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Posts Tagged ‘Madeleine L’Engle’

18 DECEMBER, 2014

Madeleine L’Engle on Creativity, Hope, Getting Unstuck, and How Studying Science Enriches Art

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“Terrible things happen. And those are the things that we learn from… The amazing thing is that despite all… the human spirit still manages to survive, to stay strong.”

In addition to being one of the most foundational texts on creativity ever published, pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 1996 book Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (public library) — which sheds light on why “psychological androgyny” is essential to creative genius — is also a precious time-capsule of insights by some of the twentieth century’s most visionary artists, writers, and scientists, many no longer alive. In both developing and illustrating his theories of creativity, Csikszentmihalyi interviewed 91 luminaries, including astronomer Vera Rubin, poet Denise Levertov, sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, social scientist John Gardner, and science writer Stephen Jay Gould.

Among them was writer Madeleine L’Engle (November 29, 1918–September 6, 2007) — a woman who started writing at the age of five and spent the remainder of her life daring to disturb the universe with her beloved children’s books, brimming with characters who emerge from hardship not embittered but emboldened to live with grace, compassion, and forgiveness.

Madeleine L'Engle (Photograph: Sigrid Estrada)

Like Susan Sontag, who spiritedly denounced the false divide between intuition and the intellect, and Anaïs Nin, who wrote in her legendary diary that “intellect by itself is the seat of trouble,” L’Engle attributes her work’s most enchanting qualities to the communion between these two faculties:

Your intuition and your intellect should be working together… making love. That’s how it works best.

Like Einstein, whose mythology holds that he came up with his greatest physics breakthroughs during his violin breaks, L’Engle turns to music to overcome creative block in her writing, tickling the timid intuitive self into reengaging with the intellectual when the latter is on overdrive:

Playing the piano is for me a way of getting unstuck. If I’m stuck in life or in what I’m writing, if I can I sit down and play the piano. What it does is break the barrier that comes between the conscious and the subconscious mind. The conscious mind wants to take over and refuses to let the subconscious mind work, the intuition. So if I can play the piano, that will break the block, and my intuition will be free to give things up to my mind, my intellect. So it’s not just a hobby. It’s a joy.

Indeed, this cross-pollination of different faculties is central to what makes L’Engle’s writing so bewitching. She applied it not only to different aspects of the self, but also to different domains of knowledge. To write her most beloved book, A Wrinkle in Time, she drew on quantum mechanics and particle physics; she infused A Wind in the Door with cellular biology; in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, she fused ancient Celtic religions with relativity theory.

Einstein himself called this the “combinatory play” of the mind and considered it a cornerstone of genius. Csikszentmihalyi points out that L’Engle’s gift for bringing together “domains that appear to have nothing in common” is common to most creative individuals in his study:

Most breakthroughs are based on linking information that usually is not thought of as related. Integration, synthesis both across and within domains, is the norm rather than the exception.

This idea, most famously put forth by pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner in his seminal work from the 1960s, is also something Stephen Jay Gould memorably articulated and Kandinsky captured beautifully in asserting that “to harmonize the whole is the task of art.” But in L’Engle’s work, Csikszentmihalyi notes, these cross-pollinations transcend the practical and stretch into the conceptual, bridging “events at the cosmic and the microscopic levels” and producing “a sort of a karmic web [that] pervades her narrative.”

In commenting on this creative composting, L’Engle speaks to the larger theme of interconnectedness:

A lot of ideas come subconsciously. You don’t even realize where they’re coming from. I try to read as widely as possible, and I read fairly widely in the areas of particle physics and quantum mechanics, because to me these are very exciting. They’re dealing with the nature of being and what it’s all about. One of the things that we have learned, having opened the heart of the atom, is that nothing happens in isolation, that everything in the universe is interrelated… And another thing [scientists have] discovered is that nothing can be studied objectively, because to look at something is to change it and to be changed by it. Those are pretty potent ideas.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird,' one of the best children's books of 2014. Click image to see more.

But L’Engle’s most defining ethos is that of hope and mercy — something Csikszentmihalyi notes was cultivated by her own experience. She recalls having “terrible teachers” as a young child, who assumed that her physical disability — a faulty knee that rendered her clumsy at any athletic activity — also meant that she “wasn’t very bright.” And yet the disheartening experience was essential to L’Engle’s creative development. Csikszentmihalyi recounts his conversation with the author:

Shunned by peers and teachers, Madeleine spent much of her childhood reading and thinking alone. Now she feels that she couldn’t have written her books if she had been happy and successful with her peers. Like most individuals in our sample, she showed her creativity first of all by being able to turn a disadvantage into an advantage.

This notion, of course, is hardly novel — Nietzsche famously asserted that enduring difficulty is essential to a full life, and even Van Gogh articulated it passionately in his letters. But while most of us understand it in the abstract, L’Engle was willing to live it in the concrete and to translate it into the essential theme of her work: the need for hope.

And yet L’Engle’s celebration of hope — which shares a kinship of spirit with writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (with whom, curiously enough, L’Engle shares a birthday) — isn’t a matter of blind, sheepish optimism. Instead, Csikszentmihalyi notes, she aims to remind the reader of the world’s “grim realities” but to frame them in a way that makes the possibility of overcoming them feel equally real, using storytelling as a “way to keep people from falling away from one another” — especially, Csikszentmihalyi adds in a remark all the more poignant today, “when the media are unable to present a meaningful picture of how things work.” L’Engle tells him:

Television commercials give such a strange view of what life is supposed to be. And a lot of people buy it. Life is not easy and comfortable, with nothing ever going wrong as long as you buy the right product. It’s not true that if you have the right insurance everything is going to be fine. That’s not what it’s really like. Terrible things happen. And those are the things that we learn from. People are incredibly complex. I read a book last winter called Owning Your Own Shadow, by Robert Johnson. And one of his theories is that the brighter the light, the darker the shadow. Which is often true.

L’Engle approaches her work with a great sense of responsibility — something she shares with such beloved writers as John Steinbeck (“My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other.”), E.B. White (“A writer… should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.”), William Faulkner (“The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is … to help man endure by lifting his heart.”). She tells Csikszentmihalyi:

I don’t like hopeless books. Books that make you think, ‘Ah, life’s not worth living.’ I want to leave them thinking yeah, this endeavor is difficult, but it is worth it, and it is ultimately joyful.

In a remark that makes one simultaneously wonder what L’Engle might think of our present time and long for her all the more sorely needed optimism today, she adds:

Oh, I’m a little less idealistic about the world than I might have been thirty years ago. This whole century has been difficult, but the last thirty years have been pretty awful in many, many ways. I mean, if thirty years ago I had listened to the six o’clock news, I wouldn’t have believed it. War is all over this planet. On the other hand, there’s a black president in South Africa! Wonderful things happened even while there [are] terrible things. We wouldn’t have believed thirty years ago that the Soviet Union would be dissolved. It’s like weather, it’s unpredictable. The amazing thing is that despite all the things that happen, the human spirit still manages to survive, to stay strong.

Indeed, her greatest gift is the assurance that strength — creative strength, moral strength — is gained not despite the presence of adversity but because of it. Compared to the greatest failures of humanity, the personal failures and rejections and fractures of the spirit we encounter on a much more microscopic level in our daily lives may be less dramatic and consequential, but they often feel no less disheartening. L’Engle’s own creative journey was paved with them — A Wrinkle in Time was so unlike anything else that it was rejected by every major publisher for more than two years, until one finally took a chance on what would become one of the greatest children’s books of all time.

Artwork from 'Fail Safe,' Debbie Millman's illustrated-essay-turned-commencement address on courage and the creative life. Click image to read/listen.

L’Engle reflects on the experience and her broader beliefs about failure:

Sticking my neck out has been something I have learned to do. And I think it’s a good thing.

[…]

Human beings are the only creatures who are allowed to fail. If an ant fails, it’s dead. But we’re allowed to learn from our mistakes and from our failures. And that’s how I learn, by falling flat on my face and picking myself up and starting all over again. If I’m not free to fail, I will never start another book, I’ll never start a new thing.

Complement Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention with L’Engle’s spectacular lost lecture on creativity, censorship, and the duty of children’s books, then revisit art historian Sarah Lewis on the gift of failure in creative enterprise and legendary social scientist John Gardner — one of the luminaries in Csikszentmihalyi’s study — on what children can teach us about risk and failure.

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10 APRIL, 2014

Dare to Disturb the Universe: Madeleine L’Engle on Creativity, Censorship, Writing, and the Duty of Children’s Books

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“We find what we are looking for. If we are looking for life and love and openness and growth, we are likely to find them. If we are looking for witchcraft and evil, we’ll likely find them, and we may get taken over by them.”

On November 16, 1983 — just two weeks before her 65th birthday and twenty years after winning the prestigious Newbery Medal — Madeleine L’Engle, author of the timeless classic A Wrinkle in Time, delivered a magnificent lecture at the Library of Congress. To celebrate Children’s Book Week the following year — the year I was born — the Library’s Center for the Book and the Children’s Literature Center published L’Engle’s talk as a slim and, sadly, long out-of-print volume titled Dare to Be Creative! (public library) — a magnificent manifesto of sorts on writing, writers, and children’s books, as well as a bold and beautifully argued case against censorship.

L’Engle begins by making a point about children’s capacity for handling darker emotions that would’ve made Tolkien proud, one that Maurice Sendak has also asserted and Neil Gaiman has recently echoed. L’Engle observes:

The writer whose words are going to be read by children has a heavy responsibility. And yet, despite the undeniable fact that the children’s minds are tender, they are also far more tough than many people realize, and they have an openness and an ability to grapple with difficult concepts which many adults have lost. Writers of children’s literature are set apart by their willingness to confront difficult questions.

For that reason, L’Engle argues, editors and publishers often attempt to remove these difficult questions from the get-go — a form of preventative censorship, the kind the great Ursula Nordstrom meant in her witty and wise lament that children’s book publishing was run largely by “mediocre ladies in influential positions” unwilling to deviate from the safe route. L’Engle recounts her own brave resistance to such pressures, even in the face of repeated rejection:

Many years ago, when A Wrinkle in Time was being rejected by publisher after publisher, I wrote in my journal, “I will rewrite for months or even years for an editor who sees what I am trying to do in this book and wants to make it better and stronger. But I will not, I cannot diminish and mutilate it for an editor who does not understand it and wants to weaken it.”

Now, the editors who did not understand the book and wanted the problem of evil soft peddled had every right to refuse to publish the book, as I had, sadly, the right and obligation to try to be true to it. If they refused it out of honest conviction, that was honorable. If they refused it for fear of trampling on someone else’s toes, that was, alas, the way of the world.

Though she did eventually find a publisher who believed in the book heart and mind, this still left the question of the general public, where ignorant self-appointed censors lurk. Decades before the golden age of mindless online comments and TLDR-mentality, L’Engle recounts a tragicomic incident:

Recently I was lecturing in the Midwest, and the head librarian of a county system came to me in great distress, bearing an epistle composed by one woman, giving her all the reasons she should remove A Wrinkle in Time from the library shelves. This woman, who had obviously read neither Wrinkle nor the Bible carefully, was offended because she mistakenly assumed that Mrs. What, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which were witches practicing black magic. I scrawled in the margin that if she had read the text she might have noted that they were referred to as guardian angels. The woman was also offended because they laughed and had fun. Is there no joy in heaven! The woman belonged to that group of people who believe that any book which mentions witches or ghosts is evil and must be banned. If these people were consistent, they would have to ban the Bible: what about the Witch of Endor and Samuel’s ghost?

The woman’s epistle went on to say that Charles Wallace knew things that other people didn’t know. “So did Jesus,” I scrawled in the margin. She was upset, because Calvin sometimes felt compulsions. Don’t we all? This woman obviously felt a compulsion to be a censor. Finally I scrawled at the bottom of the epistle that I truly feared for this woman.

In a sentiment that Milton Glaser would come to echo decades later in his beautiful meditation on the universe, L’Engle drives home the point of this parable:

We find what we are looking for. If we are looking for life and love and openness and growth, we are likely to find them. If we are looking for witchcraft and evil, we’ll likely find them, and we may get taken over by them.

She adds an important disclaimer on the difference between censorship and discernment:

We all practice some form of censorship. I practiced it simply by the books I had in the house when my children were little. If I am given a budget of $500 I will be practicing a form of censorship by the books I choose to buy with that limited amount of money, and the books I choose not to buy. But nobody said we were not allowed to have points of view. The exercise of personal taste is not the same thing as imposing personal opinion.

With a riff on T.S. Eliot’s famous line from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” — “Do I dare disturb the universe?” — L’Engle reflects on the role of reading, and taste in reading, in her own life:

The stories I cared about, the stories I read and reread, were usually stories which dared to disturb the universe, which asked questions rather than gave answers.

I turned to story, then, as now, looking for truth, for it is in story that we find glimpses of meaning, rather than in textbooks. But how apologetic many adults are when they are caught reading a book of fiction! They tend to hide it and tell you about the “How-To” book which is what they are really reading. Fortunately, nobody ever told me that stories were untrue, or should be outgrown, and then as now they nourished me and kept me willing to ask the unanswerable questions.

She offers another autobiographical anecdote that sheds light on how our righteousness works:

One time I was in the kitchen drinking tea with my husband and our young son, and they got into an argument about ice hockey. I do not feel passionate about ice hockey. They do. Finally our son said. “But Daddy, you don’t understand.” And my husband said, reasonably, “It’s not that I don’t understand, Bion. It’s just that I don’t agree with you.”

To which the little boy replied hotly, “If you don’t agree with me, you don’t understand.”

I think we all feel that way, but it takes a child to admit it.

That righteousness — which bears the markings of the fundamentalism Isaac Asimov memorably bemoaned — is what L’Engle believes flattens culture and robs us of its richness:

We need to dare disturb the universe by not being manipulated or frightened by judgmental groups who assume the right to insist that if we do not agree with them, not only do we not understand but we are wrong. How dull the world would be if we all had to feel the same way about everything, if we all had to like the same books, dislike the same books…

Perhaps some of this zeal is caused by fear. But as Bertrand Russell warns, “Zeal is a bad mark for a cause. Nobody had any zeal about arithmetic. It was the anti-vaccinationists, not the vaccinationists, who were zealous.” Yet because those who were not threatened by the idea of vaccination ultimately won out, we have eradicated the horror of smallpox from the planet.

L’Engle examines the heart of zeal, often driven by our failure to grant ourselves the “uncomfortable luxury” of changing our minds. She agrees with Bertrand Russell’s assertion that we are zealous when we aren’t completely certain we are right, in a reflection that brings it all back to children’s books and the art of disturbing the universe:

When I find myself hotly defending something, wherein I am, in fact, zealous, it is time for me to step back and examine whatever it is that has me so hot under the collar. Do I think it’s going to threaten my comfortable rut? Make me change and grow? — and growing always causes growing pains. Am I afraid to ask questions?

Sometimes. But I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children’s books ask questions, and make the reader ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone’s universe.

Like Asimov, who found in science fiction a way to make points he otherwise couldn’t, L’Engle sees in fiction a sandbox, a safe place for asking those uncomfortable questions:

Writing fiction is definitely a universe disturber, and for the writer, first of all. My books push me and prod me and make me ask questions I might otherwise avoid. I start a book, having lived with the characters for several years, during the writing of other books, and I have a pretty good idea of where the story is going and what I hope it’s going to say. And then, once I get deep into the writing, unexpected things begin to happen, things which make me question, and which sometimes really shake my universe.

L’Engle makes a heartening case for the presently accepted idea that what makes science interesting — what makes it meaningful and culturally significant — isn’t its certitude and all-knowingness, but its “thoroughly conscious ignorance,” the very not-knowing that Donald Barthelme memorably argued was also at the heart of writing. L’Engle reflects:

I’m frequently asked about my “great science background,” but I have no science background whatsoever. I majored in English Literature in college. We were required to take two languages and one science or two sciences and one language, so of course I took two languages and psychology. Part of my reluctance about science was that when I was in school, science was proud and arrogant. The scientists let us know that they thought they had everything pretty well figured out, and what they didn’t know about the nature of the universe, they were shortly going to find out. Science could answer all questions.

[…]

Many years later, after I was out of school, married and had children, the new sciences absolutely fascinated me. They were completely different from the pre-World War II sciences, which had answers for everything. The new sciences asked questions. There was much that was not explainable. For everything new that science discovered, vast areas of the unknown were opened. Sometimes contemporary physics sounds like something out of a fairy tale: there is a star known as a degenerate white dwarf and another known as a red giant sitting on the horizontal branch. Can’t you imagine the degenerate white dwarf trying to get the red giant of the horizontal branch?

L’Engle ties this not-knowing back to the question of censorship in writing for children:

Perhaps one of the most important jobs of the writer whose books are going to be marketed for children is to dare to disturb the universe by exercising a creative kind of self-censorship. We don’t need to let it all hang out. Sure, kids today know pretty much everything that is to be known about sex, but we owe them art, rather than a clinical textbook. Probably the most potent sex scene I have ever read is in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary where Emma goes to meet her lover, and they get in a carriage and draw the shades, and the carriage rocks like a ship as the horses draw it through the streets. How much more vivid is what the imagination can do with that than the imagination-dulling literal description!

I do not believe that any subject is in itself taboo, it is the way it is treated which makes it either taboo or an offering of art and love.

It is the writer’s duty, L’Engle argues, to continue reclaiming complex ideas from the grip of simplistic taboo:

The first people a dictator puts in jail after a coup are the writers, the teachers, the librarians — because these people are dangerous. They have enough vocabulary to recognize injustice and to speak out loudly about it. Let us have the courage to go on being dangerous people.

[…]

So let us look for beauty and grace, for love and friendship, for that which is creative and birth-giving and soul-stretching. Let us dare to laugh at ourselves, healthy, affirmative laughter. Only when we take ourselves lightly can we take ourselves seriously, so that we are given the courage to say, “Yes! I dare disturb the universe.”

The whole of Dare to Be Creative!, should you be so luck to track down a surviving copy, is a masterpiece of thought and spirit more than worth a read. Complement it with famous writers on censorship and Voltaire’s thoughts on the subject.

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