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Writing Advice: Marilynne Robinson

27 April, 2009

What can writers learn from novelist Marilynne Robinson? I’ve taken some of her views about writing from her  interview with Sarah Fay for The Parisian Review.

Robinson’s  first novel, Housekeeping, published in 1980, won an award and was nominated for a Pulitzer. Her writing career has centred around  nonfiction but in 2004 she published her second novel, Gilead. It won three prizes including the Pulitzer.  Her companion novel to Gilead, called Home, was published last year. She teaches at the University of Iowa’s famous Writers’ Workshop.

5863_tn_robinson-m3Below are excerpts and paraphrases from the interview (The Art of Fiction No. 198, Issue 186, Fall 2008) found here .

Fictional characters

  • In the development of every character there’s a kind of emotional entanglement that occurs. The minute that you start thinking about someone in the whole circumstance of his life to the extent that you can, he becomes mysterious, immediately.
  • I don’t give anything a higher priority than character. . . . I don’t plot my novels . . . . [A]ction is generated out of character.
  • The one consistent thing among my novels is that there’s a character who stays in my mind . . . a character with complexity that I want to know better . . . that seem[s] to pose questions in my own thinking.

Teaching writing

  • I don’t try to teach technique, because . . . most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies. I don’t see any reason in fine-tuning something that’s essentially not going anywhere anyway.
  • I try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is. Usually in fiction there’s something that leaps out—an image or a moment that is strong enough to center the story. If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new.
  • What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.


  • Concentration: The difficulty of it cannot be overstated. But at its best, it involves a state of concentration that is a satisfying experience, no matter how difficult or frustrating. The sense of being focused like that is a marvelous feeling.
  • Inventing: . . . I try to do that only when I’m physically writing. If I get an idea while I’m walking home . . .  I think, ‘Close that down’, because if I think through a scene, I’ll wreck it by the time I get a pen in my hand.|
  • Writing discipline: I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times . . . but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me.
  • Revision:.. . . [W]orking over something that I’ve already written—I really don’t do that. . . . Most of my revision occurs before I put words down on the paper.

Writing & Life

  • I’m kind of a solitary. . . . I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it. . . . I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone.
  • . . . [Y]ou are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this. Everyone I have ever admired has passed through this . . . [L]iterature has come out of it.

Religion and writing

  • …[A]nything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.
  • Religion is a framing mechanism. . . a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about.
  • Nothing could be more miraculous than the fact that we have a consciousness that makes the world intelligible to us and are moved by what is beautiful.
  • Religion . . . has presented itself in some extremely unattractive forms. . . . People seem to be profoundly disposed toward religion, yet they’re not terribly good at it.

Reading Gilead & Home

When I first read Gilead,  found it thought-provoking but difficult. I enjoyed  Home because of its characters and its familiarity to my Kansas childhood.  When I re-read Gilead, I enjoyed it much more, mainly because Home provideds some of the story behind the events and relationships that Gilead’s main character finds puzzling. When my book group read Home, the members  found the emphasis on religion somewhat foreign but they liked how the universal themes were developed. The book focuses not only on religion (beliefs, benefits and shortcomings), but also  families (love and conflict); small town society;  the sense of ‘home’; and a child’s relationship to a parent as the years pass.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 11 November, 2010 7:29 am

    Marilynne, I can REALLY relate to the ‘ease of being alone’ that you mention. I too am a solitary who is content with their own company for days on end – and just LOVE to write!

    And I too can ‘fear the intensity of my attachment to it’ [solitude]. It’s because I’m intensely sound-sensitive and people make too many sounds!

    Nor do I plot my stories – I think my writing must be ‘character driven’ as I love inventing – or re-inventing – characters and then putting them in situations and pitting them against each other. I adore whacky racy dialogue, parody, food, colours and amazing scenery. I’m VERY descriptive and fear I go on way too long with this – but I am NOT a plotter or a planner!

    I feel I am NOT the perfect ‘textbook’ writer – I’m impulsive, forgetful, erratic and I procrastinate. And I love to write reams on the character I’m most in love with – no doubt to the detriment of any coherent plot or consistent storyline.


  2. 25 November, 2009 12:04 pm

    Lots of guys talk about this subject but you said some true words.


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