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.

The City Literary Institute was located in a cavernous old building in north London. Somebody said it had been a prison in Dickens's time. But once I discovered it, I attended it every Tuesday evening with the desperate faith of an afflicted person attending a religious shrine. I was badly in need of a miracle. I was twenty‑seven years old and had not yet become what I had wanted to be since the age five: a writer. True, I wrote every evening, long exhaustive entries in my journal, to compensate for boring days. I had stayed for three years in my cushy government job ‑ helping the British plan their holidays in the United States ‑ though I had intended to stay one year. I had begun countless stories and novels but there was something "off" about all of them. Either they had the ring of self‑consciousness about them, or they started too slowly and petered out before I ever got to the interesting material that had inspired me in the first place, or they were so close to the current problems of my own life that I couldn't gain the proper distance and perspective.

Our teacher at the City Literary Institute was an appealing woman who looked as though she had stepped out of another century. She wore her dark hair like Charlotte Brontë did; her skirts were much too long for fashion. She had a rich, dramatically paced voice with which she read to us from the great writers. (When I reread Chekov's "Anyuta" recently, it seemed flat without Miss S.'s enthusiastic intonations and pregnant pauses.) But however she looked our teacher was a thoroughly modern woman and something of a heroine. She worked daytimes as an editor in a prominent publishing house, did interviews for the BBC on weekends, and taught these classes to support herself and her small illegitimate son. Miss S. not only knew what good fiction was, she could tell you why it was good; she at once zeroed in on me, and with a modicum of English tact, told me why my fiction wasn't working. That she was able to tell me, moreover to prescribe exercises to correct my faults, was my good fortune.

The first exercise she gave me was to write a story of 200 words. Two hundred words is less than a typewritten page. Therefore it is necessary to get at the heart of the matter at once. Two hundred words leaves no space for meandering preludes or "artistic" posturings.

Write a story of 300 words. Write a story of 450 words, beginning with this sentence: "Run away," he muttered to himself, sitting up and biting his nails.

When that must be your first sentence, it excludes a story about a woman in her late twenties, adrift among the options of wifehood, career, vocation, a story which I had begun too many times already ‑ both in fiction and in reality ‑ and could not resolve. My teacher wisely understood Gide's maxim for himself as writer: "The best means of learning to know oneself is seeking to understand others."

At last the evening came when I was invited by Miss S. to read my latest story to the class. I was up 4500 words by then. The story was about an English vicar who has seen God, writes a small book about his experience, and becomes famous. He gets caught up in the international lecture‑tour circuit and winds up his exhausting American tour at a small Episcopal college for women in the South. He is at his lowest point, having parroted his own written words until he has lost touch with their meaning. He fears that, given the present pace and pressure of his public life, he will never again approach that private, meditative state of mind that brought God into focus for him.

Many drafts and two years later, this story, first titled "The Illumined Moment ‑ and Consequences," later "An Intermediate Stop," would get me accepted into the Iowa Writers' Workshop. "She has some affectations, but we'll prune them," wrote a member of the reading committee on the bottom of my application.

After I had read my story to Miss S.'s class, its most interesting member came up to me and pronounced himself pleased. Though he never turned in stories himself, he could be depended upon to deliver penetrating judgments upon the work of his classmates. His name was Dr. Marshall, and even the astute Miss S. was a little in awe of him. He was a tall, dark, scowling man with a slight limp who came to class with a motorcycle helmet under his arm, often accompanied by a horsey woman carrying a motorcycle helmet under her arm. Tonight, however, his companion had not come, and after we had discussed certain religious images in my story, he told me he was a psychotherapist. We discovered we lived on the same street in Chelsea, and he rode me home that evening on the back of his Vespa. Within two months we were married and I had time, as did my character Dane Empson, the American girl in The Perfectionists, to meditate amply upon the consequences of our impulsiveness. It had been, on both our parts, a "nervous attachment, rather than a sexual love," as D. H. Lawrence described the marriage of the couple in St. Mawr, a work I had the misfortune to discover after I became Mrs. Marshall. For one year, we did our best to drive each other crazy ‑ and both almost succeeded. Our union finally dissolved in a nightmarish vacation in Majorca; the figurative truths of that year, if not the literal ones, were to become my first published novel. But to give credit where it is due, this man who was impossible as my mate was the person who may well have made it possible for me to start being the writer I knew I could be. And I don't mean the obvious ‑ that our marriage was to become the material for my novel.

As I have mentioned, he was a psychotherapist, and during our year together I saw him do wonders for several people. Some doctors are extraordinarily gifted as diagnosticians, and he was one of them; also, he was willing to try the most unorthodox of cures. This bothered me at the time; more conventional than I am now, I wanted him to declare himself a Jungian, a Freudian. Meanwhile, off he went to a Scientology lecture, to sees what useful ideas he could derive from that controversial organization. My own "cure," ironically, was derived from a method he had picked up from the Scientologists. It consisted in asking the patient the same question over and over again until the patient came up with an answer that set off a feeling of "release" in him, a relieving certainty that he had at last really answered the question.

Shortly after our fiasco‑vacation in Majorca, and just before I was to depart for a visit to the United States from which I suspect both of us unconsciously knew I would not return, we sat under a very old mulberry tree, which was staked and wired together to preserve it as long as possible. It was known locally Sir Thomas More's mulberry, though that would have made it over four hundred years old. The building where we lived was on land that had once been his.

"I am going to die if I can't be a writer," I said.

"Why can't you be a writer?" he asked.

"Because...I don't know....something keeps getting in the way."

"I see. But why can't you be a writer?"

"Because! I told you, something never quite...jells."

"Hmm. But...why can't you be a writer?"

"Oh, I don't know. Look at my mother. She wrote and wrote and wrote. And nobody ever published her novels. Heartbreaking."

"Yes. But why can't you be a writer?"

"When I write in my journals, it's fine. You know it is, you bastard, you've read them yourself, without my permission. They flow, they're real. Whereas, the minute I put on my writing hat and sit down to 'write a story' I bore myself to death. I kill it, I kill the whole thing."

"I see. Why can't you be a writer, then?"

"Because. . . because. . . OH, GOD! Because I'm afraid I might fail!"

The sun was weakening, cold for June, but I felt as if I'd been given an injection of some warm energy. "Good God," I said, "that's it! That's it, you know. What a spineless, lily‑livered fraidy­-cat I have been!

"Yes, that's it," he said, in his cool, professional voice. But I saw the blood come into his face; the blush of exultation; he knew he had freed me. Even if it meant freeing me from him.

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