My Friend Madeleine
I don’t know how to live as a writer. I mean sure, I’ve lived almost thirty years and studied poetry, but I often find myself teaching and not writing, serving coffee and not writing, playing Settlers of Catan, eating ice cream, attending church and not writing. Some days I think I should just be happy with these things– some days I am– but then the unrest returns, and I can’t sleep because I’m a terrible person, my life is meaningless, and I’ll fail at everything I care about. Once I’ve stopped exaggerating, I think, “Maybe the unrest is legitimate; maybe I need to write.” I love Madeleine L’Engle because she feels a similar unrest, and as she writes through hope and doubt, she gives me courage to try.
I call her my friend Madeleine and speak of her in present tense, but I’ve never met Madeleine L’Engle and she died (age 88) in 2007. Her most popular children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year. I’ve learned a lot from reading and rereading Wrinkle, but concerning courage and balance in the writing life, I’ve learned the most from her journals, especially A Circle of Quiet.
My favorite story comes early in A Circle of Quiet, and goes like this: Madeleine has had some early success as a writer, but for most of her thirties, she’s been rejected by publisher after publisher. She feels guilty for taking time to write, instead of becoming “a good New England house-wife and mother,” capable of baking fancy desserts and keeping white laundry white. On her fortieth birthday she learns that her latest book has been rejected. She says, “This seemed an obvious sign from heaven…. Stop this foolishness and learn to make cherry pie.” She continues, “I covered the typewriter in a great gesture of renunciation. Then I walked around and around the room, bawling my head off. I was totally, unutterable miserable. Suddenly I stopped, because I realized what my subconscious mind was doing while I was sobbing: my subconscious mind was working out a novel about failure.” This is when Madeleine realizes she’s a writer; that even if she writes without success or if she lacks talent, she must write.
I haven’t had a moment of certainty like Madeleine, but I’ve tried several times to give up writing and returned to it.
Waking up on a mountainside in the French Alps, in a white room facing south, the light was so thick it was like swimming, and as I looked at the town and five mountains, I thought, “I could be content just with beauty; I don’t need to write.”
Several days later, I tried to write a poem. And letters. And a blog. Then, of course, there’s the feeling that everything makes more sense when you write about it. And being “unutterably miserable” when you think you’ll never write anything really true. Maybe a writer needs these doubts. I don’t know, but it helps that a woman like Madeleine found confidence elusive, and that the balance she achieved between writing and other responsibilities, while imperfect, worked.
The question of needing to write is something Madeleine and I keep coming back to. It has to do with the purity of our motivation, and thus the value of our writing, even of our selves. Madeleine explains it in terms of ontology, which she calls “the word about the essence of things; the word about being.” She says that something like a bush, or a frog by the river, can’t help but be fully itself. A bush has been created a bush, and is perfectly bushy. Humans, unlike the rest of creation, have some choice in what we become, and often our self-consciousness and ambition prevent us from being perfectly ourselves.
Thus, if we’re motivated by success or self-image, we’re not fulfilling our purpose. If we need to write, if this is part of our essential being, then our work has value; “there is a faith simply in the validity of art… it has nothing to do with comparisons, or pitting talent against talent; it has everything to do with a way of looking at the universe.” Writing becomes not a selfish “Listen to me!” but a willingness to listen, to observe and say, “Isn’t it beautiful?” Further, if we are given success, we are able to pray with the Psalmist, “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy Name give praise; for thy loving mercy and thy truth’s sake.” This was Madeleine’s mantra, especially when teaching, and I am learning how freeing it can be. When I read her life story, I stop looking at myself, stop feeling insufficient and guilty; it’s something like her idea that “a great painting, or symphony, or play, doesn’t diminish us, but enlarges us, and we, too, want to make our own cry of affirmation to the power of creation behind the universe.”
Deanna Boulard earned her MFA from the University of Maryland and worked as a language assistant in southern France. One of her poems has appeared in The Louisville Review. She lives in Louisville, where she works as a barista and teaches part-time at Bellarmine University.