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

Latest posts by Leslie Verner (see all)

  • I feel like I just got a big breath of air. Such beautiful work, Leslie. You are feeding the lake and I am so glad you are.

    • Thanks, Idelette! Praying for you today as you start out your journey!

  • Helene Burns

    Wow… your words are so inspiring Leslie. I’m glad you responded to that big prompt to write – what a stunning gift you share with all of us. Thank you. xo

  • Walking on Water is back on my nightstand again for “the umpteenth time,” because even though my “littles” are now bigger, I still second-guess my calling. Have I jumped the gun by crowding a blog into my already full days? Is the time that I spend writing and studying just another word for cheating the boys who remain in the nest? I come back to Madeleine’s words for reassurance, because of that unblinking answer she supplied to Ann Kroeker: “It was hard.” If she had glossed over that answer or painted something pretty about her writing life, I might be tempted to quit. Thanks, Leslie, for continuing in your writing even though it’s hard.

    • That is so true that sometimes we find encouragement in the fact that something was a struggle for someone else, but they still persisted. I didn’t include this in the article, but I am also encouraged by all the rejection Madeleine experienced! I am so glad you persist in writing, Michele! Your words add beauty to the world!

  • Elizabeth

    What a lovely, encouraging post!

  • I needed the reminder today that creative acts (writing for me too) make me better at everything else I do, so thank you very much.

    • Alina, so glad this met a need for you today! I know I need this message frequently;-)

  • What a marvelous essay, chronicling your journey–resistance and insistence alternating throughout the years. And here you are, feeding the lake, pouring out all that you have, at the pace you’re able to pour.

    A fragrant gift today. Thank you.

    • Ann, It means so much to me that you’d take the time to comment! Your podcast has been such an inspiration. Thank you for being a champion for those of us pouring our thimbles full of words into the lake!

  • Thank you, Leslie, for feeding the lake and encouraging the rest of us to do so too! I feel the tension of being a mother/wife and artist/writer and could relate very much to your piece. I often think about what it means to be faithful to living out simply ourselves. It takes courage! Also, I’ve never read Madeleine L’Engle… I’m going to hunt for her books now! Blessings on you, sister. Xoxo

    • Olive, it’s kind of funny that I feel even MORE of a drive to create now that I’m a mom with so much less time to do so! Motherhood seems to be a trigger for creativity, forcing us to negotiate the tension. And yes, check out L’Engle’s books! I also loved her memoir on marriage, The Two Part Invention!

      • Yes! I think that as a mom, creating is a “must” now, because it keeps me grounded. Before kids, I didn’t grasp how essential it was to my well-being. Thanks for the book recommendations! I’m totally adding them to my list!

  • Julie Abraham

    Leslie you took all the doubts that have been running in my head and made it into a beautiful passage of determination and calmness to simply feed the river. I savoured every bit of it. Also L’engle I have never read,rushing to get a copy soon.
    Thank you and lots of love

    • Julie, Yes! Feed the river! It’s so freeing to know that we don’t have to be AMAZING–we just have to offer what we have when we can. Enjoy L’Engle! Start with Walking on Water!

  • This sounds like a book I need to read. Thanks for your encouraging words that fed my soul. I know I am a better mom and wife because I am listening to my calling to create. My husband commented on this very thing, recently.

    • I love that your husband is so supportive of you. It’s helpful to me to remember that my husband fell in love with all of me–including the part of me that likes to write!

  • Lynn D. Morrissey

    Leslie, this is inspired, and I must tell you that I did NOT want to read it. When I read the title, I intuitively knew exactly that passage of L’Engle’s to which you would refer. I’ve been stopping up the flow for a long time now, and in the past two or so years have sensed God’s call to take the writing plunge (a water word) again . . . professionally. I think I’m supposed to feed the lake in a public way and that overwhelms me (another good water word), and if I do take the plunge, I fear I will drown not in a lake, but in a sea of fear and doubt and second-guessing. I was supposed to read this, but I didn’t want to. I don’t know if I should thank you for the challenge and encouragement or turn off the computer! 🙂 But I will pray about it, okay?Tfor answering God’s call on your write to feed babies and lakes and writers!
    Fondly, Lynn

    • Hey Lynn–sorry?;-) But I understand where you’re coming from since I was in exactly that place fairly recently! I think that writing done well is terrifying. The first time I shared a post on Facebook, I literally felt like I was standing naked in front of all my friends, family and random high school acquaintances I was still “friends” with on social media. But I will say that once the clothes are off, there is a certain liberation to streaking through the internet. And it gets easier every time! I hope to read your words one day. SheLoves takes submissions by the 15th of each month;-)

  • Lizzie Goldsmith

    LOVE this! “Walking on Water” has been on my list for a long time, but I haven’t read it yet. Realizing just how much that needs to change, soon.

  • “Feed the lake.”

    The hairs on the back of my neck—and let’s be honest, *cough* forearms—are standing up. You have my attention, Leslie. I’d forgotten these succinct and powerful words. I need to reread the book.

    Thank you. Wow.

    • Ooooh! I’m so glad you are inspired–I want to read more of your words!

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