Thoughts On Writing From Madeline L’Engle

Presently, I’m hard at work on, “I Remember Jacqueline”.   But I wanted to share these words.  Ms. L’Engle doesn’t say anything profound.  There isn’t anything unique or clever here.  Nothing one hasn’t heard before.


She speaks the truth.

And I don’t think any of us (myself included) can ever here that enough.   The Muse helps those who show up to do the work.

Madeline L’Engle (from her 1963 Newbery Medal Acceptance Speech):  “…And I’ll never forget going to the final exam and being asked why Chaucer used certain verbal devices, certain adjectives, why he had certain characters behave in certain ways.   And I wrote in a white heat of fury, “I don’t think Chaucer had any idea why he did any of these things.  That isn’t the way people write.

I believe this as strongly now as I did then.  Most of what is best in writing isn’t done deliberately.

Do I mean, then, that an author should sit around like a phony Zen Buddhist in his pad, drinking endless cups of espresso coffee and waiting for inspiration to descend upon him?  That isn’t the way the writer works, either.   I heard a famous author say once that the hardest part of writing a book was making yourself sit down at the typewriter.  I know what he meant.  Unless a writer works constantly to improve and refine the tools of his trade, they will be useless instruments if and when the moment of inspiration, does come.  This is the moment when the writer is spoken through, the moment that a writer must accept with gratitude and humility, and then attempt, as best he can, to communicate to others.”

Published in: on October 14, 2009 at 9:26 pm  Comments (23)  
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23 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I have to believe as Ms. L’Engle does, that it’s not all premeditated. I’ve seen Jane Austen’s writing analyzed to death like that as well, why she had so-and-so do such-and-such, and I thought to myself, they’ve GOT to be kidding. I’ll try to dig it up and post it when I get home. And certainly in Chaucer’s day, nobody was looking for deep psychological motifs in the work.

  2. Hey DD,

    I often have that, “They’ve GOT to be kidding”- reaction. I can’t stand literary deconstructionism. I forget which novel it was, but I read some article which tried to claim that when the author described the outside scenery, the blades of grass were really a metaphor for sex.

    And while watching a documentary on Hitchcock, I learnt that the clocks in Notorious symbolized a phallus. (I got a lot of eye-rolling exercises accomplished during that bit)

  3. What a smart lady she is/was. One of my favorite authors.

    I agree with you and Digital Dame on the deconstruction of literature — sometimes a blade of grass is just an, ahem, blade of grass!

    : )


  4. I admit I was kind of surprised when Madeline L’Engle opened a novel with “It was a dark and stormy night”. And I just couldn’t get past that :-). Blame it on Snoopy LOL.

  5. Hey Em,

    Would you consider her one of your inspirations? I found your BNG had a similar whimsy. 🙂

  6. Hey Jewel,

    Tsk. tsk. Blaming Snoopy! 😉

    I’m not sure if that line was considered a cliche yet when she used it. Although I have to admit to having a certain fondness for it, overused or not. I’m a sucker for quaintness.

  7. Have you read the Edward Bulwer-Lytton fiction awards site? It’s hysterical, I was crying I was laughing so hard at some of the entries.

    The site’s acting a little wonky right now, but you should be able to get in if you keep trying. Click on the 2009 contest results. I swear they get funnier the more I read them. 😉

  8. Oh dearie, this is SO true! I loved your post and the quote from such a lovely writer. I adored her books when I was little, especially since her main character was named Meg, like me! Haha. I am peeling away my ‘academic writer self’ day by day, trying NOT to think too much about what it MEANS to write. I fell in love with writing as a little girl because of fun and adventurous stories, not because of meaning! If you question yourself or question writers too much, all the life gets sucked out of the writing. And what fun would that be? 🙂

  9. That is why it is called an art and not a science. For everything we can quantify, measure and study about writing there is still the spark of creativity and inspiration that fuels the endeavor. And while you don’t need to have “inspiration” all of the time, you certainly need creativity and that can’t really be measured or analyzed.

  10. Hey DD,

    Is that the site where they purposely write the worst paragraphs? I’ll have to check it out. 🙂

    Poor Bulwer-Lytton. A while ago, I read up a bit on him. He was immensely popular in his day.

  11. Nicely put, Ralfast. 🙂

  12. Hi Meg,

    Thanks! Glad you liked the post. I agree that too many questions can suck the life out of things. I remember in school when we studied poetry. I couldn’t enjoy any poem because it was analyzed to death. “Why did the poet use the color red? Why did she use the word “shut” rather than closed?”

    I appreciate poetry now for the sheer emotion and beauty of the language.

  13. Yep, that’s the one, Tasha. I may try my hand at entering someday, sure would be fun!

  14. […] Thoughts on writing from Madeleine L’Engle (Gypsyscarlet’s Weblog) […]

  15. Once, while doing research during my English degree, I ran across an essay deconstructing Winnie the Pooh. I kid you not – it was declared a vehicle for pent up gay sexual frustration, with Kanga as the overbearing female figure. Even the scene where the narrator is watching Christopher Robin in the bath was given sexual overtones. I felt sullied after reading it, and quite certain that Milne never intended what was being read.

    Madeline L’Engle rocks. If you get a chance to read it, she has an entire book around the writing life – It’s called Walk on Water, I believe. It’s been years since I read it, but I know I loved it.

  16. Uppington,

    Good Grief.

    Regarding L’Engle- thanks for mentioning the book. I’ll have to remember that.

  17. Hey Tasha. : )

    There were four authors/books that had a big impact on me as a child who loved to read — Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess, Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series.

    The impact was smart women who were writers. But yes, I think Madeleine L’Engle had a special impact, because she mixed science and spirituality to make fantastic fiction. It wasn’t just fiction, but works that questioned our place here on earth and our conection to each other and to something greater than ourselves.

    Those have been themes that have always interested me, too, so no wonder they’ve entered into my writing. When done well, like L’Engle, (meaning, transcending religion/preaching and doctrine) it does add an element of whimsy, I think, because life and death remain the ultimate questions for all of us, and therefore, universal themes that resonate within all of us.


  18. Uppington — I’ve just ordered two books you’ve mentioned, now: Bird By Bird and Walking on Water.

    I can’t wait! I’m saving them for after the beta reading I’m doing, after agent revisions of BNG, and after NaNo.

    Thanks for the rec’s!


  19. Em,

    I can’t begin to count how many times I read those other books you mentioned. They’re golden. Plus, I love the Anne of Green Gables film adaption with Megan Follows.

  20. Em & Tasha – I also have those books all half memorized, lol. Have either of you read L’Engle’s ‘A Ring of Endless Light?’. A beautiful YA book, again about a girl with writer tendencies facing up to the realities of death and growing up. Em – don’t wait to read Bird by Bird. A chapter a day will help keep the drama at bay while you’re dealing with entering the publishing world. Keep it in the bathroom or something, lol.

  21. Uppington,

    No- I haven’t read that one by L’Engle. I found A Wrinkle In Time in the English sci-fi store near me. I wonder how popular she is in Germany.

  22. Hey you two. : )

    I haven’t read A Ring of Endless Light, either. However, I was at last night (if you add an item to your Amazon wishlist, you’re automatically entered to win a free Kindle!)and I was drooling —

    I see so many books by L’Engle which I’ll be devouring in the future.

    And I’m going to take your advice, Uppington, and start Bird by Bird while doing my agent rewrites/revisions. It sounds like a guiding force that could really be helpful, being new to the publishing process.


  23. […] Thoughts on writing from Madeleine L’Engle (Gypsyscarlet’s Weblog) […]

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