“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
I was ten when my librarian grandmother pulled from her suitcase a book called A Wrinkle in Time. It had a funny cover with silhouettes floating in circles. I’d seen it at school and it looked too science-fictiony for me. I’m sure my face reflected this, and Nana said, “Why don’t I just read you one chapter?”
And she did. Just one chapter. No more until the next night, even though I begged. Since then I’ve read it perhaps twenty times, and when Meg and Charles Wallace and the Mrs. W’s speak, they speak in Nana’s voice.
Perhaps this is why I have such a deep love for Madeleine L’Engle. I grew up with her Murry family, her Walking on Water helped shape my artistic vision, her Crosswicks Journals got me through Nana’s death.
I wrote to her–sometimes long letters. After reading A Two-Part Invention, on her marriage to Hugh Franklin, I wrote her five white-hot pages in the middle of the night, stuffed them in an envelope along with three poems, and sent them before I could change my mind. She’d had a soulmate and so did I; she had four children and so did I; she knew about loss, and I was only beginning to learn.
She’d write back–just a line or two, along with her newsletter, but personal and encouraging: My family reminded her of the Murrys; she was delighted I was listening to my characters.
She was the keynoter the first time I ever taught at a writing conference. When they brought her from the airport and settled her into a chair, I literally sat at her feet.
I remember expressing my frustration about my impossible novel, the vortex I fell into when working on it, the daunting bigness of the issues it addressed. And she said, so gently, “It sounds like a wonderful book, if you’ll just leave it alone and let it write.”
That weekend I got to perform a fairy tale by Janet Lee Carey, who led our storytelling troupe, Dreamweavers, with Madeleine on her feet applauding enthusiastically.
When it came time for the booksigning, I had my Wrinkle in Time with the funny cover. Nana had passed two years earlier and I had not yet mourned. Madeleine signed her name, along with the message, “Tesser well.” I went to an out-of-the-way table and cried.
Today I ran across this letter written by a fourteen-year-old girl who got to play Meg Murry in John Glore’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time.
“…I don’t believe that you’re dead. At least, not to me. People will be saying your name and writing you letters years and years after you’re gone…You’ve shown people all around the world something that keeps all of our hearts alive, the fact that we can be loved even though we’re different, and we can fix things even when we may be broken ourselves.”
Seeing that rekindled my vision. This is the 55th anniversary year of A Wrinkle in Time, a book that after 26 rejections, finally found its place. The deep themes of the book still resonate, reminding me how important it is to write books that matter. And Madeleine–dear Madeleine who was so transparent in her work and so full of love and grace in person–has been my role model for a long, long time.
After her son Bion died, Madeleine sent her newsletter without any personal notes. In it, she said,
“Many of you have shared with me your own stories of grief as well as your music and poems. Your sympathy and concern help me continue to love and make myself vulnerable. Obviously it means much more to me than I can possibly say.”
Five things I have learned from Madeleine as a writer, a teacher, and a human being:
- to make myself vulnerable
- to take children seriously
- to listen deeply
- to honor and encourage the creative work of others
- to let the story write
If you want to explore the power of vulnerability, I invite you to Writing the Hidden Story
If you want to dive deeply into your story and its themes, consider the WIP Smart master class.