For years I have read books written by a woman named Gail Godwin. The first of these, A Mother and Two Daughters, published in 1982, introduced me to characters who might have been people I knew, and I felt an affinity to the writer, a Southerner of roughly my age. Her books take you to the interior of her life, including the many books she’s read, dreams she’s had, plans she’s made, and people she’s had to deal with in her journey toward maturity.
It seems like every time I board an airplane I look for a new Gail Godwin novel to get me through the trip. There have often been new ones waiting. So far I’ve learned intimate details of families in North Carolina, a young woman coming of age at college and beyond in London, and the acceptance of transitions in life for what they are. Something inside me has experienced growth from every new situation in her books. I always read them with a eye toward what I might write someday; usually I give up and just let Gail do it. When I learned that she now lives in Woodstock, NY, near where my daughter and her children live, I thought, “Some day I’m just going to give her a call and go visit and ask her how she does it.”
The next best thing has happened. Her new book, which I have rented from the library, is Gail Godwin/The Making of a Writer/Journals 1961-1963. In it I am reading the details from her life, details that later showed up in her fiction. Some of her stories are so clearly drawn from real situations that I was curious about the process and her apparent ability to blend seamlessly the two realities – using her life as a basis for an idealized, fictionalized work of art.
She writes, as a 25-year-old woman, in 1962, struggling for independence while enjoying life and love, “I have lived in Europe for four months. Whether or not I have learned enough to write I do not know, but I have learned many other things. The main one is how much I love the U.S.; the second, how to save money; the third, how to write better than before. Perhaps I can find something in Torremelinos.”
All the while she was writing – short stories, novels, and writing about writing every night in her journal. She wrote that writing was her way of getting at the truth, and she was only interested in producing works that would speak the truth and take her closer to it. She learned to shape her fiction based on reworking her reality. Much of what she wrote at this time was lost, but much of her real life found its way into what she did write and publish years later. Many of her books have been best sellers, and three have been nominated for the National Book Award.
Her journal entry from June 22, 1963, includes this: “Three thousand words from ten until eleven. I comes so fast when it does come, but I cannot sustain it for long. What is incredible is how one can, through the process of memory, imperfect as it is, conjure up lost days, and then, by writing, reshape them so that they are more meaningful than at the time when one is experiencing them. What a thought. Is this the selfish motive for art?"
The good news is she has a blog on which she answers young writers’ questions. I hope she’ll answer one or two from an old writer as well.