April 24, 2013
The Ithaca College New Voices Literary Festival, now in its second year, is “a collaborative effort of the Writing and English Departments of Ithaca College with invaluable support from the schools of Humanities and Sciences, Theater, and the Park School of Communications.”
— from the brochure of the Ithaca College New Voices Literary Festival
Nina McConigley was the draw. I met her at Bread Loaf in 2005 or maybe 2006. She has spoken fondly of my dead cat story, the one I took to workshop there in 2007, so perhaps we were in the same group, or she heard me read from it in the Blue Parlor. She was a work-study participant from 2005 until 2009. She was also at Sewanee in 2010, my first year there, and back at Bread Loaf in 2011. She’s wise, funny, generous. During the Great Bread Loaf Admissions Crises of 2009 and 2012, she wrote to me with words of solace and encouragement. She posts “Rabbit, rabbit” to Facebook on the first of each month, except when the first of March or April falls during Lent, when she withdraws from social media entirely until Easter Sunday morning.
Eleanor Henderson, another Bread Loaf acquaintance, helps organize and run this festival, now only in its second year. I met her in 2005. Charged with introducing her in the workshop because her story followed mine in the presentation schedule, I said, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” so powerful had her story been. Her novel Ten Thousand Saints (“soon to be a major motion picture!” as they say) was the best book I read in 2011. When she announced the lineup, and I saw that the dates coordinated with other opportunities I could avail myself of in Vermont and Massachusetts, I determined to make this the first Gallivant of 2014.
I arrived in Ithaca in time to attend the kickoff event, a series of “micro readings” at a downtown Ithaca bookstore. Brendan Jay Sullivan read from his nonfiction work about his friendship with Lady Gaga and his time as her DJ in the years she worked hard to hit it big. Nina read a brief passage from one of the stories in her collection, Cowboys and East Indians, Valzhyna Mort offered some poems, and Teddy Wayne, another Bread Loaf connection, read from his novel. Of course I bought Nina’s book, but I also made an unplanned purchase.
Gina Welch, who bills herself as a “writer, teacher, [and] cultivator of a good attitude,” read from the diary she kept when she lived for a time in a tent in an off-grid polyamorous eco-village in some cold climate that she left when tent life became too arduous. She also read an essay she wrote “just for myself” in order to clarify her thinking about a subject she wanted to study in earnest. It wasn’t about her book, a chronicle of her time as an undercover member of Jerry Falwell’s congregation. But I bought In The Land of Believers, because it seemed the very thing for someone who writes fiction about doubt, faith, and the varieties of religious experience that were unknown to me through an upbringing in the One True Faith whose smells and bells and murmured Latin cadences still call to me.
Late this morning I attended a panel discussion by Nina, Brendan Sullivan, and Valshyna Mort about their paths to their first publication. Nina was reluctant to submit. Brendan knew he was on to something when his high school newspaper adviser told him to stop looking into a particular local circumstance that had snagged his attention.
This evening I heard, once again, Nina and Brendan Sullivan in longer readings. Callie Wright, who had been unable to arrive yesterday, read from her novel Love All. It’s a generational saga about love, fidelity, and baseball, set in Cooperstown, and the opening so moved me (to tears, really) that I had to have it.
Lady Gaga once wrote on the cover of Brendan Sullivan’s notebook, “Struggle with something.” I continue to struggle with invention and revision, with doubt and faith, with acceptance and rejection. I will leave Ithaca tomorrow, bound for a week of cabin-in-the-woods writing time, with a new goal. I want to be invited to participate in the Ithaca Festival as a new voice in 2017, when I will be seventy.