For Christmas I received a copy of Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books, a collection of essays. I’ve long admired her novel Gilead, an epistolary novel written from the point of view of a dying, 76 year old preacher, writing a letter to his 6 year old son. It is a beautiful book and and I teach it every two years in my American Novel class.
While reading the first essay of When I Was a Child I Read Books, I was struck by this passage from “Freedom of Thought” and wanted to share it.:
There is a great difference, in fiction and in life, between knowing someone and knowing about someone. When a writer knows about his character he is writing for plot. When he knows his character he is writing to explore, to feel reality on a set of nerves somehow not quite his own. Words like “sympathy,” “empathy,” and “compassion” are overworked and overcharged–there is no word for the experience of seeing an embrace at a subway stop or hearing an argument at the next table in a restaurant. Every such instant has its own emotional coloration, which memory retains or heightens, and so the most sidelong, unintended moment becomes a part of what we have seen of the world. Then, I suppose, these moments, as they have seemed to us, constellate themselves into something a little like a spirit, a little like a human presence in its mystery and distinctiveness” (Robinson 6-7).
Robinson goes on to discuss where fiction comes from and why we need it. She doesn’t know, by the way. However, she goes on to make this point: “But all we really know about what we are is what we do. There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell. The advice I give my students is the same advice I give myself–forget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small” (Robinson 7).