This isn't a real book review, so I shan't be bothered with things like links and author names. Well, okay, maybe I'll give you the author name. Madeleine L'Engle. Happy now? A Circle of Quiet is book one of "The Crosswicks Journal," and the subjects chosen to be printed on the cover (you know, the classification intended to make things easier for bookstores -- and I speak from experience when I say they often do, though they can make us laugh) are "spirituality" and "autobiography." They'll do. It's meditative, as this post will be, although not really because I was trying to imitate the book.
I watched The Secret of Roan Inish today. Good movie. Afterwards I was feeling the sadness and longing of it, inherent in any story touching on selkies and the sea. And then I realized that I left my journal at work today, and couldn't write, at least not in the manner I had wanted to. I hadn't even been sure that was the thing I wanted to do next, but I didn't like having the option taken away. I became more sad, feeling more strongly the need to write and my own inability to do it, for reasons besides no journal. Instead I read the first 60 pages of A Circle of Quiet. In one sense I should not have, I should have just written, stopped making excuses for myself. But on the other hand I am better now, and more able to write again.
I recently decided that, although I have to treat writing very seriously and as a job in itself before getting published if I am to have any hope of being published at all, I cannot completely commit to it yet. I have to concentrate on things like finding a stable job. But what has changed since I decided that? I still have done very little actual fiction writing. I still feel a compelling need to -- must... get out... this creative... something! Which is good, I think, although I might be letting it pressure me too much, as though anything I write has to perfectly express that urge. On the other hand, I still can't keep myself from writing -- I do need to write more fiction, but if I am not writing fiction, I'm writing poetry. Or if I'm not writing poetry, I journal. If I don't journal, I blog. If I don't blog, I probably journal. Round and round I go, thankfully.
Remember one of my old posts about writing? When I said I was like a child playing in a sandbox? Oh, let me find it for you... Here it is. Madeleine L'Engle talks about that! I was so grateful to understand what I was feeling, through her.
"I could, during the long years of failure, console myself with the fact that van Gogh sold precisely one picture while he lived, and that he was considered an impossible painter... I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their validity, no matter what... And I think, too, and possibly most important, that there is a faith simply in the validity of art; when we talk about ourselves as being part of the company of such people as Mozart or van Gogh or Dostoevsky, it has nothing to do with comparisons, or pitting talent against talent; it has everything to do with a way of looking at the universe. My husband said, 'But people might think you're putting yourself alongside Dostoevsky.' The idea is so impossible that I can only laugh in incredulity. Dostoevsky is a giant; I look up to him; I sit at his feet; perhaps I will be able to learn something from him. But we do face the same direction, no matter how giant his stride, how small mine." Yes! Of course, in my "constant need of reassurance" it feels a little amazing that I could do even so much as that. But there it is.
There are some points I disagree with her on, even ones rather integral to the book. She believes one cannot be humble and... have any thoughts of oneself at all? It seems to be what she's saying. Ah, yes, here it is: "One cannot be humble and aware of oneself at the same time." I instinctively shy away from it, and then rationalize why it seems anathema. What she's getting at is the concentration, the complete lack of self-consciousness which can be seen in a child's play, or in... the best of art. But, but, but...! Yes, it's definitely good to forget oneself at times. But must one, completely? I don't think so. Someone or other said, (I can't be bothered to look it up at the moment) "Know thyself." How can one know oneself if one never thinks of oneself? In fact, I think this is an unBiblical definition of humility. I won't be bothered to look up the references or the exact quotes, because I'm being lazy, or at least because I'm having fun just ruminating and don't want to interrupt it, but there are a couple verses that come to mind. One is from James, about reading the Word and forgetting what it says being like a man looking in a mirror and forgetting what he looks like. An analogy not exactly talking about thinking of oneself, but then there's another verse. In one of Paul's letters, I believe, he tells his readers not to think of themselves more highly than they ought, and also, if I remember correctly, not more lowly than they ought, but with "sober" or "sound" judgment. That doesn't sound like advice to not think of oneself at all. Yes, us introspective sorts often do need to stop and get out of our own heads. But... I can just picture the mind games! "Oh wait, I'm thinking of myself. Got to stop that. Aaah, there, I'm doing it again! Must... think of something else! Concentrate! Ah, that was better... aaahk!" I don't think Madeleine L'Engle would go that far, except... some of her meditations in this book almost sound like that to me. How can one learn or grow in such a mental environment?
And as for art and writing... yes, it's good for it to be unself-conscious. Lose yourself in it, and enjoy! And yet... there's also a very self-conscious side to it. You takes your hopes, fears, daydreams -- your deepest emotions -- and "write what only you can write." You stop imitating and start creating by working out your own demons, maybe not even realizing what you're doing... but then you do. And sure, a good writer has to be good at observing other people, but, to me, I'll never really be able to write for others in a deep sense, not without writing for myself first. And I'll probably always be best at writing characters who resemble myself in some respect. Fortunately I'm a bit empathetic, but even so... hopefully that comes out into my writing naturally, without my trying too much, because I doubt I can force it. Of course, A Live Coal in the Sea seemed very autobiographical in some respects, so does she really disagree with me? Probably not. Doesn't change the fact that I hated a few of the sentences in the book, yelling at them, "That's wrong!" But not take myself too seriously? Sure, that's good advice.
There was something else I disagreed with, I think. I forget now. Oh, wait. It was about mental health. True, the greats have not been people known for their sanity, or people who "would qualify for a mental-health certificate." But is it really the wound, the craziness, the flaw that makes the artist? None of us can escape a life touched by sadness and pain, that's not the issue, I don't really want to talk about creating art in a perfect world. The issue... hmm. Shouldn't moving towards health cause one's art to grow? Isn't sanity inherently good? Now, I have to qualify here. It's true that might not mean qualifying "for a mental-health certificate." It isn't always a good idea to go with the status quo's concept of health, to fall into line and conform. I agree with her on that. But I won't let them take the entire concept of sanity, of... soundness with them. And that brings me to my biggest object of contention here -- "If we were all what is generally thought of as mentally healthy, I have a terrible fear that we'd all be alike." Okay, she gets brownie points for using the words "what is generally thought of as" here, it redeems the sentence. Nonetheless, who cares what "they" think of as mentally healthy? Let's get down to business and talk about real mental health, about being sound and undiseased and what God designed us to be! If such a thing were possible here on earth now, what would be the result? I must say, with Lewis, that we would be more individual, more unique, not less. Yes, our diseases, wounds, and weaknesses give us a lot of character, a lot of who we are. But do they have to? Would all truly healthy people truly look alike? I can't believe it, I won't. God is more creative than that. And the clones I've seen are trying too hard to be clones and to force happiness with it.
I think that might be all I had to say. For now. I'll let you know if I think of something else. Oh, wait, here's something! I totally agree with this (I might think NaNoWriMo is a great invention, but I can't really understand anyone who actually is happy with it as a novice activity, solely on the level of hobby with no desire for publishing), "But during that decade when I was in my thirties, I couldn't sell anything. If a writer says he doesn't care whether he is published or not, I don't believe him. I care. Undoubtedly I care too much. But we do not write for ourselves alone. I write about what concerns me, and I want to share my concerns. I want what I write to be read." Yes, writing has always been a way to find a voice for me, if only because my literal voice doesn't always seem to do that great of a job.
Of course, she also says, later, "I covered the typewriter in a great gesture of renunciation. Then I walked around and around the room, bawling my head off. I was totally, unutterably miserable.
Suddenly I stopped, because I realized what my subconscious mind was doing while I was sobbing: my subconscious mind was busy working out a novel about failure. (Marcy's note here -- I would so do that! Or at least a blog post, erm.)
I uncovered the typewriter. In my journal I recorded this moment of decision, for that's what it was. I had to write. I had no choice in the matter. It was not up to me to say I would stop, because I could not. It didn't matter how small or inadequate my talent. If I never had another book published, and it was very clear to me that this was a real possibility, I still had to go on writing."
Wow this is long.