On Writing with Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson

Fictional characters

  • In the development of every character there’s a kind of emotional entanglement that occurs. The minute that you start thinking about someone in the whole circumstance of his life to the extent that you can, he becomes mysterious, immediately.
  • I don’t give anything a higher priority than character. . . . I don’t plot my novels . . . . [A]ction is generated out of character.
  • The one consistent thing among my novels is that there’s a character who stays in my mind . . . a character with complexity that I want to know better . . . that seem[s] to pose questions in my own thinking.

Teaching writing

  • I don’t try to teach technique, because . . . most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies. I don’t see any reason in fine-tuning something that’s essentially not going anywhere anyway.
  • I try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is. Usually in fiction there’s something that leaps out—an image or a moment that is strong enough to center the story. If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new.
  • What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.


  • Concentration: 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.
  • Inventing: . . . I try to do that only when I’m physically writing. If I get an idea while I’m walking home . . .  I think, ‘Close that down’, because if I think through a scene, I’ll wreck it by the time I get a pen in my hand.|
  • Writing discipline: I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times . . . but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me.
  • Revision:.. . . [W]orking over something that I’ve already written—I really don’t do that. . . . Most of my revision occurs before I put words down on the paper.

Writing & Life

  • I’m kind of a solitary. . . . I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it. . . . I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone.
  • . . . [Y]ou are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this. Everyone I have ever admired has passed through this . . . [L]iterature has come out of it.

Religion and writing

  • …[A]nything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.
  • Religion is a framing mechanism. . . a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about.
  • Nothing could be more miraculous than the fact that we have a consciousness that makes the world intelligible to us and are moved by what is beautiful.
  • Religion . . . has presented itself in some extremely unattractive forms. . . . People seem to be profoundly disposed toward religion, yet they’re not terribly good at it.


From Wikipedia: 

Marilynne Summers Robinson (born November 26, 1943) is an American novelist and essayist.


  • 1980: Housekeeping – Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for best first novel; nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • 1999: The Death of Adam – PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay
  • 2004: Gilead – 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction; 2005 Ambassador Book Award
  • 2006: The recipient of the 2006 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion.
  • 2008: Home – 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction; finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.

Collected Works


  • Housekeeping (1980)
  • Gilead (2004)
  • Home (2008)


  • Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989)
  • The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998)
  • Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010)
  • When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (2012)

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