ON THE OLD GUY
“Mary Gaitskill on the Old Guy” is forthcoming in the anthology A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors (University of Massachusetts Press) edited by Annie Liontas and Jeff Parker
The only mentor I’ve had in terms of writing was an old guy named David Kozubei, whom I knew in Ann Arbor, where I went to school. I say “old guy,” because at the time I was twenty-four and, to me, a guy in his late forties was old. I also say it because there was something old about David that had nothing to do with years and everything to do with his seeming to exist out of time and place.
In 1979, I glanced into a store window and saw an old guy with enormous glasses strapped to his big, bald, egg-shaped head sitting behind a large desk surrounded by leafy plants and book cases arranged in a sort of diorama. I went in and met David: it turned out that his encampment of desk, plants, and dioramic book cases were all that was left of his legendary used bookstore, David’s Books. It turned out that he sat in this “store” and read all day, that he had read nearly everything ever written in the English language and had something to say about all of it.
During the course of our friendship, he was able to buy and maintain another used bookstore, a huge place where he also sat and read all day. I was an undergraduate at the university but I was getting very little out of the classes in terms of writing. Because I was a high-school dropout with a lot of years spent away from home and school, and because I had transferred to the university from a community college, I also had some trouble finding a place socially. David’s store was one of the only places I felt peace or at least relief from despair, and a sense of possibility. I don’t know why this was, and I didn’t know then either; I just liked to be near him. David seemed to me like a particularly gentle angel whose sense of humor had caused him to take a mildly comic form.
However, when I began to show him my writing, I discovered that he was not always gentle, and could in fact be a devastating critic. But his criticism fascinated me; it was almost always more precise, original, and intelligent than what I was hearing from the few professors I was able to get any feedback from at all. Even now, when speaking to a class about literary style, I paraphrase David. “Style,” he said, “is a by-product.”
I said, “That means incidental.”
“Not true,” he replied. “It means an inevitable discharge that occurs as the writer follows what for him is the correct—that is, the only—path available in creating his world. It’s a discharge in the sense that the appearance of a plant is the inevitable result of its inner structure, and, in writing, has a similar relation to the inner nature of the work.” It’s a definition I’ve never forgotten. It represents an ardent, individual way of thinking and being that I remain grateful for and, I’m sure, in some secret way influenced by.
Mary Gaitskill is the author of the novels Two Girls, Fat and Thin and Veronica as well as the story collections Bad Behavior, Because They Wanted To, and Don’t Cry. Her stories and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, Granta, Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2004 and a Cullman Fellowship in 2010. She currently holds the Sidney Harmon Chair at Baruch College.