What I Learned about Writing from Craig Johnson and Marilynne Robinson

It’s a hard day when a writer encounters two others whose books are so good that he is forced to decide never to write another word. And that day gets harder when one of those wonderful writers creates stories that, in characters, setting, and overall tenor, remind the poor writer of his own. And the second excellent writer? She writes an entirely different kind of novel so well and so intimately that the poor guy has no choice but to give up writing altogether and take ukulele lessons.

Uke Lesson

That poor writer is me, and the two great ones are Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire series (both the books and the Netflix series), and Marilynne Robinson, author of the Gilead trilogy, and most recently, Lila. It was Lila that nudged me over the edge toward the ukulele, and it was Johnson’s Walt Longmire books that first made me mutter, “I’m not writing another word.”

What is it about their writing that so affects me? To put it better, if I’m going to stay in the game and not learn the uke, what can I learn from these two very different masters? Let me start with Death Without CompanyCraig Johnson.

Johnson never departs from the story he is telling: no detours or digressions, no long soliloquies, just story. But in telling the story, he will add a phrase, or sometimes only a word, that captures a character’s enormous but almost hidden emotion, or the breathtaking beauty of a setting he barely takes time to describe. Here’s an example from Death without Company, the second Longmire book.

It’s on page three. It’s winter. Sheriff Walt Longmire has paced a path in the snow along the cemetery fence, impatiently listening to the gravedigger’s chatter. The ground being frozen, the gravedigger launches into a long riff on burial customs around the world. It’s funny, because Jules, the gravedigger, is driving Walt crazy. Underneath, though, there’s a tightening of some unspoken tension: Who died? Why is the sheriff out here pacing in the cold? What happened?

Then we read this, written in Walt’s first person point of view:

You can tell the new graves by the pristine markers and the mounds of earth. From my numerous and one-sided conversations [with Jules], I had learned that there were water lines running a patchwork under the graveyard with faucets that would be used in the spring to help soak the dirt and tamp the new ones flat, but, for now, it was as if the ground had refused to accept Vonnie Hayes. It had been almost a week since her death, and I found myself up here once a week.

When somebody like Vonnie dies you expect the world to stop, and maybe for one brief second the world does take notice. Maybe it’s not the world outside, but the world inside that’s still (pp. 2-3).

After two-and-a-half pages of near comedy tinged with premonition of something not fun, we get that paragraph describing frozen grave mounds waiting to be tamped down when the earth thaws, and then it’s “as if the ground had refused to accept Vonnie Hayes.” And before the almost Homeric power of that can sink in—the earth refusing to accept a dead woman!—Johnson brings us inside Walt Longmire, where his “world inside is still.”

Throughout his books, Johnson does that: After a long focusing on the external action (in the excerpt, the comedic chatter of Jules—remember the two joking gravediggers in Hamlet?—and the setting (the frozen mounds awaiting spring), Johnson in a short sentence or two will give us a glimpse (and often only a glimpse) into Walt Longmire’s emotional response. But not too deeply or long. “Maybe it’s not the world outside, but the world inside that’s still.” By setting things up this way, when the moment comes for Sheriff Longmire to have a profound emotional experience (and in Johnson’s novels, that moment always comes), we’ve had so many fleeting glimpses that we are as deeply moved as Walt Longmire is.

Now let’s turn to Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. Unlike the sheriff of Absaroka County, Lila is a nobody. Abandoned as a toddler and rescued by a woman drifter who taught her the life of itinerant workers, Lila eventually became a prostitute, then a homeless wanderer. Lila CoverDuring her travels, she meets and marries an old preacher in the small Iowa town of Gilead (the title of the first book in this series). They love each other in their own way, but each fears the other will find him or her unsatisfactory. The preacher, John Ames, can tell her, haltingly, of his love and need for her, but she cannot believe it will last, nor can she voice her own fear that he will learn about her past and banish her. She tells him almost nothing about herself. And the context of this agonized reticence for both is the knowledge that the old man will die long before Lila gets old. Then Lila becomes pregnant, delivers a son, and . . . that’s it. In Lilathat’s all the action there is.

All the action on the outside, that is. But inside Lila’s and John’s minds, the characters’ rich, evocative, and poignant musing and rejoicing and fearing and longing are complex—and complete—worlds in themselves. We view scenes of intense external action nearly always through Lila’s remembering and pondering them. Page after page of inner monolog carry us back to Lila’s earliest days, or show us the formative, dreadful experiences she endured, or project us out into the futures she imagines so entirely plausibly that we feel with her the same shiver of fear or despair (or occasionally, hope) that she feels about the life she imagines she will end up living.

Listen: Lila is pregnant, has spent the morning rocking and thinking and trying to understand the Book of Job, since her husband is a preacher and she wishes to understand him. It is 11 o’clock, and she’s waiting for the Reverend, as she calls him, to come home for lunch. We join her thoughts, which she will never share with John Ames, for fear he’d find her shallow:

She felt good, and the baby was moving around more than ever, elbows and knees. The old man would look into her face for sadness or weariness, and she would turn her face away, since there was no telling what he might see in it, her thoughts being what they were. She’d been thinking that folks are their bodies. And bodies can’t be trusted at all. Her own body was so strong with working, for what that was worth. She’d known from her childhood there was no use being scared of pain. She was always telling the old man, women have babies, no reason I can’t do it. But they both knew things can go wrong. That’s how it is pp. 171-172).

It’s in this stream of her consciousness (not stream of consciousness in the technique sense, but in the real-life sense, thoughts weaving together one by one into a skein of meaning) that we come to know Lila. Through her thinking about her husband, we know him too. Remember that sentence about his searching her face for a sign of sadness: Lila’s thoughts show us, more poignantly and fleetingly than any words John might say, his fragile fearful love.

After that, she thinks about dying when the baby comes, and how “here’s my body, dying on me, when I almost promised him I wouldn’t let it happen.” This makes her wonder if perhaps her concern for her husband meant that . . .

. . . she was something besides her body, but what was the good of that when she’d be gone anyway and there’d be nothing in the world that could comfort him. She guessed she really was married to him, the way she hated the thought of him grieving for her (p. 172).

We stay inside Lila’s mind (and heart) like this for long stretches throughout the novel, and I never found a moment of it dry or slow or boring. All the scenes in which action takes place are filtered and formed by her inner perceptions of them. Thought by thought, desire by desire, Lila grew on me, grew into me. All of us have been abandoned, have grown hard and scarred over, have secret escape plans and doubts about the ones who love us most. And like Lila, most of us rise up and through those to a higher place, or at least a glimpse of one. To live with Lila over the span of her life and 260 pages of Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, measured, thoughtful, and simple prose was, for me, to become alive again to all the contradictions that fill my loves and eventually are healed by them.

Read with me the closing lines, remembering that these are the musings of a woman on whom life had scraped the thickest scars and hardened the most tender heart of any deeply wounded character in literature I know.

Lila had borne a child into a world where a wind could rise that would take him from her arms as if there were no strength in them at all. Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us. That peace could only be amazement, too.

Well for now there were geraniums in the windows, and an old man at the kitchen table telling his baby some rhyme he’d know forever, probably still wondering if he had managed to bring her along into that next life, if he could ever be certain of it. Almost letting himself imagine grieving for her in heaven, because not to grieve for her would mean that he was dead, after all.

Someday she would tell him what she knew (p. 260-261).

Geraniums

I imagine you can see, now, why after reading Craig Johnson and Marilynne Robinson, I wondered if I should write another word. They tell me, yes.

Author: Bill Percy

An Idaho and Minnesota writer and psychologist, Bill has been writing fiction and non-fiction for 40 years. His 2014 novel, "Climbing the Coliseum," wass a Finalist for the Foreword Reviews' Book of the Year Award in general fiction. His second novel, "Nobody's Safe Here," was published by Black Rose Writing in December, 2016. Check out Bill's website at www.BillPercyBooks.com.

4 thoughts on “What I Learned about Writing from Craig Johnson and Marilynne Robinson”

  1. This is an eye-opener to Craig Johnson’s writing. We’ve only enjoyed Longmire on Netflix. Now I know his prose is impactful as well. I had put Gilead down a while back, but someone suggested it to me, and I am taking in its lyricism with appreciation.

    1. Thanks, Sandy. One of my editors, Kim Cheeley, told me last summer that Climbing the Coliseum reminded her of Craig Johnson’s Longmire books. I of course ran out and got the first one at the library that very day. I really did say to Michele, “I’m not writing another word”! Marilynne Robinson’s prose, and also her profound understanding and wisdom about life and spiritual things, has always humbled and buoyed me. And of course, she’s from Sandpoint (frosting on the cake). Glad you found the post! Thanks again for the comment.

  2. I respectfully disagree with your self criticism. I believe that you have the gift of writing. You are able to describe one’s thoughts and behavior like a pro (I wonder why…lol) combined with a rich choice of words! Delightful and intelligent!

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