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interactive student edition

i nteractive s tudent e dition

Personal Writing


Prompted by a photographic session for the jacket of her new book, writer Gail Godwin confesses her feelings, thoughts, and fantasies about an important aspect of herself that she presents to the world: her face. As you read, pay attention to how Godwin combines her expressed desire for privacy with her careful self-presentation. Then try the activities in Linking Writing and Literature, on page 48.

activities in Linking Writing and Literature, on page 48. by Gail Godwin T he day has

by Gail Godwin

T he day has turned out well. More

my hair. Some years ago I stopped

importantly for our purposes, so has

trying to subdue it into the current fashion, and it has since rewarded me by catching the light and air and using them to frame my face for command performances like today.

The photographer arrives on the noon bus and wants to begin work right away. Out of a

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cleverly packed kit he brings forth cameras, lights, meters, a tripod, and even a white umbrella. During a session of warm-up shots I pose self-consciously on a chaise longue while he tells me how he went to photograph Auden once and, after only two frames, the great poet rose and said, “All right. That’s enough, young man.” “Oh god!” I cry, forgetting “my face” for a few seconds. “What did you do?”

Personal Writing



“I was lucky that day. Words saved me. I said, ‘But Mr. Auden, in my profession I don’t get a chance to revise.’ He looked at me for a minute and then said, ‘All right,’ and sat down again. The only trouble was, he sat down too

fast and fell off the chair. But we did get some good pictures, and after the session was over he said, ‘If you’ll come back again, young man, I’ll cook you a chicken dinner.’ ” I move to my desk, to recline against the deluxe sprawl of my new IBM and the fading rhododendron blossoms outside the window. The photographer has set up a spotlight and opens the white umbrella. The combination, he explains, makes the face soak up the light.

It “fills out the face” with a youthful luminos-

ity. If the need ever arises, he tells me, I can substitute a piece of white poster paper. “Put

it on a surface just below your face and it will

send up the light in a nice way.” Last week a different photographer walked me into the woods and told me to get com- fortable on a rock I had sat down on, in a patch of dappled shade. She retreated on tip- toe and lurked some distance away where she

crouched and waited, like a nature lover stalk- ing a shy animal. The woods grew still. My hair engaged in a little dance with the breeze.

A gnat cruised loudly past my face. What is

she waiting for, I thought, watching the face

of the photographer. She pursed her lips, she

hummed to herself, she smiled mysteriously, she squinted her eyes. I grew almost bored. Then I relaxed and began thinking my own thoughts. Click, she went then. Click. Click. This photographer stands on a chair behind the white umbrella and asks: “When do you look most like you like to look?”

And I think of myself, alone sometimes in this house, how I’ll take little intermissions at the bathroom mirror, arranging my face until

it suits me. There is a look I like. But has any-

body ever seen it? If someone did, would that person say, “Ah, what an interesting woman,” or, if he/she knew me, “Ah, yes, that’s Gail.” Or: “Why is that woman posing?” Or: “Why on earth is Gail making that strange face?” One time, when I was little, I was watching my mother put the finishing touches on the face she was taking out into the world that day. Suddenly I saw her mirror image com- pose itself into a frightening look. Her eyes widened and gazed into some sorrowful romantic distance; her nostrils dilated; her full lips spread into a weird close-mouthed smile. I knew that, to her, this was her favorite image of herself; I could tell by a kind of relaxed triumph that came over her. “Stop that!” I cried. “Stop looking like that,” for, as long as she did, my mother was lost to me. As I think these thoughts, the photogra- pher who evoked them with his question takes about a dozen pictures. Later, when I am going over his contacts, I search in vain for my secret favorite look that I have been able to create at the bathroom mirror. What did I expect: that he would be able to evoke the look by getting me to recall the look? There are other looks—by which I mean acceptable versions of my face—but I don’t see that one. Or perhaps it’s there, but it looks different turned around. After all, the mirror shows us the reverse of the self others see. Stand in front of the mirror with someone whose face you know well. His face in the mirror will not look quite the same. It may even look strange to you. Yet this is the face he sees every day. What would be strange for him would be to see his face as you see it at its most familiar. It is not because I am beautiful, or notori- ous, or even because my face is unusual, that two professional photographers have chosen to ride four hours on the bus, at their own

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Personal Writing



expense, to imprint its image on a dozen rolls of film. No, it is merely because I am an American author soon to have another book published. I don’t know exactly when this practice began of making the contemporary writer a visual object, but it has occurred during my lifetime. During my youthful reading, I rarely knew what the writers looked like—except for the highly visible Hemingway, with his white beard and bare, stocky chest. There was still, I recall, a certain impish elusiveness about writers. They effaced themselves from your imagination, leaving the field free for their characters and their stories. As late as 1970, when my first novel was being published and the editor called to ask did I want my picture on the jacket, I replied at once, “Oh, I don’t think my picture will help the book.” I dis- tinctly remember feeling that I would forfeit some of the mystery of a new fictional voice if my face appeared on the book. My face did not appear on my second novel, either. This novel was about a beautiful woman, so beautiful that stronger, unbeauti- ful people need her for their various purposes and thus make her their prisoner. The cover artist wisely chose not to depict the particular face of any beautiful woman. If my face had appeared on the back of the book, some skep- tical reader might surely have inquired: “What does she know about the problems of being extraordinarily beautiful?” At the editor’s suggestion, my third novel did carry my photograph. I was a little disap- pointed at the one he chose from the contact sheets, but he seemed to feel it would “go well with the book.” The heroine of that novel was a woman of 32, intelligent, romantic, and insecure. When she catches a glimpse of her face in a tilted mirror above her beautiful

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grandmother’s coffin, it shocks her. (“It always did when she faced a mirror unexpect- edly. It was too alert, too tense, too transpar- ent in what its owner felt.”) The photo the editor chose was that of an intelligent-looking woman in her thirties with a closed mouth that stops just short of a smile; she has large, rather dreamy eyes, but their effect is dimin- ished by the pronounced worry line that slashes her brow. My mother hated that pic- ture; she couldn’t understand why I would allow anyone to publish a picture that “makes you look old, and not even pretty.” The pic- ture startled her: in it, her daughter was lost to her. Though I have learned not to agonize every time I come across some face of mine that fails to do justice to my wit, charm, and pro- fundity, I still harbor a deep desire for invisi- bility. In my second novel, Francesca, the beautiful woman, goes to work briefly as the amanuensis (really the cleaning girl) for the ugly “M,” a writer who has shaved her head. “M” tells Francesca that she shaved her head so that she would stop looking in the mirror and notice more things about the world. What “M” meant, of course, was that for an artist there is great value in being invisible. Only when you can stop looking at yourself do you become capable of filling other bod- ies. Keats, praising this trait in Shakespeare, called it Negative Capability [O]ne wonders what Jane Austen’s com- ments might have been, had she looked down from Writers’ Heaven several months ago and observed the confusion attendant on a paper- back release of her early writings. In the first place, she might not have been all that pleased to have her juvenilia published; in the second place, there is her name—she who always signed her works “by A Lady”; in the third

Personal Writing



place, there is a picture of the author, in a little oval vignette, above the

If you are beautiful, the world comes to you; but if you have imagination, you
If you are beautiful,
the world comes to you;
but if you have imagination,
you can summon
the world.

what would I be doing today?

Beautiful faces effortlessly open the secrets of other hearts and minds. An

title, Love and Freindship but wait a moment, who is this beautiful, full-bosomed woman in her low-cut

gown? One thing for

certain: It’s not our Jane. But it took the president of the Jane Austen Society to point this

alternative route to these secrets—which I always knew I wanted—is via the

effort of imagination. If you are beautiful, the world comes to you; but if you have imagination,

out to the embarrassed pub- lisher, who then tracked the error down to the New York Public Library, which had been housing an incorrectly labeled impostress in Jane’s file: a portrait of Sarah Austin, a nineteenth-century translator. (Now plain Jane, thin lips pursed, wearing her house cap and high-necked frock, has been instated in her rightful place; but one won- ders about that filing error: wishful thinking on somebody’s part? After all, Jane has turned out to be a star, and oughtn’t a star to look like that pretty lady in the low dress?)

It is time to go through my contact sheets and select one image of myself to appear on

the back of my new novel and another image to serve as my “publicity” photo. As I crouch, with magnifying glass over these myriad me’s, ruminations and emotions as varied as the poses play through my mind.

1. Would even Lord Byron have been able

to face his contact sheets without spasms of


2. A quote from a painter in my fourth

novel: “They say people make their faces after a certain age, but it is also true that before a certain age people’s faces help to make them.” If, as a teen-ager, I had had my decade’s version of, say, Brooke Shields’ face,

you can summon the world. 3. Only once in my life has my face opened doors. This was when my favorite uncle William lay dying in the hos- pital. An extremely popular figure in the community, his room was being besieged by friends, acquaintances, old girlfriends, high- way patrolmen, preachers, other judges and lawyers, and a few curiosity seekers. The doctor gave orders that no one but family (and the Reigning Girlfriend) be admitted, and then only for brief sessions. All who were admitted had to be screened by the nurse on duty at the time. But never I. “You can go on in,” all the nurses who had never seen me before would say, “anyone can see you’re one of them.” I have the Godwin face. I have many of my mother’s expressions (her sad-romantic gaze; her “polite” look, which is an incongru- ous combination of silly, pursed mouth and wide, furious eyes; her weird, close-mouthed smile and flaring nostrils when she is being beautiful), but it is the face of my father’s family, his lineal features that I see in my photographs—just as, sometimes amused, sometimes alarmed, I see myself in old pho- tographs of his family. There is a sister, in her eighties now, whose girlhood snapshots

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could pass for some of mine, and, what is even more scary, I have only to sit beside her—queenly, sarcastic old doyen—at a fam- ily reunion, and have a preview of myself, at age eighty-three, holding court, as she answers questions about her house (“Yes, it’s on the market, but so far nobody’s been able to afford it”), accepts compliments on her daughter’s food (“Well of course Christine’s

table is full of good things; she learned some- thing at my house”), and on her own skin (“Yes, I’ve got the pure Powell skin of our mother’s family; poor Mose and William got the old sallow Godwin skin”). As I watch her (just now an obsequious cousin has flung himself to his knees beside her and cries, “Hail, Matriarch!”) I think: well, I have the nice Powell skin, too, and I also have the large, slashed brow and forehead that will soon make the top part of my face look like a patriarch, as hers does now; and I, too, have the long, heavy cheeks that are one day going to shake like an angry bulldog’s when I’m on my soapbox, but she has lasted (as I intend to), and she still works every day (as I intend to), and she does add to a party (as I hope I shall, at her age).

4. A quote from my heroine’s friend in my

third novel: “You are the type of person who will never be able to see your own face. Your face is a series of impressions, of moods. It will always give more pleasure to others than to yourself.”

5. An unvoiced expletive as I X out with a

black crayon a certain frame. (“P.S. If there are any frames that you would not like to be seen, please X out on contact sheet,” the Photographer-with-the-White-Umbrella has instructed.) Oh, Thomas Pynchon was so shrewd! But it is too late for me to refuse to pose, to steal my image back from old high

44 Unit 1 Personal Writing

school files. It is too late for me to be the wise, invisible genie-author, laughing over the reader’s shoulder. I will also never look like a star. (If my work should last, what high-cheekboned, swan-necked, smooth-browed impostress will some visual idealist sneak into my file?) What many a reader will see while reading my books is—let’s face it—a younger version of Aunt Thelma posing as my mother. All I can do, at this stage, is to be myself (so the encroaching old face will at least signify the intrinsic me) and to use the black crayon when it is offered: try not to be caught in public with my eyes squeezed shut, with a drink in my hand, or simpering like a fool. 6. A frequent quote from my grand- mother. “Fools’ names and fools’ faces are often seen in public places.” Though the writer in me aspires to the invisibility that will grant me the freedom to imagine myself into anybody, to become Nobody watching and describing the parade of life, the egoist in me hankers for that instant, visible glamour which reveals me a Somebody the moment I enter a room. And, to a degree, the American consumer in me retains a childlike faith in the miracle-work- ing properties of products which, if dotted at the strategic pulse points, thrown across the shoulder or buttoned or belted in the latest fashion, or slathered on my pure Powell skin, will make a roomful of strangers stand up and chant in chorus: “Who is that woman who just came in?” At home alone with my muse, I wear a uni- form of old corduroys with the wales rubbed smooth, and any old sweater or shirt. But when I go into the city, I start worrying the day before about how to dress that woman who will always startle me from at least one

Personal Writing



Personal Writing Literature Model Odilon Redon, My Face, c. 1895–1900 plate-glass window. One day, I keep

Odilon Redon, My Face, c. 1895–1900

plate-glass window. One day, I keep vowing, when I have purchased all the right things, I will be able to see Somebody striding along beside me in that window and glimpse at last a glamorous version of myself. Like the majority of people, my attitude towards my looks wobbles wildly between vanity and despair. But, providentially, my vocation always saves me. In my study, I am

invisible. I’m a free-floating consciousness able to go anywhere and see anything without being observed in return. Even when I’m thinking well or lost in the contemplation of other lives, I am temporarily “refined out of existence.” Not long ago, in a moment of anxious van- ity (“If I start today, I can keep what I have”) I sent off to California for an eighteen-dollar

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Personal Writing



book on face-lifting through exer- cise. (“For women and men over twenty-one,” the tact- ful subhead explained.)

could I count on myself to devote fifteen minutes a day making faces at myself
could I count
on myself to devote
fifteen minutes a day
making faces at myself
in a mirror?

Did anyone tell her beforehand,

“You are going to represent the face women don’t want to have”? Was she paid well? More money, or less, than the pretty

Back came a pink vol- ume weighing several pounds and sealed in plastic. I tore off the

plastic, read the grudg- ing praise of a promi- nent plastic surgeon (after all, this book was going to

to model? Did they just pick her off the street (a California bag lady, glad for the cash), or

was she, perhaps, a very well-to-do model whose

take away some of his business, wasn’t it?), and began leafing through the exercises, turning first to my “trouble


I began to despair. Knowing my aversion to boredom and routine, could I count on myself to devote fifteen minutes a day for the rest of my life to making faces at myself in a mirror? Knowing, at this point, that I would proba- bly never open this book again, I transferred my interest to the one really ghoulish aspect of the book and lost myself in its contempla- tion. On each page where the pretty model was doing her exercise to iron out crows’ feet, guard against turkey neck, or restore youthful fullness to the lips, there was an inset of an older woman’s face—rather, that part of her face that was in shambles because she had failed to do this particular exercise. The photos were all of the same poor woman, and I found myself imagining her life. Who was she? (I should point out that she was not grotesque; if you saw her on the street, if you noticed her at all, you would think: just a plain woman, late sixties/early seventies, who hasn’t had an interesting life or taken very good care of herself.) But how had she come to lend her face to these pictures?

specialty was admonitory pho- tographs? Was she—it was possible— the author’s mother? (“Hey, Mom, I have a ter- rific proposition for you. It will benefit thousands of women, put bucks into our joint account, and you and I will always know I love your dear face just the way it is.”) Where was “I” at this moment? Somewhere in California, in a room I was beginning to furnish. Where was the American female, fourth decade, of the incipient bulldog demeanor? Invisible. I watched Bill Moyers interviewing Dame Rebecca West, age 89, at her home in London. Before and during the interview, the network flashed portraits and photographs of the author in her earlier incarnations: baby sister, young militant, companion of H. G. Wells, banker’s wife, woman of accomplishment receiving her honor from the Queen. In all of these stills, you could trace a family resem- blance, a continuity-in-retrospect, to the liv- ing female Knight on the screen, in her long gown and her pearl choker which tugged at her neck like a self-imposed leash. She was “being good” tonight, but not too good. She made the camera wait while she took her time formulating her answers or remembering the past; she exerted no effort to impress, she

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Personal Writing



even went so far as to demur, or agree politely, if the interviewer switched topics suddenly, or put words into her mouth. She seemed, much of the time, to have become invisible to herself: she was just one big, fluid, rapid mind browsing confidently among whatever ideas were put before her. At one point, because she is hard of hearing, she lunged towards Moyers to catch the tail end of his remark, and—for a second—her large head was transformed into a lionlike figure:

she became visually, on camera, a sort of mythical beast, heraldic of her accumulated strengths. Since then, I have been planning my heraldic visage; it’s much more fun than doing the exercises in the pink book. I’ve been imagining little scenarios to go with my eighty-year-old mastiff-face. Here is one:

I will have worked very hard at my craft, and because its attendant exercises in Negative Capability have become the priority of my life, I will have rendered myself invisi- ble to me (for large portions of a given day) and visible to others in the various guises they will create for me. To some, I will be a wrinkled old lady (but not as wrinkled as Auden, if I keep using my creams); but to those who see me as a Lady of Letters, my face will have become emblematic of my style

(“Don’t you just love the thoughts that roam that gashed forehead of hers? And the way her cheeks quiver with sensitivity or rumble with a wicked wit!”). When the young photographers come, one of them will be after a certain distinctive pouch nobody has quite done justice to on film; another will try to make me shut my eyes or giggle and spill my drink; while another, aspiring to Mythical Photography, will wait for the appearance of my beast in the lens.

I will pose some, wearing a gown of laven-

der-gray (no jewelry), and reclining among my books and memory artifacts on some dra-

matic but comfy piece of furniture. One owes an audience a few stage props.

I will get rid of the boring ones quickly by

a polite sarcasm or succinct withdrawal of my Presence. (“You look tired, young woman.” “That will do, young man.”) But if they are swift-witted and charming and very agreeable to me, I will let them tarry

while I ruminate aloud, until, through the fis- sures and gravitational drifts of my old face, they can glimpse the shapes and visions behind it.

I may write something sweet into the fly-

leaf of one of my books for them. And invite them to stay for supper.

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50 “ The fragrant orchid: Into a butterfly’s wings It breathes the incense. ” —Basho¯ ,

The fragrant orchid:

50 “ The fragrant orchid: Into a butterfly’s wings It breathes the incense. ” —Basho¯ ,

Into a butterfly’s wings It breathes the incense.

Into a butterfly’s wings It breathes the incense. ” —Basho¯ , “Haiku for Four Seasons,” translated
—Basho¯ , “Haiku for Four Seasons,” translated by Makoto Ueda
—Basho¯ ,
“Haiku for Four Seasons,”
translated by Makoto Ueda

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