Excerpt: The Making of a Writer
Published: March 31, 2006
|Gail Godwin began keeping a journal when she was 13, a practice that has been at the heart of her writing ever since. As revealed in her book The Making of a Writer: Journals 1961-1963, her journals are an integral part of her writing, providing a stream of inspiration and raw material for her work. She is the author of 11 novels, two short-story collections, one novella, one nonfiction book and several librettos. Her most recent novel, Queen of the Underworld, reflects some of Godwin's experiences when she was a young journalist working at The Miami Herald.|
Queen of the Underworld and The Making of a Writer were both on the editors' recommendations list in The New York Times.
Comprised of several notebooks, The Making of a Writer represents only a fraction of the author's archives. When writing fiction, Godwin draws upon questions and themes that run through her journals, not necessarily actual events. Patterns emerge. In an interview in the May issue of The Writer, Godwin discusses her methods for transforming life into art and other aspects of writing fiction.
The following excerpt was written when Godwin was 24 It begins when she was working as a waitress at Mayview Manor, a resort in the mountains of North Carolina and ends with her last days at The Miami Herald:
August 12, 1961
Tonight I think I worked physically harder than ever before in my life. Letter from steamship company. Will I really make it to Europe? God, I am going to have trouble sleeping tonight. I will be setting tables all night long. When I left the dining room--limp as a reed, physically exhausted to the point of sheer exhilaration--as soon as the wind cooled my sweat and I had heard a few notes of music from the dance band playing upstairs, I felt free and whole again, completely at ease with myself and confident that I could make it down the hill and just about anywhere else I want to go.
Write Glamour magazine. Retype "Lazarus" [an unpublished short story] and "I Always Will" [an early story that was never published]. Be independent, do your job, be involved in your duty.
Rewrote eleven pages of "Lazarus," existed through two meals, and swam across the pool four times. I have saved $200. I have made about $400. Should be able to get another $200 before September 10. If I really work.
The bovines will attend Montaldo's annual fashion show and the models will priss and primp--including [the owner's] niece with the kinky hair and the giggle. I will be clad in dirty pink uniform, running my tail off to get the pretty ladies fed their cold fruit plates in the hot, hot sun. The ice will melt in the tea. Marva will do something asinine. My legs will twitch and my makeup will disintegrate. Little L. the chipmunk will grin out of the window and slouch against the door watching the fashion show, chompingly confident of his right to be there.
Mail "Lazarus" and "I Always Will" to Littauer's [Kenneth Littauer, New York literary agent]. No matter how much you don't feel like it.
"Lazarus" could be an epic. I think I shall send it first to Esquire. Why not? I have a disease. I am trying to think of a word to describe it. It is that I want to be everybody who is great; I want to create everything that has ever been created. I want to own everything that everybody owns. In short, I have a desire for universal acquisition. Just looking at an issue of Esquire arouses a hundred different hungers. I want to have written all the good stories, said all the clever things. I want to buy all the clothes, try all the gourmet suggestions, and travel to all the countries.
As the summer season at Mayview Manor comes to a noisy close, Gail's journal dwells on the contrast between the ideal world of her imagination and the real world of resort society. Gail needed to be in both places--the ideal and the practical--but the call of the former was more seductive. The quality that bridges the two realms is refinement.
Refinement relates to how one engages with society. In this regard, Gail absorbs the advice of B., her friend and serious beau, about reticence and inner strength. Refinement also bears bitingly upon the affectations and habits of the upper class, to which Gail, as a kind of Cinderella, has to cater to at Mayview Manor.
In her life, Gail experienced being part of many classes. Her search for refinement sometimes leaves both the barbarians and the bourgeoisie behind.
The last aspect of refinement has to do with art and, namely, Gail's writing. Magically, writing takes the other two types of refinement in hand. In society, Gail was training herself to observe, describe and ultimately care for anyone and everyone.
Gail had to avoid falling into the observer's trap--dispassion and, in extreme cases, vampirism ("draining" people of their secrets). A writer must find a way to take notes on his or her experiences while remaining a vital participant.
The girls are dropping out one by one ... Seven left ... We started with thirty-five. As soon as they clear out, their faces and voices fade from my memory as quickly as the little light, which dwindles into nothing after you turn the TV off.
B. & I had a talk on reticence. I love the way he talks in outline. He doesn't ramble and he doesn't forget what he was saying.
"Each year I learn to say less and less."
I came back to the room and scrubbed myself clean of all those people. It is good to be exposed to troglodytes and their truisms and their bad manners. It makes one aware of the many layers, which must be piled one on top of the other to make a sensitive, self-respecting, and aware individual.
In one of B.'s letters he explained that women can't accomplish security by marrying well and men can't find it by settling down to a steady job.
You get it through a long series of personal accomplishments. For some it is easier than for others. Others have to work harder, and yet the harder workers outdistance the greatly talented ones, and then one day you realize you're carrying your own security in your own being. "If you can do it once, you can do it again, and so rises the indestructible pyramid."
[B.'s phrase "the indestructible pyramid" became such a key one in Godwin's concept of independence and of a patient accumulation of experience and confidence that she used it as the conclusion of her first complete novel, Gull Key (unpublished).]
It is too early to go to sleep (10:30) and there is a full moon and there is music coming from downstairs and flooding the trees outside my window. And tonight is one of those clear, mystic, confident nights when the words flow. The Rachmaninoff Third was coming through from New Orleans as I was driving back from work. I sat in the car and listened and stared at a light and thought, "I will do it, I will do it," then this suddenly emerged as "I am doing it." I am there. This summer has been a major achievement in my life. It has been an agony (which started off to mean "contest").
Marya Mannes says to look around a man's apartment to determine what he is.
If he has Exodus & Advise & Consent on his shelves, Reader's Digest on his coffee table, the usual ducks flying over the marsh at dawn on his wall, and Andre Kostelanetz in his album stack, you are going to hit bottom pretty quick.
On my many unaccompanied prowls around B.'s lair, I have found that he lives for comfort, for B., and does not surround himself with articles he does not use just because he thinks he ought to have them. His living room--good solid, heavy furniture, a magnificent desk, uncluttered and organized, a large color photograph of some beautiful golf course in California, pipes with leather bowls, white crème de menthe, vodka, Johnnie Walker. Milk, cheese, and month-old chicken salad in the refrigerator. Well-supplied kitchen. On his reading table (by his bed, not in the living room where everyone can see what he is reading):
the latest Sports Illustrated
Golf Is My Game
Goren's point count
The Rise and Fall, etc. (which he is reading--"It makes me realize how uneducated I am compared to Shirer and Adolf.")
Justine (which a girl gave him to read and he has not touched it yet)
the August issue of the North Carolina Diaries of Supreme Court Cases
He has no clock and wakes at will every morning at eight, cooks his own breakfast, goes leisurely uptown to work.
In his closet are several very respectably used sports jackets of tweed & corduroy (he has nothing ostentatiously new), a thick gray cardigan, a slew of good suits--tweed, Oxford gray, navy, etc. And, of course, his white navy shoes with the oil from the decks of the Coral Sea still on the soles.
And the three-foot shoehorn ("If a man bends down every day to put his shoes on, he is more likely to have a heart attack").
And ... his duck clothes brush.
Anyone reading this would think I had absolutely nothing to do besides be by this window and read and sleep and think and write in this book. Well, they would be right. I have never before had this much privacy coupled with security. For the next five days I have absolutely no worries. I have enough money, I am young, healthier than I have ever been in my entire life (I can tell from the way my blood throbs in my face), and I feel excellent when I wake up, I am clean inside and out. And tonight I stood outside on the de-awninged terrace and watched the after-rain clouds snuggle down between the ranges and thanked God for just letting me live. People like me, with antennae, sensitive, alert, and forever feeling, feeling--if they get through a certain period of life (thirteen to twenty-three) when everything hurts, then they embark upon a strange, magnificent epoch when everything is enjoyed--even pain.
And I must think of last September, about this time. How far I was from here! In spirit, in confidence, in every way, I came back from that navy reconnaissance flight into Donna. [Hurricane Donna was a landmark weather event]. I was worn and haggard and dry mouthed and gritty eyed.
Gail on getting fired
During my months in Miami, from June through September of 1959, I was the bright young journalist-in-training. Even after I was sent to the Miami Herald office in Hollywood, Florida, Herald assistant managing editor Al Neuharth, who later in his career founded USA Today, phoned me one day to say, "You're turning into a real newspaper gal. I hope your relationship with us continues for a long time."
A few months later, I was "promoted" to the Herald's Fort Lauderdale office. The bureau chief, Keith, told me I had a flair for leads.
One of my masterpieces was: "A pair of flaming undershorts saved the life of Richard Dolan, who was lost in the Everglades for three days and three nights." But as time went on, I pleased Keith and his assistant, the Broward women's page editor, less and less. They certainly had their justifications. I let my boredom show. There wasn't enough to do. After I had completed my one or two assignments for the day, I actually took frequent trips to the hairdresser down the block, and came back freshly coiffed, and even with different shades of hair. I acted out the role of the flighty starlet who was headed back to Miami as soon as her trial period in the bureaus was over.
Excerpted from The Making of a Writer by Gail Godwin. Copyright © 2006 by Gail Godwin. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.
The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961-1963
From New York Times bestselling author and three-time National Book Award nominee Gail Godwin