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.
Robinson has just read a brilliant lecture that I only partially grasp and I’m convinced is the work of a modern-day prophet. Her assigned topic is “grace.” While she never mentions the word every dimension of her talk is shot through with it. From the audience, Pico Iyer asks which contemporary authors she reads. In her answer, I receive the greatest gift of a weekend abundant in gifts.
“I don’t read contemporary authors.”
The author of what I consider some of the greatest novels of the past three decades reads religious works by sixteenth and seventeenth century heretics. She reads Calvin, and the Bible. She used to wonder whether this was okay. “I’m a conventional religious person,” she tells us, so she asked her pastor about it. “You’re the only person in the whole world doing what you do,” he told her. “Keep doing it.”
She shrugged at us. End of subject. The audience, I suspect, was shocked, chastened, and a bit offended, considering we were all either contemporary writers or readers of contemporary works.
Her bold refusal to please her audience, paired with her willingness to claim a “conventional” faith before a crowd discomfited by Christian doctrine, lifted the jail cell that I hadn’t known was there off my beleaguered imagination. I can have room to play—even more than I knew! The space is vast. The audience is irrelevant.
It’s a paradox I’ve lived with for decades: We write to “an audience of one,” as Strunk and White put it, and yet not. Because of Robinson’s vast permission to explore what she wills however she wills, she’s creating literature that ministers to a profound and very contemporary thirst—for grace, for beauty, for kindness. She teaches me that those hidden, peculiar, contrary motivations that rise up when I’m given solitude are even more worthy than I thought. None of us has to justify our curiosity to an audience, real or in our heads. We only need to pursue it with indomitable dedication and love.
Thanks to my fabulous Key West students, pictured above, for four days of thoughtful conversation and writing.
In mid-June I’m hosting “Alone Together: Write That Book,” a week-long retreat at the Madeline Island School of the Arts. This is a great opportunity for serious book writers to receive literary camaraderie, individualized support, and extended, solitary writing time. I previously posted a deadline for applications as January 30th but now that we have the minimum number of students we’ve extended the deadline to April 15th. Please spread the word!