The Power of Words

When I was thirteen, I read a book by Madeleine L’Engle called Ilsa. Most people think of A Wrinkle in Time when they think of Madeleine L’Engle, if they think of her at all, but she wrote many other things. Ilsa grabbed at my heart and my brain and shook them around a bit, and I have never forgotten it. It was all light and beauty; beautiful, complicated prose about a beautiful, complicated heroine named Ilsa. I read it twice, back to back, the way kids now read HarryPotter/PercyJackson/Twilight/The Hunger Games. But it wasn’t because of the plot; nobody had superpowers and nobody was in love with their competitor in a televised war game that ends in death. I loved Ilsa was because the writing and the characters made me feel more than I felt at home or at school. The words on the page made me feel like I’d taken a giant breath of autumn air, laced with joy and melancholy, highs and lows. Like I’d won a lottery, like my dog died, like I’d been loved and betrayed and loved again. I wasn’t bi-polar, I was thirteen.

I don’t actually remember what the book was about. I can’t read it, because it was published in 1946 and has been out of print for decades. I got it from the library in Evergreen, Colorado, and dutifully returned it when I was finished, though it pained me to drop it in the return slot. There was no internet then so I called the publisher; it had already been out of print for twenty years. I wrote the author and asked for a copy; she wrote a lovely letter back, thanking me and saying she didn’t have a copy, and in any case, “that book was very much a first novel, and a bit of a mess.” Well. It was beautiful to me. I’d buy a copy on Ebay but they cost over a thousand dollars now.

There are books in my life, our lives, that–I really don’t want to phrase it this way but–touch us, and I am grateful to them all. I won’t say they were books that I couldn’t put down; it was more like they were books I had to put down sometimes, just to reflect. To breathe. Books that made my heart ache with feeling. Books that swept me up in the story and the words so much that colors took on a deeper hue, smells became more potent, and I read through meals, forgetting to eat unless made to. Books that made me want to be a writer.  Ilsa was one of the first. Then there was The Small Rain, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Giant, The Thorn Birds, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, To Kill a Mockingbird and My Antonia. Then it didn’t happen for a long time. That magic seemed to be gone. Everything I read was dull, or had an agenda, or was written for kids my age and was not much better than the Sweet Valley High Twins books. (Okay, those did have a certain saccharine, thrilling commercialism that was hypnotic, but they were crap.) I grew up, and started finding that magic again sometimes, by accident, when I stumble across someone who writes with poignant accuracy, or whose characters seem more real than most of the people I know. I won’t name them here, but they do exist, and I still get swept up, forgetting to eat. I wish it would happen more often; I’d be thinner.

Well. I’m not Madeleine L’Engle. I’m no Thomas Hardy, no Edna Ferber or Colleen McCullough, no Betty Smith or Harper Lee and certainly no Willa Cather. But I can dream. I can play with words on a page and try to capture moments and feelings and contain them for the reader, for a moment, in a sentence, a paragraph. If I feel I put it down with accuracy and beauty, and if somebody–even just one person–reads it and thinks oh, I have known exactly that feeling, then I will be happy. I’ll have captured a little, imperfect but beautiful picture of humanity and framed it, and said Here: look.


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