Brian Maurice's Reviews > Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle
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Sep 11, 2010

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My interaction with Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water is likely very different from the majority of people who read it. L'Engle has a very specific audience in mind for this book, and I am not part of it. L'Engle is writing for Christians about Christian art, and Water is peppered with quotations from theologians, which, as a non-Christian, are mostly lost on me. I am further alienated from her writing by the fact that I have little experience with her other writing, so the insights into her creative process do not mean as much to me as they might if I had read even A Wrinkle in Time, which I once started but quickly gave up on (although I now would like to read some of her fiction). Nevertheless, these ramblings on the process of writing do contain a lot of truth and good advice for an aspiring writer like myself.

The loss of childhood innocence is something that I've thought a lot about during the last few years, so I find it very easy to appreciate what L'Engle has to say about relearning to think and feel with the abandon of a child and to channel that energy into our art. As happens to many children, I learned to become cold and detached from my emotions, and while it helped me get through a tortured adolescence, it was also the impetus that led to me becoming a very confused young adult that was out of touch with himself and others. During the time that I have been at college I have been slowly trying to regain the ability to trust in myself and others, and this has been reflected in my art and in my artistic rituals.

As a freshman, I had so little confidence in my work that I wouldn't dare show it to even my closest friends. I was uncomfortable with my work, and not just because of my doubts about the quality of it, but also because I knew that it really wasn't me. And while I was sure that it wasn't me, I simply didn't know what would be the true work of me as I did not know myself. Over the years, my identity has become more clear, and I am working on regaining the naivety and pure self that I had as a child and incorporating that into my work. Just as I can't say that I am completely the little boy I once was, my art doesn't always reflect the real me, but life is a work in progress. Since I have been working on finding the old undesensitized Brian, L'Engle's idea of becoming more childlike is not new to me, but it's always nice to find kindred qualities and to be affirmed in a belief about one's self-improvement.

Another lesson I am reminded of by reading Walking on Water is the one of work, work, work. This is, to say, that as I have become more intent on creating as an occupation, I have realized that in order to be an artist, one must devote time to their craft. This seems very intuitive, but often I find myself frustrated by having too many ideas and an unwillingness to develop any of them. Paradoxically, many writer friends express jealousy at this saying that they have the exact opposite problem, but what I have taken away from this is that I do not spend nearly enough time writing, and that simply won't do. If truly want to be serious about writing and to be taken seriously as a writer, then avoiding the writing process is silly. Furthermore, I find writing to be a spiritually cleansing experience that is as strong a panacea as any activity can be. Again this is nothing that L'Engle has revealed to me, as I have thought about it anyway, but it does serve as a good nagging reminder that writing takes time, and even though I may not always have the energy or ambition for it, writing is life affirming and worthwhile.

Apart from the focus on the interaction between Christianity and art, there is one other large disconnect between me and L'Engle. L'Engle makes it clear from the word go and throughout the book that she disparages modern, realistic sorts of stories, because they provide no hope for the world and deny the beauty of life. Perhaps this old fashioned view is still the prevalent one, but frankly, I can't stand it. At one point she unironically refers to such work as pornographic. I suppose I can understand where she's coming from. It doesn't feel good to be disappointed by characters and their outcomes, but at the same time that is reality. Not everyone we meet in real life is going to be likable, and life is not always fair or just. For some people, art is a form of escapism, and perhaps L'Engle sees things very differently because of her strong faith in Christianity, but it seems as if she cannot at all grasp the point of unpleasant, but realistic stories. They may not have a morality that is spelled out, but there are still lessons to be gained from them (I wish I could go into more detail about what “them” is, but I can only guess, as she never names specifics). Her overriding principle of “Do we want the children to see it?” may be intended to protect, and perhaps this is is the jaded Brian that I am trying to lose coming out, but there are many things that we may not want to see that should be seen. Something may be extremely unpleasant but at the same time beautiful and truthful, and for me, exposing beauty and truth however painful is one of the key functions of art.

I do not want to end this essay on such a note of contention, because while I have very different philosophies and beliefs from Mrs. L'Engle, I found Walking on Water to be a captivating read, as much for the beauty of L'Engle's soul poured out on these pages as for the ideas that she has. Most people who read Walking on Water will likely focus on the Christian aspects of the book, and while I have said little about it in my reflection, it is a credit to L'Engle that I never felt ostracized by her outspoken beliefs and still found a great deal with which to connect. I don't know if I would recommend Walking on Water to other non-Christians, but of the many religious texts that I have had to read for classes over the years, this was a joy and not a burden.
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