Learning Life Lessons Through L’Engle’s Structure

“Nothing important is completely explicable.”

– Madeleine L’Engle

Years ago, I took a nonfiction workshop where I read Madeleine L’Engle’s book Two-Part Invention: The Story of Marriage. Until that point, I had only read her fiction and a little of her poetry. Much of her nonfiction is about her religious conversion in adulthood, but Two-Part Invention is about love and hate and growing old. The title refers both to Bach’s “Two-Part Inventions” and L’Engle’s relationship with her husband, Hugh. A two-part invention is an exercise piece for piano consisting of two imitative lines, one for each hand, that toss musical motives back and forth, creating conversation. Because there are no chords, the harmony of the piece comes when the lines intersect. Such music surely frustrates the young pianist, but helps her grow in her playing.

The first few chapters of the book relate the separate childhoods of Madeleine and Hugh and how they met. Then Hugh proposes. Instead of jumping chronologically into marriage, L’Engle wrote an Interlude, using the house she and Hugh lived in, Crosswicks—meaning “where the two roads meet”—as a symbol of her marriage. Crosswicks is an old farmhouse with drafty windows and creaking stairs; it is home in every sense of the word, but constantly needs renovation.

My father started building our house before I was born, and it is still under construction. The kitchen cabinets were crates with blue curtains until a few years ago, and my bedroom is just now getting trim around the windows and doors. Growing up, a majority of my parents’ arguments were about the lack of progress on the house, but it was home nevertheless. Using L’Engle’s renovations metaphor for my parents’ marriage is difficult—maybe because I’ve witnessed the stress such labor causes. Metaphors make pain shadowed and beautiful. The actual living, however, is rough, raw. The renovations on Crosswicks expose the fact that work must be done to keep the walls standing. My home has plywood floors and sheetrocked walls, and I wonder if it will ever be finished—in fact, a finished house might detract from the home we’ve grown accustomed to.

Yet L’Engle does not ignore the waywardness of relationships, the insecurity of living. Even with repairs, her life with Hugh is uncertain. She ends her Interlude about Crosswicks, saying, “My husband is ill and I do not know how it is all going to end. Of course we never do.”

Without the Interlude allowing a glimpse into the difficulty and instability of marriage, the narrative, picked up after the proposal, would not be as powerful. Knowing all along that Hugh is going to be ill at the end makes me grateful for the time, the pages, they have left. Once again, she draws me into a new world, though this time it was her own.

Reading the book, I felt close to her. I had a hint at why L’Engle continued to write; writing is a love affair that involves failure as much as it does success. It is about reading what makes you happy and writing what helps you improve. I write because it is the natural way I express myself, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t always enjoy it. The playing with words, the construction of emotions and colors and textures using type on a page—that is what I love. But when my words don’t flow like I want them to, I become easily frustrated; and the necessity of setting aside time to write is something I’ve always fought. Though the rest of my day to day life is carefully planned out, schedules don’t seem to allow for the spontaneity that inspiration deserves. This stems, I’m sure, from my original romantic notion that art should come naturally and easily. L’Engle made time to write, though. Late in the evenings after her family had gone to bed, the only time of day that was quiet, she spent hours hunched over a desk in the attic, writing. Those few hours were her escape from life, or perhaps her way back in.

Since reading Two-Part Invention, I’ve tried on various occasions to set aside time specifically to write. If it worked for Madeleine L’Engle, then it would probably do me good as well.

 

First published as part of “Where the Two Roads Meet” in the 2009 issue of The Broken Plate.

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