Learning from L'Engle: Cosmos from Chaos

Walking on Water by Madeline L'EngleIn an effort to revive my languishing blog, I’m blogging my way through Madeline L’Engle’s stellar work, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Though it’s been on my shelf for years, Kevin Hendricks’ repeated praise for the book in his own 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love with Reading kindled my interest.
Walking on Water is as old as I am, and I’m saddened to know that I could have read this book years ago, possibly even adding it to the currently empty list of Books I Have to Read Every Year. I may be reading the wrong books, but few have ever arrested me as quickly or as deeply as this work has. Maybe it’s more about fortuitous timing, where her words hesitantly written decades ago ring true to where I now find myself. Regardless, it’s a stunning work that I highly recommend for any Christian endeavoring to use their creative gifts for the greater good … and I’ve only read two chapters.
In this post, I’ll share a few excerpts from the first chapter, “Cosmos from Chaos,” as well as a few of my own thoughts.

“Obedience is an unpopular word nowadays, but the artist must be obedient to the work, whether it be a symphony, a painting, or a story for a small child. I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius or something very small, comes to the artist and says ‘Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.’ And the artist either says ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’ and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary [the mother of Jesus].”

Walking is a short book, all of 197 pages, so L’Engle cuts to the quick in the first chapter, delivering a right-hand hook intended to knock any preening posers off the professional mat. She softens the blow though, insisting that “the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one” and that not everyone is courageous. I’m hoping I’m more in the former group rather than the latter. I’m still in the ring, but dancing around what I should be fighting for.

“If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.'”

I love this anecdote. Writers and creatives often struggle with comparison. They know experts writing on their subjects, artists painting in their mediums, and musicians composing in their genres, and, more often than not, they fail to start on their own projects because they can’t imagine their final product comparing to their idols’ works. L’Engle and Rhys brilliantly refute this. I may need to create a large poster for my study that simply says, “Feed the lake.”

“When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens. But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work. Getting out of the way and listening is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer.”

To know what I’m going to write about with any given project, I have to start writing. It’s not until I get into the middle of an article do I normally have any idea what I’m trying to say. There have been a few times in my life where I’ve experienced the work taking over, when the clock vanishes and I’m completely absorbed in the words before me. Athletes call it being in the zone. But, the only way an athlete, author, or creative can ever get to the zone is to have put in their 10,000 hours of practice, the effective butt-on-chair (BOC) time that every dedicated author espouses for would-be writers. To use Steven Pressfield’s forthright phrase, “Do the Work” and you’ll earn the muse’s respect.
And that last line is killer: “Getting out of the way and listening is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer.” Do I serve art the way I serve God? Or do I serve God the way I serve art? Or do I tend to serve myself the most, regardless of properly revering art or God?

“Someone wrote, ‘The principle part of faith is patience,’ and this applies, too, to art of all disciplines. We must work every day, whether we feel like it or not, otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, we will not be able to heed it.”

L’Engle ends the chapter with these words, pinpointing the place I currently feel stuck in. I’m not working on writing every day, but I’m working on working on writing every day. To my core, I know it’s what I need to do, but The Resistance fights as hard as Apollo Creed. The Resistance reverses the tide of my dribbling contributions to the lake. The Resistance vaults my vanity over my calling. I am weary of The Resistance, but I can be patient. Instead of waiting to write, the simple lesson I’m learning is to write while I wait, patiently feeding the lake for no other reason than obedience to the work.