The art of integrating the ego and the impulse for empathy in a dynamic call and response.
Why do writers — great writers — write? George Orwell attributed it to four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Michael Lewis ascribes it to the necessary self-delusions of creativity. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise. For Susan Orlean, it comes from immutable love.
But one of literary history’s most beautiful answers comes from Mary Gaitskill in her essay “The Wolf in the Tall Grass,” titled after Nabokov’s famous meditation on the art of storytelling and published in the 1998 anthology
1. To satisfy a basic, fundamental need. I think all people have this need. It’s why children like to draw pictures of houses, animals, and Mom; it’s an affirmation of their presence in the corporeal world. You come into life, and life gives you everything your senses can bear: broad currents of animal feeling running alongside the particularity of thought. Sunlight, stars, colors, smells, sounds. Tender things, sweet, temperate things, harsh, freezing, hot, salty things. All the different expressions on people’s faces and in their voices. For years, everything just pours into you, and all you can do is gurgle or scream until finally one day you can sit up and hold your crayon and draw your picture and thus shout back, Yes! I hear! I see! I feel! This is what it’s like! It’s dynamic creation and pure, delighted receptivity happening on the same field, a great call and response.
Her second motive reflects Susan Sontag’s assertion that “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” Gaitskill continues:
2. To give form to the things we can sense but not see. You walk into the living room where your father is lying on the couch, listening to music. You are small, so he doesn’t hear or see you. His face is reacting to the music, and his expression is soft, abstract, intensely inward. It is also pained. It is an expression that you have never seen. Then he sees you and smiles, but the music still fills the room with that other expression…
Quoting Nabokov’s famous words — “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.” — Gaitskill reflects on that ability to give shape to the ineffable as the essence of storytelling:
Stories mimic life like certain insects mimic leaves and twigs. Stories are about all the things that might’ve, could’ve, or would’ve happened, encrowded around and giving density and shape to undeniable physical events and phenomena. They are the rich, unseen underlayer of the most ordinary moments.
Gaitskill contrasts this intense outrospection and sensitivity to the world’s unseen layers with her third reason — which coincides with Orwell’s first motive — and writes:
3. To feel important, in the simplest egotistical sense. … Strong thoughts and feelings about what you see and feel require a distinct point of view and an ego. If you are frequently told that your point of view is worthless, invalid, or crazy, your ego will get really insulted. It will sulk like a teenager hunched in her room muttering, “No one ever listens. No one cares. One day they’ll see!” To make them all see — i.e., see how important I am — was once a big part of why I wrote stories. As a motivation, it’s embarrassing, it’s base, and it smells bad, but it’s also an angry little engine that could: it will fight like hell to keep your point of view from being snatched away, or demeaned, fighting even when there’s no apparent threat.
But just as one begins to raise a skeptical eyebrow and summon Alan Watts for a counterpoint, Gaitskill herself acknowledges the existential paradox therein:
The only problem is, the more your ego fights, the smaller your point of view gets. For a while, I needed to take great pains to make myself feel safe, to the point of extreme social isolation, so I wouldn’t feel like I had to fight. The angry engine quieted down a bit, and I began to learn about other points of view.
Indeed, this impulse for empathy and for giving voice to the marginalized realities of others brings us to Gaitskill’s fourth motive:
4. To reveal and restore things that I feel might be ignored or disregarded. I was once at a coffee shop eating breakfast alone when I noticed a woman standing and talking to a table of people. She was young but prematurely aged, with badly dyed hair and lined skin. She was smiling and joking, but her body had a collapsed, defeated posture that looked deeply habitual. Her spine was curled, her head was slightly receded, and her shoulders were pulled down in a static flinch. She expressed herself loudly and crudely, but also diffidently. She talked like she was a joke. But there was something else to her, something pushing up against the defeat, a sweet, tough, humorous vitality that I could almost see running up her center. I realized that if I hadn’t looked closely, I would not have really seen this woman, that I would not have seen what was most human and lively in her. I wondered how many people saw it, or even if she herself saw it…
That kind of small, new, unrecognized thing is very tender to me, and I hate it when it gets ignored or mistaken for something ugly. I want to acknowledge and nurture it, but I usually leave it very small in the stories. I do that because I think part of the human puzzle is in the delicacy of those moments or phenomena, contrasted with the ignorance and lack of feeling we are subject to.
5. To communicate. … To read well is an act of dynamic receptivity that creates a profound sense of exchange, and I like being on both ends of it.
Citing one of her favorite passages in literature, from Saul Bellow’s The Victim, she captures the highest potentiality of literature:
It opens life up down to the pit; when I read that, I can’t ignore how extraordinary it is to be alive.
In her sixth and final reason, Gaitskill returns to Nabokov:
6. To integrate; to love. One of Nabokov’s early novels, Laughter in the Dark, has an apparently simple, almost hackneyed plot: a foolish, wealthy middle-aged man (Albinus) falls in love with a vulgar, heartless sixteen-year-old girl (Margot). She and her lover, Rex, proceed to destroy Albinus and his family in a ruthless, ultimately grotesque fashion. On the face of it, it’s a soap opera, but what makes it extraordinary, aside from the beauty of the prose, is the author’s gift for inhabiting every energetic strain of his breathing animal creations. Rex and Margot are absolutely evil, but they are also full of fierce life, with, and supple, eel-like charm. Nabokov can step inside their cruelty and vitality almost as if it were an electrical current, then step out again and enter the much slower, cooler ambience of their poor stooge Albinus, or the person of Albinus’s bland, taffy-sweet wife, and emerge again, all in a flash. … The ability to do this requires a great understanding of and regard for life that is, I think, a kind of love.
Gaitskill concludes by reflecting on this “kind of integration [that] requires holding many disparate elements together in a fluid mosaic” in her own experience of writing, from the depths of which emerges the light of the creative impulse:
When I start writing a story, I don’t feel like I’m integrating anything; I feel like I’m marching through mud. But at least some of the time when there comes a moment when I feel I’m carrying all the elements I’ve just described and more in a big, clear bowl. It doesn’t feel like I’m containing them. It feels like I’m bringing them into being and letting them be, exactly as they are. My perplexity and upset may still be there, but they are no longer the main event. I feel sadness because much of what is in that bowl is sad. But because of that tender sadness, I also feel humility and joy and love. It’s strange because much of what I write about does not seem loving. But to write it makes me feel love.