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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

The Complicated Motives of Art (and Life)

jenmichel@me.com

It’s the 50th anniversary of A Wrinkle in Time and thanks to the good work of Chris Smith and his colleagues at The Englewood Review of Books where they recently revisited this Newberry-Award winning book, I picked it up again and remembered why I had loved it so much as a child. And in my renewed interest of all things Madeleine L’Engle, I’ve been reading Circle of Quiet, her reflections on writing and life. Here I’ve learned that Wrinkle was dismissed by eight publishers before it eventually landed with the publishing house of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. She describes the decade of her thirties as the years of perpetual rejection. On her 40th birthday, her husband called L’Engle in her writing studio to say that another letter had come from yet another publisher. The answer? Again, no. They would not publish Wrinkle.

In a fit of melancholic despair, L’Engle shrouded her typewriter with a sheet and declared she would never write again.

Her resolve lasted a matter of days.

She did ask for the manuscript back from her agent. It was a heavy parcel of bundled typewritten sheets. And serendipitously, in two weeks time, she was introduced to another editor. He asked to see the manuscript. In a week she had signed a contract to publish A Wrinkle.

“I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, or arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their validity, no matter what. When I look back on that decade of total failures – it’s been a mixture, both before, and since – there was, even on the days of rejection slips, a tiny, stubborn refusal to be completely put down.”

Pride?

“When the book was rejected by publisher after publisher, I cried out in my journal. I wrote, after an early rejection, “X turned down Wrinkle, turned it down with one hand while saying that he loved it, but didn’t quite dare do it, as it isn’t really classifiable. I know it isn’t really classifiable, and am wondering if I’ll have to go through the usual hell with this that I seem to go through with everything I write. But this book I’m sure of. If I’ve ever written a book that says what I feel about God and the universe, this is it. This is my psalm of praise.

Praise?

Writing is a complicated art. All art is complicated, I suppose, at least as complicated as life. Why would you paint, draw, write, sing unless you loved it? And would you do it publicly if you didn’t believe, at least in some deep recesses of your being, that you had some business doing so?

For so, so long, I’ve been terrified by the sharp-clawed, wild-eyed ego. I imagined that with one false move, I’d be devoured. The greatest fear I have is fear of myself.

On the one hand, it may appear humble to refuse to speak, write, paint, sing because you’re afraid of what you’d do with a pen or microphone in your hands. Your reluctance could be sold for spirituality.

Or on the other hand, it may be the worst pride of all. To rely on self-will and self-restraint (and silence-keeping) rather than on the wild, inviting grace that moves us into a courage that both stands and leans? I’d call that a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Our Father, Your will, Your Kingdom, Lead me not into testing. This is the language of a person casting herself into the hands of a God who is capable to begin and complete all of His designs. A God big enough, wise enough, good enough to grant me a correcting wisdom as I walk and write, listen and depend.

Father. Friend.

How do any of us do anything that we feel called to do without choking on self-importance? How do we continue in courage rather than starve ourselves with self-doubt?

Pray. Cast your heart into the hands of God. His are hands that heal. (There is hope for the complicated motives of your heart.)

Work. Apply to your field of calling your disciplined effort, especially on your worst days when you’ve run dry of the fuel of inspiration. Believe that it matters.

Share your work with your neighbor. Cast your bread of blessing, not in faraway oceans, but in local ponds.

* * * * *

Be small, stoke the fire of Jesus love, and burn.