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A Few Notes from Workshop with Marilynne Robinson, 2001


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.

About Nick Arvin

Author of The Reconstructionist + a couple other books.

8 comments on “A Few Notes from Workshop with Marilynne Robinson, 2001

  1. andreadupree
    April 17, 2014

    How brilliant we are in our errors!

    • evermeg
      April 17, 2014

      This is exactly what I was going to comment on too, Andrea. Great notes, Nick… even 10 year old paraphrasing is helpful to me now!

  2. rebnienna
    April 17, 2014

    Love what she says about a complex sentence!

  3. Edward Gauvin
    April 19, 2014

    I second the love for the mobile image. I think about spatial metaphors a lot when I translate, since long sentences almost always necessitate syntactical rearrangement: like re-balancing the mobile after moving the pendants around.

  4. Nick Arvin
    April 19, 2014

    I love the mobile image, too. That was one I’ve always remembered, even before going back to my notes.

  5. Jose Skinner
    April 28, 2014

    The error thing sounds like Nietzsche, though she would hate the comparison. In any case, errors are indeed brilliant, inasmuch as they’re the engine of progress. Mutations, for example, are all errors. Of course, most of them are fatal…

  6. Jose Skinner
    April 28, 2014

    “Characters should be real enough to obviate the possibility of omitting necessary detail — the character demands the inclusion.” This is tautological. It just means a successfully real character needs the details to make him or her successfully real.

    • Nick Arvin
      April 28, 2014

      True. She may have distinguished between the character’s reality in the author’s mind vs. on the page. My notes aren’t that good…

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This entry was posted on April 17, 2014 by in Cool Events, Memories, Uncategorized, Writing.

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