Interviewed for The Paris Review, Fall 2008, by Sarah Fay.

“I don’t try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of the story lies. I don’t see any reason for fine-tuning something that’s essentially not going anywhere anyway. What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.”

“You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be understood as ‘beauty.’ Think about Dutch painting, where sunlight is falling on a basin of water and a woman is standing there in the clothes that she would wear when she wakes up in the morning—that beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary. Or a painting like Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef, where a simple piece of meat caught his eye because there was something mysterious about it. You also get that in Edward Hopper: Look at that sunlight! or Look at the human being! These are instances of genius. Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.”

“Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. It’s only very recently that you couldn’t see how the high arts are intimately connected to religion.”


  • David Sanders says:

    Interesting post of the Marilynne Robinson interview. I’m curious to know what you think about it. Odd that she would describe the lack of need for teaching technique and then discuss the lightplay in the work of Rembrandt, Hopper, or the Flemish painters. Are we to think that they saw beauty and could therefore convert it to beauty on the canvas without repeatedly attempting to get the light right in advance of the moment’s recognition? It seems to me that the successful art is one in which the insight of the artist is balanced by the ability to convey that insight for the viewer, reader, or listener. The degree of success is in the depth of the insight as well as the breadth of the skill.But maybe I’m misreading her. . .

  • John says:

    I deeply appreciate the wisdom in the first paragraph. I have been hoping that it is true, but to see it so beautifully stated gives me heart.

  • David,

    I considered her comment inspiring, as John does, but very interesting—in the sense of provocative, though I didn’t make that ironic connection with her painting comment. I know, I think, what she’s saying: the germ of art must be there or you’re beating a dead horse; no amount of technique can overcome poor or inadequately felt or processed perception.

    However, in practice I think I teach much differently. Writing talent is common, but the higher levels of craft are not. I believe that, in all arts, craft releases art: the genius of a painter, the art, may be in the perception, but without craft to capture it there’s nothing; same with acting or writing.

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