Serving the Work

Madeleine L’Engle wrote (and I still cannot get past a little knot in my throat when I remember she died) dozens of books over her career, and in her non-fiction she spent a lot of time talking about writing, the writing life, and, perhaps most importantly, serving the work. Carole F. Chase compiled these thoughts into a wonderful book that makes a great writer’s devotional: Madeleine L’Engle {Herself}: Reflections On a Writing Life. There’s a whole chapter in there about serving the work and today I’d like to present one of my favorites from there.

I listen to my stories; they are given to me, but they don’t come without a price. We do have to pay, with hours of work that ends up in the wastepaper basket, with intense loneliness , with a vulnerability that often causes us to be hurt. And I’m not sure that it’s a choice. If we’re given a gift–and the size of the gift, small or great, does not matter–then we are required to serve it, like it or not, ready or not. Most of us, that is, because I have seen people of great talent who have done nothing with their talent who mutter about “When there’s time…,” or who bury their talent because it’s to risky to use.

Yes, it is risky. We may not hear the story well, We may be like faulty radios, transmitting only static and words out of context. But I believe that it is a risk we have to take. And it is worth it, because the story knows more than the artist knows. p. 23 Madeleine L’Engle Herself

I am a woman who has little patience for people who choose not to use their gifts. There is this guy I went to high school with who was absolutely brilliant. Like the kind of mind who will someday help find a cure for cancer. And he simply didn’t care. He’d been given this great gift and he goofed off, screwed around, made terrible grades. And I used to get so angry about him. Because it was a waste. (As an epilogue, he ultimately went to pharmacy school and seems to be doing quite well for himself in the world).

To be a writer is a gift. I am not one of those people who believes that anyone can be a writer (I don’t think anybody who has ever taught college freshmen can honestly think that after grading a semester’s worth of papers). Certainly grammar, spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary can be taught (though going back to those freshmen…apparently they are not being taught–but that’s for another day). But having the tools and the components does not mean one knows how to use them. Therein lies the gift. And as L’Engle says, it is not easy. At times it may even be a burden. Most of us–those published and not who are not fortunate enough to be able to support ourselves with our craft–have other jobs, other responsibilities, families. There are many demands on our time. The juggling act we perpetuate daily is enough to sometimes just drive us mad. There are, certainly, days when we’d rather do something else, take a break (and some days we should). But the real writer–the successful writer writes anyway. It may be crap. It may all go into the trash only to start over with a blank slate the next day. But the only way to be a writer is to write. That’s another way of serving the gift–it’s sometimes the easiest part–the whole showing up for work part.

The harder aspect may be the loneliness or isolation–and that’s why I love blogging about writing–it has helped me to connect to some truly wonderful people who live this same life, who face the same struggles and frustrations while serving their gifts. And it’s comforting to know that we are not alone.

But hardest for me is where I am now–serving the story instead of serving myself. Last night in my progress report I talked a little about serving the story. What I would like to do with the characters would not be in service to the story–it would be in service to myself and my own desires for entertainment (and romance). And that’s hardly fair to my story. So I’m having to suck it up and serve the story because in the long run, the story is more important than I am.

2 thoughts on “Serving the Work

  1. This was a very nice post that brings up a lot of good points.

    I’m sensitive to the issue that just because one has a gift, s/he is obligated to accept and use it. L’Engel talks about the writing gift coming at a price. Her expression of this was eloquent and it’s one of the few things I’ve read that really seems to grasp how it is, possibly only for some, to cope with the soul-work of being a writer. So many, especially here online, focus on the more positive aspects of their own desires and sense of fulfillment and accomplishment, and when they do speak of negatives, they speak of things like time pressures and sacrificing other things find the time to write.

    But, learned or inborn or whatever, we have different levels of ability to cope with our gifts. As your schoolmate might have had his reasons for hiding behind slack, so too do many people with a gift for writing choose to ignore it, push it aside, take a break. I think L’Engel’s words show is that she, a great writer who probably came into contact with many other great writers, probably saw peers who were not able to cope with the exploration of their gifts. She probably saw (and to some degree experienced) the descent into helpless depression, sometimes accompanied by substance abuse and suicidal tendencies, that often overtakes those who embrace their creative gifts.

    The best writing requires so much in the way of opening one’s self up to all manner of dark thoughts and feelings. Of being willing to experience everything the characters do, being willing to hurt and be hurt. And it requires a certain amount of inner strength to do that. Some people are able to find their balance naturally. Some are able to somehow compartmentalize, to separate their writing self from the rest of them so that the part doesn’t drag down the whole. Some pay a price for not having that ability and never learning it. And some choose to ignore what they have and save their mental health. That decision is also not without price.

    “Wasted” talent, wasted anything, is always difficult to see. But we never really know the reasons behind the very personal choices people make, nor can we accurately judge what another person can bear.

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