Sunday, November 25, 2012

How to Write Like Madeleine L'Engle

1. Be born on a "dark and stormy night."  

During a snowstorm on Thanksgiving night in 1918, Madeleine L’Engle Camp was born. Her father wasn’t there to greet her arrival—he was overseas fighting in World War I.   Ironically, when her father died years later, Madeleine arrived home too late to say goodbye.

2. Choose parents that will ignore you.  

Madeleine’s parents had been married for almost twenty years when their daughter was born, and their lifestyle and social calendar kept them preoccupied and distant. The only meal Madeleine shared with her parents was Sunday lunch, and they scarcely knew what to say to each other on those occasions. The Camps gave many parties for their friends. Although Madeleine was not allowed to attend the parties, she often hid behind the couch to listen to the music and catch a glimpse of her parents' lives.

3. Start early.  

Madeleine wrote her first story at age five, about a “little G-R-U-L”—since that was the way the child Madeleine spelled “girl.” She started her first novel when she was in fifth grade. At age 10, her father gave her the old manual typewriter he had used as a foreign correspondent before the war. She would keep that typewriter for many years and type several of her early novels on it, even though the "e" key malfunctioned. Eventually one publisher begged her husband Hugh to buy her a new typewriter.

4. Hate school.

In the private school she attended, Madeleine’s teachers did not think highly of her academic abilities. She later wrote that they thought she was stupid. To make matters worse, a physical impairment kept her from doing well in sports, and the other kids groaned if she was put on their team. Most of the time, she hated school. She ignored homework and instead wrote stories to escape the world of school.

4. Keep a journal. 

One of Madeleine's favorite books was Emily of New Moon, by Elizabeth Montgomery. Like the title character, Madeleine started keeping a journal and continued this practice into adulthood. She poured her heart out into her journals, and frequently drew upon them for her writing. She later said that writing in a journal should be a daily habit for any writer. 

5. Enter contests. 

In sixth grade, Madeleine entered a poetry competition—and to the surprise of just about everyone, she won. Her teacher accused Madeleine of copying the poem from a book. On this occasion, Madeleine’s mother came to her defense. She went to school and showed the teacher the stories Madeleine had written, and the teacher was forced to withdraw her complaint. Madeleine would go on to win a few other "contests," such as the Newberry Medal, a dozen honorary college degrees, and the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

6. Find a mentor.   

The following year, Madeleine was sent to the Todhunter School, where she was taught by a new teacher, Margaret Clapp. Clapp recognized Madeleine’s talent and encouraged her to read challenging books and to keep writing. Sadly this association lasted only a year until the Camps moved to Europe in hopes of improving her father's health. Mentors were few and far between for young Madeleine--but all the more valuable for their scarcity.

7. Persist. Then persist some more.

After two years of sending out A Wrinkle in Time to publishers, Madeleine had acquired 26 rejection letters. Some said that they loved the story, but it was too hard for children. Madeleine disagreed. One rejection arrived on the Monday before Christmas. Although she tried to pretend she didn't care, she somehow mixed up two presents she was mailing. She sent perfume  to a man and a necktie to a girl! Even when Farrar and Strauss agreed to publish the book, they explained that they did not expect it to make money. Perhaps a slight miscalculation for a book that has been in continuous publication since 1962 and that was called one of the "Top 100 Chapter Books" of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal.

8. Watch for the gifts.

Of course, you might need to find a wrinkle in time to go back and change your birth or your schooling to match this master author’s.  But you can still write like Madeleine L’Engle. 

Take a leap of faith and start writing, no matter how many obstacles you may face, no matter who ignores you, no matter who thinks you're stupid, no matter how many rejections you get.

And in taking that leap, watch for the gifts--the magazine article you stumble across, a new character that comes in a dream, or a passing flock of geese that suddenly gives you the idea for the ending to your story. Madeleine acknowledged these gifts in her book, Walking on Water, Reflections on Faith and Art.

Madeleine L'Engle was herself a gift to writers, as teacher and as example. This week, the Stark Raving Mythopath celebrates the extraordinary life and work of this late, great writer. She made a difference in my life and in the lives of countless other aspiring writers. Happy birthday, Madeleine!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

One Brief Shining Moment

November always makes me think of Camelot.

In November of my sophomore year in high school, two good friends--Karen and Doug--invited me to see Camelot at the Taft Theater in Cincinnati. For me, it was a taste of enchantment. The first professional musical I had seen. Alan Jay Lerner’s witty, wonderful lyrics and Frederick Loewe’s lively music. And knights and chivalry and romance and magic and sin and redemption.  And two mythopathic friends to share in it all.

Richard Burton and Julie Andrews,
Arthur and Guenevere
Perhaps the best part came after the show, when the three of us drove away from the theater in perfect silence. No one felt the need to talk—each of us lost in our own thoughts and yet, somehow, communing in the afterglow of the story. It’s rare for two people to share such a poignant silence—and even more so, three.

The musical, an adaptation of E. B. White’s The Once and Future King, was so seamless and perfect. It surprised me years later to read that the production had been beset with problems from the beginning.  Lerner’s wife left him while he was writing the script. Apparently the original off-broadway showing was rather awkward and way too long. Then Lerner was hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer and director Moss Hart had a heart attack. Lerner made some quick adjustments to the script to fix a bad ending. And somehow it all came together and worked.

Robert Coote, Pellinore
The story: Arthur, King of Camelot, with Queen Guenevere at his side, establishes the Knights of the Round Table, a select circle based on nobility, chivalry, and “might for right.” With dashing and bravado, Lancelot, an arrogant young Frenchman, comes to Camelot to join the Round Table. Guenevere takes an instant disliking to him and even bribes three knights to do their best to humiliate Lancelot in the Tournament. 

       Gwen: “You’ll thrust right through him?”

       Knight: “I’ll barbecue him!”

But Arthur loves Lancelot, and they become best friends.

Richard Burton and Roddy McDowell,
Arthur and Mordred
Time passes, and things change. Guenevere and Lancelot fall in love, but for Arthur’s sake, they try to stay apart. Arthur's illegitimate son Mordred arrives in Camelot, hell-bent on seeking revenge on a father who abandoned him. Then one night, thanks to Mordred, Arthur is trapped in the forest until daybreak. Lancelot goes to Guenevere in her chamber, where Mordred discovers the unhappy  lovers. Guenevere is sentenced to be burned at the stake for infidelity.

Original Cast: Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet,
(Front) Richard Burton
Lancelot rescues Guenevere and they escape to France, but now, for the sake of honor, Arthur must meet Lancelot in battle. Before it's over, half the Knights of the Round Table lie dead on the battlefield. Lancelot and Guenevere offer to stand trial for their wrongdoing, but mercy triumphs over judgment. Arthur forgives them and sends them on their separate ways.

At the end, Arthur meets young Tom, who has come to join the Knights of the Round Table. His idealism reminds Arthur of his own youthful hopes and dreams when he became king. He knights Tom and sends him back to England to carry the memory and the ideals of Camelot:

       Don't let it be forgot
       That once there was a spot,
       For one brief, shining moment
       That was known as Camelot.

Perhaps Arthur was speaking to us, to me and my two friends.

Just three weeks after we saw Camelot, I was sitting in biology class when an announcement came over the loud speaker that the President had been shot in Dallas. The “American Camelot” came to an end, on November 22nd, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Jacquie Kennedy coined this term to describe what she considered to be the idyllic years of her husband’s presidency. Kennedy loved listening to the music of Camelot, and he was particularly fond of the closing scene.

We three friends, driving home from the musical, had no way of knowing the future--that we would all wind up in separate cities, that Doug would publish a fantasy book but die not long after, that some day Karen's daughter would marry my son. All we had was that "one brief, shining moment" that would be a memory forever.

And now, November always makes me think of Camelot.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Anansi the Spider

Where do stories come from?

According to a legend from Ghana, once there were no stories in the world. Nyame the Sky God kept all the stories for himself.

Anansi the Spider went to Nyame and asked him how much it would cost to buy the stories.

Nyame named his price, and the price was very high. In order to acquire the stories, Anansi must perform a series of difficult tasks. He must capture four legendary troublemakers: Onini the Python, Osebo the Leopard, the Mmoboro Hornets, and Mmoatia the Dwarf. 

First Anansi went to talk to the Python. 

“I am honored to meet such a great champion as yourself,” said Anansi. "Your size is impressive. Longer than any other serpent’s.”

The Python hissed with pleasure. 

“Is it true,” said Anansi, that you are longer than a palm branch?”


“Of course, some of the beasts say that is only a myth—that no serpent is longer than a palm branch.”

“Ridiculous-s-s-s-s. They are only jealous-s-s-s-s.”

“I know a way we could settle this,” said Anansi. “It is really very easy.”

And so Anansi tricked the Python into stretching out on a palm branch. And then Python permitted Anansi to tie him to the branch, in order to get a more accurate measurement. Anansi then picked up the bound Python and carried him to Nyame.

In a similar manner, Ananse tricked the Leopard, the Hornets and the Dwarf and delivered them all to the Sky God.

Nyame, true to his word, gave the stories to Anansi, and that’s how stories came to be in the world.

Anansi the trickster spider, is a famous character from the mythology of Ghana, Africa. He has mythic connections with other legendary tricksters such as Brer Rabbit, Aunt Nancy ( southern U.S.), Raven (Alaska), Coyote (Native American), and even Spider Man.

Anansi is small and weak. He would be no match for his bigger, stronger adversaries, except for one thing--his wits. Thus, for centuries, the stories of Anansi have brought courage to many underdogs, many Davids facing Goliaths.

My favorite telling of an Anansi story is found in the Caldecott-winning children’s book, Anansi the Spider: a Tale from the Ashanti, by Gerald McDermott. The artwork is visually stunning, and the story is simple and elegant. 

In this story, Anansi the spider has six sons: See Trouble, Road Builder, River Drinker, Game Skinner, Stone Thrower, and Cushion. 

Anansi finds himself in trouble—no surprise there!—and each of his six sons will play a part in saving him. What a lovely parable of how each of us, with our gifts differing, has an important calling that only we can fill.

I'm not so sure that Anansi brought stories to the earth from the sky, but the stories that have been spun about this small spider have circled the earth and made an important contribution to world mythology.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Imagination Soup

For all my fellow-sufferers who are participating in National Novel Writing Month, I offer this recipe.

                  Imagination Soup

Start with two cloves of garlic
and a medium red pepper.
Cut with pinking shears and
sprinkle with tiny snail shells.

Add two eggs, whole—shells and all— 
and open a can of beets—what?
You were going to add the beets?
No, throw away the beets and add the can.

And then it gets interesting.
Add a live peacock
and maybe an embroidered couch pillow,
something comfy and familiar,
and the shadows of seven hummingbirds, 
bobbing at the feeder.

A sunset is traditional,
but you might prefer the taste of a foggy creek bank, 
picked fresh from an October morning-- 
with a doe lapping the water.
Simmer slowly over low heat.

You’ll need some talking goldfish, of course, 
at least one, maybe two,
and a bit of shagbark hickory for texture 
and five or six episodes of Perry Mason 
on VHS in black and white.

Then your choice: two of the lesser known moons of Jupiter
or a sinister Hungarian with an alligator attache 
and a serpent tattoo. 
In the steam above the pot, a story should begin to form.
Just season to taste
and stir, stir, stir.

       --Patty Kyrlach