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by Nick Arvin
I had the fortune of taking Marilynne Robinson’s fiction workshop at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 2001. Recently, I’ve been working on a few words to say about her and her teaching as a part of the program for the Big Read’s Vagabond Happy Hour (it is the evening of April 25 (and free!), more here). The Big Read, of course, is a community-wide celebration of literature, based on Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. Preparing for my talk, I thought I should see if I kept any useful notes from my time in her class.
She had a knack for, now and again, saying things that struck me powerfully. I wish I had taken much more copious notes, but it turns out that I did write down a handful of things she said that particularly struck me, including some wisdom that I had forgotten.
I’m passing these along in the hope that other writers might also find them useful. Please bear in mind that I was not necessarily copying down exact quotations, but only paraphrasing, so any foolishness is probably my own. Also, this class occurred more than a decade ago, and I’m sure that Marilynne Robinson’s thoughts on teaching and writing have evolved since then to some greater or lesser degree…
— MR does not teach technique. Those who can really write overstep technique.
— Respect the tendency of the imagination to throw out analogies within structure, plot — explore them.
— The generic leaves meaning unfilled.
— Always keep something before the reader that they feel they can see. Seeing is the great thread that keeps a reader in fiction.
— Characters should be real enough to obviate the possibility of omitting necessary detail — the character demands the inclusion.
— Any character passing on the street ought to be just as individual as any real person passing on the street.
— How brilliant we are in our errors!
— Life is determined significantly by the things that don’t happen — by its negative space.
— The idea that we all feel a deficiency, an absence, an incompleteness, is perhaps imposed on us by the culture of the moment rather than something that actually arises from within all of us.
— A complex sentence suspends disparate concepts against one another, like a mobile.
— Literature is to some extent a bizarre celebration of the fact that the earth is full of people and stuff.