Madeleine L’Engle Made Me Do It

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My husband and I fell in love dodging sparks over a shared affection for travel, coffee and Madeleine L’Engle. I had just finished rereading L’Engle’s treatise on faith and art, Walking on Water, for the umpteenth time, feeling the usual pull to be a writer without the guts to follow the call. My future husband, it turned out, owned every non-fiction book she had written, but had a special affinity for this one because of his own call to be an actor.

Over the years, L’Engle’s words have not only entertained, but also empowered me. For the closet creative with a secret compulsion to write, act, paint, draw, sing, plant or plan a Pinterest party, her words are just the pixie dust you need to fly.

I’ve had a fondness for Madeleine L’Engle since the first time my mom thrust A Wrinkle in Time into my hands in elementary school, making me promise to read it before devouring another Babysitter’s Club book. Years later, after graduating and taking a job teaching seventh grade, A Wrinkle in Time was my first choice of a novel for my students to read for our literature circles.

But it wasn’t until last year that L’Engle’s words changed the trajectory of my life.

Five years after my husband and I fell in love, I reread Walking on Water not in the midst of my single life full of wide-open paths, but sitting on a spit-up stained couch by dim lamplight nursing my second baby. As I read, my secret compulsion unexpectedly grew into courage.

Like a prophecy that awaits its time, the words finally claimed me.

“Feed the lake,” she wrote.

I had so many excuses why I shouldn’t begin writing publically. (The baby on my lap, for one). But there were others:

There are already so many books and words—what could I add? 

What if people think I’m a narcissist?

My writing is not as good as X.

Who will read it?

It will interfere with my calling as a wife and mother.

And so on.

But L’Engle dismissed my excuses in a single paragraph:

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.” [i]

Her words both paralyzed me with fear and freed me to flex my creative muscles.

Suddenly it dawned on me: It doesn’t matter if my contribution is a tiny silver thimbleful of words poured into the ocean as long as I am using my words to shine into sacred spaces, speak truth and unleash a tad bit more beauty into the world. Even a small measure will do.

Our creative offering can be a wild and seemingly senseless act. Like Mary Magdalene who tiptoed over to Jesus as he ate and broke her alabaster jar of costly perfume, wiping his feet with her hair, we, too, “waste” our creativity on Jesus. Our poured-out gifts transfer from our hands to God’s. And we may never know how he chooses to use them.

In addition to L’Engle dismissing my excuses why I shouldn’t write with the flick of her wrist, she also reminded me to listen.

She writes, “When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening.”[ii]

With three children age four and under, this is not the season for days-off, sabbaticals or wandering thoughtfully through tree-lined lanes. L’Engle herself once described her thirties as “the tired years.” But I can claim an attitude of awareness in the midst of even the most mundane days if I am intentional about noticing. Creativity doesn’t need to be put on hold until a more convenient time. The work finds us if we are listening.

I also turn to L’Engle’s writings when I wrestle with the dual callings of wife/mother and writer. I need someone to tell me that just because following this call is complicated doesn’t mean it isn’t right. Writer and podcaster Ann Kroeker talks about an opportunity she had to ask L’Engle how she managed to write during the years when her children were small. L’Engle simply gazed at her and said, “It was hard.”[iii]

In Walking on Water, L’Engle admitted that “for a woman who has chosen family as well as work, there’s never time, and yet somehow time is given to us…A certain amount of stubbornness—pig-headedness—is essential [to the mother who wants to write]”.[iv]    

L’Engle attests to the fact that she was a better wife and mother not in spite of, but because of her call to create. In A Circle of Quiet, she tells about how her daughter once remarked on her change in attitude, “Mother, you’ve been getting cross and edgy with us, and you haven’t been doing much writing. We wish you’d get back to the typewriter.” [v] L’Engle refers to this story in Walking on Water, reflecting that “I had to learn that I was a better mother and wife when I was working than when I was not.” [vi]

As I write, I lean more fully into my other roles as a wife, mother, neighbor and friend. Now, as I go on agonizingly slow walks with my kids, touch the soft skin of my newborn, catch up with my husband over chips and guac and read inciting articles on social justice and global issues, I am on high alert for how the Spirit, my muse, will move me. And as I sit down at my keyboard in the stolen moments, something long dormant comes alive.

Maybe you, too, have the niggling feeling that connects with the call to create, but are too petrified to move forward. Courage, sister. And baby steps.

For now, just feed the lake.

As you gain boldness, break open your alabaster jar.

But remember that slowness is a gift as well. For as we learn to savor slowness, we will learn to hear.

Finally, believe that following your call to create will enable you to more fully embody your other roles in life. And consider the idea that the world doesn’t need another Shakespeare, Chopin, Rowling or Ringo—it already has one—but perhaps the world does need little old you and all the art, music, stories, pictures and creativity you have to give.


[i] L’Engle, Madeleine, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1980), 23.

[ii] L’Engle, Walking on Water, 13.

[iii] “Here’s to the Writer Moms.” Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach Podcast. Episode 49. May 7, 2016.

[iv] L’Engle, Walking on Water, 165.

[v] L’Engle, Madeleine, A Circle of Quiet (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1972),

199.

[vi] L’Engle, Walking on Water, 166.

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Leslie Verner
I am a goer who is learning how to stay. I’ve traveled all over the world and lived in northwest China for five years before God U-turned my life and brought me back to the U.S. to get married to an actor in Chicago. I’m a former middle school teacher, mama to three little ones and like American cuisine the least. I currently live in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and write regularly about faith, justice, family and cross-cultural issues at Scraping Raisins.
Leslie Verner
Leslie Verner

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