In the heart of literature

In+the+heart+of+literature

When queried about her first impressions of the Writers’ Workshop —then located n the fourth floor of the English and Philosophy Building — writer Marilynne Robinson noteded the leaky roof.
“I was a little surprised to find [the Workshop] occupying a narrow corridor in EPB,” Robinson said. “The ceiling of the director’s office had a persistent leak that dripped on his desk.”

After more than two decades teaching at the Workshop, Robinson announced early this year that she would retire. On Oct. 9 at 3 p.m. in Macbride Hall, Robinson’s legacy — bolstered by the recent announcement that she would receive the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction — will be honored at a celebratory reading by some of her most distinguished students.

Reflecting on her time at the Workshop, Robinson noted her experience as a mentor to some of contemporary literature’s most celebrated voices.

“I felt honored to be here,” she said, “It is a rare and remarkable thing to watch writers develop and mature at the point in their lives when they are still finding out who they will be as writers.”

Initially invited to the Workshop based in part on the strength of her 1980 début novel, *Housekeeping,* Robinson became an indelible presence on not only the contemporary fiction landscape but in the corridors of Dey House.

“We all knew she was a genius, but she had a quiet life — she lived the life of a higher mind but also with two feet on the ground,” said Lan Samantha Chang, the director of the Writers’ Workshop and a former student of Robinson’s.

Robinson’s novels — the most recent of which being *Lila*, the final chapter in the *Gilead* series — celebrate human consciousness and also testify to her deep, inquisitive intellect. Explorative of the religious American Midwest, her prose transfigures life’s nuanced and often transient circumstances into something transcendent.

Robinson, known for her deeply spiritual literary voice, used the Bible and her faith as one of the primary themes of her writing, and this influence can be seen in the work of her students.

“She got me to read in and around the Bible, which influenced my later novels,” said author Chris Adrian, another of Robinson’s former students. “I think that’s what all three of us have in common. Meeting Marilynne pushed us in unexpected intellectual and spiritual directions.”

“She believes that human beings are capacious and that the things we do, including the writing of fiction — especially the writing of fiction — should reflect that capacity,” said the author Ayana Mathis, a former student and event reader. “That’s a pretty high standard, but one that serves as a guide and barometer for me and many of her former students.”

If we are to follow in the sentiments of Mathis and President Obama, who said to Robinson in his address before awarding her the National Humanities Medal, “Your writings have fundamentally changed me … I think for the better,” any standard set by Robinson is worth striving for.

“I try to encourage students to write from their own sense of the world — what is true, what matters, what has value,” Robinson said.

On the topic of her departure, her tone turned wistful.

“I hate to leave,” she said. “So much of my life has been centered on the Workshop … To be among people, students, and faculty who talk seriously and insightfully about language and literature is a continuous instruction in the art.”

Chang, and no doubt also Iowa City’s larger literary community, will feel her loss deeply but not without cherishing the gifts she bequeathed to the Workshop and to literature.

“We’ll miss her but we also know that she hasn’t really left us for anyone else,” Chang said. “Many of her students are in the world as writers, and they carry her with them.”

 

What: Celebrating Marilynne Robinson

Where: Macbride Hall

When: 3 p.m. Oct 9

Cost: Free

Facebook Comments