A Teacher and Her Student
Marilynne Robinson on Staying Out of Trouble
Illustrations by Denise Nestor
arilynne Robinson was my fourth and final workshop instructor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is an intimidating intellectual presence—she once told us that to improve characterization, we should read Descartes. When I asked her to sign my copy of Gilead, she admitted she had recently become fascinated by ancient cuneiform script. But she is also generous and quick to laugh—when she offered to have us to her house for dinner, and I asked if we ought to bring food, she replied, “Or perhaps I will make some loaves and fishes appear!” Then she burst into giggles.
After receiving my MFA this May, I left Iowa believing that there’s no good way to be taught how to write, to tell a story. But there is also no denying that Marilynne has made me a better writer. Her demands are deceptively simple: to be true to human consciousness and to honor the complexities of the mind and its memory. Marilynne has said in other interviews that she doesn’t read much contemporary fiction because it would take too much of her time, but I suspect it’s also because she spends a fair amount of her mental resources on her students.
Our interview was held on one of the last days of the spring semester. The final traces of the bitter winter had disappeared, and light filled the classroom, which now felt empty with just the two of us. My two years at Iowa were over, and I selfishly wanted to stretch the interview for as long as possible.
VICE: You recently told the class you had discovered the ending to your new novel—or so you hoped. How does that happen for you? How do you know?
Marilynne Robinson: A lot of the experience of the novel—after the beginning—is being in the novel. You set yourself with a complex problem. If it’s a good problem or one that really engages you, then your mind works on it all the time. A novel by its nature is new. The great struggle, conscious or unconscious, is to make sure that it is new. That it actually has raised issues that deserve to be dealt with in their own terms. They’re not terms that you have seen elsewhere. It’s sort of like composing music. There are options that open and options that disappear, depending on how you develop the guidelines. You think about it over time. And then something will appear, something that is the most elegant response to the question that you’ve asked yourself. And it can absorb the most in terms of the complexities that you’ve created.
It struck me when you said we must “trust the peripheral vision of our mind.” It seems like a muscle in your body that you have to develop by training some other part of you.
One reaches for analogies. I think it’s probably a lot like meditation—which I have never practiced. But from what I understand, it is a capacity that develops itself and that people who practice it successfully have access to aspects of consciousness that they would not otherwise have. They find these large and authoritative experiences. I think that, by the same discipline of introspection, you have access to a much greater part of your awareness than you would otherwise. Things come to mind. Your mind makes selections—this deeper mind—on other terms than your front-office mind. You will remember that once, in some time, in some place, you saw a person standing alone, and their posture suggested to you an enormous narrative around them. And you never spoke to them, you don’t know them, you were never within ten feet of them. But at the same time, you discover that your mind privileges them over something like the Tour d’Eiffel. There’s a very pleasant consequence of that, which is the most ordinary experience can be the most valuable experience. If you’re philosophically attentive you don’t need to seek these things out.
In a way, it seems more difficult. Like trying to look beautiful without makeup.
Harder in some cases than others. It is hard. Frankly, I think most people would think that if you look beautiful without makeup, you’re more truly beautiful than if you’re beautiful with makeup. Although that’s an argument in and of itself. If it were simply discipline, like learning to juggle, or something like that, that’s one thing. But it’s finding access into your life more deeply than you would otherwise. Consider this incredibly brief, incredibly strange experience that we have as this hypersensitive creature on a tiny planet in the middle of somewhere that looks a lot like nowhere. It’s assigning an appropriate value to the uniqueness of our situation and every individual situation.
How can we—your students—improve ourselves as writers?
It’s hard to talk about something like that without sounding prescriptive, but I think that there’s a reluctance in all writers in early stages of their development to really commit themselves to trust their interests as being actually focused on things that are interesting. To realize that they do not have to talk in the same dialect that is being talked around them, in terms of literary convention and all the rest of it. Something that I sometimes say, and even sometimes believe, is that there has been a loss of the cult of genius. When I was younger, I remember going around totally deluded by the idea that other people might, in fact, be geniuses or at least be able to express this in any intelligible fashion. The idea that you might do something radically brilliant—that assumption is very empowering and it has given the world a lot of really interesting things to look at. It’s a side effect of the cult of normality—the idea that it would be preposterous and perhaps undesirable to single yourself out in that way. I think that’s why a lot of stuff that basically amounts to breaking china is seen as being creative when, in fact, it’s as subservient to prevailing norms as anything else is, as obedience to them would be.
There is that whole Malcolm Gladwell thing—if you spend 10,000 hours on something, you’ll be good at it. Or good enough.
The “good-enough” standard is not very desirable.
I wanted to ask about some of your recent students like Ayana Mathis or Paul Harding. Every year, someone in the workshop must look to you as a mentor or as a guide to an intellectual process.
One of the good things about this program is that the students have their choice of mentors. I work for some, and I have to assume that I don’t work for others. It’s really affinity. Something that preexists in the younger writer that makes them seek out a certain kind of guidance. It was my experience when I was an undergraduate that the most valuable thing in my own preparation was very selective approval. Really truly finding out what you do well, and really truly finding out what you do badly. I try to sort of approximate that. I know that every good writer is deeply distinctive. That means that if you want them to develop as good writers, there are very practical limits on how you can try to mold them.
How were things different when you graduated college in 1966?
It was kind of strange. I was at Brown. Pembroke was basically a residential campus. All my classes were at Brown, my degree is from Brown. Pembroke was basically, if you looked at it positively, an unusual elite training for women, which was not so available then. If you look at it negatively, it was a pretext for making sure that the ratio for women to men was very low. The other side of that was that there were a lot of incredibly bright women at Pembroke because it was difficult to be accepted. At that time, Brown, like any other university, had an overwhelmingly male faculty. There were no women writing teachers. I lived in a dormitory that was like a nunnery. These things always have two sides—people would get really angry at each other for slamming doors. It was just as quiet and serious as it could possibly be. Which suited my natural tastes, and was an excellent atmosphere to study in. There were definite advantages to all the disadvantages, which certainly don’t compensate. I was on a cusp, as you say. My teachers were all men. All my teachers were men. In writing classes, for example, I never felt as if I were dealt with on any other terms, or that any of the women were. I received what seemed to me to be authentic encouragement, excellent advice.
While I’ve been a student here, you’ve taught Faulkner, Melville, and the Old Testament. Part of me is reluctant to ask this question, because I suspect that you don’t think along gendered lines, but I’m curious if there are female writers whom you revere in the same way?
Emily Dickinson. But it’s partially just an accident of the period in which I am immersed. Emily Dickinson is a poet of the very first order, and there’s no question about that. This is an odd thing—there were other women writers in the 19th century who were very much revered. Much more famous than Dickinson was, which is not difficult. But people like Lydia Sigourney. Never heard of her, right? She would be quoted as if she were Shakespeare. She was very important. Like many writers of that period, she was an important abolitionist. And she was utterly revered. I have several collections of her poetry, and I really don’t see what all the excitement was about. I really wish I could say she had such resonance in her time, but I can only assume that there was some music in her poetry that I can’t hear. Rufus Griswold made an anthology of American poetry, The Poets and Poetry of America. And it’s all men, although the introduction talks about early American women writers. But he made a companion anthology called The Female Poets of America. I have it. It’s not as long as the other, but it’s a big book. A lot of the poetry is written in the style of Greek tragedy, which, frankly, I don’t find readable. Most people don’t know that Rufus Griswold made that second volume, so they only have this male narrative of the poetry. The fact that he did two volumes indicates the fact that women were active as poets and recognized as poets. I wish that I could be responsive to that. But frankly, however it sorted out, the 19th-century people I am drawn to are overwhelmingly male.
What do you like so much about their writing?
I like the expansiveness of them. I like the scale at which they think. I mean, I’ve written books called Housekeeping and Home. And this is another reason I so love Emily Dickinson. You can look at things however microscopically and understand that there’s metonymy for the cosmos. But if you’re actually concerned with them in the little, that feels like horrible captivity to me. I just can’t stand it. I don’t like the novel-of-manners thing. If it doesn’t open on something larger, I get claustrophobic almost immediately.
What about the way we think now troubles you?
I think that a lot of the energies of the 19th century, that could fairly be called democratic, have really ebbed away. That can alarm me. The tectonics are always very complex. But I think there are limits to how safe a progressive society can be when its conception of the individual seems to be shrinking and shrinking. It’s very hard to respect the rights of someone you do not respect. I think that we have almost taught ourselves to have a cynical view of other people. So much of the scientism that I complain about is this reductionist notion that people are really very small and simple. That their motives, if you were truly aware of them, would not bring them any credit. That’s so ugly. And so inimical to the best of everything we’ve tried to do as a civilization and so consistent with the worst of everything we’ve ever done as a civilization.
This magazine is called VICE, so maybe we should talk about vices. Do you have any?
It’s very strange, because if I look at my life objectively it looks to me that I’ve done a good deal of work. My most consistent impression of myself is lassitude. I say to myself, “Well that’s just my deeper consciousness.” I remember once reading speculations about why creatures sleep. The one that impressed me was some scientist saying, “It keeps the organism out of trouble.” So every once in a while I sit on the couch thinking, I’m keeping my organism out of trouble. I do get myself involved in things that require a tremendous amount of work. And of course, I’m always measuring what I do against what I set out to do. My other vices—I cannot have macaroons in the house! I’m a pretty viceless creature, as these things are conventionally defined. On the other hand, one of the reasons I have taken [John] Calvin to my heart is that I can always find vices in the most unpromising places.
What is a vice, to you?
I have no idea. Underachievement, I suppose. The idea being that you have a good thing to give and you deny it.
How do you try to be good?
I try to write well. I try to keep commitments and appointments. It’s a funny thing, you know, because my life is so absorbed in these problems I set myself, either fiction or nonfiction, that I sort of drop in on the world every now and then. To the extent that I interact with it, I try to make my interactions positive. But I realize that I’m sort of outside the fray in a lot of ways, simply by these choices, which would not be satisfactory to everybody, but come very naturally to me, and are very consistent with what I try to do as a writer. I don’t think my notion of goodness is terribly unconventional. Do no harm—that’s item number one.
This is a bit digressive, but it’s about being good: there are times in workshop when you point out a fundamental problem with a story; the story can just lose its head. We call it “the guillotine.”
An aspect of myself I had no knowledge of!
Intellectually, it’s as if you pull the bottom out of a story and the whole thing falls away.
It’s a learning experience.
It’s very terrifying! But I like seeing that, because it makes me write the better story. And when it happens, even on a very small scale, I do think that even in this moment where you have totally dismantled someone’s premise, it is very evident that you do not judge that student for his or her failings.
I have the profoundest respect for fiction as thought. It has to have that degree of integrity. That’s fundamental. Everything else grows out of that. I do hope that the people I teach learn to be very critical of their premises. To ask soundness of themselves. If there’s one thing in this world I’m grateful for, it’s teaching in a program that does not give grades. Because it’s absolutely ridiculous. Somebody can make a fantastically gross error one day and be completely brilliant five years later. It makes no sense at all to say that this failure matters in any absolute way or is an indication of anything beyond itself. I remember talking about the tendency that society has to expose young people to all sorts of things that are traditionally not for them to know about, and on the other hand, to treat them as if they are corrupted or cynical on the basis of knowing things that they could not help but know. It’s just bad faith. It’s completely arbitrary negative judgment. It takes no responsibility. Besides that, cultures vary so much in terms of things like that. It’s the absolute value of the human being that has to be remembered. So I think that anything that tends to be judgmental is proceeding on faulty assumptions.
Are you ever afraid you won’t write again?
No. When I went to college, I had this idea in my mind that I was a writer, with incredibly little to document that belief. It’s always been important to my sense of myself. Of course, now that I have a certain number of books on the shelf, I can say that I am one. But there are lots of things that interest me. If I were to spend the rest of my life just reading or just thinking about what I have read, I would consider that a very satisfactory thing.
What’s an ideal day for you?
Aha! Rare. It’s generally when I have no demands being made of me—of any kind. And then I can sit on my couch and worry over a paragraph until lunch. And then sit back down on the couch and worry about the paragraph until supper. Sometimes I like to work in my very neglected garden. In any case, that’s basically it. I usually have a book or two that I’m reading. I have a book or two that I’m writing. I like to be at home and have on my slovenly clothes.
I like that, too, but I get a little stir-crazy and need to see people.
Yeah, you’re probably a healthier personality than I am.
But I envy that! I feel like that’s part of the success of being a writer.
It sure helps. I don’t think there’s any question about that. But there are the people who write in coffeehouses and all the rest of it.
I’m sure not many people want to see me in my bathrobe!
The bathrobe is a wonderful institution.
I thought we could do some VICE DOs & DON’Ts, but more in your area of expertise. John Calvin: DO or DON’T?
Do! Given those choices, what else can I say?
Freud: DO or DON’T?
I believe in reading all the influential writers. Freud certainly. Read it! Just remember that he’s a strange product of a strange historical moment. Incredibly influential.
American Transcendentalists: DO or DON’T?
Yep. Definite DO.
What about him in particular?
William James is deeply in consciousness in that way I am very admiring of. And his insights are just magnificent. Over and over again. He has that geniality that you find in 19th-century writers of being brilliant and unpretentious at the same time. That whole tradition—well, it’s not simply that I admire it as a tradition, it’s that I feel as if I learned to love the experience of consciousness from those writers. And that is perhaps as valuable a gift as anybody could have given me.
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