Book Review: Becoming Madeleine

Despite it being hailed as a middle-school age biography, readers of our blog will love this book; letters, postcards, journal entries, friendship. You’ll find all of this, and much more in this delightful book.

Anyone who has read Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink  or has followed my other blog Mary Potter Kenyon for any length of time will know Madeleine L’Engle is one of my favorite authors, not for the fiction she is most famous for, but her Crosswick Journals series. One of my first blog posts was about her influence on my writing and my marriage way back in 2009.

I was in my late 30’s when I read A Circle of Quiet, identifying with the writer who was also a mother, a woman who “escaped” the cacophony of a noisy household to burn garbage in the back yard. I often did the same. Her thoughts on the craft have been very influential in my writing:

“To work on a book is for me very much the same thing as to pray. Both involve discipline. If the artist works only when he feels like it, he’s not apt to build up much of a body of work. Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work and to go where it tells him to go. Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear.” (Walking on Water, page 140)

Because it was about caring for her husband during his cancer, I read Two-Part Invention while my husband underwent cancer treatment in 2006. I was devastated by Madeleine’s loss. It was the first book I read after David died in 2012. Madeleine walked me through those first steps of the dark unknown of grief. 

“Now I am setting out into the unknown. It will take me a long while to work through the grief. There are no shortcuts; it has to be gone through.” (Two-Part Invention, page 228)

Madeleine L’Engle’s words touched my heart and soul so deeply, I mentioned her several times in my book  Refined By Fire; A Journey of Grief and Grace. Her granddaughter Lena graciously wrote a blurb endorsement.

“Mary Kenyon’s Refined by Fire reminds me of my grandmother, Madeleine L’Engle, who taught so many of us that writing can be a form of prayer that leads us to grace. I was moved to read how her influence inspired Mary to write and heal as well. Mary’s writing style is extremely accessible, and her voice raw, authentic and brave. By the end I was crying with her. I would definitely recommend her book to anyone who is going through any type of loss.”-  Léna Roy, granddaughter of Madeleine L’Engle

So it was with much anticipation I awaited the publication of Lena and her sister Charlotte’s biography of their grandmother, Becoming Madeleine.

madelieneMarketed as a middle grade biography, don’t let that stop you from reading it. This delightful book speaks to the hearts of writers and wannabe writers, as well as Madeleine L’Engle fans. It includes photographs, poems, letters and journal entries from Madeleine’s childhood, teens, and through her successes (and failures!) as a writer. I felt a real thrill of delight when I saw the photo of Crosswicks, as if spotting a favorite place. I couldn’t bear to highlight anything in this lovely book so marked pages  I want to return to with sticky notes instead.

I was fascinated by the mind of the young Madeleine, her mature insights. From her journal, at losing her beloved grandmother she called Dearma;

“I think this has been my passing from childhood into girlhood, because as mother says, though I am fifteen, I have really been a child all these years. And I read in another book that a person is never dead until you have forgotten then, so Dearma can never be dead to me, because I will never forget her.”

Then there is her reaction to a rejection from Good Housekeeping for a poem she’d sent at age 16. She not only added the rejection letter to her journal, on the opposite page, she’d written “I got this delightful little refusal from Good Housekeeping today & my poem was returned all dirtied. Someday Good Housekeeping will ask me to write poems for it!! 

There were a few surprises. While I’d known about the loss of her husband through the Crosswicks Journal series, I hadn’t realized she’d lost a son years later. When I read that, I wanted to pick up pen and paper to write her a letter. Which just goes to show you; the true power of a good biography is that it brings the subject alive. 

“We don’t want to feel less when we have finished a book; we want to feel that new possibilities of being have been opened to us. We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.”
― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

Thank you, Léna and Charlotte. You have managed to bring illumination to this famous writer’s life who just happened to be your grandmother. I hope you have already considered the possibilities in working on an adult biography, as well.


Merry Mary New Year~

“I’ll need to go in my office and write for a few minutes at midnight,” I informed my daughters last night as we watched television. “I’d once heard that whatever you are doing at midnight on New Year’s Eve is how you’ll spend the rest of the year, so I want to be writing.”

If that superstition holds true, I’ll be sleeping through most of the year, as I woke up to laughter five minutes after it began. I’d fallen asleep! Turns out, I had that superstition wrong. The point is to actually be doing something related to your employment on the first day of the new year. By doing it well, but not working too hard, you’ll do your job well and not be overworked the rest of the year.

I’m not sure if writing for seven consecutive hours today constitutes working “too hard,” but I hope it bodes well for productivity the rest of the year. While I’ve been employed part-time as librarian since March, it’s my writing and workshops I’ve been concentrating on over the holidays.

A year ago, I was miserable in a job that should have been perfect for me; getting paid to go to work every morning and write as a newspaper reporter.  Now employed part-time, I spend my free mornings writing what I want to write. Last year, that meant finishing up a journal that will be released this April.

Expressive Writing for Healing

Since signing a book contract in November, I’m also working on a book about creativity. The seeds of this book were planted in my heart a long time ago, shortly after my mother passed away in 2010. She left behind many notebooks and journals that made it clear her greatest wish for her children was that they get to Heaven and utilize their talents. Her words became a catalyst for change in my creativity and faith. The winter after her death, I embarked on what would become one of the most creative periods of my life up to that point. In her empty house, I found solitude and solace, a private writing retreat. There, I worked on a book manuscript, wrote articles and essays, prepared couponing and writing workshops and designed a power point presentation on creativity. I also began a file folder on creativity, certain it would someday become a book in honor of my creative mother. It could be said that grief was the impetus to taking my writing seriously, the legacy of my mother as my muse. My work in progress opens with her words.

“Our main purpose on earth is to save our soul and try to do the will of God in all things. That also means using the talents he gave us, and using them for good.”

I pulled out that old file folder in March. By late June, I’d completed the book proposal. A lot of research went on in-between; on the science behind creativity, the link between creativity and health and happiness, and the spiritual aspect of creativity. (After all, how can we talk about creativity without mentioning The Creator?)

creativity book1

A few of my favorites~

I’ve continued doing research as I delve into the different topics. The Hidden Art of Homemaking by Edith Schaeffer and Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle were old favorites that I re-read. World Enough & Time I borrowed from my sister Joan and read on the airplane on the way home from visiting her in Florida. The Art of Creative Living by Thomas Kinkade was one of the last books my mother had read in the summer of 2010.

By late summer, all this reading and writing about creativity led me to begin a Lifelong Learner’s Creativity group at the library where I work. Many of the women who joined weren’t exactly sure what they wanted to gain from it, but something in the description appealed to a restless, unnamed feeling stirring within them.
“Perhaps you were the daydreamer in grade school, the child staring out the window with a head full of stories, or the one reading books from your lap beneath the desk. Then someone snatched the box of crayons from your hand, insisting you’d done it all wrong; that trees weren’t pink, and bunnies weren’t purple, and you’d gone outside the lines. Or maybe they pulled the book out from beneath your desk, telling you it was time for math, not reading. Whether you’re ready to reignite your childhood passion for all things creative, and want your crayons back, or are looking for a way to connect with your inner artist and others who think outside of the box, a new group forming at the James Kennedy Library might be of interest.”

Our circle now serves as a focus group of sorts, representing my target audience. We’ve already done several of the activities I suggest in my book. This month we’ll be painting on canvas, and next month we’ll envision what our more creative life looks like with Vision Boards.

In the same vein, I’m incorporating creativity exercises into a “Legacy of Creativity” workshop. While I’ll continue doing writing workshops, I’m looking forward to doing  “Expressive Writing for Healing” and “Legacy of Creativity” workshops in 2018.

creative presentation pencils.jpg

You’ll have to attend one of my creativity workshops to see what the pencils are for~


So, this is what the beginning of 2018 looks like for me; a new book coming out in April, work on a manuscript that is due the end of May, and workshops and classes scheduled on my days off from the library. Despite nodding off at midnight, I’m fairly certain I won’t be sleeping through 2018.

Book Review: World Enough & Time

I picked up this book from an end table at my sister Joan’s house in Florida. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop, and she generously offered to let me take it home.

worl enough

The timing was perfect. World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen, was all about slowing down, something I’ve never been particularly good at.

This was the first real vacation I’ve ever taken. Any other traveling I’ve done has been for workshops, conferences, public speaking, or some other work-related trip. I’ve never traveled just for fun. I wasn’t sure I could ‘just be.’ A visit to the beach convinced me otherwise.


Yes, I just sat and closed my eyes, listening to the sound of the ocean waves.

McEwan claims it is solitude, quiet, introspection, and slowing down that begets creativity, and while I understand the concept, there was very little time for any of that those many years while I was raising small children, yet I managed to create.

Even on vacation, I snuck in some writing time, staying up after everyone else one night to write an essay for the journal that will be published next spring. I also began three of the four mornings spent at my sister and brother-in-law’s house writing a letter to Mary, as a way to share my trip with her. McEwen would understand.

“I surrender to the pleasures of old-fashioned epistolary friendship: warmed by my friends’ kindness, their imagined company, even before I begin to write.”- Christian McEwen

She was, of course, talking about the pleasures of letter writing, something she often does on an airplane.

Other topics included in this book are obvious from chapter titles such as these: “The Art of Looking,” “In Praise of Walking,” “Learning to Pause,” and “Across the Bridge of Dreams.” (regarding the importance of getting enough sleep, something else I need to take to heart)

You can read more about the author on her website Christian McEwen, which coincidentally, includes a beach scene at the top of the webpage.


Book Review: Walking on Water

Madeleine L’Engle has long been one of my favorite authors, but not for the book her name is most associated with; A Wrinkle in Time. I was in my late 30’s when I read A Circle of Quiet, identifying with the writer who was also a mother, a woman who “escaped” the cacophony of a noisy household to burn garbage in the back yard. I often did the same. Like Madeleine on her 40th birthday, I was at a point in my life where I sometimes wondered if I was wasting my time by choosing to write every morning, when my husband worked so hard to pay bills and I wasn’t making any money with my writing, outside of the small checks I was getting for some freelance work  I did for a local newspaper. Mostly, I identified with her need to write. I couldn’t imagine a life without writing. I still can’t.

A few years later, I would pick up The Irrational Season. I read her Two-Part Invention during my husband David’s cancer treatment in 2006. I vividly remember sobbing on the couch as I read about her husband’s death. Two-Part Invention was one of the first books I read after David died in 2012. Glimpses of Grace and Reflections on a Writing Life, written with Carole Chase, are prominently displayed on a shelf in my bedroom.

And it was L’Engle’s Friends for the Journey, written with her dear friend Luci Shaw, that served as inspiration for our Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink. (NOTE: available for a special holiday price of just $6 through the publisher right now. Click on the title for more information)

Madeleine L’Engle’s words touched my heart and soul so deeply, I mentioned her several times in my book  Refined By Fire; A Journey of Grief and Grace. Her granddaughter Lena Roy, was kind enough to endorse it.


For all these reasons, I was especially thrilled to get my hands on a new edition of Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art, by Madeleine, originally published in 1980, the year I gave birth to my first child. It was only when reading it, I realized Lena was the granddaughter of Madeleine’s that had been hit by a truck when she was a young child!


On page 2, I was instantly enthralled, reading these words;

“I sit on my favourite rock, looking over the brook, to take time away from busyness, time to be. I’ve long since stopped feeling guilty about taking being time; it’s something we all need for our spiritual health, and often we don’t take enough of it.”

And this:

“And then there is the time in which to be, simply to be, that time in which God quietly tells us who we are and who he wants us to be. It is then that God can take out emptiness and fill it up with what he wants and drain away the business with which we inevitably get involved in the dailiness of human living.” (page 162)

I’ve so rarely allowed myself that special time of just being, particularly during those years of raising young children. There was no quiet in a house full of babies and toddlers, much less time to just sit and be.  Yet, despite a distinct lack of time, I wrote. Now, my youngest is eight years old, and while I enjoy more quiet, reflective time, I also have an office to go to every weekday.

I’m working on the manuscript for a grief journal that will include my short essays along with quotes from other authors who have walked down the path of grief, including L’Engle. I was slightly dismayed when I found myself admitting in one of the essays that I occasionally missed the slow paced days of those early months of grieving, and the quiet stillness of mornings when I didn’t have to be anywhere or go anyplace. I wrote my way through much of those mornings.

When I signed a contract for this journal, I was well aware that this would be the first book-length project I would be working on without the luxury of the morning writing hours I had counted on for more than 25 years. So I’ve learned to utilize my weekend mornings and snatched moments here and there, just like I did as a mother with young children. I’d sit on the lid of the toilet to write while toddlers splashed in the bathtub, pull over to the curb and write when an infant fell asleep in the car seat. As was true back then, I don’t have hours of uninterrupted time to write. I have to find the time.

“To work on a book is for me very much the same thing as to pray. Both involve discipline. If the artist works only when he feels like it, he’s not apt to build up much of a body of work. Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work and to go where it tells him to go. Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear.” (page 140)
L’Engle shares these words of Rilke’s from his “Letters to a Young Poet” that she’d jotted down in her journal:

“You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write; find out whether if is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all- ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: Must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and testimony to it.”

Must I write?

In this wonderful book, L’Engle says she would answer in the affirmative.

Just another thing L’Engle and I have in common. Me too.

NOTE: I am excited to report that Lena Roy and her sister, Charlotte, are working on a biography of their grandmother. Read more about that by clicking HERE.

Book Review: Dear Mister Essay Guy

Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy,
This was my review on Goodreads a few months ago when I read your book for the first time:

Mildly amusing, but only mildly. And I normally like Moore’s essays and articles on essay-writing but this book had zero helpful advice for writers, so maybe it was my expectations, but I was very disappointed.

A few days ago I decided to give it a second look before I added it to the box of books headed to the HalfPrice bookstore that pays cash for my cast-offs.

Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals is written in LETTER format. Yes, questions written to author Dinty W. Moore, followed by his humorous, though dubiously helpful, answers.

As an avid reader on the writing craft, I still maintain that there isn’t as much substance to this book as there is to your articles on the art of the essay. That said, I did find the humor a bit more palatable the second time around.

While this book wasn’t for me, it does have merit, and there are fledgling writers who might get more out of it than I did.

dinty-moorereviewed by Mary Potter Kenyon


Life at Home After a Writing Conference

by Mary Jedlicka Humston

An air of magic settles over a conference hall or classroom at a writing workshop. It nurtures a cocoon-like feel, a separation from real life, and the ability to focus on what is directly in front of you instead of the revolving door at home, a ringing telephone, email, TV, errands, and obligations.

mary at conference
It transcends the mundane, allowing attendees to experience the great events and minds centered on the same topic: writing. It is easy to soak up the creative ambience in a room filled with writers. Hob-knobbing allows the unique avenue of networking and a sharing of ideas, encouragement, and addresses. Classes, workshops, and presentations are beneficial, but so are the conversations at lunch, with seatmates at conference tables, lingering after sessions, and, yes, even waiting in line during bathroom breaks.
Arriving home from a writing conference is difficult. Minds have been inundated with ideas, ideas, ideas. So many of them. Time is needed to settle in amid the noisy re-entry of the real world.
That’s what I’m trying to do after attending the Cedar Falls Christian Writers Workshop this past week where I presented two different workshops. I also taught a 90-minute workshop in Des Moines at the “Wonder of Words Festival” the day afterward.

conference presenters

photos courtesy of Cherie Dargan, pictured here (seated 2nd row, right) with other presenters at this year’s Cedar Falls Christian Writer’s Workshop, where both Marys (back row) did workshops


If you’ve attended a conference lately, how has your re-entry gone? What ideas came home with you? What can you implement now? What plans are you putting into action?
Drop us a line and let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

Eccentricities of Writers

Readers of Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink are well aware of the foibles of the two authors. Both drank copious amounts of tea during the writing and editing of the book, though one Mary (Potter Kenyon) also begins every morning with coffee.
Both Marys love paper, though it could be argued that one acts on her obsession more than the other.
When Mary mentions our mutual love of paper and pens, I wonder if she knows the extent of my obsession. Would she be shocked at the contents of the cabinet where I store our school and office supplies? Three of the shelves hold paper; there are reams of white copy paper, stacks of colorful notebooks, bins of cute notepads, and brand-new boxes of stationery. Then there is the seven-drawer plastic storage unit next to my desk. The bottom drawer holds scratch paper for grandchildren to scribble on, but the other six are crammed with vintage stationery, decorated printer sheets, and a wide assortment of note cards. I do have preferences: smaller stationery to the larger printer size, thinner sheets to the thicker ones, and vintage styles to newer ones. Thin air-mail sheets satisfy nearly all my senses. I feel a thrill of satisfaction when I fold the letter in half and hear the crinkling as I insert it in the envelope. Sometimes I take it out to re-read it just to feel and hear the paper again before mailing. A scent of patchouli emanates from the incense sticks and soap bars I store inside the drawers of paper.” -Mary Potter Kenyon, page 171


And there is definitely a preference when it comes to favorite pens.

My love for the write stuff stems, I’m sure, from my country-school days. I remember shopping trips in late summer to nearby Tipton, a larger town where we’d purchase supplies for the new year. Lined-paper tablets smelled luscious. Pencils stood as sentinels: crisp, smart-looking, and ready for action. Sharpening them provided another delicious scent. Then, there was glue. Erasers. Rulers. Ballpoint pens as I got older. All of it excited me. Is it any wonder I grew up to be a paper, pen, and pencil aficionado? I like gel writers or any pen that has a good grip. Having a multitude of free pens, it seems silly to purchase more. However, once in a while, I do. I can’t help it.”- Mary Jedlicka Humston, page 177

My favorite pen changes, but I consistently have detested any fine-tip utensils or colored gel pens. I abhor erasable ink pens. I love the thick pens that are free promotional items from businesses. I wrote much of the first draft of this chapter using a fat ink pen with a comfort grip. “Iowa Prison Industries” is emblazoned on the side.”-Mary Potter Kenyon, page 172

And both writers have a favorite time or place to write.

When? There is no ideal, perfect time when I write Mary. I have dashed off letters at all times of the day, though the wee hours of the night are sacrosanct. Working around active children in the beginning probably aided in my flexibility to write pretty much whenever I want.”-Mary Jedlicka Humston, page 174

So, how do I write? What’s my routine? I’d love to say I’m very organized and have everything filed in its proper place, easily accessible at a moment’s notice. However, I have ideas scribbled on notepad slips, the backs of envelopes, scratch paper, and printed off the computer. I don’t have an office or a private desk, just a computer desk in the front room. Because of that, papers are cluttered into organized (to me, that is) piles by the computer, the counter by our landline telephone, and in drawers. Some are even in the laundry room. Sharp number 2 pencils and old scrap paper for my rough drafts are my go-to pieces of equipment. Composing on the computer occasionally happens, but typically it’s the pencil and paper that gets my brain clicking and ticking.”- Mary Jedlicka Humston, page 75
I pen most of my correspondence in the early hours of the morning. It’s my preferred start to the day. I also like to write a letter to ease into work on a book or essay. Since my husband’s death, I have also added Bible reading to my morning ritual, but the bulk of my pre-lunch hours includes writing of some sort.-Mary Potter Kenyon (page 173)
I never minded being asked to sit near a bed while one of my children went to sleep. Most of them learned to fall asleep to the soft sound of pen on paper. Now, I usually sit on the couch, a cup of coffee (or tea if it is afternoon) nearby. When David was alive, I often wrote at breakfast while he sat companionably silent on the other side of the table, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper or a book.”-Mary Potter Kenyon (page 173)

Both Marys admit to some eccentricities in their mode of writing, utilizing paper and pen or pencil for the majority of their rough drafts. Of course, the particular eccentricities of writers can change, and sometimes must. When I (Potter Kenyon) was hired as a reporter for the local newspaper last September, I lost my free mornings of relaxed reading and writing. No more yoga pants clad mornings, curled up on the couch, with a muse fueled by coffee. I’ve traded them for well-dressed mornings sitting in an office chair, though still fueled by coffee. As a newspaper columnist on a deadline, I’ve had to abandon my old habit of hand-writing my rough drafts. For more than 20 years, I’ve conducted the same morning routine of writing in ink on legal pads. Never the yellow legal pad, mind you. Those seemed to stifle my creativity. Instead, I stocked up on white legal pads, buying them in bulk. I’m not fully convinced my new method of using the computer for rough drafts would work for me in another book project, however. I’d have to pull out the white legal pads again.

legal pads
If you read either of the two books I’ve just completed reading, you might find our writing habits quite tame in comparison to other authors.
Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors, by Celia Blue Johnson is a fun read peppered with facts like this:
• Virginia Woolf used purple ink for love letters and diary entries, and to pen her novel “Mrs. Dalloway.” While in her twenties, she preferred to write while standing up.
• Eudora Welty evaluated her work with a scissors handy. If anything needed to be moved, she cut it right out of the page. She’d use pins to put the snipped section in its new place.
• Friedrich Schiller kept a drawer full of rotten apples in his study. He couldn’t work without their pungent odor.
• Honore De Balzac consumed up to fifty cups of coffee a day and would sometimes chew on raw beans when he needed a quick fix.

odd type writers

Daily Rituals: How Artist Work, by Mason Currey, is a similar read, though it includes painters, poets, playwrights, and musical composers, with an insight into the daily schedules of these creative people, and a few very interesting photos. Let’s just say that I’ll never consider my desk as messy after getting a glimpse into Francis Bacon’s London studio.

franci bacon

What I found most revealing, and somewhat annoying, was how often the writer had someone else serving them food or drinks, and how easily they could leave the house for an afternoon of walking to clear their head. I began to wonder if I’d be a more prolific writer chain-smoking or swigging whiskey to fuel my muse. Could so many of these authors afford to lie in bed all day writing? Literally in bed, that is, as some of the writers wrote lying down.

daily rituals

There’s hope for writers like me, who have to work for a living. Not all of the authors featured in this book were funded by someone else’s money.  Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 in the evenings after work, writing longhand on a yellow legal pad. Toni Morrison, a single mom, held down a job and raised two sons while finding time to write in the evenings.

For a peek into the creative life, and perhaps some inspiration to jumpstart your own, these two books are entertaining reads.

Now hand me a glass of whiskey and a good cigar~