Narrative Magazine: Gail Godwin is the author of thirteen novels--three of which have been nominated for the National Book Award--two collections of short stories, and a book of nonfiction. She is also a dedicated journal writer, and her entries in the first published volume, "The Making of a Writer," reveal an original writer whose perceptiveness and boldness are matched by her compassion and care. "Solo Notes," a work in progress first excerpted in Narrative, allows us a glimpse into Godwin's mind as she dives deep into the lives of her characters and what it takes to create them.
By Gail Godwin
Solo Notes: January-May 2007
Monday, January 14, 2007
Reached page 300 today. About five more pages to go on chapter 14, "Tildy's Struggles." Then I will make a new file and begin part 2 of "The Red Nun", chapter 15, with some 2007 emails between former classmates Maud Norton Martinez in Palm Beach and Rebecca Meyer Birnbaum in NYC.
I washed and dried my sheets and put them back on the bed. Went to Sunfrost and bought a roasted chicken, roasted vegetables, and a vegetarian shepherd's pie, all made today for the Martin Luther King weekenders who'd rather spend the money than make the dishes themselves. Got home, read the paper, gave each cat a chicken wing. Now they are both on the clean sheets, the chicken wings with them in various states of diminishment.
This has been a good day. First the milestone of getting to page 300. That's over half the book or more. And I know so much more about the shape than I did a year ago.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Dialogue #1 with My Heart
GG: Heart? How am I weighing you down? Clogging you up? Stressing you out? How can I live to make you sing? Heart, it's hard to find the right tone toward you. I feel our pulse. Not slow. Not fast. Steady. A steady march. Do you like marching? Would you like to go slower when we're at rest?
Heart: Oh, you and I are alike. We're very close. It's more than pump and march. It's when do you feel at home and when do you feel in alien territory? You've had some experience of this today and it wearied us. You know that ___ doesn't have the space for humor. She protects herself, she has to. A person--and a heart--has to have the space and the leisure to see what's funny and to take solace from the funny. Let's explore this further, and then you may want to rest. Who do you know who has the space for humor? You know more people who don't. Did M? No. Did C? No. Did Tom? Yes, big time. Did Robert? Big time. Why is it so important? Because it's open, generous, exploring, not tight and protective and closed off.
Friday, January 19, 2007
Dialogue #2 with My Heart
GG: It's been a while now, since late December, since I've felt that worrisome twinge on the left side. You taught me about a sense of humor in our last talk. That was a real surprise. What else can I do to free you from clogs and to streamline our time together?
Heart: Streamline. Siphon. Sift. Keep the lumps out. You and I have developed a skill for recognizing blockage. You know what blockage is and where it comes from. It is what says, Stop! No! on our sauntering sojourn. It is hectic, desperate, and, most of all, untrue. It is what you are not and what you don't need. Go quickly, the shortest route: keep the dirt clouds and miasmas out.
GG: Where are the exciting projects that will call out new parts of myself?
Heart: Stimulus is fine. Clots and clutter aren't. Take chances as long as the air stays clean and brisk. If it clouds up, drop your project in the dust of the road and move on.
Saturday, January 20, 2007
28° today, biting wind
Monie [Gail's maternal grandmother] died thirty-five years ago today. Gingie [Gail's and Robert's orange tiger tomcat] also died in 1987 on this day.
My Waldo [Siamese brother of Zeb] has arranged himself on my arm and chest as I write. He is being very blue-eyed and fetching.
Dialogue #3 with My Heart
GG: Heart, I've been reading a novel ("Author, Author", by David Lodge) about Henry James.
He died at seventy-two. He never exercised. Was overweight. Went to 107 dinner parties in a single year.
I will be seventy in June. Go faithfully and grudgingly to Breathe Fitness twice a week and work out with Kenny. Am ten pounds overweight. Went to (ten?) dinner parties last year.
Robert, the last night in the ICU, told his nurse, Ed: "Each year I could do less and less." Robert was seventy-seven and in horrible shape. Yet he wrote music and finished a song, "The Lake," his last day in this house.
Today I had all day to write. I didn't write. It's still afternoon, and the wind is blowing, and soon I'll go to bed. Am I losing strength, or is this just my winter mode? How can I absolutely honor what strength you are pumping into me?
Heart: Don't fret anymore about that. Fretting is, as they say, contraindicated. Just feel your way along and do what you can. You are beginning part 2. You have to know who these women are now. You have a chance to come at "unfinished desires" from their adult points of view. Maud Norton Martinez and Rebecca Birnbaum, former classmates, have both done work with young people fighting their social systems. The wind whistles. A lovely sound we won't hear when we've stopped.
And remember to feel as you write. Just that. Get the feel of "living with all my heart" even if it hurts.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
I have to redo what I've done so far on "Correspondence." Rebecca wouldn't have said so much in her first letter.
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
I no longer think "insomnia." I sleep when I sleep. Other people sleep when they sleep. Lately I have read a lot of accounts of people wanting to be more famous, better known, better at something other than what they are good at. Poor H. James wanting to be a playwright and getting booed off the stage. Wanting and envying Du Maurier's "Trilby" readership. And tonight, reading the introduction to Dodie Smith's "I Capture the Castle": how she hungered for a lasting reputation, how she worked, how she insisted on writing four volumes of her memoirs.
Worked for two hours on "The Red Nun." Sailed through 2.5 pages. Chapter 16, "The Christmas Critic," is one of those bonus chapters. Meant to spring everything forward. I love Madeline. Where did she come from?
The Sears vacuum cleaner broke again yesterday, and Yolanta says it is junk and can't be fixed. I called the Electrolux store in Kingston, and the man said, "Oh, please come in, I'm here all by myself." I drove to Kingston. It turned out he was the owner of three Electrolux franchises and had given the local employees the day off. He demonstrated everything I asked for and showed me the proper way to drag the cord behind me without getting tangled up in it. He's been with Electrolux twenty-seven years. Was/is a drummer. I asked him if he was wearing Allen Edmonds shoes. He looked pleased. No, he had a pair of Allen Edmonds shoes, but these were Bostonians. What a great little creature this vacuum is. He assembled one for me and carried the whole thing (extra bags, filters, potions to kill dust mites and odors) to the Jeep and said: "We will always provide this kind of service to you."
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Listening to Robert's Clarinet Quintet (1992). So proud and grateful that both of us--and together--got to do so much of what we were compelled to do. It's hard to exactly describe, but I do feel like a living ghost. Robert is so present in my inner life and dreams. Last night I dreamed he was lying outside in the rain, on a chair, covered by a blue tarpaulin. He was being rained on, his legs were splayed, at first I thought he was dead. His mouth was just that thin double line. But then he woke up, and I said, "Stay very still, and I will fix everything." How I love my Robert, dead, in dreams, in my writing, in my conversations with others. Yet how we combated. But he was grateful for me, too. ("I am never bored by you.") And also, I was thinking today, as I slouched . . . alone . . . toward the new cardiology suite at Benedictine Hospital to have my pacemaker read: he must have taken comfort in knowing I was there with him, that I was younger--thirteen years younger for half the year; twelve years for the other half--and that I could drive him to the doctors, drive him through the dark!
Called Suzette Hayes on her deathbed. She's eighty-three. They expect her to die any day, but she was totally lucid. ("Do I hear a Southern accent?") She described her assisted-living quarters to me: her furniture, the fireplace, the color of the walls, the view from the window. I told her how much she meant to Robert and me when we moved to Stone Ridge in 1973 and knew nobody. How I admired her daughter, Carrie, and that she, Suzette, was a heroine.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Strained myself today, starting a new character, Mother Frances Galyon, in the chapter "Two Nuns on a Walk." Felt insufficient about everything, longitude and latitude and airport terminology. Just kept going on for one, one and a half pages, for three hours. Then, wiped out, I drove to the Ashokan Reservoir and walked the old walk. It was a balmy 72º with warm, wanton winds, and I walked down and back along the causeway with a number of others looking dazed by the weather. Two older men. Two women gesturing and exchanging confidences--"I've decided to accept it. He has two dogs, bigger than we are, but . . ." When I got home Anne was leaving, and Carl had just finished grouting the shower. He had brought me a copy of the photo he took of the eagle on the ground, eating its fish in the snow.
Monday, March 19, 2007
Just listening to the Dean of Nashville Cathedral, on a CD, talk about C. S. Lewis's "The Great Divorce" made me want to write a short ontological fantasy, maybe after "The Red Nun". Myself, or a female protagonist, between heaven and hell.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Woke with a positive take on things. I have a book to reread. "Our Mutual Friend". I recall a bare minimum of a dream in which I hear myself talking (a recording?) and am impressed by the playfulness. The engaging voice. Definitely worth listening to.
The feeling that if I could locate a certain lock-click, a release, my stories and writing would be immense and free and a delight. Almost as if I tilted to a different angle. Something as simple as the equinox?
Thursday, March 22, 2007
A nurse from Dr. Lader's office called. Results of my nuclear stress test were "completely normal."
Continued with "Two Nuns on a Walk." Got to page 374.
The Episcopalians are at last realizing themselves. Turned down the ultimatum from "The Anglican Communion" that a committee of bishops from abroad must come to the U.S. and "administer" on behalf of the anti-gay conservatives. I hope we split off from these fossils. We parted from England in the 1770s.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
John Irving called about 7:00, and we talked for an hour. He goes into Dartmouth Hospital for major surgery a week from Monday, and he told me Vonnegut has been in a coma for several days. He was sitting on the steps of his brownstone, smoking a cigarette, and fell to the pavement on his head. John's voice, not as gruff as in the old days, was kind and full of love. He has about 134 pages of "Last Night at Twisted River" and has started keeping a journal. He said it was after reading my "Making of a Writer, Volume One" with Rob Neufeld's footnotes. "I was mad I hadn't kept journals. Now I have to write the journal and my own footnotes."
Thinking of the workshop at Iowa in 1967. Of Vonnegut, our guru teacher. Of John the young father. I really got to know John when we both came back to teach in 1972-73. He brought Brendan by in a stroller to my Walnut Street house and we sat in the kitchen and talked about our books in progress. "My Odd Woman". His "158-Pound Marriage". Our closeness has always been through our passion for our work. I used to resent him for promoting himself better than I could. He could rattle off his prospects. That awful man from the NEA, a would-be poet--to whom I said all the wrong things out of sheer nervousness. Then John drove me home, and I wept in the car because I had been so stupid and the man had snapped at me. "How do you always present yourself so well!" I accused John. That was thirty-five years ago.
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Well, back and forth, to and from NYC, to Suzette Hayes's memorial service at St. John the Divine. Most of six hours sitting still. The driver, a retired army sergeant, taught soldiers to shoot, and then he worked for UPS, teaching drivers how to manage the UPS tractor-trailers. Now he does all the contract work he can get for Sutton Transportation. But he has also bought a Cadillac and will now be a self-employed driver. He has four children, three at home, the youngest nine. He parked the car at the cathedral and walked to a nearby park and ate his packed lunch in the sun "and watched people" while I was in St. James Chapel at the service.
Friday, March 30, 2007
Time for a reculer pour mieux sauter. When I started this novel in 2004, I had a title, "The Red Nun: A Tale of Unfinished Desires", and a school (unnamed) and some nuns (unnamed) and a cluster of girls (unnamed and uncharacterized, except I knew that as a group they were catalytic and that there was something in their combined backgrounds that would raise psychological ghosts, the kind I'm most wary of). At first I didn't know that the frame would be eighty-five-year-old Mother Ravenel's school memoir, published in 2006 and covering incidents as long ago as 1893. And it was a year more before I knew that there was going to be a frame beyond hers: the frame of what all of them would tell if we could put it in one book.
Palm Sunday, April 1, 2007
Next will be Maud's chapter, 21, "Unmerited Degradation." In which I can face fully the horror of a young girl experiencing the social consequences of her lust.
Monday, April 2, 2007
John came out as fine as possible. The surgeon cut no muscle. He can go home tomorrow and write his screenplays and novels and go on with his life.
Good Friday, April 6, 2007
Six years ago Mother Winters died at the nuns' retirement residence in Boston. She had always wanted to die on Good Friday, as her brother Patrick, the bishop, had managed to do. And then ten days later, six years ago, Robert died in Kingston Hospital.
I still need my Good Friday. So today I did not write but went an hour early to Kingston to get three thirty-pound bags of PA-PURR, the biodegradable cat litter. I also stopped at Adams and got grouper stuffed with crabmeat and had them pack it in ice. Then set off to Christ the King in Stone Ridge. I guess no Holy Week service will ever come up to those of Fr. Edward Meeks at St. Mary's, Asheville, but the short homily of Fr. Allan Ford was the most basic, heartfelt, and heartbroken commentary on Good Friday that I have ever heard. There he stood. In the aisle. That black, black, tall, elegant, slightly stooped priest, exactly my age, and he spoke of the indignities, the insults, the floggings, the crucifixion. Tears sprang into his eyes. And I thought, He believes this. At what level do I believe, compared to his level? Then I went to David's, gave him his share of the fish, and cut his hair for Easter. His friend Sandy stopped by, to advise him about the color of his house. She was beautifully dressed: rich real-estate lady in her late '60s. Thin. White-gold hair. Dark glasses perched on top of coif. Layers: purple turtleneck, black scarf, black hacking jacket with turned-up light brown suede cuffs. Loose, cuffed gray slacks, belted, with the turtleneck tucked in. Dark socks and dark blue Italian suede loafers. She was at first a little taken aback, then fascinated by, the haircutting scene. I said, "I don't have a license." I snipped toward D's Julius Caesar look while they gabbed about people, houses, furniture, more furniture, and then she tootled off in her little Mercedes to sell more real estate.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
I did over six hundred words today. I'm drained when I finish. Carl came and carried the three bags of cat litter up to the bathroom and put the potting soil in the garage. He brought in some firewood, and then I asked him to take a look at the yellow mailbox at the foot of the hill. It wobbles, I think someone rammed into it. Tomorrow I will hit page 400. Oh, and I listened to that Minnesota Public Radio program I thought I did so badly on. But I was charming, amused, said some relatively memorable things.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Rain, wet snow, sleet--now at 40º it's ploppy rain again. Read "What Maisie Knew" for the first time. And felt sorry for poor dead Linda Gray, my former publisher at Ballantine, who told me of her summer school at Harvard when she simply could not read "The Wings of the Dove" and she dropped out and her father refused to speak to her for the rest of the summer because she had not seized her chance. I also wondered what a novel would be like if it were as subtle as "Maisie" without all the Jamesian syntax. In which a young woman keeps putting together glimmers of her moral self and emerges unscathed.
Monday, April 16, 2007
Wild screeching winds, heavy rain, full pond, forsythia almost in bloom. I spent all yesterday in pajamas reading "What Maisie Knew" and then "Ravelstein" again. Mentally lowered myself, again and again, into Maud's dance at the Everglades Club. Thought up Troy Veech!
Worked from 11 to 1-something. Only half a page, written over and over. Decided to approach the next scene from Maud's (limited) experience of country clubs. Then got into Googling the Everglades Club, which led to possible metaphors for layers of involvement/getting lost in the labyrinth of social desires. This chapter, "Unmerited Degradation," certainly seems to call to me.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Crawled from page 406 to 407. I'll get there. Went to Kenny and worked out. Anne started filing my bills for next year's deductibles. She is light-years more organized and responsive than most.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Decided, just this minute, to call my country club for Maud's humiliation "the Palm City Club." That way I can design it and landscape it the way I need, make it as sinister and labyrinthine as I like: "deteriorated magnificence." A perfect murky archetypal place for the perils of social climbing. And Palm City was the first name for Palm Beach.
David took me for a splendid dinner at Gigi's in Rhinebeck. Red snapper with mussels on a bed of artichokes, and we even had desserts. Afterward, to the performance at Bard of "Jane Eyre" by the Acting Company. Big auditorium of the Fisher Center almost filled. Too big a space for this sort of production. I found myself impatient of theater, stage, strained voices. The actress who played Jane had a rasping, antagonizing voice. The gist behind the production was that Jane/Bertha Rochester were two halves of the same psyche. This also felt strained. But I like HAVING GONE OUT FOR THE EVENING. Was also elated to get home and sit on the cat-clawed sofa with Waldo and Zeb on my legs and drink a glass of sauvignon blanc.
Friday, April 20, 2007
Well, tomorrow is the "private gathering" for Kurt V. at the Algonquin. David Plimpton is going, and John Casey is coming up from Virginia. John isn't going because of his surgery, and neither am I. John has been in frequent touch with Kurt's daughter Nanny. Kurt's son and daughters were required by the widow to submit "guest lists" of the people they invited to the gathering so she could vet them. The widow's list, however, remains unshared.
Saturday, April 21, 2007
First curly red leaf buds unfurling on the big tulip poplar to the north. Torn between wanting to go up to Maud, but thinking I ought to empty the dishwasher and get rid of the pans in the sink--and totally clean the refrigerator--and go to the dump--and sweep the deck--and prepare the pots for planting--and swim. Which will I do?
Report on day's progress. Well, I imagined Robert shouting, "You make so much FUSS over little things! Why not just empty the dishwasher and..." So in less than thirty minutes I emptied the dishwasher, washed the dirty pans, totally cleaned the refrigerator, went upstairs, and Googled "dance cards" for Maud and found twenty million entries, some accompanied by waltzes. Then wrote some more on my dance scene. Then went to P.O. and had a late lunch (turkey club) in an empty dining room at the Dragon Fly and watched the rushing stream. When I got home Loren Shultis and his landscaping crew had come to rake the gravel and clean the beds, and I was so relieved I didn't have to "go garden." Now, six years later to the date, we're reaching the time of evening when, at Kingston Hospital, I'm saying good-night to Robert, never to see him alive again, and he's sitting on the side of his bed and rumbling, "We still have some time together." For some reason this year seems worse than usual. Why couldn't I have had a bigger heart? Yet he loved me despite the paltry one I had.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Sunrise was at 6:06
At 7:30 a.m., six years ago, which was also a Sunday, the phone rang, and a man said: "Is this Gail Godwin? This is Doctor Brown. I have bad news. Robert didn't make it."
It is over again for another year.
Went to Christ the King in Stone Ridge and enjoyed the choir, the Anglican chant, the warmth of people who like me, and Fr. Allan's excellent sermon on Being Called. And why Jesus had to ask Peter three times: "Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?" Jim Dinsmore and Father Bill Benson also came, playing hookey from St. Gregory's. They were much fussed over. David and I had lunch with them and then, on Jim's recommendation, I went off to Augustine Nursery to order eight mature boxwoods to replace the laurel and rhododendrons the deer ravaged. David said, "I prayed for Robert. Today was his anniversary." Yes, I know.
Monday, April 23, 2007
Continued on with the reception line at the Palm City Club. I go so slowly but no longer flog myself. This is all I can do. Page. Page. Page. Just as Troy Veech is complimenting Mrs. Weatherby, I suddenly realized they'd slept together. And who clued me in on this level of knowingness but old Henry James himself. On I go tomorrow. Toward Maud's great blunder. But it brings her such knowledge--at quite a price. Went out in 80° weather to Gallo's and bought four flats of pansies, two orange and two yellow. Came home and planted. Very calming. You think thoughts. Your fingernails get dirty. Talked to Bud from 4:00 to 4:45 about the devil dream. I have work to do. I didn't want to have a written dialogue with this devil, so instead I will just write about why he was so awful and see where that brings me. "Dreams come not to destroy us, but to guide and heal us."
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Went on with Maud at the dance, to page 415. Anne and I were going to garden, but it started raining. So she worked on my archive files for Chapel Hill and I built a great fire, using as kindling the stalks of the one butterfly bush I got cut down before the rain. Carl came, and together we (mostly he) turned my mattress and he replaced a light in the bathroom. I have been happy today because I mostly get to live as I want. I have a project that expands me. My heart seems to be okay, till further notice. And somehow I have fixed it so I don't have to spend time with people I hate or even those who irritate me. This is fortunate indeed.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
I never had a Troy Veech. A true snake in the garden. What did I have? Let's see. Frank W., when he was twenty-four, an officer at Ft. Bragg, and I was nineteen at Peace College. I found some of his old letters as a result of Anne's reorganizing my files. And maybe a little of B., before he found marriage and Jesus.
Troy Veech is an odd combination: disenchanted, cynical, dissolute, self-pampering, a little mean, he's not above spoiling a party or spoiling a girl or sleeping with an older married woman. But enough elegance and complexity and empathy to keep Maud out for the second half of the dance. He's also a romantic and a failed idealist. Could he end up a suicide?
Monday, April 30, 2007
What happens after Troy Veech says: "Oh, we've got plenty of time"? How does a storyteller face/ace THAT one? I wrote from 10 to 2 and did 670 words (three complete pages) and then went limp for the rest of the day. I had planned to finish planting those pansies but lost all desire and simply watered the flats. Went to Hurley Ridge and bought milk, no-fat half-and-half, three-way lightbulbs, hot mustard, more Splenda, two boneless pork chops, a hydroponic Boston lettuce, a cuke, six-grain bread, two bottles of Newhaven Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, which, very cold, has become my favorite. At $13.
A dreadful thought: this novel will engage nobody but myself. It is a spread-out, multicharactered, multigenerational nothing. Well, to quote myself preaching to Anne, who has begun her novel: "Don't be afraid to FAIL." I am compelled to see it to the end just to see how it turns out, and also because I am dying to see the pattern made when all the parts are present and accounted for. At first I had thought it would be a "solo voices" kind of novel, one solo after another, but now it has evolved into, not a symphony, but more of a concerto for a community chamber orchestra. All the individual parts are needed, but in concert with one another they add up to something more. Read a horrible piece in "The New Yorker". How one ages. The tooth enamel breaks down. The mouth dries. The balance goes. Old people neglect their feet. They fall. Twenty percent never walk again. Zebbie on my knees. Waldo neatly folded on top of the sofa, looking over my right shoulder. Soon they will have been here two years. Late sun on the white birch trunks.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
"Mayday!" Robert's "Pantagleize" opera based on Michel de Ghelderode's play in which the innocent Pantagleize decides to greet everyone with "What a lovely day!" which, unknown to him, is a signal for a revolution to begin. Just the sort of thing that R. loved. He got the widow's permission and went to work. "A farce to make you sad."
Outside the bedroom window, the Japanese maple leaves are just uncurling, and behind them the cherry tree in full blossom. I've been thinking about death a lot. Not morbidly, but musingly and curiously. There are apertures through which one almost glimpses . . . what? A kind of swirling ether in which death and life coexist. Death is present in my musings on it. And there's an almost touching of something, or toward something. I could not muse so steadily on death if I didn't love life so much. Robert has taught me a lot about death. He was always so aware of it. He carried it everywhere he went and--paradox--maybe that's why he lives so much for me now. He was always, daily, crossing over. Visiting death. Going back and forth. As he continues to go back and forth now. Soon, within days, the new leaves will block out the winter view of the Berkshires. Then I'll be inside the green wall of summer. Waldo in the open window is miffed and then downright horrified as the obscene noise of the power mower and weed whackers grows louder. Finally he loses it and dives under the bed. But they, too, will go away--and come back.
Up soon to finish (I hope) Maud's chapter, "Unmerited Degradation." Then what? Possibly time for another "everybody" chapter. But with something startling. Some switch of perspective. Some "Oh, NO!" from an unexpected point of view. I think I know what.
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