The November/December issue of Poets & Writers magazine featured a cover story on Marilynne Robinson. Her most recent books are the novel Lila and the essay collection The Givenness of Things. The piece gave much focus to her writing process. One of the photos was of a window in her home study that she sits near while writing long-hand in a hardcover notebook. Line-by-line, first sentence to last, she writes her books without revision. Let me say that again: without revision.
While I can’t relate to the “without revision” aspect of Robinson’s writing process, I can relate to her distinction of conventional mind and deep mind. Here is a section from the cover story:
“I tell my students that you have a conventional mind— a front-office mind, I call it—that basically deals with the business of living in the world. It’s what pays attention to things that are, in themselves, perhaps trivial. And then you have a deeper mind that you are very much surprised by, that has its own obsessions that you would not anticipate, that has its own favorite words, that has memories you can’t believe you remember. You can’t trust the superficial mind to give you something that’s original. But you can trust the deeper mind. That’s where you really live, where your truth is.”
I often think of this shift from writing with the front-brain mind to the deeper mind as “jumping the track,” and I can feel it when it happens. I’m not sure I thought about two levels of mind before I started writing, but they are there and not tied to writing. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about the shift from superficial to shallow in his bestseller Flow. Greek philosophers called the two levels of mind ratio and intellectus. Ratio is the kind of knowing that emerges from intentionally working your brain; it is all about reasoning and logic. In contrast, intellectus is the kind of knowing that emerges from leisure, from stillness and contemplation; it is passive and receptive. We need both, of course, for a full life.
On another note, Relief Journal published on its blog an interview between me and Lisa Ohlen Harris, friend and their former creative nonfiction editor. (I’ve written about Lisa's wonderful books on this blog a couple times before.) The interview is mostly about the writing process and the role of community in writing. Please take a look; I’d be honored if you did. Here’s the link.
[Photo: taken of a portion of the November/December issue of Poets & Writers]