I recently came across the beautiful book, Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. The title itself intrigued me, as did the author. I admit the only thing I knew about Madeleine L’Engle was her work, A Wrinkle in Time. I knew from children’s lit classes in college that it won the Newberry Medal — the annual award given to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children — in the early 60s. Later, when my daughter read the book in 5th grade I did too. Science Fiction is not my genre of choice, and while I didn’t love A Wrinkle in Time, I did enjoy it.
But what did a writer of children’s science fantasy know about faith and art. Turns out, the prolific christian author has quite a lot to share. Walking on Water is not a book on writing technique. It is a necessary inspirational treatise for writers on how to live our life in order to create at our highest level. In an age bloated with information but starved for wisdom, this slim volume overflows with the voice of wisdom. I discovered four themes woven throughout L’Engle’s work.
First and foremost, we must return to our childhood qualities, L’Engle argues, to the openness that comes naturally when we are children. We need to live with a state of expectation, to be able to imagine the possibilities. Here’s a sad truth: At the age of five, 90% of our population measures “high creativity.” By the age of seven, the figure has dropped to 10%. And the percentage of adults with high creativity in only two percent! As adults, we have to constantly unlearn what the world teaches us — it’s not easy to keep a child’s high creativity, but the following advice will help us along the way.
We must let go our adult intellectual control. If we abandon control, give in to the notion that our writing might take us places we aren’t ready to go, say things that someone else doesn’t want to hear, and write from a place that’s real and painful, then something is likely to happen that will startle us during the act of creating. But we are often afraid of that which we cannot control, says L’Engle, so we continue to draw the boundaries around us, to limit ourselves to what we can know and understand. We do not dare to be creators, co-creators with God. To be an artist means to allow our whole selves to be placed with absolute faith in that which is greater than we are. The novel we sit down to write and the one we end up writing may be very different, just as the Jesus we grasp and the Jesus who grasps us may also differ.
Listen to the Silence
We must slow down and listen. Seek silence in our noisy world. L”Engle believes the act of listening in prayer is the same act as listening in writing. We have to take our self out of the way in order to hear. Stay open to the voice of the Spirit. “In prayer, in the creative process, these two parts of ourselves, the mind and the heart, the intellect and the intuition, the conscious and the subconscious mind, stop fighting each other and collaborate.”
Keep the Clock Wound
Before the artist can listen, he must work. The gift to the artist is free, yet we have to pay for it through daily practice, the writer’s equivalent to finger exercises for a pianist. According to L’Engle, “the paradox is that the creative process is incomplete unless the artist is in the best sense and most proper sense of the word, a technician, one who knows the tools of the trade, and studies his techniques, is disciplined.” She goes on to quote a writing friend, “If I leave my work for a day, it leaves me for three.”