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Monday, December 21, 2009

Finger Exercises

Nobody can teach creative writing--run like mad from anybody who thinks he can. But one can teach practices, like finger exercises on the piano; one can share the tools of the trade, and what one has gleaned from the great writers.

Gleanings from Madeleine L'Engle

I think it was Artur Rubinstein who admitted, "If I don't practice the piano for one day I know it. If I don't practice it for two days my family knows it. If I don't practice it for three days, my public knows it."

Read at least an hour a day. I try to read something I feel I ought to read for most of the time, and then for a little bit of the time I read something just for sheer fun. Fun reading is important, and I think we underestimate reading for fun.... Part of your technique of writing is built up by writing, and with this you should also have some fun. I do think that keeping an honest, unpublishable journal is helpful. Include what you are thinking, what you are feeling, what you are responding to. Include what you are angry about that you heard on the news. Don't talk about news in terms of politics but in terms of your own life. What does this mean to you? So these are my three recommendations: read, keep an honest journal, and write every day.

I read Chekhov's letters and I was excited to come across "When you depict sad or unlucky people and want to touch people's hearts, try to be colder. It gives their grief a background against which it stands out in sharper relief." And he went on to say that the writer does and must suffer with his characters, but he must do this in a way that the reader doesn't notice. The more objective, the stronger the effect.

You must write from your own experience. There simply isn't any other way to write. Stanislavski, the great director of the Moscow Art Theater, always taught his students that you have to act out of your own experience, that you cannot act anything you haven't experienced. Once when he was doing a production of Othello, the young man who was playing Othello when to him in great frustration and said, "Mr. Stanislavski, you tell me I have to act out of my own experience. And Othello has to murder Desdemona. I never murdered anybody. How can I act out of my own experience?" Stanislavski just looked at him and said, "Have you ever gone after a fly?"

Where you are in your own life, in your own thinking, is bound to be reflected in some way in what you are writing. I do not believe in the message novel. If you want to give a message, write an essay, preach a sermon. When you tell a story, you tell a story, but underneath the story are the levels of your own interest which somehow get in. So if you are a shallow human being unwilling to open your doors and windows to new ideas, that will show in what you write. If you are willing to go out into the unknown, that too will show in what you write and will, perhaps, give your readers courage to be willing to go out into the unknown as well.

All quotes taken from Madeleine L'Engle: Herself, compiled by Caroline F. Chase


  1. Madeleine L'Engle's wisdom pulls me to her feet. I've not read any of her books, but that is about to change. I have A Circle of Quiet and plan to begin reading it today. Thank you for these "gleanings."

  2. A Circle of Quiet is beautiful! Enjoy!

  3. I still think L'Engle's "Walking on Water" is an essential companion for any Christian writers willing to wrestle with faith through their prose.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. I am very much enjoying A Circle of Quiet. I want to speed through it and at the same time meander among the pages. I've requested Walking on Water through so will be able to read it, too. Thanks for the recommendation, WilsonWriter.


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