Sixteen Sweet Writing Tips from Madeleine L’Engle

Many readers are eagerly awaiting the release of the movie version of A Wrinkle in Time this coming March. When the novel was first released in 1963, the story of awkward Meg Murry who traverses time and space to rescue her scientist father wasn’t expected to be a big seller. It was in author Madeleine L’Engle’s words “peculiar” with its female protagonist in a dark science fiction novel for children. In the 1950s and early 1960s it wasn’t common for books for children to deal with things such as death and social conformity. Yet A Wrinkle in Time has sold continuously since its publication and won The Newberry Award despite mixed reviews when it was released. Madeleine L’Engle struggled to make a living writing and garnered thirty rejections for A Wrinkle in Time before it was published. She offers many tips for aspiring writers in her book Reflections on a Writer’s Life. Here are my sixteen favorites:

  1. Be disciplined. “The writer cannot write just when he feels like it or he won’t have anything to write with. Like the violin, he has to be constantly tuned and practiced.”
  2. On the other hand, when inspiration strikes, you must drop everything. “I not only burn dinner when I dash to the typewriter to set down just one more sentence. I’m also given excitement and enthusiasms far beyond the dignity of my position of somebody who’s past the half-century mark.”
  3. Expand your vocabulary. “The more limited our language is, the more limited we are…The more our vocabulary is controlled, the less we will be able to think for ourselves…the fewer words we know, the more restricted our thoughts. As our vocabulary expands, so does our power to think.”
  4. Study theater to learn about human nature. L’Engle’s husband was actor Hugh Franklin. (L’Engle was her mother’s maiden name.)
  5. Food is a great way to add sense detail to your fiction. In A Wrinkle in Time this takes the form of a liverwurst sandwich—one of her favorites.
  6. Don’t fall into the temptation of doing housework when you are alone. Write. Your family members can help you with the housework. They can’t write your fiction for you. Also, keep in mind that “the time our children are at home is a very short part of our lives” so plan for the long haul—you can write more when they and you are older.
  7. Don’t quit your day job. “For most writers it takes many manuscripts before enough royalties are coming in to pay for a roof over the head and bread on the table.” She said that she wrote at best at night and when she got up in the morning.
  8. We write best when we are in pain. “It is interesting to note how many artists have had physical problems to overcome, deformities, lameness, terrible loneliness…Those who have no physical flaw…seldom become artists.” (One of her legs was shorter than the other due to a childhood illness.) To writers she warns “if you feel you are called, then I can promise you great joy as well as conflict and pain.”
  9. You’ll be let down when you finish a novel. She compared the time after writing a book to post partum depression. “The great art of creativity is always followed by a sadness.”
  10. On the danger of being an artist: “The first people that a dictator puts in jail are the writers and the teachers because these are the people who have vocabulary, who can see injustice and can express what they feel about it.”
  11. On rejection: “Every rejection slip—and you could paper the walls with my rejection slips—was like the rejection of me, myself, and certainly of my amour-propre.” “I started writing A Wrinkle in Time at the end of a decade of nothing but rejections.” Writing opens yourself to criticism. If you write a book that says something, you will be criticized. Yet a book with nothing to say is meaningless. “If you write a book that pleases everybody, you’ve failed.”
  12. Your protagonist must have a choice to make. “A protagonist must not simply be acted upon, he must act, by making a choice, a decision to do this rather than that.”
  13. L’Engle warns that too much description of the protagonist will alienate the reader. In order to allow the reader to see the protagonist as an icon, don’t create a photographic reproduction in words.
  14. Stories must be believable. This doesn’t mean writing what exactly happened but by putting down “the truth I see.” Truth is more than a list of facts. Truth reflects the “human endeavor.” A good story helps answer the question “Who am I?”
  15. Keep a journal. Not only can you organize your thoughts this way, you can return to it to see how you felt at a certain age and in particular situations.
  16. Writing is not all about you. Writing is a “participatory event” between the author and the reader. “The one who reads…is equally creator with the person who sets down the words.”

 

A Wrinkle in Time inspired me to be a scientist-mom like Mrs. Murry and gave me the courage to buck society’s expectations for women. I’ve nevermore been able to accept lifeless female characters. For more thoughts on writing, read Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writer’s Life. (2001)IMG_3567

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Sixteen Sweet Writing Tips from Madeleine L’Engle

  1. Pingback: Madeleine L’Engle: A New Perspective on Science and Girls |

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