Author Mary Gaitskill
If you've ever thought maybe you had a book in you, six terrific novelists are here to tell you about the art, the craft, the isolation, the listening, the mysterious energy, and the sheer termite-like determination that go into making a world out of words.
O: What's the best thing about being a writer?
Mary Gaitskill: The best thing about writing is being able to clearly express things in a way you can't express in conversation. This is especially true if you are socially awkward and a little inarticulate, which I was when I first started to write seriously (at age 23) and is still how I occasionally feel. In countless conversations I have had, someone has said something and I have had several responses at once, sometimes responses that were nonverbal, coming to me in confused masses of feeling, images, and half-formed thoughts that I could not refine into words until, say, sometime the next day. Anything I did say would feel partial to me and often sounded just plain dumb.
Writing is in some way being able to sit down the next day and go through everything you wanted to say, finding the right words, giving shape to the images, and linking them to feelings and thoughts. It isn't exactly like a social conversation because you aren't giving information in the usual sense of the word or flirting or persuading anyone of anything or proving a point; it's more that you are revealing something whole in the form of a character, a city, a moment, an image seen in a flash out of a character's eyes. It's being able to take something whole and fiercely alive that exists inside you in some unknowable combination of thought, feeling, physicality, and spirit, and to then store it like a genie in tense, tiny black symbols on a calm white page. If the wrong reader comes across the words, they will remain just words. But for the right readers, your vision blooms off the page and is absorbed into their minds like smoke, where it will re-form, whole and alive, fully adapted to its new environment. It is a deeply satisfying feeling.
Jeffrey Eugenides: The best thing is also the worst thing. It's that, no matter how long you've been at it, you always start from scratch. Henry James said, "We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art." Unless you're the kind of writer who works with a template, where the narrative strategies remain more or less constant and the job consists of filling in the boxes with new material, then what you have to do, with each new book, is discover all these things anew. Your material determines your narrative strategy and your tone of voice rather than the other way around. You change from book to book. You begin always knowing nothing. You remain forever an amateur, a first-timer. Sure, you might cobble together something akin to a methodology after a while, a working method, a sense of pacing yourself through the seasons. But that's about it in terms of the pleasures and wisdom of the veteran.
What makes this worst thing also the best thing has to do with the agelessness of aspiration. When you're always starting out, always trying to learn to do what you don't know how to do, you remain close to the place (college dorm room, Prague café) where you first set pen to paper. You remain in touch with that crazy, dreamy kid who spent so much time in the library. You persist in being impractical, idealistic, naive, and brave. Your body ages, but your imagination remains young, and on your deathbed, if you're lucky, you might be prideful enough to say to yourself, "I'm finally getting the hang of this."
We Hear You!