Monday, April 7, 2008

Mary Gaitskill on How a Writer Survives

I had the opportunity to hear novelist/short story writer Mary Gaitskill’s keynote speech at Saturday’s Conversations and Connections conference at Johns Hopkins. Her topic was, loosely, how to get published (which was the focus of the conference), but she moved well beyond the usual “here’s how to get an agent” advice to offer some actual wisdom about what can be a daunting process. Her path to publication was anything but easy, and the crowd of nearly 200 writers seemed to appreciate her insight and her honesty.

So, paraphrased from my scribbled notes, here are the qualities she suggested were necessary for a writer to survive (and, hopefully, prevail):

1. She noted that a writer is “alone in the dark”—a metaphorical darkness, of course, where we are trying to piece together the story-poem-novel, trying to figure out the art of what we’re doing while being unable to see exactly how to do so. We’re constantly feeling our way. So—a writer needs to have an ability to be in that darkness.

2. Persistence. She talked about the many, many, many years where no one was publishing her stories…and the many “friends” who suggested that perhaps she should give up.

3. Courage. See above!

4. So why didn’t she give up? Because to the writer, writing must be so important to you that you can’t stop. Yes, talent is necessary, but there must be so much more. See numbers 2 and 3.

5. She talked about having to let go of the idea of “success” and to relax. She said there came a point where she realized that “I’m doing what I’m doing whether it works or not.”

6. Finally, the writer should have humility, openness, and curiosity. (I would add that it’s my feeling that humility is about the only way to survive that process she so aptly describes as being alone in the dark; art is constantly humbling.)

To put it mildly, things seem to be working out for her now. If you’re not familiar with her darkly beautiful, beautifully disturbing work, check out this impressive bio:

Mary Gaitskill is the author of the novels Two Girls, Fat and Thin and Veronica, which was nominated for a National Book Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, as well as the story collections Bad Behavior and Because They Wanted To, which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner in 1998. Her story “Secretary” was the basis for the feature film of the same name.

She has taught creative writing at the University of California, the University of Houston, New York University, Brown University, and Syracuse University.

Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. In 2002 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.