Online Conversation | Story, Culture, & the Common Good, with Marilynne Robinson

Online Conversation | Story, Culture, & the Common Good

with Marilynne Robinson

On Friday, July 24th we were honored to host award-winning and much-beloved novelist and essayist, Marilynne Robinson for a wide-ranging conversation on the art of writing as a means of exploring truth and engaging the questions around learning to live well, to love others, and to create a home and community in an often fractious world. Robinson, known for her keen observations on humanity and religion has plumbed the depths of the human spirit in her novels, including the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Lila, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead.

The painting is ‘Landscape’ by Charles H. Moore, 1859
The song is “Childhood and Manhood” by Ennio Morricone

Special thanks to this event’s sponsors:

David Kiersznowski

Ross & Heidi Little

 

Transcription of Story, Culture, & the Common Good

with Marilynne Robinson:

 

Cherie Harder: If you’re new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide space and resources to engage life’s biggest questions in the context of faith. We provide programs, such as our Online Conversation today, to do exactly that, and to come to better know the Author of the answers. It seems an especially fitting time to discuss story, culture, and the common good when our shared sense of the common good is challenged; our common culture increasingly marked by divisiveness, anger, and alienation; and many of our public conversations tarnished by snark and by ugliness. But in many ways, the writings and works of our guest today stand as a powerful and poetic challenge to this fractiousness and offer an illumination of the beauty of the ordinary and fallen world. They stand as a summons to think more deeply, see more charitably, and accept the invitation to wonder, mystery, and grace. Marilynne Robinson is a novelist, essayist, and teacher, one of the most renowned and revered of living writers. Her novels, “Housekeeping,” “Gilead,” “Lila,” and “Home,” have been variously honored with a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award (twice), a Hemingway Foundation Award, an Orange Prize, the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, and the Ambassador Book Award. She’s also the author of many essays and nonfiction works, including just a few of them, her work “Mother Country” and her essay collections “Death of Adam,” “Absence of Mind,” “When I Was a Child I Read Books,” “The Givenness of Things,” and “What Are We Doing Here?” She’s the recipient of the National Humanities Medal and an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in addition to her writing has spent over twenty years teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Groups as well as several universities. Due to technical difficulties, she’ll be joining us by phone and video. Marilynne, it is a delight to have you here.

Marilynne Robinson: It’s a great pleasure to be here. I’m sorry that I seem to have been a large part of the technical problem. That’s my nature.

Cherie Harder: It keeps one humble. We’re thrilled to have you in any capacity, Marilynne. You have an upcoming novel that I know is much anticipated. “Jack” will be out in less than two months. What can you tell us about your new novel?

Marilynne Robinson: It’s about the character Jack Boughton, who appears in earlier novels. His voice, or the sense of him, was just very much on my mind. I wrote the book in a way feeling that I was completing the quartet of books at this point. You know, I don’t really know why I write novels. I have a novel in my mind, and I write it. But that’s about it. There’s a question or a complex of questions that always accompany any writing that I do. That was true for “Jack” also.

Cherie Harder: It seems that one of the recurring themes of your work is beauty. There is an element of both reveling in and revealing the beautiful that seems to characterize so many of your novels. But you recently wrote, in an essay that I’m going to quote, “[B]eauty, as a conscious element of experience, as a thing to be valued and explored, has gone into abeyance among us.” Why do you believe that the exploration of beauty has gone into abeyance, and what have we lost as a result?

Marilynne Robinson: My thinking about that actually was a response to teaching literature to writers and having them tell me that when I talked about something wonderful, like in “Moby Dick” or something, as ‘beautiful,’ it was the first time that they had heard ‘beautiful’ applied to literature. Which is just stunning—just amazing. Here is the great prevailing art of our period, and I just couldn’t believe that the way that literature is talked about had become so deeply [full of?] sociology and so on that aesthetic categories were dismissed in discussing it. I think that you find in any good writer that beautiful language is [arising?]. It’s something that is done for emphasis. It’s something that indicates that a degree of focus has been achieved. I don’t think that you can read good literature successfully if you exclude the beautiful as a consideration always active in good writing.

Cherie Harder: So much of what is beautiful does depend on our perception. You have probably one of your most beloved characters, John Ames, say that “[w]herever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see.” You’ve said similar things, in your own voice as well as your character’s voice, which I am betting evoke no small amount of wistfulness in many of your friends, fans, and readers who would deeply like to see the same luminous beauty that you do. How does one learn to see?

Marilynne Robinson: By looking, basically. I consider the primary privilege of being a human being as a universal privilege of being able to watch light fall on things, watch vegetation live in the world in the complicated ways that it does. The shimmer, the effulgence, all these things, are simply there to be seen whether or not people choose to look at them—whether they relegate too many things to the category of ordinary or meaningless. That’s the original choice. But if you are interested in the nature of the experience of life on this planet, then very quickly all sorts of things begin to present themselves to you as mysteriously beautiful. Discovered beauty: no rarification or falsification, but the thing itself.

Cherie Harder: I’d love to ask you about your characters. You once noted that after you finish writing a novel, you miss them; you feel bereaved. You also noted that the characters that interest you the most are the ones that pose questions to your thinking and that you can learn from. So I was curious whether you still hear their voices at times, even after a novel is finished, and what you’ve learned from your characters in telling their story.

Marilynne Robinson: I do sometimes know that a phrase that runs through my mind could be attributed to one of my characters. I almost feel like going back and weaving it in. But I learn from them. What I learn when I’m writing, more than anything else, is that I’ve been storing the consequences of attention for a very long time, and that the consequences of attention are there to be exploited at any time that you bring enough thinking to bear on them. “Jack” is told entirely from the point of view of a man—as with Reverend Ames also. Of course, this is an extension of my imagination that comes from watching men and understanding them as I can. I think that you live almost a variety of lives by speculating to the best of your ability how someone other than yourself experiences and thinks and so on. It’s very interesting to me.

Cherie Harder: I can imagine. You mentioned once that as a child, a teacher told you—I’m going to quote you here—that “‘[y]ou have to live with your mind your whole life.’ You build your mind, so make it into something you want to live with.” Then you said, “Nobody has ever said anything more valuable to me.” How did you build and furnish your own mind? And based on your experience and what you’ve learned, what construction methods and materials would you recommend to others?

Marilynne Robinson: I was a bookish child, as I have mentioned in other contexts. I was very systematic about reading books that I knew were good—people like Dickens and Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson. Sometimes I read very far over my head, but nevertheless with the idea that I was giving myself something of value as a result of the effort. I’m sure there are lots of ways that people could have taken that teacher’s advice. But for me, it was all books for a very long time.

Cherie Harder: You mentioned old books. C.S. Lewis once tried to encourage readers to read an old book for every new one, but you’ve actually gone further and read almost exclusively old books. What prompted you to start that practice?

Marilynne Robinson: Curiosity, as much as anything. I did an ordinary English PhD, and I was assigned all sorts of things that, because they were assigned, perhaps didn’t have the significance for me that they should have had. I’ve done a lot of re-reading in subsequent years. I am always trying to put together what I find to be a credible model of the world, which is no easy thing. But the major valuable questions that have come to me have usually come from the fact that I’ve studied something historically in a way that makes me question present accounts, and question them very deeply.

Cherie Harder: I am betting that you are not only an avid reader, but probably an avid re-reader. I would be curious what books you have re-read the most.

Marilynne Robinson: It’s a strange list at this point. The books that I teach, of course—”Moby Dick” and the better novels of William Faulkner and so on—I know in the way that a teacher knows books. But then there’s also “Piers Plowman,” which was written in the fourteenth century. It’s extremely strange and beautiful, and I read it over and over again. I have so many markers in it by this point that I can’t distinguish what is the more or the less interesting thing that I’ve attempted to remember by putting a marker in. It’s so human. It sounds so much like a human voice, over all this time—over all this time.

Cherie Harder: Switching a little bit to broader questions, you’ve been writing a fair amount recently about democracy, the common good, and our common culture. At one point you call democracy the logical and inevitable consequence of religious humanism. What do you see as the connection between the two?

Marilynne Robinson: There are things that seem to me true because I reinforce them from other kinds of awareness or learning. I’m of course very, very struck by the unique brilliance of a human being, which is something that we tend to disparage, demean, utterly fail to notice. By my understanding, every person lives out a sort of parable of life that is beautiful, complicated, inaccessible to other consciousnesses. And it is sacred. The intrusions or the deprivations that refuse to acknowledge this tend to take political forms of totalitarianism. Democracy, in any conceivable future as far as I’m concerned, is the only way that we can possibly honor the fact of the brilliance, the importance, of every human life and human awareness.

Cherie Harder: I was thinking back to a really remarkable interview you did with President Obama when he was still sitting president in 2015. The two of you talked about what you saw as the basis of democracy: the willingness to assume well of other people. You warned against what you called “the idea of the ‘sinister other.'” We are certainly in a period where there are media, social media, political, and ideological forces all intensifying tribalism and reinforcing the idea of a ‘sinister other,’ playing on appetites that are already there for that kind of tribalism. How does one cultivate, both on a personal level and on a cultural level, an appetite for a truer and more charitable story?

Marilynne Robinson: I think we have some obligation to support each other in this. Not simply to support each other materially, but to teach and to preach and to write. To do these things that are the addresses of one sensibility to others in a way that is respectful, that is generous, in its assumptions about the mentality of the reader. Speaking as a former teacher of writers, there is a pervasively low opinion of the general public. That means that what is said to the general public as culture—as popular culture, especially—is often less worthy, less good, than it would be possible for the same people who made that culture to produce if they proceeded more optimistically about what their audience would accept and be engaged by. I think we condescend horribly to one another. It’s always a form of self-congratulation if you can think badly of other people. But it’s very, very destructive.

Cherie Harder: You coined a memorable phrase at one point in your work “Absence of Mind”: ‘the hermeneutics of condescension,’ which you describe as the idea that earlier generations were somehow either intellectually or socially or morally beneath us. Where does this chronological snobbery come from, and what do you see as its antidote?

Marilynne Robinson: I think one of the major sources of it is that we teach history very badly, or teach it hardly at all. People don’t realize that when Shakespeare was alive, he walked across a bridge that had human heads on pikes displayed there for the birds to eat. The very steep upgrade of civilization (in terms of many things) is to be recognized, perpetuated, protected. But people don’t know enough about the past. They idealize it—”That’s when people were right-minded” and all the rest of it. In fact, it was savage in many ways. We’re looking all the time now at slavery, but that was one of the major forms of brutality in the human past. And we weed out the fact that there were people who hoped for something better and worked toward something better and risked or spent their lives trying to improve things. We could look to history for models about having things be better than they were—you know, the end of cruel and unusual punishment and so on. We don’t do that. We simply obsess on the fact that things were worse and act as if we had some sort of role in making our lives very much less grotesque. We need models. We need to figure out what reformers did when they created effective reforms. You have to look into the dark past to see that there were people in the dark past who were trying to make the world less dark. The fact that for a while at any rate, with any luck, we are able to enjoy, by world standards and by historical standards, a humane civilization, granting all its faults—that was the work and thought of nameable people, nameable movements. And at this point we absolutely need examples of humanizing influences that take hold and work. We’re losing the sense of that.

Cherie Harder: One of the rather unusual things about the folks you read is that, unlike many modern contemporary writers, you are a fan of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and the Puritans. I wanted to ask what initiated your interest in Calvin and Edwards and sparked your excitement over their work and thought.

Marilynne Robinson: I really do think that the reason that I have so much more interest in Calvin than other people who speak about him is that I’ve actually read him. One of the things that’s very irritating about the general conversation, no matter how lofty it is in terms of its intellectual claims, is that it’s often based simply on some kind of word-of-mouth that passes down through the generations. Calvin is a beautiful writer. He is a beautiful thinker. I think that much of the best subsequent philosophy (people like Descartes and so on) comes straight out of Calvin. I was aware of Jonathan Edwards because I went to a college in the Northeast. I was assigned an essay of his when I was I think a sophomore, and there was a beautiful footnote in it talking about the fact that reality is unaccountably recreated moment to moment and comparing it to the effect of light. That was very important to me, because everything else I was hearing, Darwinism, behaviorism, Freudianism— All of these things were different forms of a very unattractive determinism. Conventional ideas of God, that He was omnipotent and so on, would be disallowed by these determinisms that said, basically, we were not free to act; God was not free to act; it was all sort of an organic mechanism. When I read that note of Edwards’, it gave me a new model of reality. There’s now a way of accounting for the fact that reality recreates itself as itself moment-to-moment. Edwards rescued me out of the deprivations of what we’ve called ‘modern thought,’ and I have been reading him in light of that ever since. He’s a wonderful thinker. He’s called the greatest philosopher born on the North American continent—and he is. He deserves his reputation.

Cherie Harder: You noted once that one of the things that comes with a Calvinist outlook is that you are always posed with the question, “What does God want from this particular situation?” I’d be curious how you go about engaging with and wrestling with that question in the particulars of your own life.

Marilynne Robinson: It’s a question that doesn’t recur all the time in the same forms. When you encounter someone, you look at them with the idea that they are sent to you by God, with the intention that you should react to them with that understanding— In effect, the way Calvin describes it, they become God, because they are His emissaries, no matter who they are. So the idea is to understand the human situation in this profound way: What would God want from this moment? It is not that I should protect myself or that I should prove that I’m more intelligent or richer than the person I’m encountering. You know that those are not the answers that God wants. The question is how to respond to the holiness and the vulnerability, or whatever is presented to you in the presence of another person. Also, any moral question that you encounter in life, even things like avoiding waste and extravagance or taking reasonable care of your health or anything like that— In these kinds of questions, what does God want of you? It’s a question that is applicable in really any number of circumstances—in all circumstances.

Cherie Harder: During this last half of our program we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. Our first question comes from Mickey Jordan, who asks, “Do you believe that beauty is something we are simply struck with, or is beauty something like a capacity which we can grow in and hone?”

Marilynne Robinson: I think without any question you can enhance your own capacity for seeing beauty, or for seeing the deeply implanted character that beauty has in the existence of things. I always like the fact that mathematicians and scientists call a theory ‘beautiful’ if they think it’s plausible. Or ‘elegant.’ I think that that’s a kind of model that we can carry over into all kinds of perceptions of things.

Cherie Harder: Mattie Vennerstrom asked, “I’d love to know if Marilynne Robinson considers herself a regional writer and why she’s drawn to the Midwest as a setting for her novels.”

Marilynne Robinson: ‘Regional’ is a hard category to describe. Proust is a regional writer, you know? Almost any writer has some world that is tactile, seasonal; all of these kinds of qualities are the vocabulary of her or his imagination. I do write about places that people perhaps don’t ordinarily write about. But I have not had the feeling that I was by any means isolating myself from other readers—people whose worlds are very different from that world. I really do think that “Gilead” probably has more in common with most people’s experience than Proust’s France did or does or will. I just don’t really attach importance to the idea of regional writing.

Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Frederick Richardson, who says, “Given the extreme concern about cultural appropriation today, what do you say to writers who want to write from the perspective of someone from a culture not their own—for example, a white man writing from the perspective of a black woman?”

Marilynne Robinson: If you do it well, I don’t think anyone should object—if you make a full use of your understanding. It’s a risk. You might seem insensitive. You might seem very ignorant. But that, in a way, is a risk that anybody takes writing fiction. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong in the effort to understand someone unlike oneself. I think that actually we’re supposed to do that. To be afraid of making the effort seems to me just to entrap us all in a very narrow experience.

Cherie Harder: I’m actually going to combine two different questions, because they’re quite similar and you can probably answer them together. Natalie Widdows asked, “How do you, as a teacher and a writer, cultivate in others an attention to and appreciation for the beauty of the world?” Similarly, Seth Strickland asked, “How do you encourage your students to develop their intellectual lives in conjunction with or opposition to their academic lives?”

Marilynne Robinson: I do certainly try to encourage them to develop their intellectual lives. One of the reasons for that is that writers have to have a certain confidence. If they feel that they’re just writing in a little corner of civilization, if they feel intimidated by the idea of writing something that they don’t know about and making themselves small—that’s a plague among young writers. What they should be doing is reading extremely ambitiously. It actually enables people to realize that they do understand the highest levels of their art. I think that most people want to write in the first place because, in one way or another, something has struck him as being simultaneously beautiful and unacknowledged. People are often writing about what would appear to be obscure lives, making the statement, “Yes, this was a life that occurred within very narrow limits; but yes, it was a beautiful, generous life.” You see that a lot with students whose parents immigrated, who think that their parents are not perhaps properly understood until they’ve been given a world that other people can enter.

Cherie Harder: Fritz Heinzen asked a question that I’m sure many have wondered about. He asked, “Ms. Robinson, as someone whose work reflects such wide reading, we’d love to know: Who are some of the fiction and nonfiction authors, both past and present, that you would recommend to others?”

 

Marilynne Robinson: I think it’s probably a black mark on my character that I’m really very bad at recommending. I recommend Emerson, you know— What can I say? I read a lot of theology. I have a very strong historical interest in the development of certain theological traditions and so on. I always feel a little bit intimidated by the idea that my interests are not everyone’s interests. This is a thing I know well. But they’re enormously nutritive and stimulating to me. It’s a bizarre irony, but I am not very well-up on contemporary writing, even though some of the very interesting contemporary writers have been my students—people like Paul Harding and so on. So that’s always a question that I dodge, or I get embarrassingly candid about it.

Cherie Harder: Henry Slavens asked one of the most popular upvoted questions. He’d love to hear about your thoughts on the civil unrest we are experiencing now in America.

Marilynne Robinson: I find it very encouraging—truly. All sorts of painful things have become obvious. Who knew that the President could send unmarked vans full of soldiers, in effect, into an unoffending American city? That’s not something you expect. At the same time, it goes against the grain of expectation in a way that makes people conscious of what they expect and want and demand. It’s a perilous moment that we’re in at the moment. The government itself seems to be in pretty bad shape. The populace seems to be in pretty good shape. And I think we have a good possibility of having it all work out. I’ve never seen such crazy times in my life, but I do think that the balance is probably on the side of a restoration of American democracy.

Cherie Harder: May it be so. The next question comes from David Norman, and David asked, “It would seem that beauty should be persuasive, but the current fad is tending towards intentional ugliness. Do you agree, and if so, what do you believe we can do to reverse it?”

Marilynne Robinson: You know, with Walt Whitman, he would be writing about things that other people have seen as ugly until he wrote about them. There’s a way in which a good writer can look at an amazing variety of things and discover a unique capacity for beauty in very unanticipated places—which is a broadening of everyone’s experience. That’s a very good thing. Ugliness for its own sake, I imagine, would be a project that would exhaust itself fairly quickly. Because oddly enough, there’s just not that much ugliness. But if you are a writer who is creating it, then that’s a very arbitrary and I think a very negative thing to do. (Although every writer is— I believe in the legitimacy of every project if it’s not totally corrupt in one way or another.) There’s a kind of refusal to acknowledge that people in general like to participate in what is interesting or what is beautiful. They like to engage art at that level. It’s an insult or a conscious intentional deprivation to oppose that, to deny that. This is just my feeling the gloom that I think all of us feel from time to time, but I wonder what our civilization would have been like if every fiction weren’t based on a murder. I’m talking about television now. If every time you want to be sure the audience is with you, you don’t kick somebody to death or whatever hideous thing is happening— We’ve wanted to say that people don’t take the models of their behavior from fiction, except when we think that they do. We’re very inconsistent about that. But I kind of think that they do. It’s not that they are necessarily corrupted by seeing violence and viciousness all the time, but that they’re not given anything else. I’m not talking about condescending or sugarcoating or anything. I’m talking about the fact that there are other things besides homicide.

Cherie Harder: Switching gears a little bit, this next question comes from Heidi Metcalf Little, who asked, “Can you speak about motherhood: how it changed you, and how the experience of that vocation impacted your writing and maybe even your experience with and observations of beauty?”

Marilynne Robinson: The whole motherhood thing is very pleasing to me. Grandmotherhood now has come into play. But I always intended to have children. When I had them, I enjoyed them. I think that there’s probably nothing more interesting than watching language develop in someone—watching memory and narrative and all kinds of things like that emerge ex nihilo in these fantastic little brains that are growing exponentially over months of time. Children are really beautiful. They’re very satisfactory creatures in terms of the kind of intimacy that you have with them—the fact that they tell you what they’re afraid of and that sort of thing. If I had to choose between every other aspect of my life or being a mother, I would be a mother. I just loved it. I’ve always loved it.

Cherie Harder: That’s lovely. Jennifer Spiegel asked, “What challenges do you find as a Christian and as a writer who writes in the secular world?”

Marilynne Robinson: I have found absolutely no problem with that. Zero. I think one of the strangest things that happens is that many people who consider themselves Christians consider themselves strangers in the world—in the sense that if people found out what they really thought or believed, they would be ridiculed, or something like that. I made the test. I’ve been very forthright. And I think I have been as gently and fairly read and reviewed as any writer that I know of. That’s part of what bothers me. We entertain these very negative assumptions about people in general. And actually, people restrict their own work, their own imaginations, because they’re afraid. Christian people say to me, “Weren’t you afraid about writing about a minister?” No. I’m not going to choose what I write about on the basis of some imagined fear. If my book had been banned and ridiculed and I’d been tarred and feathered, that’s just the chance you take when you write a book. But there’s something very, very wrong when so many people who claim to be religious people act as if they have to hide out, as if their understanding of things couldn’t support daylight. That’s just appalling to me.

Cherie Harder: That’s a great word. Actually, our next question is also on fear. It comes from Jennifer Frey, and she asked, “You write about fear and claim that it’s not a Christian habit of mind. What do you have to say about our current climate of fear? How does a Christian respond to the fears around the pandemic and civil unrest?”

Marilynne Robinson: We’re just living in a kind of condensed form of human life. People have always had to deal with pandemic or plague or whatever. People have always dealt with unrest. We’re not habituated to it because we’ve been very fortunate. But that doesn’t mean that we’re exempt from what people have lived through time out of mind. I think we can make a little appeal to our own sense of dignity to keep the anxieties that we have in perspective—which is not to say that they’re easily solved. It’s simply to say, all generations have dealt with difficulty. We don’t have a special pass that will exclude us from it. What we have to do is make the best of it.

Cherie Harder: Callie Walker asked, “You’ve talked and written about there being a ‘visionary quality to all experience.’ That experience means something because it’s being addressed to you. Can you speak more about this?”

Marilynne Robinson: That’s one of the ways in which I think I’m probably most Calvinist or most Puritan. They took it to be true that God addresses everyone individually, that He addresses you circumstantially: “This is your problem to solve. This is your answer to give.” That makes life extremely interesting, because it assumes that there’s meaning over and above the mere basic, material meaning of things. It assumes that there is a kind of pervasive sacred expectation in reality. And every theology is incomplete; every theology emphasizes some things at the cost of other things. My own religious culture is not dogmatic in any way. But it gives you ways to think about things, gives you ways to encounter, without differentiating more or less important, more or less desirable. I find that to be very beautiful, very engaging.

Cherie Harder: Heather Buller asked, “Especially in the face of sharp cultural disagreement, both on social media and in real life, how do we cultivate our minds and hearts to see the truer and more charitable story of individuals and not the ‘sinister other’?”

Marilynne Robinson: I think that people basically have to fall back on their own resources. It’s one of the reasons that I wish that we would talk about people who have done well in other generations, and not assume that because they coexisted with things that were flagrantly evil, they themselves must have tolerated evil. We know from our own experience that what you would choose to live with, what you would choose to see done around you, is not necessarily something that you determine or can have much impact on. I think you have to talk to yourself. Think through things. Attempt the imaginative extensions of compassion and circumstance. It would be nice if there were some solution that we could fall back on, but we’re not offering ourselves good solutions these days. People are so enthralled by contentiousness that virtually anything can become a storm of contentiousness. With anger and with contempt and all these things, the excitement carries the behavior away from what was really the issue in the first place. It destroys the possibility of a conversation. When you are invited into one of these micro-storms, it seems to me that you could say, “No, actually, I have to go read a good book.” Because we’re not doing ourselves any good with this habit of antagonistic controversy. It just is not truthful.

Cherie Harder: Our time is rapidly dwindling, but a final question from Emily Billings actually picks up on that very theme of habits. Emily asked, “What habits do you implement in your everyday life to keep you healthy and spiritually grounded?”

Marilynne Robinson: It’s been true of me, I think my whole life, that the main thing I wanted was control of my own time—which I certainly have now, with the combined effects of retirement and isolation and all the rest of it. But I don’t regiment myself at all, really. It’s kind of shocking. I try to remember to have three meals a day. I have a basic sense of direction as far as what I’m working on, studying for, and so on. I’ve been very fortunate in the degree to which I’ve been able to structure my own life. You can make the trade of selling your time to somebody who will make you prosperous, or you can keep your time and be a little less prosperous—except in the fact of being able to do the work that you’re called into the world to do.

Cherie Harder: Thank you, Marilynne. And thank you to all of you who have joined us. I’d love to give the final word to Marilynne as we close out.

Marilynne Robinson: ‘Final word’ sounds kind of dramatic. But I do think it’s true that one of the things that is interesting about the human situation is that we have a sort of unlimited capacity for generosity. Whatever you do, if you do it well, is an act of generosity toward anybody who would feel the benefit of your generosity. And that means any work that you do at all. It certainly means any artistic work that you do. We have that capacity to create society around us by acts of generosity towards the society. And, of course, the repayment of that sort of choice is very clear. You can make the society you want to live in. For many people this is not a tolerable model, because they don’t like the idea of giving something up, even with the possibility of having it returned—like the bread upon the waters. Nevertheless, if you accept a discipline of generosity in every circumstance where the word could come up, whether it’s generosity of imagination, generosity of seriousness, actually putting good thought into everything that you do—that’s my advice. That’s what everybody ought to do.

Cherie Harder: Marilynne, thank you so much. It has been a delight to talk with you today.

Marilynne Robinson: Very nice to talk with you.

Cherie Harder: Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.

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