USA | 2007
Mary Gaitskill is the author of the collection, Because They Wanted To, which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1998 and the novels,Bad Behavior (1988), Two Girls, Fat and Thin(1991) and Veronica (2005). Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, The Best American Short Stories (1993), and The O. Henry Prize Stories (1998). Her story Secretary was the basis for the film of the same name. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she teaches creative writing at Syracuse University.
Santa Maddalena’s beauty and graciousness have been remarked upon my many, but one more time can’t hurt: It is a magically lovely place, a landscape of strong character, combining lush vegetable softness with the artfully man-made–ancient roads, olive groves, wooden fences, recessive homes, music coming through the night. Our quarters–in my case a stone tower covered with roses and honeysuckle–are exquisite and the food is wonderful. There’s a pool, in which I actually learned to functionally swim. All these things make one feel supported and honored as a writer. But they are not Santa Maddlena’s most special quality. What is unique about Santa Maddalena as a retreat is that it is not really a retreat. It is a place of engagement, an immersion in the life of art and endeavor. There is time and space to retreat when you wish. But always, just outside your cloister, is a world of people–the family of servants that works the grounds, scions of wealthy families, authors just dropping by to spend a few days, world travelers, actresses, art lovers, soldiers, historians–each of them vibrant and there to ardently give of what they have. There is a lot on offer, and you may not like every bit of it. But still, it is a feast of intelligence, experience, character and glamorous personality, a feast that can’t help but enrich the inner life. This generous variety, this social hummus, make Santa Maddalena a kind of rich forcing ground, an environment where you test your limits as an artist and a person, and discover things about the world and about yourself which you hadn’t seen before. You may not like every bit of what you see in this regard either, but it is nonetheless a profound and valuable experience, one which in my case was too complex and personal to express here. I feel it has already enriched me as a writer, and that it will continue to do so in a variety of subtle ways in the years to come. It is an experience I feel privileged and grateful to have had. It is an experience that should be promoted and funded so that others may have it too.