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The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961-1963

The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961-1963

by Gail Godwin

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Gail Godwin was twenty-four years old and working as a waitress in the North Carolina mountains when she wrote: “I want to be everybody who is great; I want to create everything that has ever been created.” It is a declaration that only a wildly ambitious young writer would make in the privacy of her journal. In the heady days of her literary


Gail Godwin was twenty-four years old and working as a waitress in the North Carolina mountains when she wrote: “I want to be everybody who is great; I want to create everything that has ever been created.” It is a declaration that only a wildly ambitious young writer would make in the privacy of her journal. In the heady days of her literary apprenticeship, Godwin kept a daily chronicle of her dreams and desires, her travels, love affairs, struggles, and breakthroughs. Now, at the urging of her friend Joyce Carol Oates, Godwin has distilled these early journals, which run from 1961 to 1963, to their brilliant and charming essence.
The Making of a Writer opens during the feverish period following the breakup of Godwin’s first marriage and her stint as a reporter for The Miami Herald. Aware that she is entering one of the great turning points of her life as she prepares to move to Europe, Godwin writes of the “100 different hungers” that consume her on the eve of departure. A whirlwind trip to New York, the passengers and their stories on board the SS Oklahoma, the shock of her first encounters with Danish customs (and Danish men)–Godwin wonderfully conveys the excitement of a writer embracing a welter of new experience.
After a long, dark Scandinavian winter and a gloriously romantic interlude in the Canary Islands, Godwin moves to London and embarks on the passionate engagements that will inspire some of her finest stories. She records the pleasures of soaking in the human drama on long rambles through the London streets–and the torment of lonely Sundays spent wrestling these impressions into prose. She shares her passion for Henry James, Marcel Proust, Lawrence Durrell, Thomas Wolfe–and her terror of facing twenty-six with nothing to show but a rejected novel and a stack of debts. “I do not feel like a failure,” Godwin insists as she sits down yet again to the empty page. “I will keep writing, harder than ever.”
Like Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, Gail Godwin’s journals brim with the urgency and wit of a brilliant literary mind meeting the world head on. An inspired and inspiring volume, The Making of a Writer opens a shining window into the life and craft of a great writer just coming into her own.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“As a diarist myself I read Gail Godwin's diary with complicity, pleasure, suspense, annoyance, competitiveness, astonishment and, yes, a touch of jealousy. She holds her own gorgeously. It’s writing about writing, from the inside out: what it means–and takes–to be a writer.”
–Ned Rorem

“[Godwin shows] the ways in which a writer’s imagination began to shape the material of her life into what later became notable stories and novels; it’s remarkable, in fact, that someone who at twenty-four could write with such wit, perception and rueful self-knowledge would have to wait another half-dozen years before receiving any recognition for her gifts. In one despairing moment, Godwin writes, ‘This journal has no earthly use or interest to anyone but Number One.’ Profoundly untrue.”
–Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Apart from Bellow, I can think of only four American novelists–Michael Chabon, Gail Godwin, Craig Nova, and Anne Tyler–whose work could be submitted to an international competition with any confidence.”
–Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World

“Gail Godwin is one of the best writers we have today.”
–The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“She is America’s best living novelist.”
–San Jose Mercury News

“One of the most intelligent and appealing of contemporary fiction writers.”
–Chicago Sun-Times

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

August 12, 1961

Mayview Manor3

Tonight I think I worked physically harder than ever before in my life. Letter from steamship company. Will I really make it to Europe? God, I am going to have trouble sleeping tonight. I will be setting tables all night long. When I left the dining room—limp as a reed, physically exhausted to the point of sheer exhilaration—as soon as the wind cooled my sweat and I had heard a few notes of music from the dance band playing upstairs, I felt free and whole again, completely at ease with myself and confident that I could make it down the hill and just about anywhere else I want to go.

August 14

Write Glamour magazine. Retype “Lazarus”4 and “I Always Will.”5 Be independent, do your job, be involved in your duty.

Rewrote eleven pages of “Lazarus,” existed through two meals, and swam across the pool four times. I have saved $200. I have made about $400. Should be able to get another $200 before September 10 IF I REALLY WORK.

August 15

The bovines will attend Montaldo’s annual fashion show and the models will priss and primp—including [the owner’s] niece with the kinky

3. Mayview Manor, a 138-room hotel built of native chestnut wood and fieldstone, made Blowing Rock, North Carolina, a mecca for the rich when it was established in 1921. The hotel was closed in 1966 and demolished in 1978.

4. “The Raising of Lazarus,” an unpublished story, imagines a turning point in the life of a playboy. Godwin had begun it in 1959. Although it moves overdescriptively toward a safe ending, it exhibits a number of outstanding features, including the detailed imagining of another person’s intimate life and the integral inclusion of music in a character’s mood and routine. Godwin has appropriated one aspect of Lazarus’s story—his management of a Miami hotel—for her new novel, Queen of the Underworld.

5. “I Always Will,” an early story, no longer survives as a manuscript.

hair and the giggle. I will be clad in dirty pink uniform, running my tail off to get the pretty ladies fed their cold fruit plates in the hot, hot sun. The ice will melt in the tea. Marva will do something asinine. My legs will twitch and my makeup will disintegrate. Little L. the chipmunk6 will grin out of the window and slouch against the door watching the fashion show, chompingly confident of his right to be there.

Mail “Lazarus” and “I Always Will” to Littauer’s.7 No matter how much you don’t feel like it.

August 20

“Lazarus” could be an epic. I think I shall send it first to Esquire. Why not? I have a disease. I am trying to think of a word to describe it. It is that I want to be everybody who is great; I want to create everything that has ever been created. I want to own everything that everybody owns. In short, I have a desire for universal acquisition. Just looking at an issue of Esquire arouses a hundred different hungers. I want to have written all the good stories, said all the clever things. I want to buy all the clothes, try all the gourmet suggestions, and travel to all the countries.

As the summer season at Mayview Manor comes to a noisy close, Gail’s journal dwells on the contrast between the ideal world of her imagination and the real world of resort society. Gail needed to be in both places—the ideal and the practical—but the call of the former was more seductive. The quality that bridges the two realms is refinement.

Refinement relates to how one engages with society. In this regard, Gail absorbs the advice of B., her friend and serious beau, about reticence and inner strength. Refinement also bears bitingly upon the affectations

6. L. was the young assistant manager at Mayview Manor.

7. Kenneth Littauer, a New York literary agent, in response to a query from Godwin, had said he’d look at her work. Godwin had turned to him after having sent another agent, Lurton Blassingame, a novel that she had adapted from one of her mother’s works—only to discover that Blassingame had previously represented the original manuscript for her mother. As it turned out, Godwin never sent Littauer anything.

and habits of the upper class, to which Gail, as a kind of Cinderella, has to cater at Mayview Manor.

In her life, Gail experienced being part of many classes. Her search for refinement sometimes leaves both the barbarians and the bourgeoisie behind.

The last aspect of refinement has to do with art and, namely, Gail’s writing. Magically, writing takes the other two types of refinement in hand. In society, Gail was training herself to observe, describe, and ultimately care for anyone and everyone.

Gail had to avoid falling into the observer’s trap—dispassion and, in extreme cases, vampirism (“draining” people of their secrets).8 A writer must find a way to take notes on his or her experiences while remaining a vital participant.

August 26

The girls are dropping out one by one . . . Seven left . . . We started with thirty-five. As soon as they clear out, their faces and voices fade from my memory as quickly as the little light which dwindles into nothing after you turn the TV off.

B. & I had a talk on reticence. I love the way he talks in outline. He doesn’t ramble and he doesn’t forget what he was saying.

“Each year I learn to say less and less.”

I came back to the room and scrubbed myself clean of all those people. It is good to be exposed to troglodytes and their truisms and their bad manners. It makes one aware of the many layers which must be piled one on top of the other to make a sensitive, self-respecting, and aware individual.

In one of B.’s letters he explained that women can’t accomplish security by marrying well and men can’t find it by settling down to a steady job.

8. At the time, Gail was writing a story titled “Bentley’s Girl,” which depicted a man named Bentley who drained people of their secrets while passively listening and nodding. His victims referred to him as a “terrific conversationalist.”

You get it through a long series of personal accomplishments. For some it is easier than for others. Others have to work harder, and yet the harder workers outdistance the greatly talented ones, and then one day you realize you’re carrying your own security in your own being. “If you can do it once, you can do it again, and so rises the indestructible pyramid.”9

It is too early to go to sleep (10:30) and there is a full moon and there is music coming from downstairs and flooding the trees outside my window. And tonight is one of those clear, mystic, confident nights when the words flow. The Rachmaninoff Third10 was coming through from New Orleans as I was driving back from work. I sat in the car and listened and stared at a light and thought, “I will do it, I will do it,” then this suddenly emerged as “I am doing it.” I am there. This summer has been a major achievement in my life. It has been an agony (which started off to mean “contest”).

September 3


Marya Mannes11 says to look around a man’s apartment to determine what he is.

If he has Exodus & Advise & Consent on his shelves, Reader’s Digest on his coffee table, the usual ducks flying over the marsh at dawn on his wall, and Andre Kostelanetz in his album stack, you are going to hit bottom pretty quick.

On my many unaccompanied prowls around B.’s lair, I have found that he lives for comfort, for B., and does not surround himself with ar-

9. B.’s phrase “the indestructible pyramid” became such a key one in Godwin’s concept of independence and of a patient accumulation of experience and confidence that she used it as the conclusion of her first complete novel “Gull Key” (unpublished).

10. Sergey Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 3 has a Romantic, Peer Gynt kind of melody that, in Rachmaninoff’s hands, ends up sounding like a brave voice in a raging storm.

11. Marya Mannes, whose 1958 book More in Anger electrified the country with its satire, was a helpful guide. Mannes shared Godwin’s tendency to replace abstract character traits with the habits and possessions of individuals, judiciously observed.

ticles he does not use just because he thinks he ought to have them. His living room—good solid, heavy furniture, a magnificent desk, uncluttered and organized, a large color photograph of some beautiful golf course in California, pipes with leather bowls, white crème de menthe, vodka, Johnnie Walker. Milk, cheese, and month-old chicken salad in the refrigerator. Well-supplied kitchen. On his reading table (by his bed, not in the living room where everyone can see what he is reading):

the latest Sports Illustrated

Golf Is My Game

Goren’s point count

The Rise and Fall, etc. (which he is reading—“It makes me realize how uneducated I am compared to Shirer and Adolf.”)

Justine (which a girl gave him to read and he has not touched it yet)

the August issue of the North Carolina Diaries of Supreme Court Cases

He has no clock and wakes at will every morning at eight, cooks his own breakfast, goes leisurely uptown to work.

In his closet are several very respectably used sports jackets of tweed & corduroy (he has nothing ostentatiously new), a thick gray cardigan, a slew of good suits—tweed, Oxford gray, navy, etc. And, of course, his white navy shoes with the oil from the decks of the Coral Sea still on the soles.

And the three-foot shoehorn (“If a man bends down every day to put his shoes on, he is more likely to have a heart attack”).

And . . . his duck clothes brush.

September 5

Anyone reading this would think I had absolutely nothing to do besides be by this window and read and sleep and think and write in this book. Well, they would be right. I have never before had this much privacy coupled with security. For the next five days I have absolutely no worries. I have enough money, I am young, healthier than I have ever been in my entire life (I can tell from the way my blood throbs in my face), and I feel excellent when I wake up, I am clean inside and out. And tonight I stood outside on the de-awninged terrace and watched the after-rain clouds snuggle down between the ranges and thanked God for just letting me live. People like me, with antennae, sensitive, alert, and forever feeling, feeling—if they get through a certain period of life (thirteen to twenty-three) when everything hurts, then they embark upon a strange, magnificent epoch when everything is enjoyed—even pain.

And I must think of last September, about this time. How far I was from here! In spirit, in confidence, in every way, I came back from that navy reconnaissance flight into Donna.12 I was worn and haggard and dry mouthed and gritty eyed.

Gail on Getting Fired

During my months in Miami, from June through September of 1959, I was the bright young journalist-in-training. Even after I was sent to the Miami Herald office in Hollywood, Florida, Herald assistant managing editor Al Neuharth, who later in his career founded USA TODAY, phoned me one day to say, “You’re turning into a real newspaper gal. I hope your relationship with us continues for a long time.”

A few months later, I was “promoted” to the Herald’s Fort Lauderdale office. The bureau chief, Keith, told me I had a flair for leads.

One of my masterpieces was: “A pair of flaming undershorts saved the life of Richard Dolan, who was lost in the Everglades for three days and

12. On September 7, 1960, Godwin went out with the U.S. Navy’s Hurricane Hunter Squadron to study Hurricane Donna, a landmark weather event with gusts of up to 175 mph. The next day, her article, “I Looked Donna in the Eye—She’s Tough,” was the top story on the front page of the Miami Herald.

three nights.” But as time went on, I pleased Keith and his assistant, the Broward women’s page editor, less and less. They certainly had their justifications. I let my boredom show. There wasn’t enough to do. After I had completed my one or two assignments for the day, I actually took frequent trips to the hairdresser down the block, and came back freshly coiffed, and even with different shades of hair. I acted out the role of the flighty starlet who was headed back to Miami as soon as her trial period in the bureaus was over.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award nominee and the bestselling author of many critically acclaimed novels, including A Mother and Two Daughters, Violet Clay, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Evensong, The Good Husband, Evenings at Five, and, most recently, Queen of the Underworld. She is also the author of The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961—1963, the first of two volumes, edited by Rob Neufeld. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts grant for both fiction and libretto writing. She has written libretti for ten musical works with the composer Robert Starer. Visit the author’s website at www.gailgodwin.com.

Rob Neufeld is a librarian and a book reviewer for the Asheville Citizen-Times. He directs the “Together We Read” program for Western North Carolina.

From the Hardcover edition.

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