Mary Gordon

On Wednesday mornings, after having taught and prepared to teach with great intensity, I feel exhausted, depleted. I love and honor my students’ giftedness, but to honor it properly I must give it a particular quality of attention. The flavors of attention are different in the two classes; to make a connection with 200 people, to keep their attention from wavering, requires a kind of projection that is more like a theatrical performance. And this frightens me: I don’t want it to degenerate into Ethel Merman does Conrad. If I stick closely to the language of the books, I am safe from that; the greatness of the achievement is humbling and gets in the way of my impulse to show off. In the writing class, only 16 students, I must listen with the kind of attention that I imagine an analyst must use. In return, I am given hope: The torch will not go out with me. We read Eudora Welty’s “The Wide Net,” which I want them to study as a model of virtuoso alternations of levels of diction. She’s wonderfully comic and then, in her descriptions of the river, or riverness, becomes visionary. What is wonderful about the character’s vision when he dives to the bottom of the river is that it is not, as it would be in melodrama, transformative. He doesn’t see the shadows and light and come up van Gogh. In a few hours, he is back to being his foolish self. I often wonder what experiences are truly transformative. I mean for the better–trauma, shock, great suffering can destroy, but what ennobles? Welty understands the possessiveness of people who have no scope and little imagination. It was my wife, my net, my river dragging, says the main character, willing to shed blood for it. Her ability to understand the inner life of people whose inner life is impoverished is staggering.

I need an hour of listening to music. This morning: Fauré’s sonatas for violin and piano, Brahms’ cello sonatas. To be free of language–this somehow cleanses and restores. Katherine Mansfield’s diaries. She hates insincerity. Somehow insincerity is not a quality that seems a particularly contemporary failing. Perhaps because we no longer dress up so much. Or perhaps it is the world I move in, which makes kind of a fetish of plain speaking. A beautiful, enviable sentence of hers: “Wrote at my story, read Shakespeare. Read Goethe. Thought. Prayed.” This seems a wholly enviable day. To write at a story, knowing you’re not going to get to the center today. To be quiet. To read something difficult, rich, rewarding. Not to have to be anywhere. I do not live enough like this.

Today, I want to write at a story. I know what I want to accomplish, but I must strengthen myself for the task. I will read a story of Gorky’s called “A Sky Blue Life,” an uncharacteristic story, whose tone is somehow the tone I need right now. I am often afraid to begin writing until I have heard the right tone, which I can then pick up and join. Like a singer who can’t begin until the right note has been struck for her. To start her off, to give her her place. With another writer to follow, I feel less frightened.