Friday, October 21, 2011

Why hearing from Marilynne Robinson discouraged me

I got to go hear Marilynne Robinson in Orem last night. Her book, Gilead, which won the Pulitzer prize, and its companion novel, Home, have moved me deeply, and I was eager to hear from her, to see what kind of person, what kind of mind, these books came out of. One thing that made me especially curious was the fact that she was a woman, because those two books are so predominantly male. Home’s main POV character is female, but the voice does not feel very female, and the true focus of the book is not Glory but her brother Jack. How does a female writer feel so confident writing so much about men? I was also curious about how Robinson even got the nerve to write these books, because they are so very literary (in that there is hardly any outward plot at all) and so unlike the kinds of things that get published. I wanted to know about her background in fiction, what kinds of things she reads and what her goals were as she wrote, to help me understand how a writer can so thoroughly throw out all the rules you hear from agents/publishers about keeping the action going, having conflicts on every page, etc. I wanted to listen to her as a writer, as someone who might, potentially, want to write like her someday, with similar subject matter that is so heavily internal.

First of all, I was a little disappointed that she took a large portion of the time to read to us from Gilead. I wanted to hear her speak, not hear her read words that I had at home and could read to myself any time. I wanted to hear so much about how she could come to sit down to the endeavor that was these two novels. I was selfish, I know. The question-and-answer period helped me get some ideas, anyway. Here are some of the notes I took:

On the subject of how she came to choose Reverend Ames’s story to tell (or any of her novels): “The voice just comes to me, I don’t know from where.” This is interesting and disappointing to me. Disappointing because I NEVER GET VOICES. I have had friends tell me they hear voices, or are haunted by their characters, and I am so very envious. How can I get that? All my characters really turn out to be me in different disguises, and that is my greatest weakness. I am too cerebral, left-brained, controlling, conscious, whatever. I want to loose that need to always be in control and get tap into the world of the other, the Jungian cloud above us that is full of ideas, or my own subconscious. But I don’t know how! Can I pray to be haunted?

She talked about how, during the writing of Gilead, she would spend her day working (at something else) but have in the back of her mind the happy thought that she would get to go home and spend time with John Ames. This must have been an amazing feeling.

Her idea for the novel began with her own interests. She had a great interest in 19th century culture, especially vernacular hymns. So I ask myself, where are my interests? What am I very interested in that could lead to an idea for a novel?

I asked her about Jack’s story (Home), and at what point in the construction of Gilead she had realized that Jack had his own story that needed to be told, and whether she knew that story as she wrote Gilead. She answered that “The characters [in Gilead] just wouldn’t go away. So I figured that if they were that strong, perhaps I should give them some attention.”

Again, the haunting.

In response to a question about how she had the courage to write about religious life and believing characters, she quoted statistics about how surprisingly many Americans are actually religious. Then she said, “I have to write what is on my mind. I lecture on and study theology, so that’s what I write about. Courage doesn’t really come into it.” It reminded me of something Wallace Stegner once said to Jerry Johnston when Jerry asked about whether a great Mormon novel was possible (as reported in an AML meeting many years ago): “Just tell it true.” I believe this very strongly—that a Mormon writer who writes a Mormon novel but skillfully and very, very true (meaning no propaganda or whitewashing) could succeed nationally.

Someone asked her what she reads. She mentioned Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Emerson. VERY interesting. No novelists? I wonder whether that made it possible for her to write what she did. If she were constantly reading what’s being produced these days, maybe she would have told herself that no one would publish what she was writing. There may be something to be said about isolating oneself in order to keep one’s own voice and passions pure.

About craft: “Always keep something in front of the reader’s eyes. You are leading them through a world they are unfamiliar with.” I think Robinson does an amazing job of this, considering how very internal her books are. Scene, scene, scene is where it’s at. Again, I feel myself hampered by my inability to visualize.

So it was a really enjoyable evening, but it served to make me lose confidence in myself as a novelist. Is this ability to be haunted, and to visualize, something that can be learned? Should I just give up and decide to be a great appreciator? That wouldn’t be a bad life . . . And there is always my poetry, which comes so much more naturally to me, even as it also relies on scene.


Laura said...

Okay, so I feel really silly trying to give you advice because you are so much more accomplished than I am and a much better wordsmith but I have a couple things that have helped loosen me up a little when it comes to writing and they might be helpful to you. (This is probably going to be a long comment. . .)

A friend of mine is an expressive arts (EXA) therapist and spending some time in the expressive arts with her has been very helpful to me. The EXA approach to art is very process based; it's not about the end product it's about our ability to go through the process and the experiences we have while working. It is also very anti-meaning. Modern university based approaches to literature are all about investing a work with meaning or deconstructing a meaning previously assigned to a work. EXA says, there is no meaning; only subjectivity and response. EXA also insists that all artists are intermodal--meaning that you are never allowed to stay with the medium you prefer. I prefer words with music being my second most comfortable medium, but I am required to spend as much time (sometimes more, given my frustrations) in painting, sculpting, and dancing. These ideas have helped me accept that not everything I create is going to be awesome. In fact, I might even hate what I come up with--but the act of creating something I dislike is still instructive and, really, freeing. Knowing that I paint and dance horribly but can still enjoy them makes it okay to fail at writing sometimes. It just takes a lot of the anxiety out of it because failure isn't as scary. I mean, it's easier to fail at dancing because it doesn't mean as much to me, but it ends up being like a practice failure so that when I really do suck at writing that feeling isn't so devastating.

Maybe there are ways you can find to start pushing yourself outside your artistic comfort zone and, as they say in EXA, "venture into the nothing." I find that when I'm stuck on a writing idea if I try to draw a picture of it or draw a picture of anything it loosens me up.

EXA is also all about intuition and going with your gut--just doing what you want to do when you want to do it and that has freed up my artistic process a lot.

I also really identified with the part where you wrote that all your characters are thinly veiled versions of yourself. I have this problem too sometimes and I took it as a sign that I needed to write a memoir. It wasn't for publication (although if you were to write a memoir I would absolutely want to read it!) but it helped get all the navel gazing out my system. Maybe your inner artist is telling you that it wants you to get to know yourself better.

I'm always surprised at the interplay between my intuition and my level of self-awareness in writing. Too much of either can kill a work.

Good luck!

Darlene Young said...

Wow, Laura, thanks. I'm very interested in this EXA stuff. Is there a book I can read on it? A class I can take? I'd really like to learn more. I'd like to get back to that love of just creating for the joy of it without imposing any requirements (quality, meaning) on it. I've missed that since I've been taking myself more seriously as a writer.

Nanakat said...

Kathleen here, offering my thoughts, for whatever they may be worth.

First of all, you are not Robinson, but I think you know that. It's just that her process is not going to be your process, even though you'd like to write things similar to what she's written.

Second, I submit that every single character that has ever been written by every single author who has ever written a character had to have started out as aspects of the author in one way or another.

In a way, your perception of each person you have ever met is actually someone you have created in your own head from your experience with each person, and while each of these creations may be similar to the real individuals, they are actually only your guesses about each person. (Did that make sense?)

The same goes for every character you experience that someone else has created and that you have read. You can't get away from what your own brain does with the ideas that are put into it.

So the characters you create are basically you, or parts of you (and they may be combined with ideas you have about other people, as well). Fine. The art, in my opinion, is in growing them from that seed into something that readers will perceive as separate and full-blown in and of themselves.

So you start with a piece of yourself, and you ask yourself, what would someone like that do in this or that situation? What would someone like that want, and how would that someone go about achieving such goals?

Consider the idea that Mr. Hyde was basically Dr. Jekyll letting himself do things (in disguise) that he would never do as Jekyll. Your characters can be little Hydes who get to do things you might never do as yourself (whether because you took other roads in your life, or because you never had time to do thus and such, or whatever--not necessarily negative things you never let yourself do), and you can explore the results of their actions in your writing.

Don't despair. Figure out how to use and grow what you write so that it will become something truly yours. You might be surprised at how it can then become truly your readers' as well.

Anonymous said...

[It looks like I'll have to break my comment into 2 parts to get it to post.]

I've wondered some of the same questions you raised.

When Ms. Robinson mentioned that there was a particular writer (I didn't catch his name) she was driven to read while writing one of the books (Gilead, I think) I thought she might mean that her character's voice was at least somewhat influenced by his voice. I think she also conceded to there being a bit of her in the characters, in the sense that she writes about the topics that she finds compelling. So while having voices come to her is a gift that many of us may lack, at the same time I think she gave hints of how to encourage those voices.

Still, I've thought before that since I'm really not very average in my interests and in what motivates me, I would have a very hard time writing characters with strong voices who anyone but me could relate to. (For example, it would be nearly impossible for me to write convincingly about a character who loves sports or who knows a lot about popular music.) But maybe that's not something worth worrying about; maybe I do have enough universal interests to work with if I did stick to what I know.

Another worry of mine is that since I'm much more drawn to abstract ideas than to creating stories and characters, I'm probably more suited to be an essayist than a storyteller--but people (including me) generally like reading stories more than reading essays, and I'm more motivated to write if I think I can share it with a larger audience.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, I wonder if having satisfying ways to share ideas in daily life (by talking to those who are close to me--or leaving enormous comments on blogs) depletes any drive to write--and whether I'm fine with that. My mom says she read an interview with Robinson where she was asked about the gap of many years between Housekeeping and Gilead, and Robinson said that she's often not very driven to write, but that she wrote Gilead when she was missing her grown sons, which was the motivation or drive that kept her writing. And J.K. Rowling says she never talked about what she was writing because talking would have depleted her energy to get it on paper. So maybe having plenty of sympathetic friends to listen to us is great for our quality of life, but not as helpful for motivating us to creat anything tangible that can be shared with a larger audience.

So those are a few of my thoughts on what it takes to become (or not become) a novelist.

My mom and I also had a conversation afterward about there being one obvious caveat, when Robinson says that American audiences are actually very open to reading about religious characters and ideas, which is that Robinson writes about the past--so the religiosity of the characters has the distance of past generations, and that removal makes it less threatening, and even quaint. While I would never assert that truly contemporary fiction, dealing with religious themes and characters in our days, couldn't appeal to a broad audience (nor win a Pulitzer) I do think it remains to be seen. (And I'd LOVE to see it done well.)

Darlene Young said...

Thanks, Zina. I didn't know Robinson was a mother. That's interesting.

I hear you about wondering whether having a network of people to share ideas with inhibits or lessens the drive to write. I have been so darn content lately, and I think that it's partially because I have such a great community of interesting people (many of whom are writers--but I'm really happy to just cheer them on). One of my motivations to write several years ago was to prove myself to these people so that I could feel like an equal to them, or part of their community. Once I felt I had established a nourishing relationship with them, the drive went down. I wonder if I could get it back by thinking about a larger audience as a potential relationship. Hmmmmm . . .

As an example of people dealing with religious issues convincingly in a modern setting, there is, of course, Angela Hallstrom. I've also been impressed with Jack Harrell. And have you read "The Ladies Auxiliary" Interesting treatment of a modern religious culture, this time conservative Jewish. It sound so much like something that could have been written about a Mormon community.

Darlene Young said...

And thanks, Kathleen. I need to sit in on your lecture about creating characters. I remember you talking about even using Tarot cards to help.

Anonymous said...

"Thinking about a larger audience as a potential relationship" is a very interesting idea.

I didn't finish The Ladies' Auxiliary because although the setting was fascinating, the book rubbed me the wrong way in ways that might take me a while to explain. In a nutshell, to be honest, I felt like the author was often condescending toward the characters and made them somewhat stereotyped. Maybe I'd have liked it better if I'd finished it, although the skimming-ahead that I did do didn't convince me.

I did think of Angela's book as one that I think very much succeeds as serious, quality literature that treats religious characters respectfully. I don't see any reason books like that couldn't be offered to a broader audience than the Mormon community.

Kate said...

I did send you all those notes I took from Marilynne Robinson's presentations in Pocatello, didn't I?

I think any comparisons with another person are bound to be skewed. You write wonderfully. I don't think you need to worry about anyone else's way of writing if your way works for you.


Laura said...


Sorry it took me so long to get back here and answer your question. I got into the Expressive Arts through my friend who has a degree in Expressive Arts therapy (it's a cross between an arts degree, occupational therapy training, and psychology training). She has a studio on her farm and I have done a lot of my work with her. Since I'm out in Colorado I really don't know who to connect you with out in Utah. Here's the website for the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association:

I did a little googling and there are several EXA therapists in the Salt Lake Area, but I have no idea what your experience with them would be.

I wonder if you could free yourself artistically by just taking a class in something you are no good at and just learn to enjoy it? Maybe sculpting or something?? (Or maybe you are already a really good sculptor so you'd have to pick painting) I get a lot of the same kind of joy-in-the-process when I bake and decorate cakes. I'm terrible at it, but it's just plain fun so I enjoy it!

There is a strong therapy element to all the stuff I've done, but that is actually very helpful to me given my depression/anxiety problems. There's a group that meets occasionally that I join in with. I find the whole thing quite healing.

As for books you can look it up on Amazon. I wish I had some better resources for you! Good luck--if you do find something blog about; I'd love to hear about your experience :)

Darlene Young said...

Thanks, Laura!

I'm actually finding NaNoWriMo really freeing for me this year. I began by dumping all my planning and starting something off the top of my head, and am taking it day by day. I was scared to do it again, but I'm so glad I did. Maybe I should just make sure I do it every year. (I've had the same results whenever I've done 30 poems in 30 days.)