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.

A woman writes in 1901. (Bettmann / Getty)

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..."

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.

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.