Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Madeleine L’Engle

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 22, 2018 at 7:30 am

American Stories #4: A Wrinkle in Time

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

These days, it’s hard to read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time without being struck by its description of the planet Camazotz, with its picture of perfect suburban conformity: “The doors of all the houses opened simultaneously, and out came women like a row of paper dolls. The print of their dresses was different, but they all gave the appearance of being the same.” (In the trailer for the upcoming movie, in which the Murry children are brilliantly reimagined as being of mixed race, the sequence has shades of Get Out.) Camazotz has often been interpreted as an allegory for a totalitarian society, as Anna Quindlen writes in her introduction to a recent paperback edition: “The identical houses outside which identical children bounce balls and jump rope in mindless unison evoke the fear so many Americans had of Communist regimes that enshrined the interests of state-mandated order over the rights of the individual.” In fact, L’Engle’s true inspiration was much closer to home. As she says in a fascinating interview with Justin Wintle in The Pied Pipers:

I think it sprang mostly from seeing Camazotz round the country. When you leave New York tonight you’ll be flying over Camazotz—house after house after house, the people in them all watching the same television programs, and all eating the same things for dinner, and the kids in their mandatory uniforms of blue jeans and satchels or whatever. I keep getting asked whether Camazotz is a protest against Communism. I suppose it is, but really it’s against forced conformity of any kind.

And L’Engle is far too elusive and interesting a writer to be easily categorized. When Wintle casually refers to “Christian piety” as an element in her books, L’Engle devastatingly responds: “I wrote A Wrinkle in Time as a violent rebellion against Christian piety.” She elaborates:

New England is Congregational. It’s been Congregational ever since this country was born. Life in a little tiny village tends to revolve around the church. If there’s any reading done the minister does it. Not many others read books, so if you want to know something you have to consult the minister. I got to know several Congregational ministers when I lived in the country simply from the hunger of having somebody to talk to who didn’t discount words…I think that in all fairness I could be anti-church. I’m not sure why, and I know it’s a contradiction. I still go to church.

In explaining why the book’s antagonist, IT, is a gigantic brain, L’Engle explains that “the brain tends to be vicious when it’s not informed by the heart”—which implies that IT might have been a naked heart as well. And Meg’s confrontation with IT culminates in what I think is the most moving passage in all of children’s literature:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

The italics are mine. A Wrinkle in Time asks us to love our enemies, but it also knows how difficult this is, and L’Engle’s final message is one of hope for those of us who fall short of our own high ideals: “I was looking for…something that would tumble over the world’s idea of what is successful and what is powerful. Therefore Meg succeeds through all her weaknesses and all her faults.”

Written by nevalalee

January 4, 2018 at 9:01 am

Writing on tablecloths

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Napkin drawing by Jay Park of Facebook

Note: I’m taking a short break, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 31, 2015.

Writers will jot down ideas on any flat surface that happens to be handy, but one habit that seems to have vanished—along with cloth linens at most homes and restaurants—is that of doodling on tablecloths. I first encountered it as a young reader in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door:

Mrs. Murry looked down at the checked tablecloth, and at the remains of an equation which had not come out in the wash; doodling equations on anything available was a habit of which she could not break her husband.

As a child who had been strictly warned against writing on the furniture, I was struck enough by this detail to never forget it. Yet older novels and books are full of characters writing on a tablecloths, and it’s mentioned so casually that it seems to have been commonplace, as we see in Jack Olsen’s nonfiction classic The Girls in the Office:

He took me to Lüchow’s, and in the course of explaining something to me he began writing on the tablecloth with a pen. I had never seen that in my whole life; I was shocked! I said quietly, “Please don’t write on the tablecloth!” He said, “All businessmen write on tablecloths.” I said, “Well, I’ve never seen it before. Please don’t! It’s very hard to clean ink out of a tablecloth, and somebody will have to do it.”

In fact, you could write an entire history of the role of tablecloths in creative thought, although it appears to have flourished for a relatively short time, after the proliferation of cheap, easily laundered table linens and before their disappearance from most dining tables and restaurants. (It would have gone back at least to the early nineteenth century: legend has it that Schubert began composing his Octet in F Major on the tablecloth in a Viennese café. Much later, the songwriter Matt Dennis wrote the Sinatra standard “Violets for Your Furs” on a tablecloth while watching Billie Holiday perform at Kelly’s Stable in New York.) And it’s no mystery as to why the tablecloth provided such an attractive surface for noodling. With its large size and alluring emptiness, it was the whiteboard of its day, and it was right there at the diner’s elbow to capture any passing insight. Writing on cloth also offers certain tactile pleasures. And there’s the not inconsiderable fact that whatever notes you made weren’t meant to be kept. The tablecloth was a surface for daydreaming in two dimensions, not for writing anything that was supposed to last, and unless you begged or bribed the restaurant to take it with you, what you wrote down would literally come out in the wash.

Back of the envelope

Tablecloths at casual eateries can be hard to find these days, and when they do appear, they’re usually at restaurants that would frown on a customer defacing the linens. Fortunately, they were supplanted just as another convenient surface arrived on the scene: the paper napkin. A napkin, of course, is the proverbial canvas for unstructured thinking, or for rapid estimates that are only designed to guide more systematic calculations to come. (There’s even an entire book, The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam, devoted to making quick sketches for brainstorming, and although it’s a little too focused on business considerations to be useful for writers, Roam’s initial piece of advice is a good one: “To start, draw a circle and give it a name.”) What’s funny about writing on the back of the napkin is that it doesn’t really have a back: both sides are equally blank. The phrase seems to have arisen by analogy with the back of the envelope, where the distinction between front and back makes more sense, but it’s also appealing in its own right. A napkin is already disposable, and there’s no sense of permanence inhibiting us from thinking freely, but we aren’t even writing on the front of it. Both sides might look the same, but the back is where the real, unencumbered action takes place.

These days, if we don’t have a piece of scrap paper handy, we’re just as capable of taking notes on a tablet or smartphone, but we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the physical medium. Like a tablecloth, a napkin is an ideal surface for scribbling, especially with a felt marker or Pilot ballpoint pen, since the ink’s viscosity allows it to sink pleasantly into the surface. (Going back even further in time, we discover mentions of notes jotted down on blotting paper, which would have afforded many of the same delights.) And its folds, like those of an envelope, add an appealing sense of three-dimensionality: I’ve found that a blank piece of paper immediately becomes a more attractive medium for notes when it’s simply folded in half. I’ve gotten into the habit of bringing an envelope along whenever I’m going to be out of the house for more than a few minutes, and I’ll often prime it beforehand with a few notes on what I want to be thinking about that day. Sometimes I’ll even write down an Oblique Strategy or two to guide whatever brainstorming takes place. I could do something similar on my phone, or on the business cards I hoard for the same reason, but with its slightly larger area and foldability, an envelope all but begs to be used. Which only means that if you ever have a writer—or a composer—over for dinner, you’d better hide your tablecloths.

A wrinkle in life

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Madeline L'Engle

Last week, it was announced that the director Ava DuVernay was looking for mixed-race and minority actors to play the children in her adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. The news delighted me to no end, and not just because I come from a mixed racial background myself—although that’s certainly part of it. It’s the kind of decision that might seem surprising at first, but then comes to feel utterly right: I’ve spent most of the last hour leafing through my battered paperback copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, which I’ve owned since I was eight years old, and one line after another seems charged with new life and meaning when I view it through that lens. A few years ago, I wrote of L’Engle: “Her work was my first glimpse of what I’ve since come to think of as the novel of ideas in its most rewarding form: richly imagined, emotional, and dramatic works of fiction whose central subject is the search for meaning in a universe dominated by science and information, which are really forms of protection against the unknown.” And it’s a journey that has been informed by my own multiracial heritage in ways that I haven’t always appreciated. When you’re of mixed race, you often end up searching for meaning on your own, either by arriving at one combination or another of the elements in your family story or by assembling a new value system from first principles. And I suspect that I was so strongly attracted to A Wrinkle in Time in part because it was one of the first books I’d read that was explicitly about that process. 

In my original post about the book, I noted that it’s essentially an episodic and didactic novel, but we don’t tend to notice this—in the way we do with, say, the Alice stories or The Phantom Tollbooth—because it’s so tightly constructed. It also approaches its characters in a vivid, intimate way that conceals how much of it is structured to function as an allegory. I wouldn’t say that Meg, Charles Wallace, or Calvin are more real to me than Alice or Milo, but they’re portrayed with more incidental detail and warmth, so that they come to seem more like real boys and girls whom we could actually meet one day. Unlike their earlier counterparts, who can seem oddly detached in the face of the strange characters they encounter, Meg, in particular, is vibrating with wounded feeling, which isn’t an accident. A Wrinkle in Time, like the other books I mentioned, is ultimately a story about a young person’s education, but it isn’t primarily an intellectual one, but one of emotion. You can even read each of its worlds as a place in which Meg is forced to fully confront a single emotion in its purest form, from joy on Uriel to freezing grief and forgiveness on Ixchel to mindless conformism on Camazotz. She emerges from each chapter with a lesson, but they’re gently conveyed, and they made less of a conscious impression on me at the time than the book’s vision of a life spent among ideas, which flew like sparks from the characters whenever they spoke.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

But the book’s message is also deeply Christian—more so, perhaps, than even the works of C.S. Lewis, which I admire in more complicated ways. Lewis, an epic fantasist who owed his religious conversion to none other than J.R.R. Tolkien, thought naturally in eschatological terms: Aslan dies on the stone table, but he returns at the head of an army to pounce triumphantly on the White Witch. (This doesn’t even get at The Last Battle, which I read with a kind of horrified fascination as a child, with its literal division of the characters at the end of the world into the sheep and the goats.) A Wrinkle in Time puts its scriptural sources right there in the text: Charles Wallace’s bedtime reading of choice is Genesis, and the song of the winged centaurs of Uriel comes straight from the Book of Isaiah. But I think L’Engle’s religion is more subtle and meaningful. When asked to name the great fighters against the Black Thing, Charles Wallace cries out: “Jesus! Why of course, Jesus!” But they also include Einstein and Buddha and Gandhi. And when Meg is asked to confront IT, the monstrous brain that rules Camazotz, her only weapon is love itself, which leads to the following extraordinary passage:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

This is just a few pages from the end of the book, and Meg resolves her dilemma by choosing to love her lost brother Charles Wallace instead. But the line to which I keep returning, and which I’m not sure I even noticed in my first dozen readings, is: “Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.” I think that this unheralded sentence is the secret heart of the book. A Wrinkle in Time comes as close as any work of literature I know to sincerely honoring the man of whom one of the few things we can say for sure is that he told us to love our enemies. (We also know that he was a member of an oppressed religious group ruled by an imperial power.) Yet it also understands how difficult this is, and even Meg, at the end of her journey, falls short of that ultimate example. It’s a line that reflects the personality of L’Engle herself, who was refreshingly empathetic and pragmatic in her faith, and whose books were always more about the search than about any answers that they provided. This search is a birthright that belongs to everyone, but to children of mixed or minority backgrounds even more urgently than most. Their construction of a self, of a personal history, and of their understanding of their own parents isn’t something that they confront in adolescence, as many others do, but as early as kindergarten—which turns them all into something like Charles Wallaces. You don’t need to be of mixed race to love this book. But it adds an interesting wrinkle.

Written by nevalalee

May 17, 2016 at 8:38 am

Writing on tablecloths

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Napkin drawing by Jay Park of Facebook

Writers will jot down ideas on any flat surface that happens to be handy, but one habit that seems to have vanished—along with cloth linens at most homes and restaurants—is that of doodling on tablecloths. I first encountered it as a young reader in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door:

Mrs. Murry looked down at the checked tablecloth, and at the remains of an equation which had not come out in the wash; doodling equations on anything available was a habit of which she could not break her husband.

As a child who had been strictly warned against writing on the furniture, I was struck enough by this detail to never forget it. Yet older novels and books are full of characters writing on a tablecloths, and it’s mentioned so casually that it seems to have been commonplace, as we see in Jack Olsen’s nonfiction classic The Girls in the Office:

He took me to Lüchow’s, and in the course of explaining something to me he began writing on the tablecloth with a pen. I had never seen that in my whole life; I was shocked! I said quietly, “Please don’t write on the tablecloth!” He said, “All businessmen write on tablecloths.” I said, “Well, I’ve never seen it before. Please don’t! It’s very hard to clean ink out of a tablecloth, and somebody will have to do it.”

In fact, you could write an entire history of the role of tablecloths in creative thought, although it appears to have flourished for a relatively short time, after the proliferation of cheap, easily laundered table linens and before their disappearance from most dining tables and restaurants. (It would have gone back at least to the early nineteenth century: legend has it that Schubert began composing his Octet in F Major on the tablecloth in a Viennese café. Much later, the songwriter Matt Dennis wrote the Sinatra standard “Violets for Your Furs” on a tablecloth while watching Billie Holiday perform at Kelly’s Stable in New York.) And it’s no mystery as to why the tablecloth provided such an attractive surface for noodling. With its large size and alluring emptiness, it was the whiteboard of its day, and it was right there at the diner’s elbow to capture any passing insight. Writing on cloth also offers certain tactile pleasures. And there’s the not inconsiderable fact that whatever notes you made weren’t meant to be kept. The tablecloth was a surface for daydreaming in two dimensions, not for writing anything that was supposed to last, and unless you begged or bribed the restaurant to take it with you, what you wrote down would literally come out in the wash.

Back of the envelope

Tablecloths at casual eateries can be hard to find these days, and when they do appear, they’re usually at restaurants that would frown on a customer defacing the linens. Fortunately, they were supplanted just as another convenient surface arrived on the scene: the paper napkin. A napkin, of course, is the proverbial canvas for unstructured thinking, or for rapid estimates that are only designed to guide more systematic calculations to come. (There’s even an entire book, The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam, devoted to making quick sketches for brainstorming, and although it’s a little too focused on business considerations to be useful for writers, Roam’s initial piece of advice is a good one: “To start, draw a circle and give it a name.”) What’s funny about writing on the back of the napkin is that it doesn’t really have a back: both sides are equally blank. The phrase seems to have arisen by analogy with the back of the envelope, where the distinction between front and back makes more sense, but it’s also appealing in its own right. A napkin is already disposable, and there’s no sense of permanence inhibiting us from thinking freely, but we aren’t even writing on the front of it. Both sides might look the same, but the back is where the real, unencumbered action takes place.

These days, if we don’t have a piece of scrap paper handy, we’re just as capable of taking notes on a tablet or smartphone, but we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the physical medium. Like a tablecloth, a napkin is an ideal surface for scribbling, especially with a felt marker or Pilot ballpoint pen, since the ink’s viscosity allows it to sink pleasantly into the surface. (Going back even further in time, we discover mentions of notes jotted down on blotting paper, which would have afforded many of the same delights.) And its folds, like those of an envelope, add an appealing sense of three-dimensionality: I’ve found that a blank piece of paper immediately becomes a more attractive medium for notes when it’s simply folded in half. I’ve gotten into the habit of bringing an envelope along whenever I’m going to be out of the house for more than a few minutes, and I’ll often prime it beforehand with a few notes on what I want to be thinking about that day. Sometimes I’ll even write down an Oblique Strategy or two to guide whatever brainstorming takes place. I could do something similar on my phone, or on the business cards I hoard for the same reason, but with its slightly larger area and foldability, an envelope all but begs to be used. Which only means that if you ever have a writer—or a composer—over for dinner, you’d better hide your tablecloths.

Quote of the Day

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Madeline L'Engle

The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline. In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not only outside time, he is outside himself. 

Madeleine L’Engle

Written by nevalalee

May 1, 2014 at 7:30 am

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A reader’s family tree

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A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

When we think of our favorite books, we tend to picture a tidy shelf or a ranked list, but they’re really more like a family tree, with authors sprouting haphazardly from those who came before. In my case, the first books I remember loving with a fanboy’s passion were the works of Charles Schulz. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house filled with vintage Peanuts paperbacks, which meant that even as the strip was starting its long daily decline, I was reading one of the great extended works of art of the twentieth century. What caught me was its tone: it was immediately appealing to kids, but written for adults, with storylines that were a complicated mix of psychology, whimsy, and despair. (I remember surprising my mother when I complained, at the age of nine, that I was suffering from a post-Christmas letdown.) In some ways, Peanuts set the stage for all that followed: it taught me that even as you’re caught up in the lives of fictional but maddeningly persuasive human beings, you can feel your mind expanding. The best years of the strip still make me feel that way, which is why I plan on introducing them to my own daughter as soon as she’s old enough to read on her own.

The next big branch consisted of a handful of authors who would be shelved these days in the young adult section: Madeleine L’Engle, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Ellen Raskin, E.L. Konigsburg, and others, most of them women. L’Engle caught my attention first, and looking back, I think it’s because A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels were my introduction to serious science fiction, with astrophysics and relativity interwoven with ethics, theology, and family drama. I moved from there to fantasy—I don’t think any book has ever moved me as much as The High King—and the usual string of Hardy Boys adventures. (Oddly, I also read two authors who didn’t affect me nearly as much then as they did later. The Phantom Tollbooth only became my favorite children’s novel after I was already an adult and could appreciate how much wisdom it contained, and although I loved Sherlock Holmes, I didn’t become obsessed with him until I was about to go to college, and discovered William S. Baring-Gould’s incredible annotations.) And the writer who took me to the next level, as he has for so many others, was George Orwell: after Animal Farm and 1984, I knew there was no going back.

Stephen King's It

Next comes an author whose influence I’ve only recently begun to acknowledge, although he’s been a big part of my life for a long time. I read The Talisman somewhere at the beginning of middle school, and over the next year or so, I devoured most of the books from Stephen King’s classic period. These are still the novels I’d recommend to someone who wanted to get into the habit of reading for the first time: they still grab me as they did then, and they’ve aged far better than most popular fiction. King also marked a turning point in another important respect. Until then, I’d been reading the books that most teens my age or slightly older were reading, though perhaps with greater intensity, but now that my destiny had locked into place—I knew I wanted to be a writer—I found myself faced with many possible paths. It’s really only by chance that I stumbled next onto Umberto Eco: it could have been any number of other writers, and I sometimes wonder how different my life would have been if I’d been drawn to, say, Hemingway or Updike. In any case, I read The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum right when I was most vulnerable to being deeply influenced, and I’m still feeling the effects.

Later, in high school, I fell under the spell of Norman Mailer, as much for the life he seemed to embody as for the books he wrote. (I still haven’t read The Naked and the Dead, and the Mailer novels that made the biggest impression on me were those weird, monumental outliers Ancient Evenings and Harlot’s Ghost.) Borges came slightly later. Since then, the family tree seems to have smoothed itself out: there are many leaves, but fewer branches. Most of the books I now call my favorites are ones that I read during or after college, but although I’ll occasionally go through a period when I want to read everything an author has written—McEwan, Forsyth, Updike finally—the sense of a reading life that grows unchecked has mostly fallen away. It used to be a jungle; now it’s more like a garden, as I search out the great books that I’ve missed before and check off them off my list. I used to read like a child, and now I read like a grownup, or, worse, a writer. And that’s something of a loss. I still find books that excite me tremendously, even if I’ve been putting them off for years, but if I want to recover that early sense of contentment, I often pick up Conan Doyle, or King, or even Peanuts. But I’m always secretly hopeful that I’ll get that feeling again. The tree still has room to grow.

Written by nevalalee

February 27, 2013 at 9:50 am

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