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Madeleine L'Engle and Tips on Writing (and Creativity)

One of the most thought-provoking works on creativity and Christianity that I've come across is Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art. I continually notice it on recommended lists of Christian writers and thinkers.


I've worked through Walking on Water a couple of times, and much of that time with a professor (who is also a friend), and I still find wonderful insights on creativity from a Christian perspective. Unlike many how to books, she writes simply but with depth. After a chapter or a selection, I always leave considering her ideas.

I've never thought of it that way.

What does she mean by that?

_________ should read this. I wonder what he'd say about it?

She writes in a way that reminds me of how C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers and G.K. Chesterton write. Maybe it's that her writing makes me feel the same way these writers do.

They all leave me in a state of wonder.

I don't agree with everything L'Engle's suggested, but I'm not sure I understand everything she's suggested. This is often a sign of a book that is worth reading again and again, preferably in dialogue with a small group of like-minded people.


I could write a number of posts on L'Engle's contributions (and I may), but for now I'd like to share one section that's especially practical for writers.

While reflecting on her own writing process, L'Engle shares one of her personal habits when it comes to working on a novel. She compares it to a French peasant cook.

When I start working on a book, which is usually several years and several books before I start to write it, I am somewhat like a French peasant cook. There are several pots on the back of the stove, and as I go by during the day's work, I drop a carrot in one, an onion in another, a chunk of meat in another. When it comes time to prepare the meal, I take the pot which is most nearly fully and bring it to the front of the stove. (171)

(I realize this isn't a French peasant kitchen, but you get the idea!)

For some reason, as soon as I read L'Engle's description it stood out. I even wrote in the margin of the book (yes, I'm one of those).

She continues unpacking her metaphor:

So it is with writing. There are several pots on those back burners. An idea for a scene goes into one, a character into another, a description of a tree in the fog into another. When it comes time to write, I bring forward the pot which has the most in it. (171)

One of the reasons this metaphor is so robust is that it could be applied to more disciplines than writing fiction: painting, drawing, filmmaking, blogging.

It's really helpful for those who struggle with writer's (or creative) block or a debilitating case of perfectionism. *See my hand raised?!* Here are a few summary thoughts based on her metaphor:

  • WORK ON A LARGE PROJECT (like a novel or book) by adding ideas or images over time. This counts as writing.

  • KEEP A JOURNAL ON YOU, so when an idea or image comes to you you can quickly write it down. It's too early to deem what you've jotted down as "good" or "bad" and that's why you need to just listen and jot.

  • ALLOW MULTIPLE PROJECTS to exist at the same time. This goes a long way in overcoming writer's block, for when you've run out of ideas for one project you can set it aside and then add to another. I find that breaking from one project to then come back to it later enhances the quality of the final product. (I know's there research on this idea...somewhere!)

  • COMPLETE THE PROJECT with the most in it. If you're going to be a writer, you must write. So, I recommend you set a due date and then commit to finishing whichever project has garnered a good amount of ideas and intrigues you. It won't be perfect and that's ok. I do this with my blog. Multiple times a week I'll add ideas, quotes, or images to different unpublished posts. When a due date comes, I choose to write and publish the one that's most ready.

As I mentioned earlier, these tips don't only apply to writing but a host of other creative pursuits. I hope this helps you start and finish something!



Dane is president of Stage & Story and cast chaplain at LifeHouse Theater in Redlands, CA.

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