I've been re-reading Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, as I am using it in my Creative Nonfiction course this fall. It always amazes me how a truly good book, when one returns to it, seems both like an old friend and a text one has never read before. I have been enjoying it immensely.
L'Engle writes at one point about reading someone's theory that all artists are "neurotic, psychotic [. . .], not one is normal." She admits her first reaction was outrage, but since then she has accepted that such labels are not worth getting upset over ("he means one thing by his labels; I would call it something quite different"). Then she goes on to discuss what she thinks makes an artist the way he is:
"[T]here is no denying that the artist is someone who is full of questions, who cries them out in great angst, who discovers rainbow answers in the darkness, and then rushes to canvas or paper. An artist is someone who cannot rest, who can never rest as long as there is one suffering creature in this world. Along with Plato's divine madness, there is also divine discontent, a longing to find the melody in the discords of chaos, the rhyme in the cacophony, the surprised smile in time of stress or strain.
"It is not that what is is not enough, for it is; it is that what is [has] been disarranged, and is crying out to be put in place. Perhaps the artist longs to sleep well at night, to eat anything without indigestion; to feel no moral qualms; to turn off the television news and make a bologna sandwich after seeing the devastation and death caused by famine and drought and earthquake and flood. But the artist cannot manage this normalcy. Vision keeps breaking through, and must find means of expression."
If it's only the suffering, the discontentment, that keeps one awake, then indeed that way lies real madness. But L'Engle seems to suggest that it's also the search for the melody, the rhyme, the surprised smile that keeps one awake, -- because these exist, they are real, and they tell us that suffering is not all there is. Vision . . . the little pictures of hope, of order in the midst of the seeming chaos, these are what make life worth living, and these are what I hope to capture in my writing. I write about the suffering because one must process it somehow and because it is real. But it's the little gems of loveliness that remind me that suffering is not, in fact, all there is.
L'Engle's book itself has been one of those gems for me this past week.