Madeleine L’Engle on Creativity, Hope, Getting Unstuck, and How Studying Science Enriches Art
“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.”
By Maria Popova
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.
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.
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.
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.
Published December 18, 2014