Madeleine L'Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life

Madeleine L'Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life

by Madeleine L'Engle, Lindsay Lackey

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The author of over fifty books, including Newbery Award winner A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle is internationally acclaimed for her literary skills and her ability to translate intangible things of the spirit-- both human and divine--into tangible concepts through story. In Madeleine L'Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life, you'll find hundreds of this celebrated author's most insightful, illuminating, and transforming statements about writing, creativity, and truth.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524759315
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/18/2018
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Madeleine L'Engle was the author of more than forty-five books for all ages, among them the beloved A Wrinkle in Time, awarded the Newbery Medal; A Ring of Endless Light, a Newbery Honor Book; A Swiftly Tilting Planet, winner of the American Book Award; and the Austin family series of which Troubling a Star is the fifth book. L'Engle was named the 1998 recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards award, honoring her lifetime contribution in writing for teens.

Ms. L'Engle was born in 1918 in New York City. She wrote her first book, The Small Rain, while touring with Eva Le Gallienne in Uncle Harry. She met Hugh Franklin, to whom she was married until his death in 1986, while they were rehearsing The Cherry Orchard, and they were married on tour during a run of The Joyous Season, starring Ethel Barrymore.

Ms. L'Engle retired from the stage after her marriage, and the Franklins moved to northwest Connecticut and opened a general store. After a decade in Connecticut, the family returned to New York.

After splitting her time between New York City and Connecticut and acting as the librarian and writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Madeleine L’Engle died on September 7, 2007 at the age of 88.

Date of Birth:

January 12, 1918

Date of Death:

September 6, 2007

Place of Birth:

New York, NY

Place of Death:

Litchfield, CT


Smith College, 1941

Read an Excerpt

Giving Birth

I’ve experienced the pain and the joy of the birth of babies and the birth of books, and there’s nothing like it. When a child who’s been conceived in love is born to a man and wife, I think the joy of that birth sings throughout the universe. The joy of writing or of composing is much the same thing. I think all our lives are a process of births, of continuous births. And each of these births does involve pain.

An Incarnational Event

Obedience is an unpopular word nowadays, but the artist must be obedient to the work, whether it be a symphony, a painting, or a story for a small child. I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary.

True Art

All art, good, bad, indifferent, reflects its culture. Great art transcends its culture and touches on that which is eternal. Two writers may write the same story about the same man and woman and their relationship with each other. One writer will come up with art and the other with pornography. There is no subject that is not appropriate for the artist, but the way in which it is handled can sometimes be totally inappropriate. True art has a mythic quality in that it speaks of that which was true, is true, and will be true.

Art Names Us

God asked Adam to name all the animals, which was asking Adam to help in the creation of their wholeness. When we name each other, we are sharing in the joy and privilege of incarnation, and all great works of art are icons of Naming.

When we look at a painting, or hear a symphony, or read a book, and feel more Named, then, for us, that work is a work of Christian art. But to look at a work of art and then to make a judgment as to whether or not it is art, and whether or not it is Christian, is presumptuous. It is something we cannot know in any conclusive way. We can know only if it speaks within our own hearts, and leads us to living more deeply with Christ in God.

Art Reflects Eternity

All artists reflect the time in which they live, but whether or not their work also has that universality which lives in any generation or culture is nothing we can know for many years. Also, art which is truly iconographic for one period may have little to say to another. My parents, who were in their thirties at the time of the First World War, loved Romantic music, Chopin, Wagner—how they loved Wagner! But Wagner has little to say to me. The reasonable, peaceful world in which my parents grew up, the world which was far too civilized for war, was broken forever by the horror of World War I. My father went to fight in the war to end war, and for the rest of his life he had to live with the knowledge that not only had his war not ended war, it was the beginning of a century of near-total war.

My generation, and my children’s, living in this battled and insane period, find more nourishment in the structure of Bach and Mozart than the lush romanticism of Wagner. Wagner is fine if the world around one is stable. But when the world is, indeed, in chaos, then an affirmation of cosmos becomes essential.

Artists Must Abandon Control

Artists have always been drawn to the wild, wide elements they cannot control or understand—the sea, mountains, fire. To be an artist means to approach the light, and that means to let go our control, to allow our whole selves to be placed with absolute faith in that which is greater than we are. The novel we sit down to write and the one we end up writing may be very different, just as the Jesus we grasp and the Jesus who grasps us may also differ.

We live under the illusion that if we can acquire complete control, we can understand God, or we can write the great American novel. But the only way we can brush against the hem of the Lord, or hope to be part of the creative process, is to have the courage, the faith, to abandon control.

The Danger of Artists

The first people that a dictator puts in jail are the writers and the teachers because these are the people who have vocabulary, who can see injustice and can express what they feel about it. Artists are dangerous people because they are called to work with human clay, with the heart and the soul. So to protect itself, society has had to pretend that either art is unimportant or that it is simple.

The other way of disposing of the artist is to assume that art is wicked and all artists are notorious sinners. We are told that story is a lie, that theater and acting are pretending, so they are not real and therefore sinful. But it is in art that we look for a reality. It is the artist who dared to help us try to be human—to be, though many artists might not put it so, to be saints. We have been given a model in Jesus and we must be brave enough not to kill the Christ in ourselves or to let it be killed as people tried to kill Christ 2,000 years ago. It is not the secular humanists who are doing the killing of Christ, but we who call ourselves Christians.

The Arts Endure

The arts outlive governments and creeds and societies, even the very civilizations that produced them. They cannot be destroyed all together because they represent the substance of faith and their only reality. They are what we find when the ruins are cleared away.

No Work Is Too Small

If the work comes to the artist and says, “Here I am, serve me,” then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, “Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”

To feed the lake is to serve, to be a servant. Servant is another unpopular word, a word we have derided by denigrating servants and service. To serve should be a privilege, and it is to our shame that we tend to think of it as a burden, something to do if you’re not fit for anything better or higher.

I have never served a work as it ought to be served; my little trickle adds hardly a drop of water to the lake, and yet it doesn’t matter; there is no trickle too small. Over the years I have come to recognize that the work often knows more than I do. And with each book I start, I have hopes that I may be helped to serve it a little more fully.

Prepare for Sacrifice

A book may come to me and ask to be written, but it takes time and energy and considerable pain to give birth to even the most minor of stories. The life of the artist is as much a life of discipline as that of the physician or the missionary. It makes incredibly austere and difficult demands. Are you willing to make the sacrifice? Don’t worry if you’re not. There’s nothing wrong in being a Sunday painter. Not everyone who writes is called on to make this work a vocation; but if you feel that you are called, then I can promise you great joy as well as conflict and pain.

Again and Again

With free will, we are able to try something new. Maybe it doesn’t work, or we make mistakes and learn from them. We try something else. That doesn’t work, either. So we try yet something else again. When I study the working processes of the great artists I am awed at the hundreds and hundreds of sketches made before the painter begins to be ready to put anything on the canvas. It gives me fresh courage to know of the massive revision Dostoyevsky made of all his books—the hundreds of pages that got written and thrown out before one was kept. A performer must rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, making mistakes, discarding, trying again and again.

Art Is a Gift of the Spirit

We’re never sure that what we write is true and honest. We try to make it true and honest. How much I succeed is really beyond my control. It happens if I am given the Spirit to write the work.

It is through the gifts of the Spirit that art comes, that love comes. But because we’re human, we’re never entirely sure. We know we haven’t served the work as well as we would want to. But if I had to serve the work to my satisfaction, I would still be on my first novel. And that would be pride.

The Gift of Wholeness

The important thing is to recognize that our gift, no matter what the size, is indeed something given us, for which we can take no credit, but which we may humbly serve, and, in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered wondrous newness.

Picasso says that an artist paints not to ask a question, but because he has found something, and he wants to share–he cannot help it—what he has found.

Struggling Toward Meaning

To be alive is to be vulnerable. To be born is to start the journey towards death. If taxes have not always been inevitable, death has. What, then, does life mean? No more than “Out, brief candle”?

The artist struggles towards meaning. Mahler was terrified of death, and worked out his fear in music. I had a letter from a college student at Harvard saying, “I am afraid of non-being.” That same day, a friend with whom I was having lunch, said, “I cannot bear the thought of annihilation.”

Art is an affirmation of life, a rebuttal of death.

And here we blunder into paradox again, for during the creation of any form of art, art which affirms the value and the holiness of life, the artist must die.

We Are Required to Serve the Gift

I listen to my stories; they are given to me, but they don’t come without a price. We do have to pay, with hours of work that ends up in the wastepaper basket, with intense loneliness, with a vulnerability that often causes us to be hurt. And I’m not sure that it’s a choice. If we’re given a gift—and the size of the gift, small or great, does not matter—then we are required to serve it, like it or not, ready or not. Most of us, that is, because I have seen people of great talent who have done nothing with their talent who mutter about “When there’s time . . . ,” or who bury their talent because it’s too risky to use.

Yes, it is risky. We may not hear the story well. We may be like faulty radios, transmitting only static and words out of context. But I believe that it is a risk we have to take. And it is worth it, because the story knows more than the artist knows. 

Get Out of the Way

When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist; Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he often wrote better than he could write; Bach composed more deeply, more truly than he knew; Rembrandt’s brush put more of the human spirit on canvas than Rembrandt could comprehend. 

When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens. 

But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work. Getting out of the way and listening is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer.

The Healing Power of Suffering

It is interesting to note how many artists have had physical problems to overcome, deformities, lameness, terrible loneliness. Could Beethoven have written that glorious paean of praise in the Ninth Symphony if he had not had to endure the dark closing in of deafness? As I look through his work chronologically, there’s no denying that it deepens and strengthens along with the deafness. Could Milton have seen all that he sees in Paradise Lost if he had not been blind? It is chastening to realize that those who have no physical flaw, who move through life in step with their peers, who are bright and beautiful, seldom become artists. The unending paradox is that we do learn through pain.

Wholeness Through Wounds

Wounds. By his wounds we are healed. But they are our wounds, too; and until we have been healed we do not know what wholeness is. The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort toward wholeness.

The great male artists have somehow or other retained this wholeness, this being in touch with both intellect and intuition, a wholeness which always has to be bought at a price in this world. How many artists, in the eyes of the world, have been less than whole? Toulouse-Lautrec had the body of a man and the legs of a child. Byron had a club foot. Demosthenes was a terrible stutterer. Traditionally, Homer was blind. The great artists have gained their wholeness through their wounds, their epilepsies, tuberculoses, periods of madness.

Free to Fail

There are in the life works of all artists things which don’t work. But sometimes that painting which did not work, that piece of music which did not work, was a necessary preliminary for the next thing which did. And if the artist had never been free to fail, he never would have gone on to that next work.

Mary’s “Yes!”

What would have happened to Mary (and to all the rest of us) if she had said No to the angel? She was free to do so. But she said, Yes. She was obedient, and the artist, too, must be obedient to the command of the work, knowing that this involves long hours of research, of throwing out a month’s work, of going back to the beginning, or, sometimes, scrapping the whole thing. The artist, like Mary, is free to say No. When a shoddy novel is published the writer is rejecting the obedient response, taking the easy way out. But when the words mean even more than the writer knew they meant, then the writer has been listening. And sometimes when we listen, we are led into places we do not expect, into adventures we do not always understand.

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