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!

1 comment:

  1. I was just reading last night that Ann LaMott considers s A Wrinkle in Time to be the single most important book in her growth as a writer. Madeleine is one of my Number One writing mentors. And I had to laugh at that flock of geese! What a gift! Thanks for making my day with this entry, friend! I will savor my Madeleine memories all the day long...