I came across an interview this week with Marilynne Robinson in The Paris Review in which she talks a good bit about her writing process, and the answers she gives are very close to the way I would answer those questions. It’s one reason I find it worth my time to read interviews with authors whose work I value, to see how they are able to put into words the kind of things that I, more often than not, am also trying to sort through. Upon being asked if writing came easily to her, Robinson answered, “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.”
Although she is probably best known for her fiction, she has several published collections of essays, and gave this answer when asked why she writes essays:
To change my own mind. I try to create a new vocabulary or terrain for myself, so that I open out—I always think of the Dutch claiming land from the sea—or open up something that would have been closed to me before. That’s the point and the pleasure of it. I continuously scrutinize my own thinking. I write something and think, How do I know that that’s true? If I wrote what I thought I knew from the outset, then I wouldn’t be learning anything new.
In this culture, essays are often written for the sake of writing the essay. Someone finds a quibble of potential interest and quibbles about it. This doesn’t mean the writer isn’t capable of doing something of greater interest, but we generate a lot of prose that’s not vital. The best essays come from the moment in which people really need to work something out.
I also got a kick out of her following up her statement that “there’s a puritanical hedonism in my existence” with the confession that “I read books like The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine. Oh, terrific.” My appreciation of that confession comes from the fact that she’s the only person I’ve ever heard mention that Rudolf Otto book. I picked up a copy at a used bookstore earlier this year, paying more than I normally would for an unfamiliar book because it looked so interesting and was a second edition hardback, published in 1952, in perfect condition. I’ve picked it up several times to thumb through it, but have not yet had the chance to dive into it. I think I’ll move it up in my to-read pile after Robinson’s endorsement.
The full interview, for those interested, can be found here. And speaking of her essays, I wrote a review of sorts for the Rabbit Room last month of her newest book, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self that includes links to videos of a lecture series she gave at Yale, well worth checking out.