Talking Shop: Five Reasons Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘YA Books’ Succeeded

Those with even a cursory knowledge of my literary preferences will recall my fondness for the late Madeleine L’Engle

My first brush with L’Engle came when I picked up a beat-up paperback copy of A Wrinkle in Time in fourth grade. At that time, L’Engle’s books expanded my consciousness, creating in me a yearning for more–spiritually, creatively, and academically.

C.S. Lewis once credited the acclaimed Scottish author George MacDonald with “baptizing his imagination.” Throughout my childhood, L’Engle had a similar effect on me. I felt so indebted to Madeleine L’Engle for her numinous, soul-searching prose, that I named my only daughter “Madeleine.”

A week or so ago, I decided to pick up a book by L’Engle which I haven’t previously read. The book is titled The Arm of the Starfish. I was hesitant, because the book is filed squarely in the “Young Adult” section of the library. 

I’ll admit my bias. I tend to dislike most books that can be categorized as “YA.” for reasons that will soon be apparent. In short, I find most books in the genre lacking–both in substance and in any modicum of literary merit.
It’s an established fact that L’Engle hated when critics panned her work as “juvenile.” She famously quipped, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

Still, I approached the book with a little trepidation. I didn’t want to return to an author that I cherished so deeply for so many years and become ultimately disappointed that I’d outgrown her. I feared being disillusioned.

Ultimately, out of respect for L’Engle’s perspective, and her phenomenal track-record in my reading history, I decided to give this YA-novel a chance. 
What I found, to my relief, was a tightly-knit, cosmopolitan spy-novel that did anything but disappoint me. 

As I set the book down, I reflected a little on why L’Engle’s YA worked where so many others have failed. How is it that her books stood up, not only to the test of time, but also to the test of the audience aging?

I came up with the following five reasons:

1.She never shied away from “grown-up” topics.

In The Arm of the Starfish alone, L’Engle deftly navigates topics as complex as nationalism, the thalidomide disaster of the late 50s and early 60s, the Spanish Inquisition, and deep-seated theological issues. 

In the hands of a less capable writer, such a diverse survey of topics would quickly turn glib and disingenuous. L’Engle manages to explore these topics with aplomb, always rejecting an easy explanation.

2.Conversely, she didn’t resort to shock tactics. 

Without slinging mud at any particular authors, “YA lit” (writ large) often acts as a taxonomy on “edgy” or “controversial” subjects, such as teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, etc. 

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with addressing any of these topics for a younger audience, it’s often handled in a clumsy way, detracting from any real message and instead promoting controversial content for the sake of controversy. 

L’Engle’s doesn’t shy away from pushing the envelope, but it never feels contentious for the sheer purpose of bolstering sales.

3. She whetted the appetite of her readers.

Madeliene L’Engle was a walking, talking Liberal Arts education. Her works are replete with allusions to science, medicine, history, philosophy, mythology, linguistics, literature, theology, art, and music. 

In The Arm of the Starfish, L’Engle alludes (among other things) to the Tallis Canon, Jackson Pollack, and the Greek myth of Diana and the Golden Apples. She utilizes Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” as both a secret-code and a theme interwoven throughout the book. The subject-matter of the book delves into the topic of marine-biology: both real and speculative.

In every instance mentioned above, regardless of the topic, L’Engle instills in her readers the desire to learn more. Inspiring your audience to dig deeper into the humanities is a hallmark of great literature.

4. She never condescended to her readers. 

L’Engle had an impressive command of language, and she didn’t let the fact that she was writing for a young audience dissuade her from putting it to use. In The Arm of the Starfish alone, she writes in four languages: English, conversational Spanish, tidbits of Portuguese, and Koine Greek. 

Most of the words and sentences she employed can be understood through context clues, but in some examples (such as the “Phos Hilaron” hymn in the original Greek,) she requires her readers to do a little research outside of the pages of her own work to uncover the meaning and origins of the text. 

L’Engle never felt the need to “dumb down” her vocabulary on account of her younger audience, either. She used words like “echinoderms,” “anagogical,” “desultorily,” and “porcine.” 

She gave her younger readers the benefit of the doubt: if they didn’t know a word, they could look it up in a dictionary.

5. She weaves all of the above nimbly into a well-told story.  

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, all of the above points are wrapped up into a well-plotted, breezy narrative. The net effect of reading one of her novels is that you ruminate deeply while simultaneously enjoying a great-read. Or, as she puts it while alluding to Frost, “your avocation and vocation become one.”

In so doing, L’Engle crafts dense, imaginative, sprawling concepts into tightly-packed, well-resolved stories. Regardless, even, if her books include the “YA” moniker. 

Learning Not to Dance

Stepping from the dance floor, she asked me, who taught you to dance?

Who taught me to dance? No one, per se. No formal lessons, no wealth of experience to draw on. Truth is, you have to start dancing before you know how. You do know how, really.

What makes you sway when your song comes on, completely involuntarily, like it’s some function of your autonomic nervous systems, as innate as a pulse? You’d sync your heartbeat itself with the snare and hi-hats if it didn’t mean cardiac arrest for you.

Where’d you learn to syncopate your steps with your earbuds in—your left foot hitting the ground each time the bass drum strikes; your right foot when the tom is hit? No one taught you that. It’s intrinsic.

When it’s 72 and June and you’re cruising in your aught-two Malibu, why is it you roll the windows down, even though your A.C. works just fine? When you go to the grocery store, what makes you roll through the aisles using your shopping-cart like a scooter, despite being in your mid-twenties, relegating your day off to crossing out errands and picking up paper-towels?

Why is it that your affinity for sidewalk-chalk and swing sets never goes away, fully? Why, on cross-country drives, do you look at the tree line with a strange sense of yearning- to get off the grid and become drastically human?

How do you justify giving the guy by the side of the road fifty-cents bus fare? You know he’s scrounging just enough to buy a Forty.

Who, what, where, when, why, how did you learn to dance?

Though it’s a truth we so often forget, we, as Anglos, the chief offenders—you don’t learn to dance, sister.

You learn not to.

Errant Thoughts

My muse didn’t stop by my house today. She couldn’t work up the motivation, because her muse didn’t visit her. Turns out, my whole creative process is predicated on one muse inspiring another muse inspiring another muse, and now my lack of creative output makes sense.

Still, I have a responsibility to put some ink on the page, irrespective of quality. Because, as it were–

They do not serve who stand and wait, if those who stand could’ve served.

Mindfulness Meditation for Prewriting

“He said when things were really going well, we should be sure to notice it.”
-Kurt Vonnegut

Lately, I’ve been on a mindfulness meditation kick.

A simple 10-15-minute morning practice has refocused and grounded me, combating depression, alleviating anxiety, and allowing me to live in the moment. I’m absolutely sold on its manifest usefulness.

But in addition to its improvement to my mental health, I’ve found that it’s a powerful tool to wield for artists. In fact, I’d venture to say, it may even be our most powerful prewriting exercise.

Hear me out.

How many times have you sat down with your notebook or word-processor and instantaneously became distracted by the worries of the day?

How will a certain bill get paid? My lower back aches. I wonder if I remembered to lock my car door? That comment my boss made earlier in the day—what did he mean by that?

This inner chatter is what some mindfulness meditation experts call “monkey mind:” a constant dialogue in which your brain seeks to analyze and fix problems that don’t truly have the potential to be fixed, currently. To use a computer analogy, our brain has a few “windows” open in the background, and it’s constantly trying to work out problems subconsciously for you.

It’s no surprise that this invasive chatter fills our thoughts when we sit down to write. Today, people are so preoccupied throughout each minute that we rarely have time to sit quietly with ourselves. If the 30-minute block of time that you’ve scheduled for writing is your only alone time in your day, it’s likely that your brain will utilize it to attempt to solve those nagging problems that crop up throughout the day. It happens for the same reason that your brain keeps you up at night when you try to sleep: your brain wants to tie up all the little loose ends, bringing closure to the problems you encountered throughout your day.

The problem is that it’s easier to sit and worry for 30 minutes than it is to write. Soon enough, your timer goes off and you’re more frazzled than when you sat down. What’s worse: you’re still staring at a blank white page.

So how does mindfulness meditation help this problem?

If you want to write from a blank slate, you’ll need to quiet down your brain so you can focus on the task at hand. Meditation grounds your mind. It helps you to see your thoughts as transient ideas passing through your consciousness, and helps you to dissociate your thoughts from your consciousness itself.

We’ve bored our neural pathways deep. We need a blunt instrument to till the ground of our consciousness—to weed the garden of the passé, banal ideas. Only once we’ve weeded our consciousness can we begin to sow new thoughts and words.

I challenge you with this simple task: try mindfulness meditation for 10-15-minutes prior to writing. I think you’ll be astounded by the results.

Talking Shop: Tone and Voice

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

I’ve talked a little about David Shields’ seminal book Reality Hunger in a past post. Today I want to respond to another quotation from that same book. Here’s a statement quoted in his chapter about flash fiction:

“Even as they’re exploring extremely serious and complex material, short-short writers frequently use a certain mock modesty to give the work a tossed-off tone and disarm the reader. The reader thinks he’s reading a diary entry, when in fact it’s a lyric essay or prose poem.”

Shields goes on to cite examples, one of which being “Morning News” by Jerome Stern

Although I certainly agree with Shields that this “mock modesty” is common in flash fiction, I’m unsure that it’s fair to say that microfiction utilizes this technique across the board.

This does, however, bring up the topic of tone in flash fiction. As writers, we have to ensure we don’t confuse our tone with our literary voice. One of the best ways to ensure we don’t confuse the two is by having a proper definition of each term.

Tone is the writer’s attitude toward his subject, his audience or himself. One can have a sarcastic tone. One can be flippant or somber or self-reflecting or abrasive. All of these are examples of a writer’s tone in a particular piece.

Literary voice, on the other hand, is the distinctive style a writer has. Hemingway was known for his concise style. It made him have a distinct voice. Douglas Adams is known for his humorous approach to science fiction. F. Scott Fitzgerald is known for his flowery prose.

So how can we confuse tone and literary voice? Well, left unchecked, our stories can all share the same tone, and run the risk of becoming formulaic. For example, I love using irony in my microfictions. But If I’m not careful, I will use it in all my stories, and pretty soon they’ll all read in a very predictable manner.

Have you ever enjoyed the first track of an album, only to find that each subsequent song sounded exactly the same? As writers, we have to ensure we vary our tone from piece to piece while maintaining our distinct voice.

How do you find this at play in your writing? Do you gravitate toward a certain tone in your work? If so, how do you avoid falling into a rut? What makes your literary voice distinctly you?

Talking Shop: Overcoming Writer’s Block

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

No ailment vexes wordsmiths across the globe like writer’s block. At one point or another, it haunts the steps of all who dare to pick up the pen and scribble down their thoughts.

If I could prescribe one antidote to the scourge that is writer’s block, it’d probably be this: Read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and call me in the morning.

The War of Art (titled, of course, as a play on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War) is a call to arms for artists everywhere, imploring them to utilize self-discipline to overcome the self-sabotage that so many creative-types fall victim to.

It’s no coincidence that the book utilizes a lot of war imagery. Pressfield is a former Marine who draws on that selfsame level of tenacity and grit to win his creative battles.

In Pressfield’s book, he suggests that we label all of our self-defeating behaviors and thought-patterns as “Resistance.” This Resistance keeps us from fulfilling our ambitions, whether they include finishing a novel, beginning an oil-painting, or opening a self-made business.

Pressfield suggests we re-purpose our “Resistance” and self-doubt as a sort of compass.

If there’s a creative pursuit that we feel disinclined to start, Pressfield argues, that’s precisely the project we should dive headfirst into. In such a way, we can overcome obstacles in creating art.

Others advocate a less militant approach to overcoming writer’s block. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Stop treating your creativity like it’s a tired, old, unhappy marriage (a grind, a drag) and start regarding it with the fresh eyes of a passionate lover.”

The implication here is that artists should steal away, sneaking in a few minutes when they can. They should look at their creative processes with an ever-changing, new perspective. This approach brings to mind experimenting, squeezing in a time for writing whenever possible, and embracing the spontaneity of the creative process. In some ways, it almost seems diametrically opposed to  Pressfield’s approach.

Still, I don’t think either perspective is wrong.

Simply put, each writer must come up with their own method for overcoming creative obstacles. For some, that means a well-regimented routine. For others, it means writing when you can. Which rings most true for you? Or do you subscribe to a different method entirely?

How Niche Should we Write?

Recently, I took up sketching comic-book style illustrations.

I don’t have an iota of talent in terms of drawing, but I picked up Jason Brubaker’s “Cognitive Drawing” and have been plodding through it ever since. I enjoy the challenge of taking on a new artistic medium. Perhaps by expanding my horizons a little bit, my primary creative outlet (writing) will somehow improve by osmosis.

Besides, engaging in creative pursuits is never fully wasted, right?

This artistic diversion has led me to wonder: how beneficial is it to specialize in the arts? Does pursuing a multitude of styles of writing, for instance, make you better at your primary discipline? Or is there a law of diminishing returns, because you’re not focusing your talents solely on the artwork that’s in your wheelhouse?

There are plenty of fantastic artists on both sides of the spectrum, of course. Leonardo Da Vinci, the quintessential “renaissance man” was astounding in nearly every academic discipline he pursued. Conversely, Thomas Pynchon hasn’t strayed far from what he excels at: writing complex post-modern prose.

My grandfather is a talented oil painter. As a child, he noted my proclivity to dabble in multiple mediums. He remarked on several occasions that I’d eventually “have to choose one” if I wanted to be truly great.

Even in sub-sets of the arts, I wonder how true this is.

During my college years, I worked toward a journalism degree. As such, I wrote almost exclusively narrative pieces, creative nonfiction, and other journalistic types of stories. During my post-graduate studies, I picked up an affinity for flash fiction and prose poetry. Did my creative non-fiction suffer as a result? I doubt it.  One could make the case that I would’ve further developed my journalistic skills if I’d applied myself to that style of writing, instead.

I’d rather not pigeon-hole myself. The last thing I want is to end up with an impossibly esoteric niche of writing. Who wants to be known as the world’s greatest neo-formalist poet who focuses on sparrow migration imagery?

What about you? Do you delve into various arts with reckless abandon, or mostly stick to one discipline?