by  Nuala O'Faolain (1942-May 9, 2008)

  Another page on the same author in this site, here           


May 13, 2008


Nuala O’Faolain


Nuala O’Faolain was fearless, even when she insisted she wasn’t. The former Irish Times columnist and author, who died last week at age 68, was so honest that it was hard to imagine her flinching from anything. Her relentless and very public examination of her life — she was bisexual, unmarried with few regrets and unapologetically childless — was particularly courageous in a country where such open discussion was rare if not taboo. All women, not just those in Ireland, could identify with her statement, “You don’t get to be an Irish woman of my age and say ‘I, I, I’ with any confidence, because ‘I’ has been frightened out of you.”

Ms. O’Faolain’s humanity softened her observations. Her humor rarely failed her. She embraced entering her 50s, saying, “I went into the phone booth and came out Lois Lane.”

She ascribed her affinity for New York to her experience growing up one of nine children: “When you live in the middle of mayhem for so long, you grow to need mayhem to construct peace within it.” Reading her books, I could hear the voices of my Irish cousins, however dissimilar their experiences.

There was little comfort, though, when she revealed her terminal cancer in an interview last month on RTE radio in Ireland. She confessed that she felt shattered by the pointlessness of it all. “It amazed me how quickly life turned black,” she said. Beauty, she said, meant nothing; she didn’t believe in the afterlife. “I can’t be consoled by the mention of God,” she said. She wished everyone who believes “every comfort,” but, she said, “to me, it’s meaningless.”

Typically, in discussing her impending death, Ms. O’Faolain didn’t cover her experience with the veneer of denial, or even the faintest glimmering of hope. She was heartbroken to leave her apartment in New York, with its yellow curtains and books. “I know loads and loads of songs, and what’s the point of it all?” she said. “So much has happened, and it seems such a waste of creation, that with each death all that knowledge dies.”

Although her mortal life has ended, her words, her sympathy and insights, are here. Even if, at the end, she could find little to believe in, her writing helped her legions of readers believe in her and in the validity of their own experiences. MAURA J. CASEY



March 15, 1998, Sunday


No Incest, and Only a Little Drink

By Zoe Heller

ARE YOU SOMEBODY : The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman.
By Nuala O'Faolain.
215 pp. New York:
Henry Holt & Company. $21.

Literary historians of the future will no doubt look back on the 1990's as the decade of the memoir -- a period that saw a prodigious flowering of somber narratives about grim pasts. Perhaps they will draw some link between this boom in troubled reminiscence and millennial anxieties. Perhaps they will interpret it as literary fallout from the damaging excesses of the 1960's. As for the gentle readers of the present, they may be forgiven for feeling a little memoired-out -- for suspecting that if they consume one more lyrical, ever-so-writerly account of a lousy childhood involving incest, physical abuse, alcoholism, poverty, anorexia, bulimia, drug addiction, sexual perversity, they might just pop. If there is a book capable of conquering this feeling of satiation, however, Nuala O'Faolain's ''Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman'' is surely it.


O'Faolain, a columnist for The Irish Times, has, by the vertiginous standards of modern exhibitionism, nothing very shocking or salacious to impart. She grew up in County Dublin, one of nine children. Her father was a well-known Irish journalist, her mother a beaten-down housewife whom she describes as living ''like a shy animal on the outskirts of the human settlement.'' Her family was poor, but not, she scrupulously points out, really poor. (They slept under overcoats and often went without socks, but there was always enough to eat.) She attended a bleak convent boarding school and University College, Dublin. She earned a Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Hull and went on to become a university lecturer before pursuing a successful career in television, radio and print journalism.

She has, it's true, some very good anecdotes about the various writers and artists she has met professionally and socially over the years -- Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, John Huston, Mary McCarthy and John Berger, among others. She even has some dysfunctions to confess -- a brief addiction to barbiturates in her 20's, a family history of alcoholism. But her rigorous honesty -- her utter immunity to sentimentality -- refuses to accord any of these matters more significance or romance than they merit. Of her affair in the 1970's with the art critic and cultural historian Clement Greenberg she briskly concludes: ''We did not really mean anything to each other. . . . How much of an acquaintanceship would there have been if I hadn't slept with him?'' The pain underlying her own brush with alcoholism in her 40's, or her one miscarried pregnancy, at the age of 39, is acknowledged but not dwelt on.

O'Faolain was reared in a hard school of stoicism. When, as a student at Hull, she wrote to her mother complaining of loneliness, the terse reply came: ''I'm fat, tired, ugly and old, and I have spent all my money and I'm not able to look after my home and my family. Contrast these truths with your easily remedied ills and brighten up.'' This is harsh stuff. Contemporary American mores have taught us to regard O'Faolain's dignified brevity with suspicion -- as a symptom of ''denial'' or, worse still, ''low self-esteem.'' In fact, what O'Faolain exemplifies is that rare and much underrated quality -- a sense of proportion.

As a result, while her story incorporates many of the familiar features of the 20th-century Irish narrative -- booze, religious repression, sexual guilt -- it avoids the affectations and subverts the sentimentalities that often afflict a certain sort of self-consciously ''Oirish'' literature. Whether writing about the 1950's Ireland of her childhood, where sex outside marriage was a passport to hell and the illegitimate child of the O'Faolains' maid, ''who was never paid,'' was palmed off on the maid's mother to die slowly of neglect (''Sure, who wants it?'' the child's grandmother said), or the drink-sodden literary Dublin of the 1960's or the modern European democracy of Ireland in the 80's, O'Faolain brings a spiky, independent intelligence that vanquishes cliche.

A good example is the manner in which she addresses her own single, childless status. The patriarchal Ireland in which she grew up rendered marriage and maternity a sort of slavery. Having children, she understood, was inconsistent with the pursuit of any sort of interesting or independent life. Even now, she is glad not to have ended up a slothful, resentful house slave like the women she often encounters in Irish B & B's. ''They throw sugar on the fire, to get it to light, and wipe surfaces with an old rag that smells, and they are forever sending children to the shops. They question me, half censorious, half wistful: 'And did you never want to get married yourself?' '' Yet with all that comes a recognition of some crucial failure of generosity in herself that is partly responsible for her never having formed a lasting romantic partnership. She mourns the children she never had and yearns -- too late now, she fears -- for a companion. She didn't want to become her mother, but she didn't want to end up like this, either. ''What happened to me?'' she wonders.

Toward the end of the book, she gives an account of a Christmas that she recently spent on her own. Her description of the day, spent walking in Ballyvaughan with her dog, being bravely ''sensible'' about her situation and at the same time abjectly fearful of the solitary future stretching out before her, is one of the most perfectly observed portraits of female loneliness I've ever come across -- with more genuine, painful candor in it than all the modish, scandalous confessions of recent years put together. Before the stampede away from the autobiography section in the bookstore begins, this book has to be read.

Zoe Heller writes for The Sunday Times of London.



By Nuala O'Faolain
215 pages
New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996.
ISBN # 0-8050-5663-7

Comments of Bob Corbett
August 2002

Nuala O’Faolain tells a hard story of growing up in Ireland of the 1950s and struggling for meaning and love in her life. Her tale is told intelligently with sensitivity and introspection and while at times I found it rather self-indulgent, I was gripped enough to keep on reading nearly straight through.

While her family was poor, she does not bill herself as one out of the underclass as Frank McCourt does a bit later in his Angela’s Ashes. Rather she describes her family a bohemian and without much money. Otherwise her family story is rather typical of what one hears from Ireland of the early and mid-twentieth century – violent and plagued with drinking and material lacks. O’Faolain has to tolerate a father who could be very winning, but who also beat their mother and paid relatively little attention to the many children. Her mother, a learned woman who wrote book reviews as a mainly private hobby (I understand that activity quite well!) ended up a drunk and died of her alcoholism.

O’Faolain (angelsized and pronounced as Phelan) works her way through the world of TV and radio production, writing scripts and then into journalism where she eventually gets her own opinion column for The Irish Times. It was material for some of those columns, plus her reflections on her own coming to meaning that led her to write this work.

While the Irish Family, represented by her own family is a major theme of this work the central theme is Nuala O’Faolain’s own search for the love of some special other and the escape from loneliness. She also dwells and the pain and sadness this constant search caused her. She knows she does not want love in the traditional Irish sense of married with children, caring for her man. But she’s not sure that there really is an alternative or what that might be. She experiments with male and female lovers in non-married situations free of children, but doesn’t find that perfect partner she dreams of. By late middle age, when she writes this book she has virtually despaired of finding this ideal mate and feels in great measure that it means she has failed as a person.

There are great conflicts within her. She is a self-declared (but not much evidenced) feminist and stern critic of the stereotype of the Irish family, yet it seems it is nearly that very model which it would take to provide her with what she thinks she is looking for.

There were some great moments along the way. Having raised seven children myself, I was both amused and in agreement when she talked about her parents responding to some minor infraction of the rules of the good child by trying to discipline one of her siblings. She says this was early on when her parents still had energy to do something about it. I could relate to the implied inconsistency, even entropic loss of parenting energy as the years go on. My older sons only half joking complain at family gatherings that their younger siblings had it better since my wife and I just wore out as disciplinarians.

When she begins to travel the world and encounters other religious faiths and ways to be in the world I was amused by her description that this was all eye opening since she had just assumed the world was simply divided into “good Catholics and bad Catholics.”

This book had enormous appeal when it appeared and in a humble moment she allows that part of the popularity of the book and part of her realization was that “… my problems are banal only because so many people share them.” It is certainly true that she tends to focus on the universal problems of love, separation, loneliness, disappointment in loved ones and the pain of suffering from lovers’ cruelty, thoughtlessness and rejection. There is, I think a different separation between the banal and not banal than merely the fact that these particular themes are universal. What seems to me to create a hierarchy of “problems” are when the problems impact larger and larger numbers of people. There is something common and banal in the pain of the lost lover which so many people suffer. But there is a higher order of problem when the pain caused by some other effects the lives of hundreds or thousands of people rather than just a very few. Her obsession with her own failure to find a faithful lover, male or female, seems to cause her to focus quite narrowly on only one to one relationships and their pain, or family relationships and their pains, and not to give much place to larger areas of suffering and evil in the world. One might well counter that this isn’t so since she is so deeply committed to feminism as an issue. But, again, in this book while she talks a feminist agenda, what we mainly hear is her unity with and feeling for other Irish women who suffer in family and by not having this utopian lover in their lives. While I found the book itself rewarding and challenging, I was a great deal disappointed with the “Afterwords” the last 26 pages of the volume I have which must be a later edition. In this section she shares lots of letters and other comments from readers who were deeply touched by her book. There was interesting material here, but it got very long and self-serving after a while, sort of a way of assuring us that now, finally, she can answer the title affirmatively: Are You Somebody? Ah, yes, I’ve written this book and here are the testimonies of many that, indeed, I, Nuala O’Faolain, am somebody.

Despite this concern with the Afterwords, this is a book I recommend to anyone. There is keen insight into the Irish family and the universal (in both time and space) problems that women have suffered in the family within patriarchal society. She addresses problems of sex, love, loneliness and the desire to couple with candor and intelligence. The book would make a wonderful read for a group then wishing to discuss the book.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


Are You Somebody?:
The Accidental Memoir
of a Dublin Woman

Nuala O’Faolain
Henry Holt and Company, 1998 215 pp.
ISBN: 0-8050-56641-5

Review by G. K. Nelson 

There are rare instances when a writer’s personal memoir so reflects her environment’s history and culture that the experience becomes a mirror of her time and is considered indispensable to the understanding of her era. When the document is particularly well written, we consider it an appendage in the body of literature.

My first exposure to such a volume occurred when I read Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa; hers was not only the story of a woman struggling — and failing — to maintain a coffee plantation in Kenya, but also a parable of European colonialism’s decline in Africa. Brilliantly crafted, it quickly ranked among my favorite books, one I read again and again.

To say that Nuala O’Faolain inherited Isak Dinesen’s literary birthright would be a gross understatement. O’Faolain writes like a skilled surgeon, cutting assuredly into the meat of her life with no fear that the blood she spills might not be contained. She knows exactly how far to take the scalpel, which nerves should and should not be exposed, which organs should be excised and which should be left intact. Her bedside manner, if occasionally brusque, is utterly honest. She stands among the most transparent writers of her century.

But if she is an heir of Isak Dinesen, she is also indebted to James Joyce and William Butler Yeats. Her voice is a resonant Irish brogue, steeped in the literary tradition of Dublin. It is uniquely feminine. Her narrative begins with a confession: at a low point in her thirties, O’Faolain was imitating her mother’s eremitic existence. Outwardly, she was the antithesis of her mother. She was independent, employed, attractive and free; her mother had been tied, first by the convention of marriage and then by the responsibility of raising nine children. “Yet I was loyally re-creating her wasteland around myself,” O’Faolain writes.

What follows is the history leading to that point: “One of the stories of my life has been the working out in it of her powerful and damaging example — in everything.” It begins with Catholic primary schools and the habit of reading and her great love of letters, continues through boarding school, where she was denied novels, to her intellectual awakenings at University College Dublin. It is sometimes poignant, sometimes shocking, never dull. Her life reads like the novels she thirsted after as a girl and is as lyrical as the poetry she most admires.

There is much more: postgraduate work at Hull, a stint as a maid, a waitress, a teacher, a television producer and, finally, a position as columnist for a prestigious newspaper — The Irish Times; there are instances of falling in and out of love, moments of great passion and vast loneliness; there are caricatures of literary and political figures. She writes, for example, of poet Patrick Kavanagh, “He was a terrible flatmate. He coughed and hawked and tramped, muttering, out into the area under the steps and pissed copiously and often, groaning and talking to himself while he did.” O’Faolain is not simply an accomplished technician; she is also a canny, insightful, intuitive storyteller.

In working through the course of her life, arriving at the mirror of her mother’s cloistered existence and pushing past it to establish her own identity, Nuala O’Faolain recounts the history of an evolving Dublin and an Ireland struggling to become itself. And this is where her narrative thread travels beyond the spool of simple (if elegant) literature into the rich fabric of history. Are You Somebody? is not just a good book, it may well be an important one.

In the introduction of her memoir, O’Faolain — well known in Ireland — tells of being approached by people who recognize her and who ask, “Are you somebody?”

Her memoir is a resounding answer, both for herself and for Dublin: “Yes, I am.”




LE MONDE DES LIVRES | 16.01.03 | 16h18

MIS A JOUR LE 16.01.03 | 18h05

Nuala O'Faolain, les mots de la rédemption
C'est le Dublin de la misère, de l'alcool, des familles nombreuses, celui des années 1950 et de son enfance qu'évoque cette Irlandaise, en retraçant son itinéraire, semé d'embûches et de mélancolie.

ON S'EST DÉJA VU QUELQUE PART ? Les Mémoires accidentels d'une femme de Dublin (Are You Somebody?) de Nuala O'Faolain. Traduit de l'anglais (Irlande) par Julia Schmidt et Valérie Lermite, éd. Sabine Wespieser, 388 p., 23 €.

C'est un monde de chagrin et de beuveries, de solitude et de désespérance. Un monde où les hommes mentent et se mentent, où les femmes filent de mauvais cotons avec des inconnus croisés au pub, où les familles, forcément nombreuses et sans le sou, redoutent l'huissier qui attend, appuyé à l'arrêt de bus, de l'autre côté de la rue. C'est le Dublin des années 1950, autant dire un Dublin d'un autre siècle, avec des grappes de gosses livrés à eux-mêmes entre une ligne de chemin de fer et un champ de navets. Bref, c'est une "Irlande type" décrite par "une Irlandaise type, une pas-grand-chose, issue d'une longue lignée de pas-grand-chose, de ceux qui ne laissent pas de trace".

Lorsque Nuala O'Faolain évoque ce pays où elle a grandi, elle baisse les yeux, de grands yeux bleu délavé, comme pour confier son désarroi : "C'est effarant de voir à quel point tous les clichés sur l'Irlande sont vrais. L'alcool dès 16 ans, la misogynie, le conservatisme religieux, la peur de la sexualité, la dépression... Ma mère était une Madame Bovary prise au piège de tout ça. Mon frère est en train de mourir d'un cancer du foie. Et combien de types dans la famille ont succombé à leur ivrognerie !", lâche-t-elle en secouant la tête. Sa conclusion est la même que celle de David Lynch, sur l'Ecosse, dans Sweet Sixteen : "Un gâchis." Mais un gâchis qui vous "attire", vous "aspire désespérément".


Comment parvient-on, quand on cumule ces handicaps, qu'on vient d'une famille de neuf enfants et qu'on a le malheur d'être une fille, à fissurer peu à peu ces carcans ? A montrer que la vie est toujours moins prévisible qu'elle en a l'air, que l'individu n'est pas simplement issu d'un "moule dans lequel on aurait versé le contenu de deux cruches appelées Hérédité et Milieu". C'est justement ce que raconte Nuala O'Faolain : comment, par un improbable coup de chance, elle a réussi à être envoyée à l'école, puis, de petits boulots en combines, à l'université d'Oxford ; comment elle a fini par s'affranchir de l'exemple "puissant et nuisible" de sa mère, une femme qui avait été enceinte treize fois et qui lisait tout le temps, "non pour nourrir sa réflexion, mais dans le but délibéré d'échapper à toute réflexion" ; comment enfin, un Ph. D. de littérature médiévale en poche, elle a décroché un poste de journaliste, est devenue chroniqueuse à l'Irish Times et, dit-elle, "sans doute parce que je faisais un métier d'homme", s'est mise à "compter pour quelque chose en Irlande".

Compter pour quelque chose, être quelqu'un : c'est autour de cette épineuse question de l'estime de soi que s'articule tout le livre. Dommage que le double sens du titre anglais, Are You Somebody? - qui signifie à la fois Etes-vous quelqu'un ? (le contraire d'une "pas-grand-chose") et Etes-vous quelqu'un de connu ? - n'ait pas vraiment d'équivalent en français. Il dit les doutes et les combats d'une femme qui s'est "sauvée grâce aux mots", en racontant sans fard ni pathos, à 55 ans, son itinéraire semé d'embûches et de mélancolie.


C'est pourtant par hasard que tout ça a commencé. Un éditeur, un jour, est venu la trouver pour lui demander s'il pouvait rassembler en recueil ses chroniques de l'Irish Times. Nuala O'Faolain était d'accord, mais il fallait une présentation. Une présentation d'elle-même qu'elle s'est mise à écrire et qui a tellement enflé qu'elle est devenue un livre - d'où cette appellation de "mémoires accidentels". Bien entendu, en se racontant elle-même, Nuala O'Faolain en dit beaucoup sur l'Irlande. Et aussi sur ses écrivains, en particulier sur John McGahern qu'elle a fréquenté pendant plusieurs années. C'est sûrement pour cela que ce premier livre a déjà touché tant de lecteurs à travers le monde. Alors qu'elle croyait ne raconter qu'une histoire individuelle, et redoutait le jugement du microcosme dublinois -"Pour qui se prend-elle ? Is she somebody ?" -, cette inconnue a eu la surprise de recevoir plus de 5 000 lettres d'un peu partout, et notamment des Etats-Unis où elle s'était installée pour écrire."Ce qui parle aux lecteurs, c'est moins les faits que la petite musique du livre, le rythme du "regret et de la perte", dit-elle. C'est une mélodie sur laquelle ils mettent leurs propres mots. Dans leurs lettres, les lecteurs ne demandent pas qu'on les aide. Ils veulent seulement qu'on les écoute. Sans le savoir, c'est ce que je cherchais. Ce livre est une récompense."

Avec ses quatre Prix Nobel (Yeats, Shaw, Beckett et Heaney), sans parler de Joyce bien sûr, on savait depuis longtemps que la littérature irlandaise est l'une des plus importantes du XXe siècle. On connaissait aussi sa diversité, de Flann O'Brien à Elizabeth Bowen, de William Trevor à John Banville ou à Brian Moore. Mais, depuis quelques années, voici qu'une autre veine prend décidément son essor, celle des Mémoires, dans le sillage de Roddy Doyle ou de Frank McCourt - l'auteur desCendres d'Angela, avec lequel Nuala O'Faolain a d'ailleurs fait des lectures à New York. Elle semble répondre à un besoin assez anglo-saxon, et qui dépasse la diaspora irlandaise. Un appétit, non de fiction ou de littérature au sens propre, mais de récits vrais, de témoignages qui ne "mentent" pas." Une vie sans les bobards" titrait éloquemment le Boston Globe ! Une vie dont le point de départ et les chausse-trapes sont ceux de tous mais dont le point d'arrivée, lui, assure la rédemption. Comme si la confession, l'autobiographie, les souvenirs - tout ce que l'on regroupe sous le genre "memoirs" qui fleurit outre-Manche - finissaient par faire plus rêver que les histoires elles-mêmes.

Florence Noiville









Le livre de la semaine
Nuala O’Faolain: "On s’est déjà vu quelque part?"


Si vous avez aimé Les Cendres d’Angela, alors vous adorerez le récit de Nuala O’Faolain. Et si vous ne connaissez pas le roman de Frank McCourt, eh bien il est temps de découvrir cette Irlande bien loin de l’image idyllique des brochures touristiques. L’Irlande souffre de deux maux qui la gangrènent: la pauvreté et l’alcoolisme. Ajoutez à cela un catholicisme intransigeant et vous aurez des milliers de vies brisées. Nuala O’Faolain est une femme d’une soixantaine d’années. Ses chroniques qui paraissent dans l’Irish Times lui ont apporté une petite notoriété, au point qu’un éditeur a voulu les réunir pour les publier. Très bien, a-t-elle répondu,


"J'ai passé la moitié de ma vie à trop boire"

mais je vais écrire une préface. Cette préface est devenue une autobiographie de près de quatre cents pages, On s’est déjà vu quelque part?, un livre bouleversant et dont aucun lecteur ne sort indemne. Le père de Nuala était un journaliste assez réputé, mais il gagnait très mal sa vie. Sa mère avait dû renoncer à toute ambition pour élever sa ribambelle d’enfants et noyait son désespoir dans l’alcool. Parmi ces neuf enfants, certains s’en sont sortis. D’autres ont complètement sombré. D’autres enfin, comme Nuala, mènent une existence boiteuse. Avec une certaine réussite professionnelle d’un côté et une vie privée désastreuse de l’autre. Depuis qu’elle a terminé ce livre, la vie de Nuala O’Faolain a profondément changé. L’histoire, vraie, qu’elle raconte, sa sincérité ont bouleversé des milliers de lecteurs. Elle a arrêté de boire, est tombée amoureuse d’un homme qui l’aime. “Mais si seulement tout cela m’était arrivé trente ans plus tôt, se désole-t-elle aujourd’hui. Je vais essayer d’être heureuse, mais j’ai peur d’en être incapable.”

Pascale Frey

Référence: Trad. de l’anglais, Ed.
Sabine Wespieser, 384 p.



Unintentional memoirs

Nuala O'Faolain finds herself in Are You Somebody.

By Colleen Dougher-Telcik

About a month ago, a co-worker was telling me about a friend of hers who makes big bucks writing advertising slogans. The thought of coming up with five to 10 words a month and making enough money to live on, sounded pretty appealing.

But unless there's actually a market for 900-word slogans, it's not for me. Writing short has never been one of my strong points and the computerized word count feature is not exactly my friend.

Nuala O'Faolain, apparently, has the same problem. So, when I read the story behind her book, Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman (Henry Holt and Co., $21), I couldn't help but like her.

Here's the story: A publisher approached O'Faolain, a columnist for The Irish Times, about publishing some of her columns on politics, social questions or moments in popular culture in a book format.

O'Faolain was receptive to the idea and started planning her short personal introduction to the book. Once she sat down to start writing it, however, she got a little carried away.

The result? A 215-page accidental memoir with cover blurbs that impressed the heck out of me.

Endorsements came from Frank McCourt (whose book Angela's Ashes lives on the bestseller list), Edna O'Brien (I just loved Down by the River) and Roddy Doyle (what writer wouldn't give their right arm and their computer keyboard to write books like Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha and The Woman Who Walked Into Doors?).

If those guys liked it, I figured, it's got to be good.

O'Faolain's memoir, a midlife exploration of memories, pain, love, loneliness and self-discovery, captured my attention with its simple approach: "I was one of nine children, when nine was not even thought of as a big family, among the teeming, penniless, anonymous Irish of the day. I was typical: a nobody who came from an unrecorded line of nobodies. In a conservative Catholic country, which feared sexuality and forbade me even information about my body, I could expect difficulty in getting through my life as a girl and a woman. But at least - it would have been assumed - I wouldn't have the burden of having to earn a good wage. Eventually some man would marry me and keep me."

But no one's typical, she points out, and places don't stay the same. And no one would likely consider O'Faolain a nobody, either. She's fairly well-known in Ireland, her face having been on TV and atop her columns in The Irish Times.

"But I'm no star," she says. "People have to look at me twice or three times to put a name on me."

Sometimes, she says, when she's drinking in a bar, a group of ladies will look at her, then one will come over to find out who she is. Or a shopper will pass by her in a grocery store, then turn back, walk up to her, scrutinize her face and ask, "Are you somebody?"

"I've never done anything remarkable," O'Faolain says. "Neither have most people. Yet most people, like me, feel remarkable."

As the book opens, O'Faolain's in her early 30s and the man who'd absorbed her life for 10 years has just left a note saying he'd be back on Tuesday. She knew, however, that he would not. Nor did she really want him to.

Yet, suddenly she found herself saying hello to the fridge when she came home at night and spending her evenings sitting in a chair reading, and drinking cheap white wine. After a trip to the psychiatrist, it became increasingly obvious that she'd been re-creating the life of her alcoholic mother.

The first portion of this book continues along in the same overturning of raw emotion and self-discovery, details about her grandparents, her mother, "the most motherless of women, herself" and a woman who "out in the little flat, made her way through days of shakiness and gagged-on gin" and a charming but cheating and usually absent father.

When O'Faolain dredges up these memories of family, her friends, the men she's loved, or thought she loved, she does it with such clarity, revealing the sort of small yet significant details that tell a story.

Despite compelling writing in the beginning of the book, somewhere midway through O'Faolain's memoir, my mind began to wander off the pages. Because I was less interested in her career in journalism, radio, then TV and print than I was in this guarded feeling that lives inside O'Faolain, I got slightly bored reading about the places she'd been and the people she'd met, accounts that seemed less inspired than those on her earlier pages.

I stuck with it, however, and was rewarded for doing so. Later in the book, O'Faolain seems to have slipped back into that part of herself from which she sees things so clearly. Through the course of this memoir, she seems to have found confidence in the voice that matters most here.

I bet there's more where that came from and that her next book will be even more compelling.

Some readers' letters reprinted in the Afterwords, the section added before the book was published in America, clearly show how her book touched something inside many of the people who are in the process of exploring their own identities and life experiences.

Among her admirers: Frank McCourt. "From her column in The Irish Times," he says, "we know Ms. O'Faolain as warm, eloquent, loving and never neutral. In her book, we know her as someone who took chances with men, with causes, with herself and, if she suffered, blamed no one. You don't want the book to end: It glows with compassion and you want more, more because you know this is a fine wine of life, richer as it goes."

O'Faolain, who lives in Dublin and Belfast, has been a waitress, sales clerk, maid, university lecturer, TV producer and, most recently, a columnist with The Irish Times. For 20 weeks, her book was a bestseller in Ireland. Here in America, it recently ranked 19 in hardcover fiction.

If you want to read Are You Somebody, be the first to call.








Self-preservation did not come instinctually to Irish journalist Nuala O'Faolain. One of nine children -- her mother had 13 pregnancies in all -- she grew up in the 1940s and '50s in a defeated Dublin household. Are You Somebody is her moving and fascinating memoir, a portrait of both Ireland and one of its most popular and respected commentators.

I was typical
I was born in a Dublin that was much more like something from an earlier century than like the present day. I was one of nine children, when nine was not even thought of as a big family, among the teeming, penniless, anonymous Irish of the day. I was typical: a nobody, who came of an unrecorded line of nobodies. In a conservative Catholic country, which feared sexuality and forbade me even information about my body, I could expect difficulty in getting through my life as a girl and a woman. But at least -- it would have been assumed -- I wouldn't have the burden of having to earn a good wage. Eventually some man would marry me and keep me.

But there are no typical people. And places don't stay the same. The world changed around Ireland, and even Ireland changed, and I was to be both an agent of change and a beneficiary of it. I didn't see that, until I wrote out my story. I was immured in the experience of my own life. Most of the time I just went blindly from day to day, and though what I was doing must have looked ordinary enough -- growing up in the countryside, getting through school, falling in love, discovering lust, learning, working, travelling, moving in and out of health and happiness -- to myself I was usually barely hanging on. I never stood back and looked at myself and what I was doing. I didn't value myself enough -- take myself seriously enough -- to reflect even privately on whether my existence had any pattern, any meaning. I took it for granted that like most of the billions of people who are born and die on this planet I was just an accident. There was no reason for me.

What have I to lose?

Yet my life burned inside me. Even such as it was, it was the only record of me, and it was my only creation, and something in me would not accept that it was insignificant. Something in me must have been waiting to stand up and demand to be counted. Because eventually, when I was presented with an opportunity to talk about myself, I grasped at it. I'm on my own anyway, I thought. What have I to lose? But I needed to speak, too. I needed to howl.

What happened was that in my forties, back in the Dublin of my birth, I began working for the most respected newspaper in the country -- The Irish Times -- as an opinion columnist. This was a wonderful job to have, and a quite unexpected one. The very idea of an Irishwoman opinion columnist would have been unthinkable for most of my life. The columns were usually about politics or social questions or moments in popular culture -- they weren't personal at all. They used a confident, public voice. My readers probably thought I was as confident as that all the time, but I knew the truth. My private life was solitary. My private voice was apologetic. In terms of national influence I mattered, in Ireland. But I possessed nothing of what has traditionally mattered to women and what had mattered to me during most of my life. I had no lover, no child. It seemed to me that I had nothing to look back on but failure.

The value of self-importance

But when I'd been writing my columns for ten years or so, a publisher came to me and asked whether he could put some of them together in book form. I said that was fine. No one would track my work through the back numbers of the newspaper, but a book gets around. It might be the only thing to read in a trekker's hut in Nepal. It would be catalogued in the National Library. It would be there for my grandniece, who is only a baby now. But I wasn't interested in the old columns. I was interested in what I would say in the personal introduction I'd promised to write. What would I say about myself, the person who wrote the columns? Now that I had the opportunity, how would I introduce myself?

I'm fairly well known in Ireland. I've been on television a lot, and there's a photo of me in the paper, at the top of my column. But I'm no star. People have to look at me twice or three times to put a name on me. Sometimes when I'm drinking in a lounge bar, a group of women, say, across the room, may look at me and send one of their number over to me, or when I'm in the grocery store someone who has just passed me by turns back and comes right up to me and scrutinizes my face. "Are you somebody?" they ask. Well -- am I somebody? I'm not anybody in terms of the world, but then, who decides what a somebody is? How is a somebody made? I've never done anything remarkable; neither have most people. Yet most people, like me, feel remarkable. That self-importance welled up inside me. I had the desire to give an account of my life. I was finished with furtiveness. I sat down to write the introduction, and I summoned my pride. I turned it into a memoir.

Out of the shadows
I imagined the hostile response I'd get in my little Irish world. "Who does she think she is?" I could hear the reviewers saying. But it turned out not to be like that at all. The world my story went out to turned out to be much, much bigger than I'd ever thought. And it turned out to be full of people who knew me, who were sisters and brothers although we had never met, who were there to welcome me coming out of the shadows, and who wanted to throw off the shadows that obscured their own lives, too. My small voice was answered by a rich chorus of voices: my voice, which had once been mute! Of all the places where my story might start, even, it started itself at a point in my life when I could not speak at all....



ARTICLES,  by Nuala O'Faolain



My Approach to Writing

I was always good at ‘essays’ in school, but I made nothing of that, because when I was a child I thought that writing essays was like more or less everything else we were taught – a completely useless skill, which would be utterly irrelevant to my future life.  Well, now.  Here I am.  Middle-aged.  And earning my living by writing an essay a week for The Irish Times.  It is true that they’re not about ‘The Best Day of My Holidays’ any more, or ‘The History of a Penny’.  But the same things the teachers of English wanted are what newspaper editors want of their columnists.  There is a certain fixed length which you are asked to fill with words so chosen that they make your subject clear, and at the same time attract the scanning eye of the reader, and persuade that reader to pause, and read.

Columns must be focused, not vague.  And language must be used attractively, not repellently.  But while those qualities (when I achieve them) might make people read my pieces, they wouldn’t make them agree with my arguments.  And I am argumentative.  I want to persuade people to my point of view, if I possibly can.  I have never analysed how this is done.  I just set off and use whatever rhetorical devices the momentum of my argument throws up.  They’re the usual ones – the same ones anyone would use in an argument around the family table, or in a pub conversation.  Mockery of the opposite point of view, exaggeration, pathos, and so on.  We all share certain conventions in the late-twentieth century English-speaking world, the conventions of persuasion amongst them.

It used to be thought that if you learnt certain tricks – certain ways of putting things – you could seduce almost anyone into agreeing with you.  But not in our day.  There are few things that mass audience is more alert to than insincerity.  And few things more admired than sincerity.  And I have been astonished to find that sincerity is indeed the secret of effective persuasion.  When I sit down to choose a topic to write on I try to quieten myself enough to ask myself, ‘What is it that’s REALLY on your mind at the moment?’  I might have been researching something quite different.  There might be some other story in the news that I know I’d be expected to comment on.  But if I can discover what I really want to say, my job is easy.  At least – the writing part of it is easy, because I’m not writing at all – I’m just calling up words to say something.

The genuineness of the concern will dictate not just the topic but the manner of the column.  For example, suppose someone wants to build a road through the old part of an Irish town I love, I’ll change mood throughout the column; from sniping at the Philistines who want to do this, to nostalgia for the untouched town, to a lyrical fantasy to what the town might could be like if the money for the road was spent, instead, on conservation and improvement. I don’t figure these moods out in advance. I listen to my own inner voice moving through them. Then I find words for them. The reader’s ear knows that I began at the level of feeling, not verbal manipulation.

The stuff we did in English class long ago stands by me. When I grope for words, they’re there, because a succession of teachers drowned me in them. Being too literate is good for you, because you can always pare expression away. But if you haven’t the words to express yourself at all, you’re stuck. The other girls used to give me a hard time. ‘Did you swallow the dictionary?’ they used to say. Well, I’m having the last laugh. I did swallow the dictionary, and its been eating and drinking to me since.

Woman for Cairo adds insult to inquiry

It’s like a Paddy joke.  Question: Whom did the Irish Government send to Cairo to a conference on reproduction with themes like ‘Gender Equality, Equity, and Empowerment of Women’?  Answer: a dozen men.  They couldn’t find a woman, not a single one, to empower.  Equality and equity were too much for them.  So they arranged an all-male delegation.  Last Friday, just as they were leaving, and after furious protests, they added one woman to the dozen or so men.  I don’t know whether this is more pathetic than insulting or the other way round.  All I know is, left to themselves, they saw nothing odd about sending only men.

If I were a Northern woman – or a Northern democrat of any gender or any persuasion – and I was at the Cairo conference, and I looked down at the Irish delegation in their suits – lining up with other all-male outfits like the mullahs and the Vatican priests – I would think twice before entrusting myself to an all-Ireland institution.  And this is not a question of yoking one thing – sending the boys to a conference on having babies – to another thing, the great change in the North.  They belong together.  The IRA ended a stalemate last week.  Now we move towards a future.  Well, what future?  In paragraph 6 of the Downing Street Declaration Albert Reynolds said that he would go out of his way to make the ‘Irish State’ acceptable to unionists.  Anything – it is specifically said – which ‘is not fully consistent with a modern democratic and pluralist society’ Mr. Reynolds undertook to remove.  Let me point out that blatant misogyny is inconsistent with a pluralist democracy.

The Cairo conference is about Population and Development, so it is, of course, a men-and-women’s – a human – affair.  At the centre of it there is reproduction (an activity in which women have all the experience there is, but let that pass).  Reproductive issues are being looked at in the broad context of ‘economic growth, sustainable development, and advances in the educational and economic status of women’.

The sheet weirdness of the Republic of Ireland in dispatching a group of men to discuss the status of women is one thing.  But when it comes to the formal endorsement of objectives, weirdness comes very close to hypocrisy.  The Irish delegation will be endorsing in Cairo the paragraph that enshrines the objective that ‘governments, international organisations and non-governmental organisations should ensure that their personal policies and practices comply with the principle of equitable representation of both sexes, especially at the managerial and policy-making levels . . .’  Equitable representation.  12:1. Ha, bloody ha.

Tom Kitt, Minister of State at Foreign Affairs, and Brendan Howlin, Minister for Health, don’t have female counterparts, and neither does our Ambassador to Egypt, and neither does John Connor TD, who is going to represent the Overseas Aid sub-committee of the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs.  But the very fact that nearly all positions of importance in this society are filled by men should make them sensitive to co-opting – if only to give them a chance to learn from women coming along in the same field.

What is the point, after all, of one Labour Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach, bravely trying to combat gross gender imbalance in college governing bodies, when other Labour Ministers – in this case Ministers Spring and Howlin – think nothing of letting their departments send only men to a powerful, official, conference, while throwing a few pounds to women to go, second class, to the accompanying non-official conference?  Could condescension be more blatant?

And don’t tell me that there are no women in the Department of Health and Foreign Affairs, of in the Dáil, in the Seanad, who could contribute to a conference on reproductive issues.  I don’t at all criticise the male civil servants who are going.  I’m sure they’re experts at their jobs.  But there’s something wrong with the service if they have no female colleagues.

Such female colleagues would not be token women, any more than the male delegates are token men.  But, if it is the case, as the composition of the Irish delegation suggests  that there are no women in the Departments of Health or Foreign Affairs who could cope with going to Cairo, if they’re all thick bimbos who can’t be let out, then a token woman or two would have been welcome. A symbolic gesture doesn’t always come amiss.  I would rather there were a few women, even if they were just stuffed dummies, in the Irish seats at this conference, than that the world would think Ireland has no women worthy to be there.

These things matter.  Not to all women, of course, but not to just a few lunatics, either.  It hurts, it stings, to realise that a whole half of the human race – the half with which a woman has no choice but to identify – can be casually and comprehensively insulted.  That maybe we’re such nothings when the blokes decide who’s going where, that they didn’t even notice that there were no women in the delegation.

It makes you wonder what you can do, when you’re persistently, year in year out, treated as second class.  Can you hope ever to be treated with natural, not forced, respect?  To have your experience accepted as fully authentic, and as being as valuable and weighty as male experience?  The parallels with a minority are obvious.  When you want equality that is what you want.  Real equality, that doesn’t even have to be thought about.  That’s the ideal, the thing yearned for.

It’s against that burning desire that things like Cairo are measured.  It seems like nothing to some people.  But if they look around they’ll see perfectly sensible, good-humoured women not one bit amused at 12 or so men going off, on the taxpayers’ money, with the blessing of Government, to a conference about having and rearing babies.  Women turn away, almost spitting with helpless anger.

If I were a Northern democrat I would be impatient to see the Southern politicians, now very understandably garnering accolades, return as soon as convenient to the motes in their own eyes. The South is not so perfect.  Northern Protestants habitually mention their distaste for Catholic Church control of education and healthcare in the republic, when they’re asked to imagine a shared future.  But the ethos of a society matters just as much as its institutional forms.  What it respects and values, and the general standard of thoughtfulness the powerful in it display to the less powerful, Protestants, women, are even more expressive of its everyday self.

It is possible to make a life almost untouched by oppressive institutions in the Republic of Ireland.  But a life free of overbearing male chauvinism?  Of gender-based discrimination?  Of being  alternately bullied or ignored by this claque of men or that?  You haven’t a chance.  The men don’t even notice.  And the Cairo affair indicates that even if they did notice, frankly, my dears, they don’t give a damn.


This opinion column was prompted by the news that the Irish Government had arranged to send an all-male delegation to a UN conference in Cairo, the subject of which was the implications for the planet of women having babies, or alternatively, not having babies.  This seemed to me a very obvious subject for a sarcastic column, because the decision offended female self-respect in two ways.  One: the subject matter of the conference was of the utmost concern to the people who bear and on the whole rear the babies, women.  Two: more than half the citizens of the Republic are women.  The nation is never adequately represented by an all-male delegation.

However, obvious as the outrage was to me, it clearly wasn’t obvious to the men who made the decision in the first place. It was those men and the men like them – at the top of the civil service, and in government – I was addressing.  There was no difficulty in finding ways to jeer at the decision.  Most readers, probably, and certainly most women readers, would have had exactly the same reaction to hearing about the all-male delegation as I did.  So I didn’t really need to argue.

Though I do argue, in a rapid kind of way.  I took the opportunity of this gaffe happening just after peace came to the North, and there was hope of new, all-Ireland, co-operation, to imagine what a Northerner would think of it.  Early in the piece, and again towards the end – it is always a good idea to try to enclose an argument within two references to the same thing – I try to show that this decision is not irrelevant to North/South relations.  Women are treated in the South, I claim, with the same kind of arrogant thoughtlessness as the minority in the North.  (This may seem an overstatement.  But I did and do believe it.)  And I searched out the quote from Albert Reynolds – which I’d vaguely noticed a few days before – to accuse the South of offering a sensitive democracy to the North, while slighting its own women citizens.  A quote – especially a self-indicating one from the enemy – is a good weapon.

I try all the usual ploys.  Scorn (‘Equitable representation.  Ha, bloody, ha.’)  Rhetorical questions, which pull the reader into the process of the argument (‘What is the point, after all . . .’).  A dramatised tone (‘Don’t tell me that there are no women . . .’).  Exaggeration (‘I would rather there . . . were stuffed dummies . . .’).  But as I say, I didn’t need to argue.  The situation was much worse than that.  The men who did this were so deaf and dumb to how women feel that no argument, I felt, would get through to them.

So the last few paragraphs are just a despairing outburst.  All I was hoping for was to shame the more public relations-conscious politicians into not allowing this kind of thing to happen again (even if in their hearts they couldn’t see what was wrong with it).  So the phrase about ‘12 men or so going off – on the taxpayers’ money and with the blessing of government – to a conference about having and rearing babies’ was deliberate and important.  The mention of tax payers transforms us outraged women into outraged citizens.  If we were just outraged women, and there were no element of public spending, the men who make this kind of decision could more easily write the protests off.

My mood of bitter anger was genuine.  I imagined a group of old, grey, slow, male civil servants, and imagined them saying – surprised by the stir the all-male delegation caused – ‘Oh, it’s those bloody women again.’  I imagined their contempt.  It was easy to – rhetorically – invite Northern democrats to join me in imagining that contempt.  The quote from Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind ends the column smartly enough.  Its rhythms are brisk.  But its associations are too glamorous and pleasant for the overall feeling of the piece.  I should have found a more  bleak note to end on.  ‘Frankly, my dear . . .’ makes me sound merely exasperated.


April 1, 2001

GETTING PERSONAL; Close To The Madding Crowd

By Nuala O'Faolain

These days, I live most of the time in uninterrupted solitude in a cottage above a wide bay in the west of Ireland -- just me and the dog and the southwest wind coming in off the sea. There are larks and seals and agile, muddy cattle around, but no people. An ideal setup, some might say, for writing. But not for me.

More than silence or a beautiful landscape, there's something I need if I want to really go inside myself, which is why I hop a plane to New York and head for the busiest part of Manhattan. For several winters now, I've been lucky enough to sublet a room near lower Broadway, and that's where I go in search of real solitude -- to the commuters jostling down into the subway, to the cops blowing their whistles, to the kids on their scooters, to the endless traffic and the dirty snow underfoot, and the 24-hour absence of silence. I'll go to my local Starbucks, where I can sometimes get through a whole Times before my coffee's ready, or head up to Union Square for crusty bread, or while away an hour in the gym, where I secretly and wistfully admire the marvelous bodies, and I come back to my room invigorated by the languages, the colors and the sounds of a city where so many people, like myself, are trying to leave their mark. Just being in the company of Manhattanites brings me to life.

The reason for this is simple: I grew up one of nine children in a family that usually lived in small houses. When you live in the middle of mayhem for so long, you grow to need mayhem to construct peace within it. I read with closest attention in bars and restaurants: the place has to go on fire (as it once did in a Belgian restaurant on Eighth Street, when a candle set my newspaper alight) before I notice anything else going on. But when I hear writers talk about their ideal retreat from ordinary life, they talk about the silence of the place in question, and how undisturbed they'll be as they work.

They also talk about the food, and the chances of meeting someone for what I will call, for the sake of decorum, romance, and about how to get invited to such-and-such a retreat because the artists' colony that accepts you says a lot about how chic you are in the literary fashion-stakes (though it says nothing, of course, about how talented or popular you may be). But above all they talk about settling down to work in perfect peace and quiet.

The notion that an artist needs to be alone to work is a leftover from the Romantic era: inspiration, somehow, is exuded by Nature and enters the sensitive soul as the artist wanders in solitary contemplation among, preferably, mountains. In this view, the artist needs isolation and gracious surroundings -- hence the number of former palaces and grand houses now turned into artists' retreats. Of course, smart male artists always insisted on that -- no babies in the studio, no hassles about money; no interruptions at all, in fact, until the wife carried in the pitcher of martinis at sundown.

But women and working-class artists have always had to do other kinds of chores while juggling creative work. They know how to make mini-retreats for themselves -- going deep into their heads while they chop wood, grill burgers, make beds. They know how to make one half-hour stolen for themselves immensely productive. Whereas in a dedicated retreat, the artist, relieved of all mundane duties, spends half the day getting up from the desk to straighten that rug. To straighten it again. To look out the window. To open the lunch package to see what's in today's sandwich. Anything to escape the hard work of creation, and to fill the time and the silence that a reverent world has provided.

I know. I've been that restless figure. When I was writing my novel, I took an apartment underneath a medieval farmhouse near Bologna, Italy, but the cuckoos calling from the beech woods plucked at my nerves. In the Pyrenees, I had a room lined with wood that looked along a deep valley at cloud-covered peaks. An old man led his equally old horse back and forth on the path beneath my balcony, murmuring to himself in Catalan as hawks wheeled in the sky. But I missed newspapers and traffic. A fountain whose drops fall unevenly, a distant conversation between gardeners pruning a rose garden -- these can be quite enough, as disturbances go, to stop you from working all day.

Wearing dance shoes doesn't make you a dancer, visiting a place of worship doesn't make you holy, and looking at window displays won't make you chic. Similarly, eight hours a day of pampered peace do not make art. Or -- they never would for me. I write to be read. The impulse comes out of the turbulence of real life, and it reaches completion only when it finds an audience. So when the lonely quiet of the west of Ireland begins to slow me down, I head for the streets of New York, where the brawls and traffic and cries and joys and sorrows begin the minute I arrive at the taxi stand at J.F.K. And once I'm standing at a counter on Sixth Avenue knocking back a hot dog and a papaya juice, shopping bags at my feet -- that's when I know I am a part of Creation, and where I muster my own measure of creativity to throw into the mix.


Romantic notions of writing ignore the basic craft
Nuala O'Faolain

It is not a working day today. You can afford, maybe, to look to your inner self, instead of outwards to the world of telegrams and anger. Do you believe that there is something inside you that is not being expressed? Last week I went to the last session of an ''introduction to creative writing" course I've been doing.

The course was six weeks long - too short for me to get anywhere with creative writing, but long enough to get a few ideas about things connected with it. It was held in the Writers' Centre in Parnell Square, on a Tuesday night, for two hours. They do about a dozen courses a year. This one cost £65.

I mention these details because a lot of people do feel they have a book or a poem or a story within them and they believe that if only they could get started, or pick up a few tips about starting, this something-or-other within them could be brought out. You would be amazed at how many people said to me, when I mentioned the course, "Oh, I'd be interested in doing that". That's why I'm writing about it today.

It seems to me we are hampered by half-romantic notions about writing. There's a vague idea that if a person sits around long enough inspiration will alight on them. But is writing not also a skill, like knowing how to fix an engine or how to plan an election campaign? Aren't there aspects of it you can go to classes to learn?

To get the obvious question out of the way first - on one level, I know how to write, of course. I can write anything this paper might ask me to write. But certain kinds of writing don't get into newspapers and I had recently been making a feeble attempt at one of those kinds, the autobiographical memoir.

The bit I managed to do came out like one long opinion column. It had no shape. First this happened and then that happened and then that happened ... I wanted to find out how to encapsulate things in scenes, and how to vary the tone of voice, and how to have dialogue carry the story, and how to describe characters and atmospheres.

To get away from the first person, in short. But now I suspect that I always knew that no one can teach me this, since no one but myself is in there with the raw material inside my head. If I had sat at a table for the two hours every week and worked at turning my narrative into dramatic scenes - just sat there and toiled at it - I'd have got further than going to the class got me. Going to the class, I fear, was a way of evading plain work. Writing is work.

That was the main thing I took away from the course. The teacher was marvellous. She is a writer herself through and through. She was brimming with ideas about writing and reading and she brought in a range of stuff for us to analyse and think about and assess and compare ourselves with.

One of the men in the class, for instance, wrote a story that had not just sex - quite a few of us wrote about sex - but violence in it. This brought up the question of the real difficulties of getting away from cliche in this area, sex and violence. Aso she brought in five or six examples of how others - from Hubert J. Selby to John McGahern - had found their own ways of making these old things new.

That is one way of coming at writing - raising your consciousness about how others do it, becoming familiar with the world in which it is done. We read Raymond Carver's story Fat, for instance, and Aidan Matthews's wonderful Fathers. I began to agree with a friend of mine who teaches a course like this - you can not be taught to write. but you can be taught to read. "You should read as if your life depended on it," our teacher said. This is the kind of thrilling thing that you don't hear said every day.

And even if you are not able to read like that, you can at least learn that there are people who do.

But as tor getting something written, there turned out to be no substitute for doing it yourself. This was our teacher's refrain. An Olympic runner doesn't wait for inspiration to strike before going for a training run, she said. Athletes train all the time. Similarly, you train yourself to your writing.

Oddly enough, though l've known tens of writers, and edited a lot of writing, and been on the boards of magazines and a judge of literary prizes, though I have lectured on English literature and studied great texts, and reviewed books in print and on radio and television and asked thousands of questions about them, I have managed to forget that a writer is first of all a solitary labourer.

I bought Eavan Boland's Object Lessons as part of the same effort as going on the course. It deals with very deep things: its subtitle is "the life of the woman and the poet in our time" . But work is a theme there, too. She spent years learning her craft. As a young woman she went back to her room, night after night, and served her apprenticeship. Anyone who needs to be a poet has to do all that.

I DON'T know that my own writing venture will ever succeed. But of the 12 or so people in our group I'd say that three or four are the real thing. They have gifts they need to express.

I presume - nobody said it - that most of what happens in groups like ours is as private as Alcoholics Anonymous. I don't want to reveal anything I should not. But I read a lot of unpublished work, one way or another, and it is usually not very good. So I was amazed at the originality of the pieces that were read out on the course.

Our teacher gave us an exercise one week. We were to come back with a thousand-word story about something that happened in a bathroom, and the title was to be "And it was cold outside".

It was marvellous to hear how different from each other the responses to these suggestions were.

Leaving writing aside, "creative writing" helped restore my faith in humans. The daily news can leave you sure that the world is full of badness and stupidity.

Grandfathers rape children. Terrorists preen. You get disgusted at what we are. And then you sit in a room full of irrepressible creativity, and that is also what we are. Just by being in the group, in fact, even the least talented of us was standing up for the imagination, and saluting its power, and paying our respects to its importance in our humanity.

This didn't solve the problem I'd gone on the course to solve. I still have that. But it solved other problems. And of course it reminded me why we burden ourselves with the problem of writing well in the first place, and how we know ourselves whether we succeed or fail.

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