GAIL GODWIN's seventh book and second collection of short fiction contains a novella, five stories and a brief "Author's Note" in which Godwin reflects upon the sources--the "Muses"--from which all of these tales arose. Both in this note and in the stories themselves, Godwin invites the reader into her mind, into the mysterious process through which fiction is created. Thus Mr. Bedford and the Muses is an unusually personal book, one that leaves the line between "fact" and "fiction" quite intentionally unclear.

This Godwin establishes at the outset, in the novella "Mr. Bedford." It is the story of a young woman from the American South named Carrie Ames, who takes up residence in London in the early 1960s with an older couple named Mr. and Mrs. Easton. Godwin writes: "Easton is not their real name, of course. For obvious reasons I'll change all the names, including my own. Also, made-up names make it easier to invent when you come to memory gaps. And this sometimes leads to bonuses. In the middle of 'inventing,' you discover you are remembering. Or, even better, you discover the real truth that lay beneath the literal happenings."

That is a succinct statement of the relationship between actuality and fiction. Even in the most emphatically autobiographical fiction, of which there is quite a lot in Mr. Bedford and the Muses, it is not memory but the imagination which is in control. Fiction takes the raw material of reality and reshapes it toward a larger end: the discovery, or the attempt at discovery, of truth. This may seem a truism, but it is often widely overlooked. When a work of fiction has an air of autobiography about it, readers have a tendency to take it as recycled "fact" rather than as the product of invention that it most surely is if it is the work of a serious writer.

So the most useful service Godwin has provided in Mr. Bedford and the Muses--quite apart from the pleasures she offers in the best of these stories--is to admit that the tales are to one degree or another autobiographical and then to show how they are, in the end, works of pure fiction. Taking a bow to her Muses, she acknowledges "this welcome band of inspirers who have appeared to me over the years in the most unpredictable disguises," but then leaves no doubt that "what Henry James called 'the virus of suggestion' " will come to nothing unless the imagination of the author seizes it and turns it into something quite different and unique.

The stories themselves focus, though not exclusively, on the origins and the process of creativity. The central mystery of "Mr. Bedford" is the dark secret of the enigmatic Eastons, but the real purpose of the story is to tell us what that relationship taught the aspiring young writer, Carrie Ames: "One of the fascinating aspects of fiction is that, inside its boundaries, you can keep people alive for as long as you like. That's why I don't want to hear anything bad or sad about the Eastons, even if it exists, 'out there' in life. Not until I've come to the end of the last page and have safely preserved my Eastons as they were to me." Carrie comes to learn that the artist, though sympathetic, must be merciless, plundering real life for the raw material of fiction.

Similar, or related, experiences await Constance LeFevre, in "Amanuensis," and Charles St. John, in "St. John." The former is a widely admired novelist whose work in progress has suddenly gone flat: "She knew the signs: the sickening reluctance to begin in the mornings; the dull, heavy joylessness that spread like a greasy film over the world; the feeling that some connection had been severed between herself and the book." Then, quite unannounced, a girl named Jessie comes to her door and, breathless with admiration, volunteers her services as amanuensis and Girl Friday. This unexpected connection with the outside world provides a cruel twist in the end; more important, though, it gives Constance both her "angel of release" back into her novel and a bracing reminder that it takes more than mere recapitulation of the "facts" to turn life into art.

As for Charles St. John, he is a writer who is faced with the terrible problem of meeting the expectations raised by a successful first book. He lives a "reclusive life" in a village, but his isolation is broken by telephone calls from a woman who has been receiving some of his messages because her own surname is also St. John. She is far older than he, and quite certifiably eccentric into the bargain, but he is drawn toward her nonetheless-- drawn out of his self-centered preoccupation with his work, drawn back into the realities of life upon which that work must be constructed. The story that he ends up telling has "a definite touch of madness," inspired by the fleeting and peculiar infatuation that this chance meeting produces.

Of the other stories, the most interesting is "The Angry-Year," about a girl who has "transferred at last from the modest junior college in my hometown to the big, prestigious university with the good programs in English." She is bright, aggressive, "different," short on funds but long on aspiration, yet for reasons she cannot fully understand she finds herself hanging out with the fraternity and sorority crowd, "with people who demanded little of my mind." She is caught in that classic American dilemma: the outsider who holds the inside in contempt even as she desperately wishes to join it. She goes through much pain and bewilderment before she discovers "the real culprit, the crass conformist who'd been harboring inside the rebel all along"--a discovery that frees her to begin the literary career she desires above all else.Mr. Bedford and the Muses is, by comparison with Godwin's previous novel, A Mother and Two Daughters, a slender book. But its size is deceptive. As in her longer and more ambitious works, Godwin takes on important themes while attaching them to appealing people in interesting situations. Her tone is genial, wry, pensive; it is as though she has stopped for a few moments to think things over, and has permitted the reader to listen in. In its modest way, Mr. Bedford and the Muses is a most appealing book. CAPTION: Picture, Gail Godwin, Copyright (c) by Jerry Bauer