I’ve been reading a lot of Lucy Maud lately. Dipping into one of her novels or re-reading her short stories for the umpteenth time touches such a deep, elemental place inside of me. There’s something about the awakening of the world in spring that makes me long for the companionship of her words—words which awakened me as a child to the beauty of my own aliveness. I’ve never been the same since the day I picked up Anne of Green Gables. As I wrote in my preface to the Low Door Press edition of Kilmeny of the Orchard:
[Anne of Green Gables] touched a flame to the secret yearnings of an awkward and absent-minded and excruciatingly shy twelve year-old girl so that they flared into a glow by which I could see myself at last: not as a vicarious Anne, as might be imagined, but as the Lanier which God had in His heart when He dreamed me up in the first place. He had dreamed up everybody, I saw with a throb of freedom and joy. And it was allright simply to be the person He had in mind, however imperfectly one might keep pace with their companions.
I still get choked up when I try to tell someone what Lucy Maud Montgomery and her writings have meant to me. Spending so much time over the past week indulging myself amid the old friends of her stories has made me think hard about her influence, however, and that of other authors who have kindled my creative ambitions in truly life-changing ways. I’ve been reading and slowly digesting Twyla Tharpe’s The Creative Habit in an attempt to understand and harness my own artistic processes, and one of the exercises she recommends is a long questionnaire entitled “My Creative Autobiography”. It was a fascinating assignment, as she probes you to go back into your earliest memories, tapping the first springs of delight and imagination. At the risk of appearing to interview myself (which would be weird!) I thought I would share some of the questions and my answers in an attempt to express my appreciation to Montgomery and her counterparts in my life:
Which artists do you admire most?
L.M. Montgomery. Alcott, Austen, George Eliot. These are my big heroes. Also Elizabeth Goudge.
Why are they your role models?
For one thing they are all women who literally fought for their creative life. They all led very quiet lives for the most part, but they left an indelible imprint not only on literature, but on me. George Eliot worked under conditions of enormous social censure and she was also up against some mighty ferocious self-consciousness concerning her work. That always staggers me—that she was able to press through that, silence those inner voices. George Lewes had to shield her from all critical reviews of her work and he had to reinterpret her editor’s comments to make sure they were coming across as positively as possible. But she didn’t let this weakness keep her from writing.
Montgomery was clinically depressive, and I am astounded 1) that she was able to work at all, 2) that she put forth so many works of such great beauty, and 3) that these inner ravages never colored her work with a melancholy tone. She did not deny the shadows—but she focused on the light and the beauty that stood out all the more radiantly against them. Her books broke my heart with beauty and made me wildly joyful to be alive. The fact that she was hurting so very much (and in a time when you just couldn’t talk about it) and yet gave such gifts to the world and to me—I love her devotedly for that.
Austen just made it happen in a time when there weren’t a lot of female novelists, and still fewer truly good ones. And she was great, a giantess in a diminutive frame. She just sat in her little parlor and wrote what she knew and what she observed every single day. She changed the face of literature. And she ‘let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’ I might just love that most about her.
Alcott was fearless and unstoppable. And she was able to write about virtue without ever descending to anything that even smelled like moralizing or preachiness. I don’t know how she did it and I don’t know of anyone who ever came close to her in that.
And dear Elizabeth Goudge. She gave me hope for the modern world and for the aliveness and wellness of beauty in this tired old era of ours. She wrote tenaciously of beauty in a dark time. And she is a mistress of expressing spiritual truths and realities without ever resorting to clichés or anything else that would make people dismiss her. She was incredible at that and I’ve learned of God’s heart and love in reading her books. I also love her beautifully flawed characters. The ones who are shy or who hate sickrooms or who bump the teacart over the carpet. They are all complex, they all have a past and inner demons. They are all so real that one can relate to them. But she never gives up on beauty.
What do you and your role models have in common?
Like Eliot, I am paralyzingly terrified of criticism of my work. It kills me.
Like Austen, I have no wish whatever to write of misery and despair.
Like Alcott, I want to be the Jo March she created, scribbling feverishly away in my ‘garret’. I want to be able to communicate truths about life and human relationships. And she’s my only American on the list—maybe that’s something.
Like Goudge, (and Dostoyevsky!) I believe that beauty will save the world. I believe that pointing people to beauty is essentially pointing them to God, whether they realize it or not. And like her I am pretty private and reserved outside of my sphere. I don’t like the business that has to do with an author’s life (or I won’t, I guess, if I ever become one) and I require enormous amounts of solitude in order to get anything done.
Like Montgomery, the beauty of this world broke my heart, and, like her, I can’t bear not to tell about it. She wrote of a place that she knew and loved intimately and she gave it to me and made me love it. She showed me that was what I was to do with my place.
This last question isn’t really related to the inspiring authors theme, but I couldn’t help tacking it on. Whenever I read over this answer, I get tears in my eyes. Although I dashed it off in a tare of writerly passion, I meant every word with all my heart.
What is your greatest dream?
To write something that would show someone else that God is as good as they have always secretly dreamed He would be. And more.
To create a world through story that would be a place in which other souls might encounter something of who God is—something they might not have otherwise encountered.
To awaken hearts with beauty. To carry cups of cold water to a parched, heartbroken, homesick world.
I want to write stories that tell the truth and that are laced and haunted with the beauty of Eden.
I want to do what my most beloved authors have done for me: not only point the way home, but throw light on the loveliness of the journey. I want people to read my stories and know that they are not alone.