Marilynne Robinson (on writing, and labour)*

* And on writing on Labour Day. But that’s more about me than by her.

[3-minute read]
This is not my bride. But it *is* Marilynne Robinson, the gifted American author, about whom more in a moment.

This is not my bride. But it *is* Marilynne Robinson, the gifted American author, about whom and from whom more in a moment. (Guardian photo)

My bride asks me some hard questions sometimes. Labour Day Monday’s was, What do you want your blog to be? What’s if for, anyway? I mumbled my usual answers, which she cut short with a familiar refrain: I think it needs to be more focused. Who’s your audience? I get your latest posting and I never know what it’s going to be about.

She says that with the unmistakeable This Is Not A Good Thing tone. The Dissatisfied Client tone. I resist, naturally. I like writing about different subjects. Don’t you love it when you go to the movies and you find yourself thinking, Gee crappy, I don’t know WHERE this is going! I do. I find that thrilling, as long as I trust that I’m in good hands. Besides, writing helps me learn, and I have lots of things I like to learn about. Such would be my arguments, if I was feeling, say, defensive.

However, my lady is probably right: it seems most people like to be on familiar ground at Movie Time, and that people return to a Dave Zirin Edge of Sports column, or a Stephen King novel, or the latest reboot of the hottest superhero flick franchise – moving from the countercultural through the cultural to the culture-of-mass-consumption – because they pretty much know what they’re going to get, and they like that. Meanwhile, I expect my readers to enjoy running the gauntlet of my popping-corn enthusiasms, “madly off in all directions”, as Thurber once wrote. Well, sorry about that, readers!

It’s something to ponder, though.

Earlier, my wife had also had this question, given that it’s Labour Day, and our son heads back to high school tomorrow, and I’ve been teaching on that WonderDreadFul Tuesday nearly every year of my adult life. She asked, So are you having your teacher dreams?

This answer was easy, but I didn’t quite believe myself. Because the answer was NO. One sabbatical year years back, my late August was still filled with can’t find the classroom, teaching a subject I’ve never thought about, general performance-anxiety-ridden can I still DO this thing? mid-night theatre. Later on, when for three straight Septembers I was writing within the Canadian government, it was the same out-of-synch story. Weirdly, my subconscious believed I’d be back in the classroom even though I clearly wouldn’t be. But not this year, at least not that I can remember. I’m still surprised.

Not that I’m free of doubt, or my recurring claustrophobic frustration dreams. I am instead worrying about my writing and where it’s headed. (And basketball. The coaching dreams still haunt me, and that season’s coming up, too.) Which, you may be thankful to hear, brings us to Marilynne Robinson.

I’ve been reading her strenuously, wonderingly, gratefully for the past several months. I have written about her, and gave a talk at a large conference of smart and faithful people (the majority of which did not crowd my break-out session) on the scope and importance of her fiction and especially her non-fiction. I’ll be writing more, am presenting again on her work at a local forum in September, and a website I enjoy reading has asked for a series of articles. Nice. AND I have an unfocussed blog to write for! Yes!

Since I’m pondering my own practice as a writer, and spending the Last Long Weekend of the Summer Time trying to get my head straight (and my desk straighter) about what I want from this practice (recreation, vocation, obsession, delusion…), here are some Robinsonisms on Writing, her own, that is. They come from an extended series of interviews she did with the Paris Review in 2005 for its “Art of Fiction” series, no. 198. Her focus is remarkable:

“I have this urgency about what I want to get done, and I discipline myself by keeping to myself….The difficulty of [writing] cannot be overstated. But at its best, it involves a state of concentration that is…a marvellous feeling. It’s one of the reasons I’m so willing to seclude myself.”

Asked why she writes, she offered these reflections:

“To change my own mind. I try to create a new…terrain for myself – I always think of the Dutch claiming land from the sea….I write something and think, How do I know that’s true?…[But] I did not want my books to be one more tributary to the sea of nonsense that really is what most ‘conventional wisdom’ amounts to….[T]he research and criticism I have done have helped me to be of my own mind in some degree, and that was a feeling I had to achieve before I could enjoy writing fiction [after her first novel, Housekeeping]…”

I should travel more….But then I come home and I think, I have all of this work to do. Look at all of these books I haven’t read. Frankly, you get to a certain point in your life where you can do unusual things with your mind. So then, I think, Do them.

Marilynne Robinson (1943 – ) was 65 when she gave this interview. She recently retired from her teaching post at the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. Best known for her novel Gilead, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Robinson is the author of four novels and a half-dozen collections of her non-fiction writing. She is a shining example of the Christian as scholar, thinker, and humanitarian.

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