Book Review: Becoming Madeleine

How can it be that a woman I never met had such an influence on me that ten days after my husband’s death I was quoting her on this blog? I’m talking about author Madeleine L’Engle. Anyone who has been following my blog for any length of time will know her as one of my favorite authors, not for the fiction she is most famous for, but her Crosswick Journals series. One of my first posts on here was about her influence on my writing and my marriage way back in 2009.

I was in my late 30’s when I read A Circle of Quiet, identifying with the writer who was also a mother, a woman who “escaped” the cacophony of a noisy household to burn garbage in the back yard. I often did the same. Her thoughts on the craft have been very influential in my writing:

“To work on a book is for me very much the same thing as to pray. Both involve discipline. If the artist works only when he feels like it, he’s not apt to build up much of a body of work. Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work and to go where it tells him to go. Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear.” (Walking on Water, page 140)

Because it was about caring for her husband during his cancer, I read Two-Part Invention while David underwent cancer treatment in 2006. I was devastated by her loss. It was the first book I read after David died in 2012. Madeleine walked me through those first steps of the dark unknown of grief. 

“Now I am setting out into the unknown. It will take me a long while to work through the grief. There are no shortcuts; it has to be gone through.” (Two-Part Invention, page 228)

Madeleine L’Engle’s words touched my heart and soul so deeply, I mentioned her several times in my book  Refined By Fire; A Journey of Grief and Grace. Her granddaughter Lena graciously wrote a blurb endorsement.

“Mary Kenyon’s Refined by Fire reminds me of my grandmother, Madeleine L’Engle, who taught so many of us that writing can be a form of prayer that leads us to grace. I was moved to read how her influence inspired Mary to write and heal as well. Mary’s writing style is extremely accessible, and her voice raw, authentic and brave. By the end I was crying with her. I would definitely recommend her book to anyone who is going through any type of loss.”-  Léna Roy, granddaughter of Madeleine L’Engle

So it was with much anticipation I awaited the publication of Lena and her sister Charlotte’s biography of their grandmother, Becoming Madeleine.

madelieneMarketed as a middle grade biography, don’t let that stop you from reading it yourself. This delightful book speaks to the hearts of writers and wannabe writers, as well as Madeleine L’Engle fans. It includes photographs, poems, letters and journal entries from Madeleine’s childhood, teens, and through her successes (and failures!) as a writer. I felt a real thrill of delight when I saw the photo of Crosswicks, as if spotting a favorite place. I couldn’t bear to highlight anything in this lovely book so marked pages  I want to return to with sticky notes instead.

I was fascinated by the mind of the young Madeleine, her mature insights. From her journal, at losing her beloved grandmother she called Dearma;

“I think this has been my passing from childhood into girlhood, because as mother says, though I am fifteen, I have really been a child all these years. And I read in another book that a person is never dead until you have forgotten then, so Dearma can never be dead to me, because I will never forget her.”

Then there is her reaction to a rejection from Good Housekeeping for a poem she’d sent at age 16. She not only added the rejection letter to her journal, on the opposite page, she’d written “I got this delightful little refusal from Good Housekeeping today & my poem was returned all dirtied. Someday Good Housekeeping will ask me to write poems for it!! 

There were a few surprises. While I’d known about the loss of her husband through the Crosswicks Journal series, I hadn’t realized she’d lost a son years later. When I read that, I wanted to pick up pen and paper to write her a letter. Which just goes to show you; the true power of a good biography is that it brings the subject alive. 

“We don’t want to feel less when we have finished a book; we want to feel that new possibilities of being have been opened to us. We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.”
― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

Thank you, Léna and Charlotte. You have managed to bring illumination to this famous writer’s life who just happened to be your grandmother. I hope you have already considered the possibilities in working on an adult biography, as well.

Merry Mary New Year~ What will 2018 bring?

“I’ll need to go in my office and write for a few minutes at midnight,” I informed my daughters last night as we watched television. “I’d once heard that whatever you are doing at midnight on New Year’s Eve is how you’ll spend the rest of the year, so I want to be writing.”

If that superstition holds true, I’ll be sleeping through most of the year, as I woke up to laughter five minutes after it began. I’d fallen asleep! Turns out, I had that superstition wrong. The point is to actually be doing something related to your employment on the first day of the new year. By doing it well, but not working too hard, you’ll do your job well and not be overworked the rest of the year.

I’m not sure if writing for seven consecutive hours today constitutes working “too hard,” but I hope it bodes well for productivity the rest of the year. While I’ve been employed part-time as librarian since March, it’s my writing and workshops I’ve been concentrating on over the holidays.

A year ago, I was miserable in a job that should have been perfect for me; getting paid to go to work every morning and write as a newspaper reporter.  Now employed part-time, I spend my free mornings writing what I want to write. Last year, that meant finishing up a journal that will be released this April.

Expressive Writing for Healing

Since signing a book contract in November, I’m also working on a book about creativity. The seeds of this book were planted in my heart a long time ago, shortly after my mother passed away in 2010. She left behind many notebooks and journals that made it clear her greatest wish for her children was that they get to Heaven and utilize their talents. Her words became a catalyst for change in my creativity and faith. The winter after her death, I embarked on what would become one of the most creative periods of my life up to that point. In her empty house, I found solitude and solace, a private writing retreat. There, I worked on a book manuscript, wrote articles and essays, prepared couponing and writing workshops and designed a power point presentation on creativity. I also began a file folder on creativity, certain it would someday become a book in honor of my creative mother. It could be said that grief was the impetus to taking my writing seriously, the legacy of my mother as my muse. My work in progress opens with her words.

“Our main purpose on earth is to save our soul and try to do the will of God in all things. That also means using the talents he gave us, and using them for good.”

I pulled out that old file folder in March. By late June, I’d completed the book proposal. A lot of research went on in-between; on the science behind creativity, the link between creativity and health and happiness, and the spiritual aspect of creativity. (After all, how can we talk about creativity without mentioning The Creator?)

creativity book1

A few of my favorites~

I’ve continued doing research as I delve into the different topics. The Hidden Art of Homemaking by Edith Schaeffer and Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle were old favorites that I re-read. World Enough & Time I borrowed from my sister Joan and read on the airplane on the way home from visiting her in Florida. The Art of Creative Living by Thomas Kinkade was one of the last books my mother had read in the summer of 2010.

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And a few more on my to-read list~

By late summer, all this reading and writing about creativity led me to begin a Lifelong Learner’s Creativity group at the library where I work. Many of the women who joined weren’t exactly sure what they wanted to gain from it, but something in the description appealed to a restless, unnamed feeling stirring within them.
Perhaps you were the daydreamer in grade school, the child staring out the window with a head full of stories, or the one reading books from your lap beneath the desk. Then someone snatched the box of crayons from your hand, insisting you’d done it all wrong; that trees weren’t pink, and bunnies weren’t purple, and you’d gone outside the lines. Or maybe they pulled the book out from beneath your desk, telling you it was time for math, not reading. Whether you’re ready to reignite your childhood passion for all things creative, and want your crayons back, or are looking for a way to connect with your inner artist and others who think outside of the box, a new group forming at the James Kennedy Library might be of interest.

Our circle now serves as a focus group of sorts, representing my target audience. We’ve already done several of the activities I suggest in my book. This month we’ll be painting on canvas, and next month we’ll envision what our more creative life looks like with Vision Boards.

In the same vein, I’m incorporating creativity exercises into a “Legacy of Creativity” workshop. While I’ll continue doing writing workshops, I’m looking forward to doing  “Expressive Writing for Healing” and “Legacy of Creativity” workshops in 2018.

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You’ll have to attend one of my creativity workshops to see what the pencils are for~

In the early stages of working on this manuscript, I’m finding the chapters, and the information in them, moving around a bit, which can be disconcerting when you work with an outline. When I told my oldest son, Dan, about this dilemma, he suggested I use index cards and a white board so I could literally move ideas around. He gave me one for Christmas, which is why my kitchen table looked like this morning.

writing at table

So, this is what the beginning of 2018 looks like for me; a new book coming out in April, work on a manuscript that is due the end of May, and workshops and classes scheduled on my days off from the library. Despite nodding off at midnight, I’m fairly certain I won’t be sleeping through 2018.