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.

But if she took out the southern senator, she must take out Debby's past life, and if she took that out, the plot would go. And the Korean War had ended only the year before. Besides, we were moving again, across the river to Portsmouth. My mother consoled herself by starting another Toastmistress Club.

The writing bug did not bite again until a year later. We had been talking about my father and whether I should invite him to my high school graduation. She sat down and wrote a story about a selfish playboy father who suddenly takes an interest in his seventeen-year‑old daughter, whom he has not seen for years. He invites her to come and live with him in his sumptuous house. ("Keep it," his rich second wife had said, "I never had a happy moment in it.") The girl goes, but ends up being more of an opportunist than he. She abandons him after two months when the rich ex‑wife offers to send her to art school. "Nothing is going to stop me from reaching my goal," the daughter writes in her farewell note, which she leaves with his housekeeper. "Maybe you're thinking I am ungrateful. But really, these two months have been so little in comparison with all you could have given me in seventeen years." She even takes the curtains and bedspreads from her room.

"I'm not that bad, am 1?" I asked.

"Of course not, darling. You're ambitious, like she is, but you would never have taken the curtains. I've brought you up better. But I needed her to be as ruthless as she is because I wanted this story to have that fated circular shape, like Greek drama."

The magazines rejected my mother's story about the father and daughter. "Well written, but there are no sympathetic characters," wrote one editor.

My father floored everyone by showing up for my high school graduation. He had to introduce himself, as I had no idea who he was. I flung myself, weeping, into his arms and he invited me to live with him.

'It was a little scary," my mother told me a long time afterward. "I felt I had somehow made it happen by writing that story."

The house of the real father was not sumptuous, and his second wife (not rich) still lived in it with him. It was he, not she, who sent the ambitious daughter off to college. He could afford only the first year: his playboy days were over; he sold cars for his wife's brother-in‑law. In real life, it was he, not the daughter, who left first. For some reason, he took off his watch and placed it on the bedside table. His wife returned from the grocery store and found him lying on the floor, but with his head off the rug to spare her the necessity of dry cleaning it. He needn't have worried; it was a neat job. The coroner found that the first shot had misfired. So he had made his decision twice. There was no explanation, no farewell note to anyone. The daughter was in her third year of college, on a scholarship now. She was rewriting her mother's abandoned novel, The Otherwise Virgins, updating the Chapel Hill campus her mother remembered from too long ago. Mark became a Korean War veteran, as it was now 1958 and there was plenty of information to look up on that war. "I give it to you," her mother had said, now the mother of a little boy, too, and soon to be the mother of a second. "If you can do anything with it, you're welcome. I've somehow lost the urge."

Miss Gail Godwin
The Miami Herald
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
November, 1959

Dear Miss Godwin:

Haven't I seen this novel before? You say you have just finished it, but I'm sure I recall the kindly southern senator and I'm sorry to say the plot is still as implausible as ever. Regretfully, I am shipping back The Otherwise Virgins to you under separate cover.

Sincerely yours,
Lurton Blassingame

How could I have been so stupid? I thought my mother's agent was Ann Elmo. But obviously, at some point, she must have switched agents. Why can't I pay attention? What a stupid, self­-defeating thing to do!

To: Gail Godwin
From: Keith Blackledge, Fort Lauderdale Bureau
Chief, The Miami Herald
August, 1960

...I have spent more time working and worrying over your future than I have spent on the entire rest of the staff combined. I must confess I've been a failure. I apologize for my mistakes. But the fact remains that I cannot see any further benefit from my efforts or yours and I am convinced it would be to your benefit to find someplace to "start over." This has been harsher than I intended it to be. I really feel badly that I have failed to make a good reporter out of obviously promising material. I hope you can use this experience somewhere but I'm afraid you won't do it successfully until you look facts in the face and at the same time quit expecting to get to the moon in one day.


Failed! A failed writer, a failed journalist, at twenty‑three, I don't know what to do. I'd rather die than tell my mother I was...fired. I'm afraid to kill myself, though. I don't have his nerve. I'll get married.

Divorced and twenty‑four, I used the slow hours at my job at the U.S. Embassy in London to work on my novel Gull Key, about a young wife left alone all day on a Florida island while her husband slogs away at his job on the mainland (he is a newspaper photographer). Her discontent swells like a tidal wave...neighbors bicker and age and are held back by their children, making her wonder if marriage and motherhood are for her...a tryst with a sensitive man met in the art section of the public library provides the denouement in which the husband "finds out" and his fist comes crashing through the glass door which she has locked against him and she bandages it up and they decide to separate. The final scene shows the heroine, chastened but re­energized, driving north on A1A, a modern Nora fleeing her doll's house in her own compact car.

After a dozen English publishers turned it down, I sent it off to an agency I'd seen advertised in a magazine: WANTED: UNPUBLISHED NOVELS IN WHICH WOMEN'S PROBLEMS AND LOVE INTERESTS ARE PREDOMINANT. ATTRACTIVE TERMS.

Many months went by and no response. I called directory assistance. The agency had no phone. I went around to the address. It was an empty building. I had made only one copy of Gull Key.

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