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.

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"…But I Know What I Like": The Arts of Christopher Pratt

I’ve been living a modest bike ride from the National Gallery of Canada for three and a half years, and yesterday I made it there for my (count ‘em) second visit. This is a deeply pitiable record for someone who claims interest in the arts, but I have to admit: the visual arts pieces in the Globe’s Review section are the only ones I can skip without anxiety. I’m more likely to read a dance review than one on contemporary painting, which may explain a little about why it was Christopher Pratt that ultimately drew me to the National Gallery.

Pratt is a living painter, though not necessarily a contemporary one. His paintings astonish because of their hyper-realistic detail, but also because of a fantastical feeling often attaching itself to the most mundane subjects. Or objects: you won’t find such messy and unpredictable things as people in a Pratt. (I don’t know if he would be labelled with the same “magic realism” brush as Alex Colville – for one thing, the brooding sense of menace is not so likely in Pratt – but he did train with Colville and shares a predilection for clean, precise (yet mysterious) realistic treatments that do not smack of kitsch.) I’d been somewhat more familiar with the exuberant work of Mary Pratt, his ex-wife, and first became interested in Christopher via his poetry, which I heard him reading during a radio interview. It struck me as plain and good, and when I toured his exhibit, it became all the more amazing that someone with his monkish devotion to painting could spare the mental energy and time to attain skill in another métier. But he has. A quiet dynamo.

I found his painting compelling. I laboured over each work, watching the evolution of his interests and skills and fascinated by the incredible level of application, of discipline. Unsophisticated as I am in the visual arts, his style — one in which technical skill (and painstaking, tiny-brushed attacks on often quite large canvases) is so obvious — likely makes it easy for me to appreciate his industry and skill. I loved to hear him speak of his approach to being an artist, and to watch film of Pratt at work in his studio. It’s a level of artistic focus, a grimly rigorous expression of passion, of which I can only dream. He gets himself to the studio and he is not afraid of the work, nor is there any apparent intimidation in the face of the empty canvas. It’s a wild, an extreme level of self-discipline (or canalized love), nearly frightening and utterly humbling to this sometime scribbler. His pieces are dazzling, but I was stunned as much by his furious method as by his distinctive and prodigious output. Whew. I left exhausted and moved.