Monday, January 10, 2011

Ontology, Motherhood, Writing and God as explained by Madeleine L'Engle

Writers could do much worse than to learn from Madeleine L'Engle.  Although she's most famous for A Wrinkle in Time (published 1962, winner of the Newbery Medal, never out of print since publication, over ten million copies sold according to Scholastic,) she wrote many other beautiful, poetical, thought-provoking books for both young adult and adult readers, including The Crosswicks Journal, Book One - A Circle of Quiet (1972.)

Circle of Quiet is part journal, part autobiographical rumininations on God, life, writing, parenthood, education, and pornography.  Crosswicks is the name of the old New England farmhouse L'Engle and her husband bought and lived in for over a decade while raising their family.

Some dismiss those who write for young adults as unsophisticated.  In the first few pages, L'Engle takes on ontology:
Ontology: the word about the essence of things, the word about being.
Is there anything deeper a writer (or human being, for that matter) needs to understand?  The root, the heart, the essence of a person, or star, or burning bush, as separate, yet part of what one does, because what we do, what we experience, also affects our soul essence.  I've always loved her writing, though sometimes she seemed almost too ethereal and spiritual to be human.

Yet, L'Engle also experienced the conflict between deeply loving one's family, spouse, home, and still needing space apart.
Every so often I need OUT; something will throw me into total disproportion, and I have to get away from everybody - away from all these people I love most in the world - in order to regain a sense of proportion. 
Haven't we all experienced that feeling?
....My special place is a small brook in a green glade, a circle of quiet from which there is no visible sign of human beings.   ...If I sit for a while, then my impatience, crossness, frustration, are indeed annihilated, and my sense of humor returns.
Often we're not lucky enough to have a small brook handy, but we can always find someplace - even if it's in a room in the city where we can put on headphones to drown the traffic - to escape.

And escape is a critical part of writing.

The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline.  In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not outside time, he is outside himself.  He has thrown himself completely into whatever it is that he is doing.  A child playing a game, building a sand castle, painting a picture, is completely in what he is doing.  His self-consciousness is gone; his consciousness is wholly focused outside himself.

... A writer may be self-conscious about his work before and after but not during the writing.  If I am self-conscious during the actual writing of a scene, then it ends up in the round file.   ...This kind of unself-consciousness I'm thinking about becomes clearer to me when I turn to a different discipline: for instance, that of playing a Bach fugue at the piano, precisely because I will never be a good enough pianist to play a Bach fugue as it should be played.  ...Mostly, no matter how inadequate my playing, the music is all that matters: I am outside time, outside self, in play, in joy.  When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love.
This is writing in flow.  This is why we write - not because of the hope of fame or fortune (though if it comes, surely we can find a way to deal with it, lol!)  We write because of the wonderful, ecstatic feeling when we are in that magical place outside of time, outside of self.  In play and joy.

She shares the madness of coping with a kitchen that never got warmer than 55 degrees in winter, the washing machine freezing up, trouble making ends meet financially, not being able to write until the little ones were in bed, and then being so tired she would fall asleep with her head on the typewriter.

Of rejection slip after rejection slip.
So the rejection on the fortieth birthday seemed an unmistakable command: Stop this foolishness and learn to make cherry pie.

I covered the typewriter in a great gesture of renunciation.  Then I walked around the room, bawling my head off.  I was totally, utterly miserable.

Suddenly I stopped, because I realized what my subconscious mind was doing while I was sobbing: my subconscious mind was busy working out a novel about failure.
In this book she recalls forty rejections for A Wrinkle in Time; other sources have narrowed it down to twenty-six.  Twenty-six!!
When Hal Vursell was asked why they had accepted it when other publishers were afraid of it...  "We have all, from time to time, chosen and published obviously superior books, a book not written to prescription or formula, one which we passionately believed to be far better than nine-tenths of what was currently being offered, only to have that book still-born.  New editors have emotions, too, and when this happens, believe it not, they bleed....  It was our good fortune that the manuscript reached us at a moment when we were ready to do battle again."
On sex, L'Engle is far from being a prude (she mentions enjoying a burlesque show and being much impressing with the whirling of tassels,) but does decry the substitution of sex for truly touching and being touched in a deeper way.  For the substitution of the three-letter word, sex, for the four letter word, love.
So we rush around trying to light candles.  Some are real; books are candles for me; so is music; so is friendship.  Others blow up in our faces, like too much alcohol and too many sleeping pills or pep pills.  Or hard drugs.  Or sex where there isn't any love.

L'Engle is a Christian-themed writer, but her religious beliefs don't feel either stapled on as an afterthought, or thrust into the face of the reader like a club.  When she speaks of God, it's an integral, interwoven part of her work; an invitation, "Come, investigate this with me, I'm not sure of everything, but here is where I am so far on this journey."  It's beautiful, mystical, enticing - not demanding the reader throw out science or facts, but inviting us to open the mind even wider, to integrate religious beliefs as part of one's whole understanding of the universe.  To be ontological.
Science, literature, art, theology: it is all the same ridiculous, glorious, mysterious language.

Whether you are Christian, Jew, Buddhist (she kept a white Buddha statue on her desk for years), agnostic, pagan, or something else, you can learn a lot from L'Engle about what works and what doesn't, if you'd like to convert the world with your writing.   Or even if you simply want to live in it, in love, joy, and wonder, because nothing last forever, even the stars in their courses.
Meanwhile, we are in time, and the flesh is to be honored.  At all ages.  For me, this summer, this has been made clear in a threefold way: I have fed, bathed, played pat-a-cake with my grandbabies.  In the night when I wake up, as I usually do, I always reach out with a foot, a hand, to touch my husband's body; I go back to sleep with my hand on his warm flesh.  And my mother is almost ninety and preparing to move into a different country.  I do not understand the mysteries of the flesh, but I do know that we must not be afraid to reach out to one another, to hold hands, to touch.
Madeleine L'Engle passed away in 2007, but I will go on drawing inspiration from her work as long as I live, and I'm sure so will many others.  Just as light from a star long dead still shines in the night sky.  I hope you'll pick up this book and join me.
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