Tag Archives: Madeleine L’Engle

Between Facts and Truth

Library door

Photo by Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash

I have always believed in story.  I believe in it still.

But I am learning something in these late days of my career.  Stories don’t have to be inventions.  They can come from the world of very solid facts.

I used to accept a distinction I remember Madeleine L’Engle making in her uniquely emphatic way.  Libraries, she liked to say, are divided between fact—and here she would wave a dismissive hand toward the shelves that held nonfiction—and truth.  Truth, of course, meant fiction.

There is no question but that fiction spins out the very solid truth of its author’s psyche.

There is no question, either, that I have used my fiction to reveal my own truth, a truth drawn from that place of perpetually unfulfilled longing that I have carried—that we all carry—from childhood.

I love imagining characters, giving them names and histories, investing them with a desire drawn from my own hidden desires.  I love following their struggle.  The resolution these creations of mine bring to the page goes far beyond any my own life has ever achieved.

The power of that resolution, both for myself and my readers, comes from the feelings story engenders.

Feelings transform us all.

In recent years, though, I have discovered something that belies Madeleine’s neat division.  Facts can also be vehicles for story.  And framed as story, facts can lead us to a deeply felt truth.

To make that discovery I have had to open doors into worlds I’ve seldom visited before.  Astronomy.  Quantum physics.  Botany.  Biology.

And beyond those doors I have found larger stories than I am accustomed to telling.  They are spun from the new facts I’ve been gathering, but even in terms of Madeleine’s divisions, they are profoundly true.

That is because facts told in the right cadence, gathered into the right form, shaped toward the right meaning can move us.  And feeling is all.

Thus my latest picture book, The Stuff of Stars, published by Candlewick in 2018.  Thus two new recently acquired picture books, We, the Curious Ones, which explores the tension between science and story over the centuries, and One Small Acorn, which tells the story of a single acorn within the story of a forest within the story of us.

What drew me to each of these topics wasn’t the facts, though those fascinated me, but the story inside the facts.

Facts are useful and necessary.  They can be enormously interesting, even astounding.  But they can easily be presented without heart and too often are.

Facts, however, that open a door to understanding ourselves and our place in the world can bring us to feelings that transform, just as fiction does.  Both sides of the library can speak truth.

We live today in a collapsing world.  Yet the wonders that stretch on every side, both the wonders of far-flung space and the wonders that lie beneath our toes, fill me with awe.

And I can think of no more profound truth than what we find when we open ourselves to awe.

None of the stories that grew, consciously or unconsciously, out of my childhood angst ever discovered awe.

For that I had to discover facts.


Getting Out of My Own Way

One reader had this response to the comments I made last week about the impact of aging—and the inevitable awareness of mortality that accompanies aging—on my work as a writer.

11_18reductionI know exactly what you mean about now being more fully into my work. In the past, juggling all my responsibilities was more of a priority than the actual work itself. Nothing like a few tragedies and setbacks to blow away the dross. I’m not really all that different inside than I was at 20 or 25—but I am more intensely “me” now. Sort of like making a reduction when cooking. What I have to draw upon internally feels more intensified and vital. And reaching across time is not a barrier—it all seems immediate and interconnected.  Steve

I agree with Steve entirely. I am more intensely “me,” and his analogy of making a reduction when cooking is perfect. That’s how I reached this state of “me-ness,” by simmering over a long flame. And yet in that intensity is a paradox, because I both write more deeply out of that intensified self these days and think less of myself while I’m doing it.

Many years ago I had dinner with Madeleine L’Engle and her husband in their Manhattan apartment. A friend, a professional actor, was at the dinner, too. (All of these people were a generation older than I.)  The friend said, “I enjoy my work so much more now that I can get out of my own way.”

I must have been in my early 40’s at the time, and I was intrigued. But I didn’t have a clue what she meant.

I know now.

When I sit down to work these days, I’m not thinking about what my readers or editors or agent or friends might want from me. I’m not even thinking about whether this particular project will be published. Instead I’m simply reaching into myself, into that place where language begins, where story resides, and pulling out whatever I find there.

It’s for others to judge the worth of what emerges, for others to decide whether my career is ascending or declining. What I know for certain is that this work satisfies me more deeply as year follows year, that as Steve said, it feels “more intensified, more vital.” And I ask no more.

What about the rest of you out there?

How has growing older changed what you bring to your work?

And what has changed about what your work gives you?

I’d love to include more of my readers in this discussion.


In Defense of Repression

Last week I talked about the difference between sentiment and sentimentality in our stories and, in particular, I invoked the cut-away technique used so much by films. Bring your readers/viewers right to the brink of the kind of powerful moment they already know as inevitable, then leave them to play the details out in their own minds. But stepping back from such moments isn’t the only way to play them or the only point to consider about effectively drawing feelings from our readers.

7_29How do we move our readers in a genuine way through the artifice of story? I think the answer begins in ourselves, with our own emotional control. I remember Madeleine L’Engle’s saying, and I’m paraphrasing, that if she made herself cry when she was writing, she had to throw the scene away. To bring her readers to tears she had to write with her own emotions under tight control. The emotion we bring to our work must be sifted through layers and layers of art. We need to work as a potter works clay, close in, our hands and hearts immersed, but separate, objective at the same time.

During the years of my son’s illness and death, the pain I was living through, a pain so deep I had no words for it, touched and transformed everything I wrote. My grief intruded even on stories where it didn’t belong. But I could no more set that pain aside when I sat down to write than I could do so in my daily life. I never, however, tried to write about Peter’s illness and death directly. Not enough art stood between me and the event to make that possible.

ph_peter2More than seven years later, I am, at last, ready to take on this loss more directly, not his actual death but the experience of losing a son. In Blue-Eyed Wolf one of the topics I am exploring is the death of a son through the perspective of that boy’s mother. And when I write it, I know it won’t be sensational, melodramatic, sentimental, because whatever I say will rise out of the heart that made the story, not be snatched from the air and inserted for impact.

I have had writing students who came from the kind of family background I do, one where feelings of any stripe were considered to be not quite “nice.” And that kind of background can be a liability in many circumstances. But for my writing, I’ve found that the habit of holding back feelings can be a strength . . . as long as we find the right moment and the right words for letting go. And once the time comes, stories are a perfect place, a safe place to play them out . . . because it’s not me, you understand, it’s that character emoting.

When I spin out a story, I hold the feelings close, waiting, waiting for the moment to come when my characters can express what I’ve been holding back. And only then will my readers weep or rejoice or simply sigh with satisfaction. It’s the holding, the reluctance to let the feelings out that finally gives emotion power on the page. And for me, the holding back is easy.

Those who come from a background that allows, even encourages, displays of feeling, have, I presume, a different challenge, to find a way of holding back on the page that doesn’t feel natural or necessary in their real lives.

7_29FosterChildAs with so many aspects of writing, there is an irony here. To manifest genuine feeling in our work, feelings that grow our readers larger rather than simply manipulate them into a response, we need a light touch. You might even say we need a good dose of repression. I remember an editor saying to me as we were working on an early draft of Foster Child, one of my first novels, “Marion, you are asking people to cry too often.” Now, I rarely call for tears. Nor do I cry myself.

I just write my way toward the moment when my character does the work for me.