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Marilynne for The New York Times

Marilynne Robinson (c) Alec Soth Magnum Photos, used with permission.

Marilynne Robinson is this year’s speaker at Regent College’s Laing Lectures. It has been an absolute privilege to participate in these talks that consider the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. An even greater joy has been the opportunity to engage with Marilynne in the more intimate sessions reserved for students and writers. In some ways I imagine I’m like Victor Frankenstein’s creature the moment when “the spark” is infused into its lifeless form. My mind and imagination feel re-energized, brought back to life, animated.

While Robinson offers much provocative and profound theological thought, I’d like share some of the surprising instruction she relates regarding her own writing life.

The first is that she says she’s not much of an editor and does very little by way of revision. Robinson shares that she’s a very careful writer—to the extent that if she writes a sentence, but is unhappy with a particular word, she will not move on until she solves which word best suits the sentence or what the story demands. If she runs into an issue that proves problematic, she will take a walk or a nap—anything except insert a temporary fix. For her, it does not make sense to move on and risk a faulty story structure.

If you’re a writer, you’ll know that Robinson’s approach contradicts almost everything writers are typically told:

The first draft of anything is shit (Ernest Hemingway).

Do not edit as you write.

Get your words and ideas onto the paper. The first draft is for exploration.

Write then revise, revise, revise.

Any of that sound familiar?

I must admit that it feels liberating to hear of Marilynne Robinson’s writing process. I, too, tend to write slow and carefully. I’ve often assumed, based on what I’ve been told, that this is a problem I need to fix, an obsessive compulsion that needs to be addressed, a habit that hinders freedom and flow, restrains the imagination, that I’ve been approaching it all wrong. It’s good to know that perhaps people just approach their art differently.

Whatever else one may say, Marilynne Robinson’s writing process certainly works for her. She’s one of North America’s most influential writers, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Hemingway Award, and Time magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential People (2016)–to name but a few of her distinctions.

I’ll post more of my reflections and gleanings from these sessions with Marilynne Robinson, but for now I’m off to enjoy the last lecture of the series. In the meantime, what’s your writing process like? Have you heard any different advice than noted above? Are you surprised by Marilynne Robinson’s approach? Your comments are welcome.

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