How Do Lives Get Lived?

June 9, 2008

The most useful thing I brought out of my childhood was confidence in reading. . . Novels were about what I cared about. They asked the questions I wanted answered. How do lives get lived? How is love found?
       — Nuala O’Faolain, 1940-2008, Irish journalist and fiction writer
           from her memoir, Are You Somebody

Nuala O’Faolain died on May 9, 2008, of a fast-moving cancer diagnosed only three months before. Thus today would be her Month’s Mind, a commemoration usually in the form of a Mass of special remembrance very common among the Irish.

I first heard the term used by my mother when her mother died, and not long afterward in what I remember as the Summer of Funerals, 1960, when my mother buried four or five uncles and cousins and such. We (she insisted upon taking me and my sister along) had to go “up home” not only for the funerals, but for the Month’s Minds as well. In July of 1985 she called me from her home in Florida where she sat slowly and sadly packing things up. “It’s your father’s Month’s Mind. Maybe I can start getting past this now.” She really didn’t, not then, and not later.

I’ve had O’Faolain’s book since it was published in 1996. I bought a lot of books that sabbatical year, usually on my way home from my fiction writing class at nearby Dickinson College. For the first time I was working in a deliberate way to put into stories my efforts to figure out how lives get lived and how love is found. Like many of the books I bought then, and since, its subject matter excited me at the time, but the book got put in a pile for later, and then more books made more piles and the later got later still.

I have been admitted to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference for 2008, a fact I’ve neglected to disclose to my readers since wringing my hands over my prospects more than two weeks ago. Evidently a lot of people were beside themselves with anxiety and suspense as the published notification date extended well into the next week with no news. The piece got dozens of hits, and I followed one search string to a discussion board operated by Poets & Writers magazine.

I was amazed to read that some list members have been rejected four or five times, that admission to Bread Loaf has become the Holy Grail of writing workshops for them. I joined the discussion, mostly to give answers I had, because of my experience there, to some very specific questions some people were asking. I angered one perennial applicant by confessing that not only had I been admitted five times, I never send my materials until the last minute. She labeled me a troll and suggested that I was making everything up, that I probably had never been to Bread Loaf at all.

The people I’ve encountered on this message board are articulate and thoughtful, clearly serious about their writing. I am more excited than ever to be going to Bread Loaf, more inspired than ever by that august company’s faith in my abilities.

Nine weeks from today I’ll be on the mountain, settling in to the little house I inhabit for the duration of the conference. I’ve been working on revisions to the manuscript I sent. It was, I feared, the weakest piece I had ever submitted. I have until June 27 to send revisions, or even a completely new piece. This gives me time to correct at least one howling error in a math problem I invented for my young protagonist to be working on, to introduce some interaction between that character and another (something my writing group colleagues suggested would be a good thing), and to tame the explosion that ends the story into a simple fire that accomplishes the same goals with less melodrama (another observation by my astute reader friends Mitch and Floyd).

The day I got my acceptance letter I pulled a stack of books I wanted to read before I go. In some way they all promote readiness for my sojourn in Vermont. There’s poetry by Maxine Kumin, fiction by Antonya Nelson (my first choice for workshop leader) and a just-published novel by a woman who was in my Bread Loaf workshop in 2003 and began the book from an exercise she did there, expository nonfiction about the history of the Nancy Drew books, and, suddenly this morning, Nuala O’Faolain’s memoir of her childhood in Dublin and her development as a writer.

In many ways, the manuscript I am working on takes me to those areas of my own life. It begins with an incident that happened when I was seven but that I have reworked to give it to a somewhat older girl, one who bears a great deal of resemblance to the youngster I was at fourteen. Like O’Faolin, my character gets lost in fiction and struggles with the passions and emotions that adolescence brings. I’ve been walking a lot in the old neighborhood, trying to hear her voice again.

Between the time she was diagnosed and her death, Nuala O’Faolain, who chose not to try to extend her life through aggressive therapies, gave a few interviews that she said were an attempt to explain herself to herself as well as to the faithful readers she had collected over the years.

What more can we ask of both the reading life and the writing life?

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