“Unpublished Prosperity: Gail Godwin’s Journals of Apprenticeship,” by Kerstin W. Shands

Essay by Kerstin W. Shands

We may think of great writers as fully fledged—born with astonishing powers of perception and creation. Surprisingly, however, research suggests that creativity can be learned and developed, in which case great writers might not be so different from the rest of us after all. Before any kind of breakthrough, they go through long periods of apprenticeship, learning and developing their craft. Research also points to the importance of self-confidence and determination for the success of any creative endeavor.

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Dedicated apprenticeship and self-confident determination are the factors that stand out in Gail Godwin’s journals from the 1960s. A record of her ambition and disciplined practice, The Making of a Writer: Journals—two volumes of more than 600 pages—focuses on her literary apprenticeship, primarily, and, to a smaller extent, on her social and romantic life.  

Proust, Faust, and Universal Acquisition

One of the authors Godwin read in her twenties was Marcel Proust, portrayed for many years as a leisurely and elegant young man who, forced to withdraw from social life because of illness, went on to write several literary masterpieces. This image of Proust has evolved, and critics now discern a far more a goal-oriented writer, someone who, despite self-criticism, worked with great determination, aiming at and achieving literary greatness.

A comparison to Proust is pertinent, as Godwin has a striking resemblance to his mix of doubt and determination. A combination of self-scrutiny and strength of mind are the main factors that propel Godwin’s journey from apprenticeship to mastery.

While Proustian comparisons are in order in terms of perseverance and scope, Faustian associations might be appropriate, too, since Faust is a recurring figure in Godwin’s works. Feeling an affinity with Thomas Wolfe, whose work has been seen as Faustian in its ambition (and who admitted to being more touched by Faust’s problems than by Hamlet’s, as cited by John Ruffin Pleasant Jr), Godwin, remarkably—since she is only twenty-four at the time—recognizes Faustian traits in herself. The theme of Faust is present also in her book Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life (2001) and seems to have been an enduring fascination. There is more than a touch of Faust to young Godwin’s all-encompassing and globally ambitious persona as it emerges in The Making of a Writer:

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. (Vol. 1, 6)

Young Godwin gives expression to dreams and desires beyond those stipulated by the norms of femininity of the 1960s, and even though she sometimes asks herself if it is wrong to want everything, she does so without excuses. She simply wants to do, be, and have everything of the ultra-best, all categories.

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Ambition and Adulation

Certainly, there are times when Godwin is bothered by “anger, proneness to depression, and laziness,” “envy of other people and their achievements,” and “huge inferiority complexes” (Vol. 2, 132; 197; 13). Next to the sophisticated Frenchwomen in Paris she feels like a “lout-ess,” and at one point, she thinks: “The biggest thing I have to contend with is my own recoiling, insecure, ‘Excuse me’ alter ego. Get rid of that” (Vol. 1, 166, fn 10; 38).

Most of the time, however, she has the most extraordinary self-confidence and can-do mentality—maybe even too much in the eyes of some, who think that she is expecting too much, too soon. This may have been part of the reasons for Godwin’s getting fired from the Miami Herald, since she is told that she needs to “look facts in the face and at the same time quit expecting to get the moon in one day” (Vol. 1, 11).

Brimming with self-confidence when she lands a job for the U.S. Travel Service at the American Embassy in London, Godwin is able to picture herself as a young executive (Vol. 1, 19), but increasingly, her real goal becomes clear: to become a writer, and a good one. Later, when she is attending the Writers’ Workshop program at the University of Iowa and has published two stories, she voices a (somewhat self-ironic) desire for recognition: “I now want a national magazine. Then I’ll want a novel out. Then I’ll want to start getting a name. Then I’ll care for the critics. Then I’ll start wanting a place for myself in the halls of literature” (Vol. 2, 214).

Where does such great ambition come from? One answer might point to the importance of Godwin’s role models and sources of inspiration such as her mother, Kathleen Krahenbuhl Godwin Cole, and her teacher through the ninth grade at St. Genevieve’s of the Pines, Kathleen Winters.

The relationships of mothers and daughters is a prominent theme in Godwin’s fiction, and, as Kathryn Lee Seidel observes in her article on “Gail Godwin and Ellen Glasgow: Southern Mothers and Daughters,” “Godwin and Glasgow identify mothers as the main purveyors of information about southern culture and as advocates who attempt to teach their daughters to conform to that culture” (287).

Kathleen Cole had a great influence on her daughter. In her childhood, Godwin would see her mother typing away and sending off stories, and at college at Chapel Hill, she would literally walk in her mother’s footsteps. Godwin and her mother would tell each other stories, talk about literature, and seek publication.

Another answer might be found in the adulation heaped upon Godwin when she is growing up: “Don’t I know by now the extent of my own assets? . . . Don’t I know after at least twenty years of adulation in school, at home, at work, that I am intelligent? Can’t I keep up a memorable conversation with almost anyone I meet?” (Vol. 1, 64). This adulation may be what trumps the insecurities and helps build her self-confidence, firing up the determination and perseverance necessary to become a successful writer.

Apprenticeship and Development

Many of Gail Godwin’s novels take their inspiration from her own life. In The Making of a Writer we can follow when and how ideas for stories turn up. In her journals, conversations are recorded, ideas are thought through, and fragments toward future creations are jotted down. Fascinatingly, Godwin can see the book she wants to write, or rather, hear it, “as Glenn Miller ‘heard’ his band long before they achieved the Miller sound” (Vol. 1, 269).

Godwin’s journals describe a very happening time in her life. Her skills of observation are sharp already in her mid-twenties, and she has as a keen eye for social manners and an often humorously realistic way of describing people, be it those who “priss and primp” or “troglodytes and their truisms” (Vol. 1, 5, 7).  On the transatlantic journey to Europe Godwin draws a portrait of an American couple, the only two who do not get seasick, a “hardy pair” whose irritatingly jovial intrusions annoy their “near-dying” fellow travelers (Vol. 1, 35).

Pithy portraits jostle with pregnant quotes from philosophy. Impressionistic glimpses of travels in Europe stand in contrast to life in London where the often Gothic weather, not made any easier due to antiquated British heating systems, teaches people stoicism: “London is the best purgatory I know of” (Vol. 1, 181).

Early on, Godwin thinks: “My trouble has been trying to do too much with words. For a while I shall simply set down what I see. Nothing more” (Vol. 1, 139). Consciously trying to get beyond worrying about how other people will react to her writing, she thinks: “The new philosophy, the non-urgency, has helped my writing. I have no need to say anything now, other than what I have to say” (Vol. 1, 174). “Keep your eyes open,” she tells herself. “Put down what you see in the simplest way” (Vol. 1, 144).

Gail Godwin’s advice for writers could perhaps be distilled thus: Write what you see. Use only the necessary words, nothing more. And ask yourself what you would write if you were not afraid.

The young Godwin is reading and learning from literary works by Henry James, Lawrence Durrell, Thomas Wolfe, Doris Lessing, and Virginia Woolf, and many others, while also studying what Kirkegaard, Bertrand Russell, Jung, and other philosophers and psychologists in vogue at the time had to say about human nature and the possibilities for development, love, freedom, and maturity. Ah, God, all those books on personality and finding God,” she exclaims (Vol. 2, 35).

Seeking enlightenment, Godwin explores “Freudian psychotherapy, analytical psychology, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, existentialism, the Methodist church, the Presbyterian, Catholic, Episcopal, tranquilizers, smoking marijuana” (Vol. 2, 160). She consults the I Ching and sometimes sees a palmist. Through her second husband, she is introduced to Scientology, a movement about which she remains clear-sighted: “Hubbard’s trick, it seems to me, is to keep waving the promised land in front of his pupils until they become addicts” (Vol. 2, 142).

Still, there are things she finds useful in the cosmos and complicated terminology of Scientology, especially concerning unconscious blockages. There is one technique in which the same question is asked over and over again until the deepest truth emerges. Having a remarkable effect on Godwin, it leads to the liberating insight that the reason she has felt that she cannot be a writer is because of an unconscious fear of failure (Vol. 2, 168-69).

Fathers’ Souls

Comparing herself to other writers, Godwin esteems that she is neither a Woolf nor a Durrell. “My forte is understatement and non sequiturs,” she thinks (Vol. 1, 61).

Indeed, many of the fragments and stories included in her journals are masterpieces of subtle understatement. The story about Mr. Bedford (a turtle), to take one example, is precious. Another brilliant example is “Father Flynn: A Short Story” (included in a section entitled “My Father’s Soul” in Volume 1) about a young girl who goes to see a priest after the suicide of her father. With a masterly, minimalist touch, Godwin manages to illuminate the moods, predicaments, and personalities of her characters in ways that make them complex and stunningly alive.

The fatherhood theme in “Father Flynn” recalls a visit Godwin makes to the Glyptotek in Copenhagen (Vol. 1, 46), where she comes upon a sculpture by Ernst Henri Dubois,  The Prodigal Son (1909). This sculpture is centered on the overwhelming emotion of a father as he bends over to embrace his son with infinite love and tenderness.

This sculpture has Godwin in tears. Is it the mystery of love and mercy that moves her so deeply? Does she see Dubois’ sculpture in biblical terms as a reference to God as a merciful father? Or is the emotion about her own father and her wish to have a real father to return home to and be completely embraced and accepted by? Growing up with her mother and grandmother, Godwin had no contact with her father, Mose Winston Godwin, until her high school graduation. After that, he was present in her life only for a short time as he committed suicide in 1958.

Godwin’s journals do not say much about how the absence of a father might have affected her personal life or her relationships with men. Nor do they examine the theme of fathers in art and literature. Nonetheless, her deep emotion before Dubois’ sculpture may be linked to her own feelings of fatherlessness, and perhaps also to the feelings of homelessness that sometimes strike her after leaving the US for an uncertain life in Europe.

Little Mermaids

The two volumes of The Making of a Writer have been expertly edited by Rob Neufeld with a focus on literary and editorial discussions and processes. Giving useful references and explaining time-bound occurrences, Neufeld’s editorial work is all-encompassing, and his references, as Godwin points out in the Acknowledgements (Vol. 2), constitute a cultural history in themselves. Neufeld is remarkably well-informed about everything Godwin has written, including unpublished and lost works. He has divided Godwin’s journals into sections according to time periods and turning points. At times, this seems unnecessary, and the rubrics are sometimes arbitrary or misleading.

One of the sections is called “Walk, Don’t Run.” This is a reference to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid,” a story that young Godwin finds “especially evocative,” as Neufeld puts it, because it “speaks of the cultural exchange between a voyager and a sea denizen, and of their crossing of worlds” (Vol. 1, 49).

But H. C. Andersen’s story is not about cultural exchanges. Nor is it about crossings of worlds or slowing down. If “The Little Mermaid” is important for young Godwin, it is more likely because of its thematic and symbolic exploration of the most dramatic levels of desire, ambition, and sacrifice, something that is far from a simple ordeal relating “to Gail’s perceived need to change her hurried mode of existence,” to stop running and slow down to the “Danes’ philosophical gait,” as Neufeld assumes (Vol. 1, 49).

In H. C. Andersen’s story, a mermaid has fallen in love with a prince whose life she has saved when he was drowning. In order to approach the prince and win his love, something that would also give her immortality of the soul, the mermaid’s wish is to become human. She consults a sorceress who helps transform the mermaid’s fins into feet, telling her: “at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow.”

The sorceress will also cut off the mermaid’s tongue. The mermaid—who has the loveliest of voices!—will never again be able to speak or sing. Silenced, she must try to win the prince with alluring glances and elegant dance movements, something that, unfortunately, is not enough. Since the mermaid cannot express herself to the prince, she cannot stop him from marrying someone else. Good-looking and good-natured but ignorant, the young prince remains oblivious to the sacrifices the mermaid makes for his sake and does not even understand that she has saved his life. If the mermaid does not win the love of the prince she must die and disappear like foam on the ocean. In the end, then, the little mermaid has sacrificed everything: her voice, her family, and her own life.

There are many layers to H. C. Anderson’s gem of a story. It is about fate and choice and about right and wrong ways of obtaining what you want. Exploring the height and depth of the human soul as it comes up against good and evil, it focuses on moral considerations as to what is worth striving for and what is not. Pondering the safety and danger of human existence and the ravages of nature— before which humans are very small and easily reduced to nothing— it points to good kinds of beauty and loathsome forms of ugliness.

While an economy in which the mermaid is paying everything and the prince nothing may seem depressing, the ending of H. C. Andersen’s story is most certainly meant to be uplifting. Through suffering and endurance, the little mermaid has raised herself to a spirit world unseen and unheard by mortals. After death, she finds herself surrounded by “daughters of the air,” spiritual beings who hold out the promise of the soul’s immortality if the mermaid can only persevere and do good deeds for the next three hundred years.

A story about a woman’s sacrifice, “The Little Mermaid” could be read along gender lines. Even more fundamentally, it is a story about going after what one desires no matter what sacrifices this may entail—a question that may have had a deep significance for Godwin at this time.

Sorrowful Women and Self-Chosen Sacrifice

Far from being a story about hurried modes of existence, then, H. C. Andersen’s story speaks of desire, ambition, and sacrifice on universal and timeless levels. From modern points of view, it can also be related to changes in women’s possibilities to express themselves beyond prescribed roles as well as what the price for venturing beyond those roles might be.

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Some of Godwin’s stories have been read as feminist tales and fables. Suffused with sadness and speaking of a woman’s ultimate sacrifice, “A Sorrowful Woman,” a story with a fairy tale once-upon-a-time opening, could be compared to “The Little Mermaid” in tone and theme. In Godwin’s story, a “cloistered queen,” an unnamed wife and mother, is increasingly unable to cope with the demands made upon her as she suffers from a paralyzing depression (as does the mermaid in H.C. Andersen’s story before being able to approach the prince). Whether or not it is the demands of family and household that cause or aggravate the depression, like H. C. Andersen’s tale, “A Sorrowful Woman” is a sad tale of a woman’s self-chosen sacrifice. The price of love in both cases is death.

In this context, let us also remember the lines Godwin singles out in Isak Dinesen’s story “The Pearls”:

Now she began to think of what she had read about deep-water fish, which have been so much used to bear the weight of many thousands fathoms of water, that if they are raised to the surface they will burst. Was she, herself, she wondered, such a deep-water fish that felt at home only under the pressure of existence? What was a deep-water fish to do, if married to one of those salmon which here she had seen springing in the waterfalls? Or to a flying fish? (quoted by Godwin, Vol. 1, 59)

Dinesen’s deep-water fish that burst when raised to the surface resonate darkly with H. C. Andersen’s deep-water mermaid, whose fate it is to be transformed to foam on the ocean waves.

If these are stories that touch young Godwin, then, it may be because of their powerful themes and images. The sacrifices of the little mermaid and the rising fish could be symbolically related to the pressures involved in rising to greatness as an author.

The young Godwin “[has] a lot in common with the intelligent, restricted heroines of 19th century British classics,” as Rob Neufeld states in “Gail Godwin’s contributions to literature.” She is also well aware of the situation of modern women and the norms that still exist in the 1960s that force women, but not men, to choose between career and family.

Men, Moods, and Marriages

These are choices that turn up in Godwin’s novels and that are pertinent for Godwin herself. Involved in a romantic relationship with a Spanish man, for example, Godwin realizes, when he proposes marriage, that her “choice will represent the selection of one way of life & the complete rejection of the other,” and she asks herself what she will have to give up: “could I give up my books? My writing?” (Vol. 1, 106).

In other love relationships, too, the question is central: what will they mean for her writing? Lasting only three months, Godwin’s first marriage to Miami Herald photographer Douglas Kennedy, described in her (unpublished) first novel, “Gull Key” (1962), is touched upon only briefly in these journals. In Asheville, there is ”B.,” a lawyer Godwin could have married but the relationship with whom ebbs out when she goes to London. She has the insight that B. is wrong not only because “he dreams big but lives small” but because he “would never understand the writing” (Vol. 1, 234).

Some of Godwin’s journals have disappeared—some of them, horrendously, having been thrown into rivers by jealous boyfriends—and there are times when Godwin herself refrains from spelling things out. In the parade of men walking through her London pages some are vividly portrayed while others are left vague, sometimes consciously so. At the end of one love relationship Godwin writes:

I think I may have been less than straightforward with my journal during the months Andy and I were engaged. I suspect I omitted many troubling and rebellious thoughts and wrote what I thought I ought to be thinking. The part of me I left out was undoubtedly the part that knew all along I was not going to make that marriage. (Volume 2, 84)

There is some mystery around Sandy, a “cynical, unpredictable, supercritical, and perceptive” man Godwin meets in London (Vol. 2, 123). In this relationship there appears to be a strong physical attraction, but Sandy is out of the picture as soon as Ian Marshall enters the scene.

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Godwin’s marriage to this English psychiatrist remains a great mystery to the reader. Even though she has numinous conversations with him, it is difficult to understand the attraction of this “dark, turbulent individual who is a little bit too much of himself to fit in anywhere or to make me comfortable,” someone Godwin can cope with in his absence but whose presence fills her with ”awe, confusion, and revulsion all at once” (Vol. 2, 133-34). This “bleak and peculiar second marriage,” as Godwin describes it in Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir (23), was brief, and gave inspiration to her first published novel, The Perfectionists.

Even though the reasons for this marriage are enumerated in clear-sighted and self-ironic fashion (Godwin wants to be married; she is afraid of growing old alone; she likes being able to tell her friends that she is married to a psychiatrist; Ian’s mind fascinates her [Vol. 2, 134]), one might apply the Scientological question and ask, over and over, what the real reasons for this marriage are. That there are numerous reasons for divorce is soon clear, even though this clarity seems to come to Godwin herself incrementally, one small piece at the time.

Ian Marshall has a young son, a difficult and demanding child who, understandably, does not inspire Godwin to become a mother herself: “I was not fit to raise this child,” she thinks, “perhaps not any child” (Vol. 2, 168). On one occasion, she notes that she does not have unlimited amounts of energy. She realizes that she can only write a certain number of pages every day, and that she will probably not have any children. The reasons why Godwin chooses not to have children are not explored further in her journals. Was it a deliberate choice, so as to be able to focus all her energy on her writing? In her memoir, Publishing, she notes that at the age of thirty-six she “hadn’t quite made up [her] mind on that subject, but most days [she] did not see [herself] as a potential mother” (54).

Writing Out One’s Mind

In her Afterword (Vol. 2, 308), Godwin mentions being heartened by a phrase in Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary. In March, 1926, Woolf observes that she is “writing out her mind” or, in particular: “This is dictated by a slight melancholia, which comes upon me sometimes now and makes me think I am old; I am ugly. I am repeating things. Yet, as far as I know, as a writer I am only now writing out my mind” (Woolf 88).

Writing out one’s mind would be having the courage to give free expression to one’s own mind and the audacity to do so in exquisite literary form. In the Afterword Godwin mentions being asked once what she would write if she was not afraid. She remembers a dream she had in her youth of entering a house where her future was. Wandering through many strange rooms of this house she finally comes upon a thin volume she has written. It has the extraordinary title, Unpublished Prosperity: Nine Essays.

Reminded of this dream many years later, Godwin starts a new notebook she calls Unpublished Desperations, where she can practice writing without being afraid. Filled with baffling and haunting items, hope and despair, dead people and dialogues dug out from under rocks, these material and immaterial notebooks point evocatively forward to a continuation of the gathering of dreams, realities, and retrospective insights begun in Godwin’s apprentice journals.


Works Cited

Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Little Mermaid.” http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_merma.html.  Accessed June 15, 2021.

Godwin, Gail. Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life.  New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Print

Godwin, Gail.  Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir. Illustrations by Francis Halsband. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. Print

Godwin, Gail. The Making of a Writer. Volume 1. Journals 1961-63. Edited by Rob Neufeld. New York: Random House, 2007. Print

Godwin, Gail. The Making of a Writer. Volume 2. Journals 1963-69. Edited by Rob Neufeld. New York: Random House, 2011. Print

Godwin, Gail. “A Sorrowful Woman.” Dream Children. New York: Avon, 1983.

Neufeld, Rob. “Gail Godwin’s Contributions to Literature.” Gail Godwin’s web page. “Studies.” https://www.gailgodwin.com/studies.php. Accessed 15 June 2021.

Pleasant, John Ruffin Jr. “The Family Motif in Thomas Wolfe’s Drama and Fiction.” Louisiana: LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses, 2936. 1976. https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_disstheses/2936. Accessed June 17, 2021.

Seidel, Kathryn Lee. “Gail Godwin and Ellen Glasgow: Southern Mothers and Daughters.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. Vol. 10, No 2 (Autumn 1991): 287-294. Print

Woolf. Virginia. A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Edited by Leonard Woolf. London: Hogarth, 1953.


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