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How to Be a Great Writer: 4 Powerful Insights from Marilynne Robinson

Young female writer, smiling, after learning the 4 powerful insights from Marilyn Robinson

Marilynne Robinson won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005 with her novel, Gilead, a book of deep, spiritual meaning and a philosophical, rather than action-oriented, plot. Gilead is proof that a "different" kind of novel can win acclaim. It's also proof that an author has to be true to herself rather than worry about what the publishing world wants.

In a recent interview with David Marchese of the New York Times, Robinson answered questions about her work, her oeuvre, and her thoughts on modern life.

Whether you need justification, motivation, or inspiration, writers will benefit from these four powerful insights from Marilynne Robinson.

ONE: Your language doesn't have to match the tone of other people's language

Robinson bemoans the attitude and language commonplace now. She admits being "surprised, shocked, and disillusioned" by the "vulgarity and mercilessness that have entered public conversation." (Me, too.)

Known for writings that embrace goodness, Robinson's words remind writers that it's ok to rise above the crowd. While it's commonplace to use obscenities to get people's attention, you don't have to do so. Writers don't need to shock people, insult them, or refute them. The abundance of vacuous, vapid, venomous writing is evidence of Robinson's assertion that

"A stinginess has settled in that’s intellectual and economic and very appalling to me, and contrary to any notion that I have of what is good."

Great writers are different from others. Their prose is not dependent on what others are producing. They don't worry about fitting in with current speech patterns or matching the prevailing tone. Their language is not quotidian, mean-spirited, or bereft of meaning, regardless of what others are producing and publishing.

TWO: Don't be afraid to take risks á la Marilynne Robinson

If you worry about saying something that might offend someone, you can't write. (Anything you say will offend someone somewhere!) Great writers are not intimidated by how others might react.

Robinson notes that many writers believe they can't say certain if some invisible force would strike them down if they wrote books that were out-of-sync with contemporary thought. Great writers, however, have often flown in the face of expectation, and the restrictions they impose on themselves are not real.

"My career has been against the grain. I have not chosen subjects or styles or anything that are characteristic of my generation of writers, and whatever else that does, it makes the point that you don’t have to go with the grain. People are much freer than they imagine. They will find much more latitude if they just use it."

Great writers are true to themselves. They take risks.

THREE: Ask yourself if you're doing something of lasting value

Great writers create works that have weight and meaning. They don't focus on mass-producing words to fill pages. Instead, they care more about quality than quantity. They want to produce memorable works.

So she asks:

"What have you done that actually outlives you?"

She is not just talking about what we've created in manuscript form. Instead, she pointedly notes that helping others is an action that will long outlive us.

Instead of competing with other writers, we should be encouraging them. Robinson's years teaching at The Iowa Writers Workshop showed her that many students had struggled, but with the support of others, they excel and give their talents to the world. By encouraging others, writers leave a lasting legacy that carries on long after they're gone.

"We’re creating value for the culture in other human beings — in the degree that we’re generous toward them, in the degree that we are made hopeful by their gifts, to the extent that we step out of these stupid competitive models that we set for ourselves and realize that our well being is something that is achieved collectively by encouraging other people to do beautiful things."

FOUR: Don't wait to write

It's easy to say, "I'll write more when I have more time." "It's not ready to show anyone yet." "Maybe when I'm not so busy..."

But don't wait to write.

Marilynne Robinson, at the age of eighty, emphasizes that time is short. That no writer should wait to write. Each day and each era of your life brings a different perception and a new awareness. If you want to write, do it now.

"There’s something about youth that is wonderful: You really do think you’re immortal. Then you find out that there is a shelf life. The date approaches. That shapes your conception of life. It gives it a dramatic arc that is hard to anticipate so long as your body is not telling you that this is true."

Perhaps as an older writer, I connect more with Robinson's perception that there's a "shelf life" to my time on earth and the date is approaching when - when I stop breathing - I will no longer be able to write.

I have to use my time wisely now and continue on my quiet quest to be a writer of note, absorbing the knowledge of the great ones willing to share their wisdom and encourage me.

Thank you, Marilynne Robinson.


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