A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle

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Madeleine L’Engle’s first memoir, A Circle of Quiet, is a different kind of book. The back cover of my copy calls it “Spirituality/Autobiography,” but this isn’t your typical spiritual tome or autobiography. For me, it was a subtle encouragement to write, because I can and I want to.

This memoir is the first in a series of memoirs called “The Crosswicks Journal.” She approaches it as a journal of one summer living in her country house, called Crosswicks. But her journal doesn’t follow a chronological review of her summer; rather, she explores who she is as a woman, a writer, and an individual in the community.

She says:

One of the most helpful tools a writer has is his journals. Whenever someone asks how to become an author, I suggest keeping a journal. A journal is not a diary, where you record the weather and the engagements of the day. A journal is a notebook in which one can, hopefully, be ontological.…[A journal is] a place where you can unload, dump, let go.… A journal is also a place in which joy gets recorded, because joy is too bright a flame in me not to burn if it doesn’t get expressed in words. (page 197)

She keeps a wonderfully refreshing journal in this book: it is an exploration of who she is. As a woman, a want-to-be writer, and a member of a community, I found her insights intriguing. Throughout the memoir, L’Engle claims that to be a writer, we first need to come to terms with who we are as an individual. She got me thinking: Why do I want to write? Who am I as a writer?

I found this book to be a relaxing, slow read. I would read a few pages, pencil in hand to mark passages that stood out to me. Then I’d read another book or go care for my son. The next day, I’d reread a few of the marked passages and read a few more pages. I don’t think I read more than 50 pages a week. As such, I was reading this for about a month and a half. But I didn’t find this a problem. In fact, I’m glad I own a copy of it so I can review the passages I enjoyed.

I am not certain I will reread the entire book. It doesn’t have a plot and I found it hard to follow her progression of thinking. However, there are many sections that really stood out to me. I’ve marked them for a reread at some point. Some highlights:

She discusses limits in children’s literature (1970s).

The more limited our language is, the more limited we are; the more limited the literature we give to our children, the more limited their capacity to respond, and therefore, in their turn, to create. The more our vocabulary is controlled, the less we will be able to think for ourselves. We do think in words, and the fewer words we know, the more restricted our thoughts. As our vocabulary expands, so does our power to think. (page 149)

Let’s not be afraid to use “regular” words in children’s books! there is no need to “dumb it down.”

She discusses children’s versus adult books.

If it’s not good enough for adults it’s not good enough for children. If a book that is going to be marketed for children does not interest me, a grownup, then I am dishonoring the children for whom the book is intended, and I’m dishonoring books. And words. (page 198)

I totally agree with her. I don’t want to read lousy books and I think if I find it lousy, it’s not quality enough for my son to be reading (of course, he’s still only an infant, so I have a number of years before he’ll come home wanting to read Captain Underpants…).

She discusses how we, as writers, are inextricably connected to our community.

No matter how fantastic a story line may be, it still comes out of our response to what is happening to us and to the world in which we live. (page 97)

I found this the case with A Wrinkle in Time when I reread it last month: it felt like it took place in Anytown, USA, even though it was taking place throughout the universe because the themes and characters were recognizable to me.

She explains why we write.

If something deep within even the most tentative and minor of artists didn’t think his work was good, he would stop, forever. (page 27)

Of course. It’s all been said better before. If I thought I had to say it better than anybody else, I’d never start. Better or worse is immaterial. The thing is that it has to be said; by me; ontologically. We each have to say it, to say it our own way. (page 28)

She compares writing a book to having a baby.

I have a friend, a beautiful and talented young woman, who is afraid to have a child and who is afraid to use her talent to write. She does not yet understand the joy that follows the pain of birth. I’ve experienced the pain and joy of the birth of babies and the birth of books and there’s nothing like it: when a child who has been conceived in love is born to a man and woman, the joy of that birth sings throughout the universe. The joy of writing or composing or painting is much the same, and the insemination comes not from the artists himself but from his relationship with those he loves, with the whole world. (page 49)

I need to abandon my fear of writing and just do it. I wouldn’t give up my little child for anything.

She explains why we need to read.

[After grandmother’s funeral, I picked up a book.] I do not think that this [retreating into a book] was escape or evasion. The heroine of the book had her own problems with loneliness and anxiety and death. Sharing these, being totally in this different world for an hour or so, helped me understand my own feelings.

I love this! It so succinctly explains to me why I feel compelled to read, rather than do any number of other things.

She discusses great literature and why we need to read it to prepare to write.

A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write. This response on the part of any artists is the need to make incarnate the new awareness we have been granted through the genius of someone else. (page 147)

My favorite quote from the book:

A great piece of literature does not try to coerce you to believe it or to agree with it. A great piece of literature simply is. (page 201)

There are so many more things in this book that inspired me to read, write, and think about myself. I think it’s necessary to be aware of our place in the world, and I appreciate L’Engle’s reminders and insights.

Don’t expect a page-turner, but this book is a circle of quiet in the midst of the page-turners of the world.

Have you read this book? What did you think and what stood out to you? In the comments, link to your review if you have one.

Reviewed on May 12, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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