Seventeen years ago, I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for a three-week session with Marilynne Robinson which was an all-around wonderful experience. She dispensed much wisdom, mostly about reading and writing, but also about life. And this morning, as I looked at the lilies I received from Zippy five days ago, I thought about something Marilynne said during one of our workshops:
People after the age of 23 realize that they’re in the iron fist of gravity and will collect diminishing returns.
At that time, I was 40-years-old and only heard her message on an intellectual level. The thing was, I didn’t feel very far removed from 23 years of age; my returns weren’t yet greatly diminished. After all, every morning I got up and ran fast along the river!
Today I’m feeling more akin to these lilies that, after five days in a vase, broke from their stems in the main bouquet and fell to the countertop. These lilies whose petals are fading and wilting. Lilies in the iron fist of gravity and time.
Flowers still fierce and beautiful in their own way.
Last weekend I spent time with my nephew who is also a writer. We talked books and the writing process. We also talked a bunch about Marilynne Robinson, and the next morning I woke with her on my mind. I grabbed my notebook from 2003 when I spent three weeks in Iowa City absorbing her genius, and reread the notes I took.
Today, one of MR’s fourteen-year-old pearls of wisdom helped me out:
You should be every character’s advocate. You are God to that character. Typically, in one way or another, people are trying to make the best case for themselves. People are whole creatures. Villains have history behind them.
Aunt Isabel is no longer a one-note character. Marilynne Robinson for the assist!
Agnes has apparently given up on writing her first novel. Or maybe not. Perhaps she’s hunkered down in fierce concentration as she writes the story of beautiful, beautiful Magdalena. Only Agnes knows.
I wanted to share a little story about Agnes and me. Back in May of 2003, I had the wonderful opportunity to go to Iowa City for the summer session of Iowa Writers’ Workshop with Marilynne Robinson. I stayed at the Brown Street Inn for those three weeks. A nice older man, R, and his wife were also there, acting as caretakers whenever the owners had to leave. Every morning I’d go for a run along the Iowa River and then shower before heading down to the kitchen for breakfast. R was always there, reading the paper but ready for conversation.
It was just two months since the U.S. invaded Iraq and R most definitely supported the Bush administration. Our views and opinions were in direct opposition so we’d touch on the issue of Iraq and then tiptoe along to other topics. One of my efforts at diplomacy was to share the Agnes strips with him. At first R was just being a good sport about it; he’d read the strips and laugh, often sounding more puzzled than amused. But before long R was greeting me in the mornings with “Tracy, Agnes is really funny today!”
Fast forward to the summer of 2004 when my family took a cross-country car trip. When we planned the trip, I lobbied to go through Iowa City and was thrilled when I was able to reserve the top-floor suite at the Brown Street Inn. I wanted my family to meet all the wonderful people who’d been so kind and supportive during my stay.
We arrived late that afternoon, tired and crabby from the long drive. After checking in with R and his wife who were helping out again, we headed upstairs to our room.
We walked in and found this taped to the television screen: