Author Mary Gaitskill Gives Master Class at ConU

“Nature always deceives.” Graphic Ashley Opheim & Alex Manley

Mary Gaitskill set her gaze over a room of 30 students. There was a feeling in the room that those present were lucky to be in Gaitskill’s presence; the 30-person crowd was not accidental, but the result of a strict cap.

Gaitskill, who read from her essay “Lost Cat” at the De Sève Cinema later that night, was here for Concordia’s Writers Read Series, an event that invites distinguished writers to discuss their works with students.

What made Gaitskill’s lecture a pleasure to attend was not just the fact that she’s a distinguished author who was named by five of this year’s New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” authors, or that she’s an author whose most recent novel, 2005’s Veronica, snagged her a National Book Award nomination, or that her short story “Secretary” was adapted into the 2002 film of the same name. Rather, her determinedness to speak about the “un-discussable” showed throughout.

The majority of Gaitskill’s lecture focused on something that creative writing courses tend to shy away from, considering that it cannot really be taught: the question of unseeable content, the form under the plot, “the deeper quality, the unconscious soul,” the “inner weaving of a story that you can’t read—you have to feel,” as Gaitskill put it.

She articulated to the perceptive group of students that she thought this was the most important aspect of great writing. With this quality, Gaitskill said that literature is transformed and lifted in the reader’s mind, giving a piece depth. This quality of a work is something that Gaitskill feels is more integral to a piece of literature than plot and theme.

The bad news? Finding this inner weaving is nigh unteachable.

“It requires patience and an attunement to your surroundings,” she said.

Characters, she noted, reflect the world around them; they reflect the nature of a culture, of humankind: creation and destruction, good and evil, and so on. Culture begins in the individual.

Gaitskill also spent a fair amount of the two-hour lecture discussing her literary hero, Vladimir Nabokov. She quoted him: “Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.”

Nabokov’s literature deals with themes of this unspeakable world that Gaitskill mentioned in her lecture: the world of mirrors, mazes, dreams, illusions, reflections and the like. Gaitskill articulated to the class that these intangible aspects of his work are what “bridge the mundane and the fantastical.” It is a literary device, she maintained, that is essential to a work’s success.

She read passages from Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and pointed out sections of the text that, in theory, act counter-intuitively to the logic of the story.

“The most powerful imagery doesn’t hit you here,” she said, placing her hand on her head. “It hits you here,” she said, bringing her hand down to her stomach.

Later in the lecture she used the same gesture to express how she understands a story she is working on, saying that the story usually comes to her as a feeling in her stomach and then makes its way up to her head, where it fully manifests itself.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 14, published November 16, 2010.