Mary Gaitskill: ‘Writers…sometimes don’t know what this inner force is’

A reflection for today:

“Unless you are a surgeon or are the witness to a horrible accident, you aren’t going to see the guts of the body, but if you touch the person you will feel them beating under your hand — on a hot day you might even smell them. But smell them and feel them or not, they are what is holding the body up. The unconscious and the viscera; each is a fundamental force behind the person you look at. Something comparable to that fundamental inner quality or qualities are what make a piece of writing alive or not. These inner qualities determine what the work is about as much as the plot or the theme or even the characters. Strangely, writers themselves sometimes don’t know what this inner force is in their own work because it is so entwined with our own way of seeing, we barely notice it, any more than we notice our own breath.”

—Mary Gaitskill, “The Deracination of Literature,” Unherd (June 17, 2022)

And another:

“…so overwhelming is our general cultural ignorance that the term “plant blindness” was minted by two botanists about 20 years ago to describe the state of glassiness that results when asking contemporary people to truly see the plants around them — a “chronic inability,” according to the Carnegie Museum, “to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.” Such blindness is a loss, and for all. It is a loss for people and a loss for the plants, who suffer (with much of the natural world) the burden of human ignorance and disdain through environmental degradation and other species-level insanities. While our interdependence is barely reduced, the daily experience of that interdependence, and the myriad beauties, wonders, and dangers that arise from it, feels very far from the daily life of most of us.”

—Paul J. Pastor, “Healing, Dangerous Wonders: On Sylvia Legris’s ‘Garden Physic’,” LA Review of Books (July 5, 2022)

Benjamin Cain: ‘Transcend the Medium’

Today’s internet thrives on polarization. Websites profit when people take opposing sides. That’s what happens in what we call “the comments” on just about any article, especially those on websites that are designed to make money for someone. “The game itself is rigged and it deranges the players,” Benjamin Cain says.

There’s no obvious way to respond to online criticism, especially when so much of it is trolling. One type of response works in one situation, another type in another situation. Often, a writer’s best strategy is not to engage the critic at all, especially when the critic isn’t sincerely interested, isn’t informationally equipped to have a real discussion, is going to harass the writer, is backed by an algorithm that will mobilize an army of trolls, or has fled the scene so the writer would be speaking to empty air.

But if he could give one piece of advice, it is to “transcend the medium.”

“…the writer should somehow transcend the medium that encourages or that thrives on cheap conflict.”

— Benjamin Cain, “How Would a Saint or a Prophet Reply to Rude Online Comments?: The dead end of trying to excel on a degrading platform,” 18 March 2022

 I note: He does not say to transcend conflict itself. More specifically, he doesn’t say to transcend the meaningful elements of online conflict. Instead, he says to transcend the medium that is producing unnecessary, ridiculous, unproductive conflict.

Let’s keep that question in mind. What does it mean to transcend the medium in which one writes? How does one do it?

The possibility of resolution

Min Hyoung Song’s book Climate Lyricism can be ordered in print or read free online in an open access version. (See his tweet today.)

In his introduction, “The Practice of Sustaining Attention to Climate Change,” he writes of “strategies for holding attention” for fiction writers. These steps are:

– Create a handful of compelling characters.
– Put them in a unique situation, and place before them a challenging dilemma.
– Differentiate between characters who are driven to overcome this dilemma and characters who (or situations that) exacerbate that dilemma or pose new dilemmas.
– Allow conflict to play itself out in patterns of defeat and triumph, betrayal and collaboration, despair and hope.
– Hold out the promise that some final resolution is coming.

Min Hyoung Song

We, too, as much as our fictional characters, need the promise of resolution. Otherwise, what do we strive for? And so we have to provide ourselves, in our real lives, with this goal. In our writing, yes. Also, in our lives.

‘And I Will Never Change How I Feel’

You have feelings. You may not want or need to change them. But you can process them.

What does it mean to process your feelings? Here are eight GIFs showing how it goes down.

You have nuts.

A huge sack of shelled peanuts is dumped upside-down into a factory machine.

They are bouncing everywhere.

Hundreds of rainbow bouncy balls fall down a staircase.

You pick them up…

A chipmunk shoves peanuts with the shells still on into its own face, one in each cheek.

You put them in the food processor…

Peanuts are dropped into a large-scale food processor that begins to squirt out peanut butter.

Now you’ve made something different out of your nuts. Your feelings are the same but also they feel different.

A person pours a jar of liquid peanut butter onto a baking sheet.

Everyone has their own feelings. That’s what makes each person unique. We don’t have to completely change ourselves, but we can process what we’ve got.

Cartoons of five M&M candies, of different colors, standing and waving. Source:

Eat what you like. People are not gonna agree. Let them have their own nuts. It’s their job to process their feelings. You process yours.

Lady Olenna Tyrell from Game of Thrones giving side-eye.

If someone else understands it, great.

A giant floating Oscar Mayer sandwich beams up a smaller sandwich from the woods.

That’s all I wanted to say today. Thanks for coming!

‘A writer just needed to keep scrolling’: ‘Runaways’ by Michael J. Seidlinger

“A writer, a little bit lonely and a whole lot desperate, signed into social media,” begins Michael J. Seidlinger’s new book, Runaways: A Writer’s Dilemma.

Isn’t that how the day often begins? Reading people’s online conversations about books. Thinking about joining the conversation. Drafting the post. Posting the post. Receiving a notification of one engagement. Checking the stats. That’s how the book will be written, correct?

“A writer just needed to keep scrolling.”

A writer may, or may not, have this fraught relationship with social media. A writer may, or may not, occasionally drink one too many beers. Occasionally, a certain writer exists who has never opened a social media account nor a beer can. That is OK, because that writer, too, is also included and is grateful to be seen, if at an angle. That writer is also afflicted by nostalgia and best-laid plans and egg timers and fountain pens and friends to whom they owe phone calls.

The runaways are the itch and the scratching of the itch. The counting of the words. The tallying of the rejections. The reading of Runaways is a meta-runaway.

The reading of Runaways is a meta-runaway.

We read and write to feel seen and to get better at reading and writing. We do that, right? We read and write.

“Eventually, a writer abandoned the books and went back online.” — Michael J. Seidlinger

From Future Tense Books.