Bad Behavior in the Classroom: Mary Gaitskill at Lang

National Book Award-winning author Mary Gaitskill is teaching two courses at Lang this spring.

What did you think they were, Mary?, asks Ben, a student in Advanced Fiction at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts.

The class is deep in discussion of his short story about a man who discovers disturbing materials that reveal a dark family secret. Mary, the instructor, defers to the class. When his classmates indicate they aren’t sure, Ben divulges the true nature of the discovery.

My guess was worse than that,, Mary finally says.

Welcome to writer’s workshop with Mary Gaitskill, one of the nation’s most influential novelists for the past three decades. A visiting professor teaching two classes at Lang College this spring, the National Book Award’winning author gives her students the space to explore the deeper motives behind their words.

On the topic of teaching, Gaitskill downplays her influence. I like to be around people who love writing,, she says, and I feel that I can help people understand literature., Asked if she sees thematic similarities between her work and that of her students, Gaitskill claims to enjoy a bit of academic anonymity. I don’t know if all of them have read me,, she says. When people have read your work, they have an idea of who you are. I like that they don’t bring those notions to class with them.,

Of course, it’s very likely that Gaitskill’s students have read her work. A prolific writer known for short story collections like Bad Behavior and novels like Veronica, Gaitskill has reshaped what it means to write about women and sex. Fans of the movie Secretary, adapted from a Gaitskill short story, are familiar with her brand of heroine.

Gaitskill has taught on and off since the early 90s, at universities including Syracuse and NYU. Several years back, she did a teaching stint in The New School’s graduate Writing Program. This semester, she is enjoying working with undergraduates at Lang, whom she finds talented and inspiring.

It amazes me that so many young people are interested in writing, because of how archaic it is becoming. It’s been supplanted by this,, she says, motioning toward her Blackberry. Still, she believes that good writing will always endure. Words work most powerfully on a nonverbal level, when they create imagery,, she says. If her students take away anything from her course, she hopes it is this idea.

And what about Ben’s story? Gaitskill encouraged the student author to revise the story, noting approvingly, There’s a real aura of menace in this piece.,