When I was twenty-three and full of vague and unpromising ideas about how fiction might work, I was constantly asking myself how a piece of fiction earns it.
‘It’ was loosely defined, as was ‘earn’; basically, I was looking for a way to reformulate the question, “How did this writer pull this off?” How, for instance, does Stephanie Vaughn earn the rhapsodic conclusion of her story “Dog Heaven”? I was less concerned with the mechanics of story (a problem for another blog post, maybe) than with the way in which everything felt so right when I read it.
Looking back, I think my ‘earning it’ question is inexact, not to mention crassly pecuniary. But I was driving, however clumsily, at something true: all good fiction contains something inexplicable that allows it to transcend mere prose.
Twenty-three-year-old me would have benefitted greatly from seeing Mary Gaitskill’s craft lecture on Thursday night. Gaitskill described the “inner weave,” the mysterious unconscious of the story, which provides a piece of fiction with the thrumming sensation of being vivid and unpredictable, which is to say, alive.
This inner weave is not mood, and it is not theme. It is certainly not meaning. As best I can understand it, it is feeling. Or maybe it is what the story—not the writer—wants to do. (Joy Williams on keeping a last line: “It takes the story into the celestial, where it longs to go.”) The inner weave arrives by indirect routes and moves crabwise through the piece of fiction; to come at it head-on is to send it scuttling away. So then how do we imbue our fiction with this essential and mostly-sorta-definable quality?
Gaitskill offered style as one possible weft, and more specifically description and imagery. These, she laments, have been underutilized in contemporary fiction. Description, she says, “gives word to the wordless” and connects objects to the subconscious of the story. As for imagery, it is the thing that takes writing from simple technology (basically black glyphs on white paper) and allows it to summon the immeasurably strange, which pervades our world.
“I think there are headless worms eating sulfur as we speak,” Gaitskill said, driving the point home.
While talking about style, she relayed a story from her days at the University of Michigan, when her friend described style as a “byproduct of the author moving in a deliberate and exploratory way to bring out a thing of some kind.” As the author creates the shape of the story, style emerges organically and neither dominates the action of the story nor is subsumed by it. When style emerges organically from a piece, it is easier for that inner weave to obtain.
Gaitskill then read three examples in which she identified the inner weave. She picked some heavyweights: a section from Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, one from Dickens’ Bleak House, and the opening paragraph of Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” All three had distinctive styles, all had descriptions and imagery that transcended physicality and achieved something extrasensory. Each of these excerpts had the quality that I find in Gaitskill’s writing—the sense of danger, or maybe possibility, where it feels like everything might change in an instant.
Early in the talk, Gaitskill copped to being unsure about thinking and talking so analytically about writing. She claimed that silence might better respect the mystery of art. I suspect this is true. And yet I was glad she was there, talking about this ineffable inner weave. As with most great craft lectures, I left no clearer on what I have to do, but with plenty of ideas on how to do it.
Willie Fitzgerald is a co-founder of APRIL, an annual festival of small press and independent publishing. His work has appeared in City Arts, Everyday Genius, Pacifica Literary Review, and other places. He is currently a Made at Hugo House fellow.