My college writing professor, Blanche McCrary Boyd, would tell us that she had big plans for her journals, involving kerosene and a match. She maintained that (a) writers need a place to be completely uncensored, and (b) the only way to be sure that your private writing stayed that way was to torch the lot of it before shuffling off this mortal coil. (The recently published novel that Nabokov never wanted to have see the light of day and the ongoing court cases involving Kafka’s writings would seem to back her up.)
Three-time National Book Award nominee Gail Godwin has gone a different route, releasing two volumes of her journals and allowing readers an unbelievably generous look at the decade of her life before she published her first novel, “The Perfectionists,” at age 32.
I say unbelievably generous, because in the journals Godwin isn’t afraid to let her fans see her youthful self at her most insecure and selfish.
Volume 1, which was published in 2007, opens with her being fired from The Miami Herald, apparently for being too ambitious; carries her through a brief marriage and waitressing jobs in North Carolina to raise money to travel; and leaves her in Europe, where she travels to both London and Copenhagen, Denmark, determined to become a great writer.
The Making of a Writer, Volume 2 opens where Volume 1 left off, with Godwin still living in London and working at the US Travel Service. “I have been places I lusted to be in. I have had the job I wanted, the independence, the money to spend, the glamour, the change, the complete freedom to be as selfish as I like. I look slightly less young, more drawn in the face, but better groomed. I have read a lot more books much more thoroughly. I have still not become a great writer.”
The first part of Volume 2 shows her playing it safe with a job she disliked (“I thought I should no more be doing this job than raising skunks”) while continuing to distract herself from her goal with a wide variety of men (also a theme in Volume 1). “I used to say: Just let me get this man in the bag, then I’ll write. It doesn’t work that way,” she writes, while still hopping from man to man.
She has affairs with, among others, a Wrigley heir and an Australian, dates a policeman, and gets engaged to a British rugby player before abruptly marrying a psychoanalyst.
(Godwin was also reading a lot of Jung, so there are many descriptions of her dreams. Sadly, unless you are Nostradamus, the only people who are going to find replays of your dreams anything other than tedious are yourself and your psychotherapist.)
Readers, Godwin, and her family can tell the second marriage Ian Marshall, “Gail’s strange husband from England,” as her much-younger little brother recalls him, isn’t going to take. Complicating matters, her husband also had a 3-year-old, living with a foster family, whom 26-year-old Godwin could not bond with. “Alan is a silent, morose little person. I haven’t the slightest idea what he’s thinking, and I consider him mainly as a threat to my freedom.” (This failure of empathy is a tough one for longtime fans; Godwin’s second marriage does not seem to have been good for anyone involved.)
Nor does she have the prosperous husband of her dreams, who could support her and let her write, since Marshall left psychoanalysis for Scientology. (He was also dosing her nightly with a liquid so potent, she says she could feel herself losing consciousness.) In fact, she says in a footnote that she wasn’t doing much writing at all; instead she would take notes while her husband talked. (Given how things worked out, perhaps he should have tried being the secretary.)
Godwin stopped keeping a diary entirely when she came home one day “and found Ian all set up at the dining room table with a mug of coffee and my stack of journals.” He couldn’t figure out why she was upset.
Once she gets to the Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop in 1967 “by the skin of my teeth,” there’s much more about writing, and the journals move out of their destructive holding pattern.
The men still shuffle through, though – in fact, one poet threw several of her journals into the Iowa River in a jealous fit.
Given that she was studying under Kurt Vonnegut at the time and her classmates included John Irving, one wants to find the nameless poet and give him a dunking. The second half also includes more of Godwin’s mother, Kathleen, a wonderful presence full of humor and good sense.
For aspiring novelists, Godwin includes excerpts from various drafts, allowing a reader to see the evolution of a piece of writing over years. Her entries on writing are the most interesting and trenchant parts of her journals: “There were parts of stories that bored you to write them. (‘I’ll just make myself finish this description.’) It didn’t occur to you that if it bored you, how much more it would bore the uninvolved reader.” And beware the reader who skips the footnotes:
There’s a lot hiding in the tiny print.
In the end, the value of a journal is immense in its ability to keep a writer honest. “If I couldn’t confide in them, I risked losing track of myself,” Godwin writes. “And therein lies their value for me today. It is impossible to gloss over or misremember what is recorded in your own handwriting of forty years before.”
Just keep the matches handy.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.