Marilynne Robinson is on stage. She’s giving the climactic talk of the Key West Literary Seminar, which this year is titled “How the Light Gets In: Literature of the Spirit.” What exactly is “Literature of the Spirit”? The featured authors—Mark Doty, Jane Hirshfield, Charles Johnson, Barry Lopez, Billy Collins, Marilyn Nelson, Coleman Barks, the names are dazzling—have dedicated their lives to this work, yet no one seems to know. It’s our third day running of conversation. We’re weary.
Robinson reads a lecture so brilliant that by the time I grasp one insight I’ve missed the next three. I’m convinced it’s the work of a modern-day prophet. Her assigned topic is grace, and while she barely mentions the word, every dimension of her talk is shot through with it, as are her fiction and my experiences reading her fiction. Her work has restored a grace-infused world to a great many people, including our country’s former president. Coupled with her literary skill and fearsome intellect, grace is, I suspect, the source of her novels’ power.
Afterward, during the Q&A, Pico Iyer rises from the audience. “What contemporary authors do you read?” he asks Robinson. Everyone in the theater eats, drinks, and breathes books. Most of us are authors. We all lean forward, wanting to know what fuels Robinson’s bright flame.
For a moment she stares blindly into the stage lights. “I don’t read contemporary authors,” she states baldly.
An awkward pause ensues. I feel slighted and assume I’m not alone. Sure, Robinson might not read my books, but how is it that the author of what I consider some of the greatest novels of the past three decades doesn’t read her peers? And unapologetically admits this in their presence?
Robinson continues. She reads religious works by sixteenth and seventeenth century heretics, the Lollards of thirteenth-century England, Pindar, John Calvin, the Bible. She reads, in other words, whatever she damn well pleases. She seems to apply this principle to her writing as well: when working on Housekeeping, Robinson assumed the book was unpublishable. “I was undistracted,” she writes, “by other considerations than my own interest in the workings of memory and the ability of language to evoke what I ‘saw’ in memory.”1 Then almost twenty-five years intervened between the enthusiastic reception of Housekeeping and the arrival of Gilead. No contemporary author with a lick of concern for sales would create a main character steeped in Calvinist thought and obsessed with redemption like the one in Gilead. Robinson operates in an arena so free of others’ expectations, it’s hard for me to fathom.
But sitting in that air-conditioned auditorium I try, and gradually my feelings of being slighted are subsumed by awe. Robinson refuses to pander to her audience in print or in person; she’s unconcerned with staying current and instead trusts her boundless curiosity to lead where it will. Suddenly I’m struck—palpably, forcefully—by the immensity of her creative liberty. It feels fresh, like the cool air inside a vast cave of permission. It’s a freedom bigger than any I’ve known. Afterward I wander the streets of Key West, painfully aware of my limitations in craft and smarts and stature but sensing that the liberty Robinson knows requires none of these. All it asks is that we choose it.
I had released my first novel just months prior to the literary seminar, and I’d spent my time in Key West preoccupied by its disappointing reception. I wished my book was better. Heck, I wished I was better. I wanted to be Marilynne Robinson, with all her dignity and influence; I wanted to move readers the way I’d been moved by Gilead and Lila.
One afternoon Robinson and I arrived at the theater as a session was wrapping up. We waited together outside the closed doors, my skin prickling with her proximity. Here stood a woman whose work both expresses and ministers to our profound thirst for holiness! Here was the author I most respected! I should say something!
What gives an author authority? The question matters, and not only because we writers need to locate our fragile sense of self in a public arena. It matters because those who read seek direction and purpose and meaning, orienting our hearts toward perceived truths within the text. We seek teachers. We’re readily swayed by fame, wealth, literary accomplishment, intellectual brilliance—all the external trappings. It’s easy, and a common, grave mistake, to conflate these attributes with authority.
I didn’t say anything to Robinson, not even a thank you. By making her superhuman, I diminished my own agency. I gave her my authority.
I want to rectify this now by honoring the source of her authority—the source of all real authority. The place to look is in that cool, vast cave of permission.
I used to say that a “writer” is someone who writes whereas an “author” is published. The distinction worked for me; it dignified all who write, regardless of quality or audience, and it acknowledged the mantle worn by those whose work circulates publicly.
By this definition I’m an author. But over the years I’ve grown uncomfortable with the title. Anyone can publish anything now; upload your diary and a company will print, bind, and ship it to your doorstep in three days. My success at getting past the gatekeepers of publishing houses has as much to do with privilege and chance as merit. I’ve also grown cynical about the industry’s motives; if a publisher’s eye is trained on the bottom line, is its flat stamp of approval adequate determination of authorship?
When I tell new acquaintances I’m an author, their eyebrows rise. Either they reflexively respect me (why, exactly?) or they’re suspicious I haven’t earned the title. Were I to spell out the details of my publishing—a congenial, working relationship of eighteen years with one editor; a novel published by a house that has since gone to the dark side and is now a vanity press; two remaindered books; a portfolio of small prizes—would that even help? Am I an author worthy of respect?
Marilynne Robinson is. Why? Because her creations move me (and, subtly, I believe, our country) in ways for which I am grateful.
The Middle English word auctor comes from the Latin verb augere, meaning to increase, originate, promote. Auctor referred to “a person who invents or causes something.” Some speculate that the th spelling of author arose in the fifteenth century under the influence of the word authentic—authentikos, Greek for “original, genuine, principal.”2 Etymologically speaking, then, the source of authority is located in a person’s capacity to create, in the creation’s originality and causality, and in the genuine quality of both intent and creation.
In this more subjective understanding of authorship—the unique capacity of one’s creative work to authentically impact its audience—I’m perhaps more worthy of claiming the title author. I have a file stuffed with decades of thank-you notes from readers. But such authority is impossible to measure. Whatever causes creative work to connect with a reader is still, for me, largely a mystery.
That said, there are a few dynamics I understand. Every effective writer engages in two distinct gestures during the creative process. The first is familiar enough: the exertion of creative agency. Writers make millions of minute choices about how to tell a story—the pacing, voice, organization, form, thematic development—and over the course of revision, we gain control over our material. We learn and implement the tools of the writing trade: a gripping start, a well-wrought character, an enfleshed scene; language colored by personality and insight; a form nicely fit to the content; a complete and crafted cosmology. These are the instruments of authorial agency, the mechanisms we use to sink a reader into the realm of our story.
But these instruments are not the agency itself, which we grow into only as we write. Slowly, we uncover our true intention and then bring that intention to bear on every dimension of the work. The capacity to “invent or cause something” to be an author—springs from disciplined willpower, sustained effort, and deliberate decision-making. We come into our agency as we grow in consciousness.
The second gesture seems diametrically opposed to the first: a willingness to be moved. Whether we consider inspiration to come from the muse, the imagination, the subconscious, or grace, our capacity to receive it is central to creativity. Mystery works on the page. It stirs our hearts with longing, paves our process with astonishment, changes us, directs our characters against our will, and makes of novels something wiser than their writers. Even the closet journal-writer knows this, even the fourth-grade poet. “There is no honest answer,” Robinson said during that Key West lecture, “to the inevitable questions: Where did that idea come from? How did you get that effect?” Without the spark of an idea, without a compelling desire, without the tears and surprises of the creative process, a writer has nothing. We listen, we receive, we accept.
Perspiration and inspiration—creativity is a jubilant conversation between willfulness and receptivity, between authoring and being authored. But here’s the rub: taken seriously, and held in balance, these two impulses threaten our assumed smallness. We are capable of more than we know or want. And there’s a creative force at work here that’s far more powerful than most artists like to admit.
Marilynne Robinson made one other comment that night that sticks with me. After listing the books she reads, she told us that she used to wonder whether it was all right not to stay current in her reading. “I’m a conventional religious person,” she admitted, so she turned to her pastor for advice.
I, too, am a practicing Christian. Even so, Robinson’s humility made my skin crawl. Why would this brilliant independent thinker turn to a clergyperson for permission to read what she wants? Then she shared his response—“Marilynne, you’re the only person in the whole world doing what you do. Keep doing it.”—and I understood. The locus of this pastor’s authority was not doctrine or Scripture or status, all of which I would question, but rather his relationship with Robinson and his faith that her calling was to become most completely herself. Robinson smiled at the audience, shrugged, and asked for the next question.
“The big distinction between good art and so-so art,” David Foster Wallace writes, “lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with . . . having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.”3 Robinson’s pastor knew this. A writer’s ability to generate from love is discipline, and it is a dimension of the craft we rarely hear about. This isn’t the daily discipline of getting your butt in the chair to crank out two thousand words. Rather, it’s a practice that has more in common with Buddhist right speech or any spiritual exercise in which we surrender our small motives to a higher purpose. The contemplative, according to Thomas Merton, “derives strength not from what he gets out of things and people, but from giving himself to life and others.”4 None of us needs to justify our love. We ought only to pursue it with indomitable, dedicated hearts.
What does love look like in the writing process? Early in our writerly development and in early drafts, we assume we’re writing for ourselves, indulging in private delight or guilt-ridden, ego-gratifying play, or we assume that we’re writing for an audience, to entertain, to illuminate, to educate, to comfort. Or we vacillate between these. Most writers never leave these two orientations.
But those who generate the most original, influential, and authentic work set these within a third, more confounding purpose: serving the story itself. It’s important to heed our own impulses and honor the needs of readers, but unless we listen for the story’s separate, pulsing life, our work will muck around in a mess of hungry egos. Effective writers leverage agency and surrender to the muse for the sake of the emergent story.
In other words, write for the love of it. Let go of others’ expectations and your self-serving ambitions and your well-meaning desire to do good or create art or make a difference. Show up at the desk. You have to love to be moved by love and to move others with love. So you consent to love.
In contemplative prayer, practitioners consent to a wholeness broader than themselves, consciously setting aside the small self in favor of an emergent other so trustworthy we can barely imagine it. This, and not self-effacement or groveling guilt, is what the mystics mean when they call humility a virtue. Writers know this humility. We write regardless of success or failure; we mangle ideas into the fetters of words; our best plans go awry; we agree to the unexpected life of our story, and we open ourselves to—to what? Who knows? But we, like the Buddhists, suspect that while you can’t catch a horse by running, only those who run will catch the horse. In that very public moment in Key West and in the privacy of her reading life, Robinson surrendered her need to be recognized and liked, to feel connected, to know herself culturally relevant, and she submitted to the idiosyncratic stirrings of her heart.
Any of us can choose creative liberty, but this choice comes at the expense of bondage. We have to release those other forces to which we’re beholden and around which we’ve wrapped our identity.
I’ve since listened to the recording of Robinson’s lecture. It studiously avoids a theological discussion of grace, meandering instead through economics, politics, education, history, philosophy, literature, and the American propensity toward presumptive contempt, all related through the lens of grace. Her intellect is formidable. Her facility with language is awe-inspiring. But her understanding of grace is earthy and warm. “Contempt imposes; grace discovers,” she says. “Contempt generalizes; grace is charmed by haunting particularities. Contempt traps; grace frees.” Discovery, freedom, the capacity to be charmed by haunting particularities—isn’t this what happens when we write? Might writing be an exercise of grace? “Our realism distracts us from reality,” Robinson says. “Everything depends on reverence, for who we are and what we are. . . . Respect is a profound alleviation which we can offer and too often withhold. A theology of grace is a higher realism, an ethics of truth. Writers know this.”
Robinson has earned a place of authority in my life because she serves the Story. I capitalize the S because any small project (the small s story), important as it might be, is unworthy of my entire heart. But the big Story is worthy. Creation, evolution, the grand movement of our universe toward ever greater complexity and unity—this is the part of ourselves that loves. This is the source of our breath. This is the cool blast of freedom.
“This second order of reality,” Robinson told us, “the feeling that one’s own capacities are somehow transcended in one’s own person, seems to find no expression among us in terms that can be understood as descriptive rather than merely pietistic.” Her Christian characters give her an excuse to wrap God-language around this reality, but in the end, language doesn’t matter so long as that reality is served. Robinson’s authority is interior, born of her consent to the Story. She writes literature of the spirit.
What, then, makes an author? The capacity to create, effectively and with a humble heart, work that serves life. The discipline of bringing to bear on our writing the fullness of self, in all its personality and skill. The practice of exercising hospitality to others, to readers, thus placing our work in a communal context. The humility of serving a source of love beyond ourselves with a full heart.
I no longer want to be an author. I don’t even want to have authoredanything. I want to author. I want to enter that arena of freedom and discover there Merton’s “secret of life in the creative energy of love.”5 I want to consent to grace.
- Philip Roth, Lydia Davis, Robert A. Caro, George Saunders, Marilynne Robinson, Jennifer Egan, and Junot Díaz, “Old Books, New Thoughts,” New York Times, November 6, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/06/t-magazine/pen-auction-philip-roth.html.
- See English Oxford Living Dictionary, s.v. “author” and “authentic,” https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/author and https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/authentic; and Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “authentic,” https://www.etymonline.com/word/authentic.
- Wallace, “An Interview with David Foster Wallace,” interview by Larry McCaffery, Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 148.
- Merton, “The Inner Experience,” in Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, ed. Lawrence Cunningham (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992), 345.
- Merton, “The Inner Experience,” 345.