On Mary Gaitskill

In an attempt to reconnect with writers who have influenced me, I googled Mary Gaitskill’s name today and came across a 2015 New York Times article about connection and loneliness in Gaitskill’s work. In the piece, literary critic Parul Sehgal teases out some of the complexities that lie beneath the surface of Gaitskill’s behavior and writing.

The article left me wanting to slow down as a writer and to dig more deeply into silence, awkwardness, discomfort. To explore character traits I avert my eyes from in real life. The entire piece is available on the NYT website, but here is a short excerpt about weakness:

We are phobic of weakness, we treat it like a contagion, averting our eyes and hoping for the best. But Gaitskill puts her fingers in the wound. Even among other artists attracted to weakness as a theme, she is rare in being able to look at it on its own terms. She doesn’t treat it like a curiosity, like Diane Arbus, or a chink in the armor that might let in faith, like Flannery O’Connor. She isn’t afraid of it, like Muriel Spark; nor does she insist its depictions rouse us to action, like Sontag. She looks — just looks — and sees everything: how weakness is despised, how weakness can be cunning, how victims aren’t merely saints or dupes.

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Hesitance in Writing, and Maksik Interview

A short, fantastic interview with writer Alexander Maksik is up on the Tin House website. Maksik discusses the popular tendency to shy away from writing sex in contemporary fiction and says:

Who becomes an artist out of a desire for safety? The aversion to writing about real intimacy is symptomatic of what I see as our growing cultural aversion to sincerity. And far more frightening, is a growing atmosphere of caution. Since when have good writers been cautious?

Lately I’ve been thinking of my own hesitance to address a number of subjects openly, both on social media and in my creative writing. Up until recently, I thought that my creative writing at least was a space where I pushed forward without much self-policing, but recently I read several short stories I wrote years back and was astounded by the difference between my boldness then and my hesitance now. It is true that I did not think as much about the construction of identity/identities in those years but wrote more intuitively—and my critical eye is largely a positive development—but I would like to recapture more of that intuitive movement that allowed me to follow characters from page to page with complete openness and affection. Reading Maksik’s interview really did bring some of that energy back.

Writing Exercise

Yesterday, I read the Paris Review interview with the French writer Emmanuel Carrère, whose books often combine journalistic reporting with first-person confession. In the interview, Carrère describes a writing exercise he practices, learned from the German Romantic Ludwig Börne:

For three successive days, force yourself to write, without denaturalizing or hypocrisy, everything that crosses your mind. Write what you think of yourself, your wives, Goethe, the Turkish war, the Last Judgment, your superiors, and you will be stupefied to see how many new thoughts have poured forth. That is what constitutes the art of becoming an original writer in three days.

Carrère finds this to be excellent advice and practices it when he is not working on anything. I felt inspired and started it yesterday myself. Even though I often journal, the session yesterday felt different than it typically does. It was as if Carrère had given me permission to be entirely present with my emotions and opinions, and my assurance with the pen grew and grew the more I wrote.

In the end, after reaching clarity, I felt a need to start a new piece of fiction but was dry for ideas. So I did what I sometimes do: I read poetry by writers I admire until one of their images inflated into a whole scene in my mind. The poem that struck me was “Autumn Sky” by Charles Simic, particularly the following stanza:

The stars know everything,
So we try to read their minds.
As distant as they are,
We choose to whisper in their presence.

The scene it generated was one where two adolescents—country children who have grown up in neighboring houses—lie in a field and look to the stars. Their unusual dialogue moves the piece into a speculative realm, a genre I’ve been drawn to lately. I’m excited to be revising and polishing this piece now.

Max Ritvo Interview on Divedapper

Poet Max Ritvo has passed at age 25. Thanks to the Facebook posts of a number of literary journals, I read his gorgeous work for the first time today. I was particularly moved by an interview with Ritvo on Divedapper. Below is an excerpt, but you can read the full interview here.

Everybody dies with loose ends. You can be ninety, you can be twenty-five. These are my particular loose ends. And it’s been very very comforting not to really try to do anything other than do today. I want to do this interview with you today. I’m not trying to think about whether I’m going to be well enough to edit it. Whether I’m ever going to see it in the world. What happens to me is just the next step. It’s been immensely liberating to realize so much of joy is made worse by trying to make joy stay. And so much of suffering is made worse by trying to make suffering go away. When you’re just comfortable allowing whatever sensations are there to be there, allowing the paths whatever their paths, that is healing.

Poem in Lunch Ticket

The editors of Lunch Ticket, the literary magazine from Antioch University Los Angeles, have just accepted my poem “Fat Tuesday in Samsara” for publication! This is my first poem in verse to be accepted, and I am thrilled and honored to know that it will be included in the pages of Lunch Ticket. I will post a link to the issue once it is out.

Writer Nadia Mifsud Discusses Malta

Words Without Borders posted a rich interview with writer Nadia Mifsud today. Her thoughts about her native city of Valletta, which she left sixteen years ago and recently visited, remind me of my own complex feelings for my native Sarajevo, which, like her Valletta, keeps on creeping into what I write. Below is an excerpt from the interview, in which Mifsud discusses the city. You can read the entire interview on Words Without Borders.

Recent archeological studies have uncovered an intricate web of tunnels under the city—a vast maze of wells and reservoirs, sewers and war shelters that very few people know about. I haven’t had the opportunity of peeping inside this subterranean Valletta yet—the tunnels are not open to the public—but I like to pace through the streets imagining all kinds of strange happenings going on in this mysterious underworld. Another extraordinary detail is Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John in St. John’s Co-Cathedral. It is Caravaggio’s largest painting, and the only one that bears his signature (discernible in the blood spilling from the saint’s throat!). It is a truly haunting masterpiece. Of course, it is one of the main tourist attractions in Valletta, but I wonder how many locals have actually had a close look at it.