Okay, folks; hang on tight: I’m going to go metaphysical on you today. I think I’ve located a fallacy within how writers think about creation, and I want to unpack it with you. This fallacy is relevant to all artists and everyone committed to transformation, of self or society, so even if you’re not a writer, come along for the ride.
When writers work, we imagine ourselves as the source of an idea or at least as the channel for inspiration. We identify closely with our idea; we generate text; we revise; we as authors are the dynamic moving the project forward. At the other end of our project, we imagine a publisher acting as a gatekeeper to an audience, who will read our work and be entertained or educated or transformed by it. We picture this timeline like this:
Twenty-two years ago I started writing a monthly column for my church newsletter. I appreciated the immediate feedback. If a member of my congregation disagreed with something I’d written, I’d hear about it on Sunday. Usually I received a lot of encouragement.
As people outside church expressed interest, I sold subscriptions to the column for $12 a year, printed out copies, and put them in the mail. Eventually the internet arrived, and the blogging phenomenon; I posted my “column” for years before I deigned to call it a “blog.” Nine years ago I added a second monthly entry on writing. A tally of my slow and steady posts is around 370—a figure that stuns me today. Here are some thoughts on the hidden value of all that writing: (more…)
For years I’ve preached Robert Frost’s advice, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” as my writing gospel, so last month I was taken aback in the middle of a class when I realized yet another marvelous dimension of this philosophy: If genuine, open-hearted engagement (that is, the willingness to be surprised) is the basic ingredient of the creative process, then we all, each and every one of us ordinary people who write, have the capacity to move a reader.
Yesterday I was yet again talking with an emerging writer about her first steps into publishing and ran up against that all-too-common resistance to self-publishing: “I just want to know that someone other than myself thinks this story is worthwhile,” she told me.
There are many arguments for and against self-publishing, none of which I want to tackle here. Instead I’m interested in her (and our) bare desire to receive external affirmation for our creative work. We seek it from agents, from publishers, from an audience. This is not necessarily bad. We’re human. We want to know we matter. We want to do good work. We want to make a difference. (more…)
Ninety-eight percent of the time I take it on faith that my writing matters. But every once in a great while I get hard evidence. Like this photograph a reader sent me of Writing the Sacred Journey; her copy was so marked up and falling apart she had to buy a new one. My words have been good company, and I find this deeply gratifying.
Shortly after Swinging on the Garden Gate was published, I participated in a panel discussion about sexuality and faith at a college and was heading out the door when a young woman approached me, holding out a copy of my book for me to sign. At first I was aghast—had she intentionally mutilated it?! The cover was curled, pages were dog-earred, pink highlighter marred chunks of text and comments in ballpoint filled the margins. That memoir was used. (more…)
So Marilynne Robinson’s on stage. It’s day three of the Key West Literary Seminar—the crowd of a few hundred has been reveling in authorly conversations leading up to this climactic lecture, and we’re all a bit weary. The focus of the seminar is “how the light gets in” or “literature of the spirit.” Whatever that means. No one seems to know, although these authors have dedicated their lives to this work. (more…)