// writing, reflection and introspection

This evening I was lucky enough to be able to hear Marilynne Robinson speak at Oxford Brookes. Robinson is the author of three astonishing novels – Housekeeping, Gilead and Home – and has recently written a new non-fiction title, Absence of Mind, which deals with the science and religion debate. She’s also one of the few mainstream authors I know who manages to effectively blend theology and creative writing at a level where they are inseparable (from what I know of Annie Dillard, she has achieved something similar, and people rave about Anne Lamott, too). Gilead is a novel that I particularly recommend, incidentally – it’s just breathtaking. It’s a testament to the quality of Robinson’s writing that even Philip Pullman was in the audience tonight, and it’s because in terms of evoking the mindset of people of faith she is second to none.

In her reflections, Robinson talked of how, to her, writing is “like walking backwards through your experiences and only then realising the truth of what you have seen”. I like that as a definition because it seems so accurate a description of what it means to be a writer. It is so difficult to articulate the true meaning of situations while you are in the midst of them, and so you are always placing yourself at one remove, stepping back to see things as they really are in order to draw meaning from them. That makes it difficult to live in the moments, it’s true, although to her credit Robinson talks about her memories with a vividness and wonder that makes you think that the experience of remembering them is almost like encountering these circumstances as for the first time.

I have been struggling to write the past few weeks. I am currently unemployed, having dropped out of the Masters course I was enrolled in at Brookes about a month ago, and it’s difficult to work out the meaning of this experience. In retrospect I am sure that it will teach me… something. In the midst of it, though, it seems dull, stretching out apparently endlessly and sapping my ability to see the world clearly by turning the focus upon myself. When you are that self-absorbed, the world becomes very narrow. It is not healthy. And it is not a good place to be.

In Gilead, the narrator writes at one point,

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. That is what I said in the Pentecost sermon… But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?

It is a very seductive lie, the one that tells us that life is meaningless, that we would be best to simply settle into the most comfortable life possible. It is easy to believe, too, that just existing is all that we get, and to hope for anything more is naïve and idealistic – because nothing comes for free in this life. And so I agree with Marilynne Robinson that it does take courage to see things in their glory and radiance, because that ultimately forces you to confront the fact that if they have a purpose, then life does mean something after all, and so, if you’re wasting it then – well, you shouldn’t be.

Why not take the time tonight to sit in a darkened room and take a walk backwards through your experiences, to see what you discover? I am more than willing to bet that you have experienced, at some point, those moments where God breathes on a “poor gray ember” of existence and gives you the eyes to see it flare up into something altogether more glorious.

It is worth remembering those moments. Those are the ones we hold on to.

    • Nick
    • September 25th, 2010

    Didn’t know she was in town (and wouldn’t have been able to make it) but would have loved to listen to her. Reading and loving Gilead at this moment – wonderful book.

    Dylan – ‘some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark to be where the angels fly’ has something of the sentiment too?

    • Tom
    • September 27th, 2010


    I love that Dylan quote – very cool indeed. Will look forward to hearing your thoughts on Gilead too. I wish i could write a book like that.

    Did you hear that Jonathan Franzen writes blindfolded in a dark room to focus himself on his memories? That’s commitment, not to mention self-reflection taken to a new level. Talk about scaring yourself to death in the dark….

    • Nick
    • September 27th, 2010

    Hi Tom,

    I didn’t know that about Jonathan Frantzen – remarkable. Find it a very challenging thought, and wonder why I do.


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