Sunday, December 12, 2010
Working on the Ending
Wonderful illustration by R. O. Blechman
Essay By Gail Godwin
Published New York Times: December 10, 2010
When you’re a young writer, you subtract the birth dates of authors from their publication dates and feel panic or hope. When you’re an old writer, you observe the death dates of your favorite writers and you reflect on their works and their lives.
This past year I outlived Henry James, who died two months short of his 73rd birthday. In his final years, he wrote an autobiography of his childhood, befriended badly wounded World War I soldiers and changed his citizenship. I have catapulted myself out of many writing setbacks and humiliations with the rallying cry of the dying novelist Dencombe, in James’s story “The Middle Years”: “We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.” The words have the stride of a march and the echo of a mantra. Already I have missed being able to ask James, “When you were my age, what did you do when . . . ?”
“How does what you want out of writing change with age?” Terry Gross asked Philip Roth on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in October. Roth, 77, told her it hadn’t changed much for him. He wanted to be as alert and energetic as ever at the keyboard, he wanted to be taken seriously, and he wanted to make a work of art out of his subject.
You want to be taken seriously; that doesn’t change. What has changed for me is the degree of compromise I am willing to inflict on my work in order to see it in print. As a young writer, I was told by the fiction editor at Esquire that he’d publish my story if I took out the woman’s dreams. I took them out. “It will make her more inscrutable,” he promised, chuckling. It certainly did. Forty years later, “A Sorrowful Woman” is my most anthologized story, and I get regular e-mails from bewildered high school and college students asking why this woman did what she did.
Now, after having worked with all varieties of editors, I like to think I have built a pretty impervious fortress against wrongheaded suggestions. (“Would you consider having Francis and Alice marry at the end of ‘The Good Husband’?”) But only last year my fortress cracked under pressure from marketing forces. (“If you call this novel ‘The Red Nun,’you will lose thousands of readers. Too many people have a bad nun in their past.”) I caved and went with the last two words of what was to have been the novel’s subtitle: “A Tale of Unfinished Desires.”Would I make that choice again? No. But I will continue to urge professionals to tell me what I have failed to make clear and what needs development. (“Does Mother Ravenel have a secret?” an editor asked me after his first reading of “Unfinished Desires.” I had mistakenly assumed everyone guessed what her secret was. His question stimulated me to add a scene — and an important dream.)
Read the full essay at the New York Times.