Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cherry Pie

I'm rereading Madeleine L'Engle's journal, A CIRCLE OF QUIET, and I cherish her story of how she decided to stick out the writing life, after ten years of writing book after unpublished book. (The following excerpts are from pages 20-21 for those who want to follow along.)

But during that decade when I was in my thirties, I couldn't sell anything. If a writer says he doesn't care whether he is published or not, I don't believe him. I care. Undoubtedly I care too much. But we do not write for ourselves alone. I write about what concerns me, and I want to share my concerns. I want what I write to be read. Every rejection slip--and you could paper walls with my rejection slips--was like the rejection of me, myself, and certainly of my amour-propre.

Madeleine recounted all the reasons the publishers gave for turning her novels down. For example, publishers rejected A Wrinkle In Time, in part, because they couldn't figure out whether it was a book for adults or children. Thank goodness for today's YA distinction! Other books were rejected because they began with a death, or were too moral. She believed that the tide would turn when she turned forty. So, on her fortieth birthday, when she received the rejection of a novel which had spent enough time at a publication house to give her hope, she was crushed.

This seemed an obvious sign from heaven. I should stop trying to write. All during the decade of my thirties (the world's fifties) I went through spasms of guilt because I spent so much time writing, because I wasn't like a good New England housewife and mother. When I scrubbed the kitchen floor, the family cheered. I couldn't make a decent pie crust. I always managed to get something red in with the white laundry in the washing machine, so that everyone wore streaky pink underwear. And with all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially.

So the rejection on the fortieth birthday seemed an unmistakable command: Stop this foolishness and learn to make cherry pie.

Madeleine gave up writing, put away the typewriter, and was filled with despair. Until, that is, she realized that in her head, she was busy writing a novel about failure. It was then that she knew that she had to write.

In the moment of failure I knew that the idea of Madeleine, who had to write in order to be, was not an image.

Madeleine L'Engle published over 60 books in her life time. I'm glad she never learned to make that cherry pie. What do you think? Do you foresee a time when you might give up? Have you had a cherry pie moment? One that made you know that you will write no matter what?


  1. How interesting! I knew L'Engle got tons of rejections before she was published, but I didn't realize she came so close to giving up.

    I don't think I could give up writing. There was a period of a few years when I didn't write and I was miserable, though I couldn't quite figure out why. One day I had an idea for a story (I hadn't had one in a LONG time) and I furiously worked on it for a few days. I was suddenly so much happier and I realized how incomplete my life felt if I wasn't writing. I think I learned my lesson!

  2. This is so where I am today. It's been 9 years of working full-time and writing part-time. I feel now like she did then. I'm neglecting my family in order to pursue this.

    I'd much rather quit my full-time job, but I can't 'cause I have to eat and pay bills. I know quitting writing will mean being unhappy. So I can't quit, but I do need to figure out a better life balance - somehow.

  3. Good stuff. I like learning about others' struggles. Makes mine feel less personal.

  4. Hi, Heather:
    Found you via Casey's blog. Sounds like a great book and it looks like my library has it. Thanks for the lead. It helps to know how others have dealt with rejection, although these days I'd say it's a bit harder to paper walls given the trend towards "no response means no".
    I can't imagine quitting for good. Writing is my craft. If I don't create, I'm not happy. ;-)

  5. Anna-- I am also much happier when I write. Even when I'm complaining about revisions, I realize that the process is keeping me sane.

    Sarah-- Isn't that the hardest thing? To balance it all? Some days I write and life is an afterthought and some days I live life, and writing is the afterthought. Let me know if you find your balance. (As long as you don't decide to go all cherry pie on us!)

    Paul-- I agree. I think the blog world helps too.

    Kathryn-- Welcome! Aren't we lucky to have found what makes us happy, even if we tend to do it in the corners of our days?

  6. This is one of my favorite posts I have read anywhere. Did you see the Julie and Julia movie? That sort of PALPABLE ache in Julia Child was evident as well. I read this and FEEL for her.

    I never thought about publication (or really very, very little) until I was 30. I liked creating my short stories . . . which have very little market. The few times I shared them, it always seemed I got wounded a bit (too sensitive to criticism). So you know, I just wrote as part of my inner life. When I wrote a novel . . . which basically spilled out in this tumble, it sold in about four months, so I don't have this agonizing cherry pie story. But I will say now, I find myself being insular again . . . and knowing no matter what . . . I write.


  7. This story speaks to me as well. It may sound a bit silly, but after reading Madeleine L'Engle's journals, and so many of her books, I really feel as though she is a kindred spirit.

    And--I'm glad that you didn't need a cherry pie moment to know that you would always write.

    I haven't seen Julie and Julia, but it is definitely on my to do list.