A Writing Woman

At what point does autobiography graduate into memory shaped by art? How does a writer know when to stop telling it as it is or was and make of truth a superior fiction? Readers and writers alike perennially ponder such questions.

On weekend mornings my mother sat at the typewriter in a sunny breakfast nook and wrote stories about women, young women like herself, who, after some difficulty necessary to the plot, got their men. In the adjoining kitchen, my grandmother washed the breakfast dishes and kept asking, "What do you two think you could eat for lunch?" My mother and I would groan in unison. Who could imagine lunch when we'd just finished breakfast? Besides, we had more important things to do than eat.

Already, at the age of five, I had allied myself with the typewriter rather than the stove. The person at the stove usually had the thankless task of fueling, whereas, if you were faithful to your vision at the typewriter, by lunchtime you could make two more characters happy ‑ even if you weren't so happy yourself. What is more, if you retyped your story neatly in the afternoon and sent it off to New York in a manila envelope, you'd get a check back for $100 within two or three weeks (2 cents a word, 300 words to the page, 16 or 17 pages; in 1942, $100 went a long way). Meanwhile, she at the stove ran our mundane life. Still new to the outrageous vulnerability of widowhood, she was glad to play Martha to my mother's Mary. In our manless little family, she also played Mother, and could be counted on to cook, sew on buttons, polish the piano, and give encouragement to creative endeavors. She was my mother's first reader, while the stories were still in their morning draft; "It moves a little slowly here," she'd say, or, "I don't understand why the girl did this." And the tempo would be stepped up, the heroine's ambiguous action sharpened, in the afternoon draft; for if my grandmother couldn't follow tempo and motive, how could all those other women who bought the magazines?

To my grandmother's Mother, my mother played Father; she was the provider. She took her skill off to the next town each weekday on the bus and returned home at night, rumpled and exhausted and as in need of being waited on as any man. Lucky for her, most of the men were overseas at war, and the Asheville Citizen needed reporters. Out she went daily; at new Army hospital, she interviewed wounded soldiers who had been flown back home; she followed Eleanor Roosevelt all over town one day and bore the brunt of a restaurant owner's ire when Mrs. R. insisted upon taking a local black civic leader to lunch; in her college French she interviewed Bela Bartok; whenever Mrs. Wolfe phoned the paper to announce, "I have just remembered something else about Tom," my mother went off immediately to the dead novelist's home on Spruce Street. From time to time, during blackouts, she arrived home with a police escort; her employers at the Citizen did not think a young woman should be alone in all that darkness. But after the war, she was told her skills would not be needed anymore. "The men need their jobs back, you see."

My preschool occupation consisted in being the adored Child on whose behalf this family had been created. For if I had not existed, my mother and grandmother might have worked out different plots for themselves. My elegant, feminine grandmother, doted on by men who wanted to protect her, would not have remained long on her own. My mother was still young, pretty as any of the girls who stepped off trains or entered fateful rooms in her stories. She had a master's degree in English ("The Stage Sets of Inigo Jones": her thesis). An only child, she had been brought up in comfort, riding around the country on passes ‑ her father was with Southern Railways ‑ shopping almost daily for clothes from the moment she could walk with her mother (I can open her college diary today and read about the rose silk pajamas they bought, or the yellow taffeta tea gown, and what movie they saw afterward), and I know (also from the diary) that in the years just before me her main problem had been choosing between men. At Chapel Hill, she often had five dates in one day ‑ and the energy of the true candleburner‑at‑both‑ends; she thought nothing of staying up during what was left of the night, typing nineteen‑page term papers, or writing her own plays. But at home one weekend, she was playing bridge with her girlfriends on the porch when a man limped by. It was Mose Winston Godwin, the handsome local bachelor, who had snapped his ankle playing tennis. My mother's little dog, incensed by something in the man's gait, rushed down the stairs and bit his good leg.

And that was that. Sealed. My mother's fate. And mine.

Girl meets man. Mutual attraction. Things develop. A problem arises. Conflict and doubt. Resolution of conflict. Final embrace. The formula was unvarying. All the stories that bought my clothes, my storybook dolls, my subscriptions to children's magazines, were contained by, were imprisoned in, that plot. Did my young divorced mother, while typing in that sun-filled breakfast nook, ever have moments of bitter irony when she was tempted to rip out the "happily ever after" lie she was perpetrating, roll a fresh sheet into the carriage, and tell her own story? It would have been much more interesting.

But here is a story that my mother did not write: A woman coming home late from her creative writing class, walks past the Casa Loma nightclub on the way to her bus stop. She sees a man go in, a handsome, laughing, well‑dressed man with his arm around a platinum blond. Upstairs in the nightclub, the band is in the throes of "Stardust." The woman downstairs in the night, alone, has been up since six that morning, teaching at two schools, teaching, among other things, Romantic Literature. She has been unable to collect a single child‑support payment from the handsome man. But now he has sneaked into this town, unable to resist its fashionable haunts. He has not seen the woman in the rumpled tweed suit, downstairs in the night. An irresistible impulse rises in her. She goes to the nearest phone and calls the police and identifies herself. They remember her, from her wartime job at the paper; many of them had taken turns driving her home during the blackouts. She has my father locked up. She misses her bus, but boards the next one and rides through the starry night, a weird joy throbbing through her veins and making her feel lightheaded. When she arrives home, she gives in to another irresistible impulse and wakes her little girl. "It's almost midnight," cries the grandmother, "are you crazy?" "No," she says, smiling. She hugs them both. She will keep her secret for tonight, as it will just upset her mother, who fears scandal as much as disease. "I want Gail to see the stars," she says. "They have never seemed quite so close."

Fact and fiction, fiction and fact. Which stops where, and how much to put in of each? At what point does regurgitated autobiography graduate into memory shaped by art? How do you know when to stop telling it as it is, or was, and make it into what it ought to be—or what would make a better story?

I sat down to write my first story at age nine. What was the story about? A henpecked husband named Ollie McGonnigle, who insults a man one morning only to come home that evening and discover that his wife has invited that same man to dinner. And, moreover, that man is ‑ the mayor of the town!

My mother remarried, one of the ex‑GI students from her Romantic Literature class. She wrote a novel about a college teacher, courted by several veterans, each of whom has a story to tell about his life and about the war. The teacher marries one of the veterans. This novel, called And Not To Yield, contained, to my memory, some of the most erotic love scenes I have ever read. Amazing, when you think of it: the sheltered little girl and her grandmother, sitting down each evening to read the next installment of And Not To Yield. It was fiction, of course. My grandmother had not approved of the new groom, but this book was interesting. Hmmm. "Your mother certainly knows how to keep a reader's interest," my grandmother said, moistening her thumb to turn the page. "Kathleen Cole writes like an angel," wrote the publisher to my mother's agent, "at times. At other times, she is much too facile . . . and sentimental."

I went to a private school run by a French order of nuns. I was the poorest girl in the class, the only one who could not fork up the $25 for the eighth‑grade trip to Washington. What story did I write in those days? One about a little rich boy, who lived all day behind elegant iron gates and had everything he wanted except a friend he could confide in.

My mother miscarried her first son. Her husband got a job as a management trainee at Kress, for $45 a week. A courtly older man in town, the renowned local portrait painter (also the man who taught my mother in creative writing class), painted my mother's portrait in oils. In the portrait she wore a jade green silk blouse and a gold Chinese pin. She also wore an enigmatic smile. She started a new novel about a famous woman writer with two men after her. One, her ex‑husband, now her literary agent, always levels with her about her work. The other is a celebrated portrait painter. She also has a daughter, "pretty but selfish." The daughter gets to marry the boy she loves: the son of the painter. The portrait painter, who has been looking for the "perfect woman" to paint, chooses another woman in town, a less beautiful but selfless woman who has been a wonderful mother. At the end of the novel, the successful writer heroine is told by her ex‑husband that her writing has become too facile and shallow. Having lost both the portrait painter and her writing, she turns to religion. When she has chastened herself sufficiently, she remarries her ex‑husband. This novel was called The Everlasting Door. It went the round of the publishers. Take out the religion, some publishers said. Take out the sex, said others, and maybe a religious house would be interested.

Begin again.

My mother had a baby girl. I was fifteen and fell in love with an athlete nobody approved of but me. But soon we were going to move from that town to Norfolk ‑ Kress moved my stepfather often - and what I wanted to do more than anything else was "stay out all night" with Larry. So I lied, and did. We didn't "do" anything, of course: it was 1953, and it had been drummed into me often enough what my most valuable commodity was. But the girl I was supposed to be spending the night with "told," and I was disgraced. I lost all my friends the same week I moved from that little South Carolina town. In Norfolk, we knew not one soul. There was a whole summer ahead of me in which to smolder over the injustice of society. I borrowed my mother's typewriter and wrote a short novel called I Broke the Code. I have this piece of work before me now, an interesting artifact: part truth, part lie; part gauche attempt at craft ("True, some believe the worst, but I like to think that every small town has a forgiving streak that crosses right down center like the railroad tracks") and part cliché ("A wave of shame rushed through me"). Pretty disgusted with the results, I condescended and sent it to True Confessions, which returned it with the reader's note clipped to the top: "Some good writing but overdone. Also much too long. Also nothing much happens."

My mother had another, miscarriage in Norfolk. Like me, she had no friends yet. So she organized a local Toastmistress Club, her civic specialty, begun back in Asheville when, after hearing a Red Cross volunteer open her speech with, "Ladies, our deficit is astounding," my mother decided it was indeed, and that women should do better than this. Now Norfolk women flocked to learn how to organize their thoughts and project their voices before crowds. My mother was gratified; her spunk returned. "Oh, what the hell," she said. "I am going to sit down and write a dirty novel that will really sell."

The Otherwise Virgins was set on a college campus in the South. It had three heroines: Debby, a poised and beautiful redhead, president of her sorority, who, unbeknownst to her friends, was a call girl in New York until a southern senator decided to adopt her and give her a new start; Lisa, a dark‑haired freshman, beautiful but spoiled, and determined to win the love of Mark, an ex‑GI just returned to campus; and Jane, a minister's daughter, a shy and scholarly girl, who joins Debby's sorority and rooms with Lisa. Complications arise when Mark discovers Debby on campus. He remembers her from her other life. They had a night together before he shipped out with his regiment for France. Further complications arise when Jane discovers she is a lesbian and deeply loves her roommate Lisa.

I loved that novel. What excitement, during those dreary summer days in Norfolk when we knew nobody, to read each new page as it came out of the typewriter. My mother sometimes wrote twenty pages a day; a compulsion came over her when she wrote novels that drove her to the end. Unlike me today, she always wrote with the completion taken for granted. It never occurred to her that she might get stuck, might not finish. She had always finished her stories for the old wartime pulps ‑ unfinished stories didn't sell. A photographer from the Norfolk paper came and took my mother's picture at the typewriter, flanked by her sixteen‑year‑old daughter and her seven-­month‑old daughter. MRS. COLE WRITES NOVELS AND STARTS TOASTMISTRESS CLUBS IN HER SPARE TIME, the caption read.

"The Otherwise Virgins has come heartbreakingly close," wrote the agent, many months and submissions later. "What the publishers seem to feel is that this novel is neither fish nor fowl. The campus life is realistic, but the situation is implausible. Also the World War II background is dated. Perhaps if you made it the Korean War and took out the part about the southern senator..."

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