Stayin’ Alive

August 17, 2012

How will it be without work?
— Alice Munro, b. 1931
Canadian fiction writer, at age 63
as quoted by Lynn Freed in a lecture at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, August 17, 2012

The mornings at Bread Loaf follow a pattern. Breakfast starts at 7:30, about a half hour after I have concluded my hour of C&C (Coffee and Contemplation). I come down the hill mostly to sign up for the craft classes (sign-ups begin at 8:00 two days before the class), to have some scrambled eggs and decaf and to see my closest friends here (some fellow perennial attendees). At 9:00 there is a lecture, and then from 10 to 12 there is workshop or (on alternate days) unstructured time that I usually devote to preparing for the next day’s workshop.

This morning I attended the lecture presented by South African fiction writer Lynn Freed. She was my workshop leader in 2003, and if you’ve been reading me for a long time, you might be surprised that I would be drawn to attending this event. (If you don’t know what I am referring to, and you want to know, I am sure you are clever enough to find the details in the archives of Markings,)

I think I was drawn by the announced title: “When Enough is Enough: Age and the Creative Impulse.” I come to the writing life late. I will be past 65, maybe past 70, when my first novel is published. (That when is written in optimism. I don’t have an agent, a contract, nor even a well-edited manuscript to offer anyone, yet.)

Lynn Freed is two years older than I am. She has had a more traditional path as a fiction writer. She published her first novel in 1982, when she was 37. Five more have followed, as well as a collection of short stories and a collection of essays. In 2011, when she was 66, she was awarded a PEN/O.Henry award for a short story. I wondered if her lecture was going to include an announcement of her retirement from actively writing. Though I neither like nor read Lynn Freed’s work, I thought that would be a pity. Alice Munro, the writer Freed quoted, is 81 now and still producing. (That Alice Munro has more talent and more to say than any of the rest of us combined is beside the point.)

Freed included a lot of quotations in her lecture, and though I tried to scribble them down, I missed a lot of the words and some of the attributions. She included a thought from Somerset Maugham that I have rendered as “. . . not a story one is reading, but a life one is living.” I completely missed the source of “When something is called experimental fiction, it usually means the experiment failed,” although that is something that got a laugh from the audience and a nod of agreement from me.

A thought from Freed herself is the line that will stay with me. “Writers who continue to write into old age,” she said, “have found a way to stay alive in the writing.”

The task before me, if I would not perish, is to find that way.

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