I hadn’t read that book in a while. The vacuum cleaner held an orb of destruction that needed to be diffused by my GI Joe action figures. The guinea pig litter was too stinky. Thus, I turned a short project into an eight-hour dilemma. I missed out on many Saturdays of playing with friends, running around outside, and the general rewarding goodness of completing a task in a timely manner.

Portrait of Niggle

Mr. Niggle

So it is I found a kindred spirit in Niggle, the protagonist in J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle”. (On a completely unrelated side note, I dig his beard.)

Niggle is a painter, and not a very accomplished/talented painter at that. His passion is leaves–he studies leaves, draws them, and paints them. Niggle wants to paint a tree, but feels he hasn’t yet mastered the leaf. He also struggles with completing his work in a timely fashion. He tries to paint but finds excuses not to–he doesn’t know enough, he isn’t good enough, people are interrupting, his neighbor needs help, etc.

One day, Niggle sees a picture of a tree with a forest and a mountain in the background. I can’t tell if the picture is real or in his imagination, but the painting becomes his magnum opus. Unfortunately, his handicapped neighbor’s wife grows ill, and Niggle abandons his work to offer minimal help.

Another side note with a little more applicability than the last: Niggle is defined as “a trifling complaint, dispute, or criticism” (Websters).

Niggle eventually dies, or “goes on his journey” as the story puts it. He spends some time in a hospital/holding cell where he learns to manage his time, is granted grace and freedom by a “doctor”, and is finally released into his new life, which, ironically, is the landscape he had been trying to paint.

Timothy Keller asserts that this story is about work, the value of work, the importance of completing work, etc. I agree, but that idea isn’t what captivated me when reading the story.

I was moved by the artist’s image/perception/understanding of the unknown. As I read it, Niggle, in his own human way, perceived a glimpse of heaven and was trying to the best of his ability to capture it. In life, his vision was broken, hung in a back corner of a museum, and then forgotten about forever. To the outside world, Niggle was a nobody, but he still had a vision, an artistic drive, and the overwhelming fear to ship his product (as Seth Godin puts it).

I fear that I’m like Niggle, a mediocre writer at best in the eyes of the world. If I were to die tomorrow, I doubt that my writing legacy would live for very long. Very few may ever be moved by my work.

But it’s still my work,my poetry, my art. And the people I’ve met in the ongoing process of becoming an expert have given life to my writing that I never thought imaginable. Niggle didn’t have a community of artists (or even friends) to challenge, encourage, and even validate him as an artist. I need to stop getting hung up on whether or not I’m skilled enough, well-read enough, or whatever not-good-enough worries that haunt many artists. Instead, I need to write, which isn’t complete until you read it. And maybe someday, we’ll find ourselves in a more perfect form of your poem or mine.

What fears keep you from writing? Or from sharing your work with the public?

What are your visions of eternity?