Thursday, September 10, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill started out her workshop with the premise that today, "people don't read." She posed a question to us: what is it that attracts you to writing, considering the place it has in our culture these days? She might have actually said, "Why do you want to become writers?" It's a kind of a question that makes a number of assumptions about me ("want," "become," "writer" -- even "why" and "you" are problems) and I felt forced by it into a false position. In a workshop environment, where one is given maybe 60 seconds to formulate a coherent answer, I couldn't even say that I find the premise ("people don't read") misleading or explain, wihout sounding malicious, that I didn't know how to answer that question. At the end I said something about "coming from a different world." And I didn't mean Russia. But I don't think anybody understood what I was trying to get at. At the end, I felt as foreign as I did as a business student at RIT 10 years ago, when people kept asking me "Why did you chose to study business?" In retrospect, then and now I should've probably answered with, "Well, if you really want to know, let me tell you a story."

"There is more of a physical thing in writing than most people realize," Mary said. Judging by the amount of food I consume when I'm writing, this is certainly true.

She is a huge fan of an HBO series "The Wire."

I should read Jean Rhys, who is one of the favorite writers of my friend and fellow workshop participant Marie. Also, Rhys is an important name in feminist scholarship.

Mary Gaitskill was questioning "the mysterious nature of what makes writing great." "Because it speaks of social problems?" Because it's able to create a cross-pull between the "superficial layer of what's going on & something deeper--almost the secret story of the plot, for which the plot acts as a sort of conduit," "like a person's unconscious--the inner quality"? "It comes from a deeper place than my conscious mind." "It comes across in style. We think of style as something superficial," but "creating images out of words takes you to a deeper place inside the world of a story." This part about style that's not superficial sort of reminds me about the essay Evelyn had shared on Albert J. Guerard.

She did a fantastic reading later that night, Mary. She read a story called "The Agonized Face" from her most recent collection, "Don't Cry." I had read that story a few weeks prior and didn't really get it. The way she read it, it was so personal and stand-offish at the same time, seemed like a provocation on so many different levels, but also an open invitation to relate to her as other than a published writer. It was a kind of reading that was also very consciously a performance. The timing was perfect, the inflections were controlled. It probably helped that so much of the audience (other visiting writers) were familiar faces. I hope she comes back to read out here in the West Coast some time.

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