Marilynne Robinson is the author of three exquisite novels: Homecoming, Gilead and Home, all of which have won major literary prizes. Gilead was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and Home was the recipient of the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction in the United Kingdom. She has also written several nonfiction books, and taught in the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop for more than 20 years.
Robinson was a featured guest at A Room of Her Own Foundation’s biannual women writers’ retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico earlier this month, and I felt privileged to have the chance several times to chat with her over lunch or dinner. She gave a lively and very funny reading from Gilead one evening, but it was her lecture at a midweek gathering that really resonated.
Here’s what she said: Put more of yourself into your writing; make sure your words are beautiful; know the difference between solitude (your writing) and public persona (promotion); follow your mind wherever it wants to take you; and in every instance, go deeper.
That last is most important: Access your deep mind, she said. It’s the only thing you have to do to be original. The difference between the extraordinary and the ordinary in any experience is the filter through which you see it.
And, she warned, do not do what is being done now. Honor your own mind and stories. When you write you are doing something profoundly human, she said, and everything depends on how you use your amazing mind.
One of the essays I recently read for my master’s program in creative writing (at Antioch University in Los Angeles) is Federico del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús García Lorca’s essay “Theory and Play of the Duende,” (Poetry in Translation, translated by A.S. Kline, 2007).
So often writers speak of the Muse, the soft and gentle visitation that inspires one to write lofty and moving prose. The duende, as I understand García Lorca’s explanation, is darker, deeper, more malevolent, baser and more powerful. It is an avenue into our darkest psyches, which allows the release of art that is at once transcendent, sorrowful, grief-stricken and resplendent. I have felt brief glimpses of this in my own writing, and I agree with García Lorca that it engages on a level that is almost animalistic in nature, which is perhaps why when it descends upon an artist, be it writer, dancer, painter or singer, it is instantly recognizable as genius flowing from a place distant and dark.
I think that is the deep place Robinson is talking about. That place from which something emerges that you don’t recognize; you wonder, did that really come out of me? Yes. And there’s more where it came from. You have only to listen and let it emerge.