Mary Lavin: An insight into the creative process

The writer Mary Lavin (1912-1996) was born in East Walpole, Massachusetts to Irish parents Thomas and Nora Lavin, and moved to Ireland as a child. Her first short story was written on the reverse of a draft of her PhD thesis on Virginia Woolf, and she went on to become a prolific and celebrated author, publishing two novels and nineteen books of short stories. Among her awards were an Honorary Doctorate from NUI in 1968, Guggenheim Fellowships in 1969 and 1971, and election as a Saoi of Aosdána in 1983, the highest honour from Aosdána in recognition of “singular and sustained distinction in the arts.”

Students on the UCD School of History‘s 2018/19 cohort of MA Archives and Records Management processed the papers of Mary Lavin for the course’s autumn semester project. The papers, which are held at UCD Special Collections, are from a combination of acquisitions and donations from various sources between 1985 and 2017. These papers are a testament to Lavin’s literary life, featuring drafts and fair copies of her work as well as personal and professional correspondence, and press and scholarly material. The collection is wide-ranging, the correspondence series, for instance, capturing everything from a Christmas card from author Nuala O Faolain, to royalty receipts, to a description of the weather in County Leitrim; however it is the short stories that feature most prominently, providing an insight into Lavin’s creative process and her navigation of the route from early ideas to publication.

In an interview with Catherine A Murphy in Irish University Review 9, No. 2 (Autumn, 1979), Lavin spoke extensively about her creative process. She said, “for me, there is seldom any escape from the laborious method. That has become a habit.” The short story papers in this collection demonstrate that laborious method, and in the course of arrangement and description of these papers the depth and breadth of this method emerged as a prominent feature of this collection. The file for the short story “Happiness,” published in the New Yorker, 44 (1968), Happiness and Other Stories (1969), and Collected Stories (1971) provides a snapshot of this “laborious method,” from first ideas, through multiple drafts, to a proof copy on pink paper for its first publication in the New Yorker. Most striking from this file are some early ideas for “Happiness” jotted on six pages torn from the November 1965 issue of Vogue.

Notes on 'Happiness'

Mary Lavin’s ideas for ‘Happiness’ written on pages from Vogue.

On these pages, Lavin’s idiosyncratic handwriting meanders through margins and around images, inhabiting the empty spaces. Where the editors and advertisers in Vogue have intended to draw the eye to image and text, Lavin has filled it with the beginnings of a short story. Students of archival theory learn about affect, the emotional reaction that archival material may provoke in the archivist or researcher, and the pages from Vogue are a prime example of this. The juxtaposition of the highly edited glossy magazine with Lavin’s difficult to read handwriting conveys to the researcher a sense of urgency from Lavin, the need to get the ideas written down at once, to make them tangible before they disappear. A note from Lavin at the top of the page reads, “NB First idea for Happiness jotted down on copy of Vogue in the street at Piccadilly.” The affect of the archive is clear here; in reading this the researcher visualises Lavin compelled to write down her ideas, the creative impulse cutting through the bustle of central London.

The remainder of the “Happiness” file similarly evokes Lavin’s writing process. Though it is not the case for all of the short stories in the Mary Lavin Papers, where some files may only contain one draft of a story, the file for “Happiness” contains a wealth of material. A bundle of papers shows a granular level of construction, with planning and the gathering ideas and sentences delineated into sections labelled “Plan” and “Bits to Use”, and focus on character in sections such as “Father Hugh” and “her childhood”.

Her jotters for Happiness appear to overflow, the covers festooned with Lavin’s handwriting; notes of ideas and reminders to herself, dates, word counts all appear haphazard, echoing the urgency seen on the copy of Vogue.

Early drafts are heavily annotated, showing a continuous process of revisiting the work. In the annotations there is the sense of Lavin in conversation with herself, or that she is thinking aloud. The sheer volume of draft versions of “Happiness,” both manuscript and typescript, bear witness to a process of constant revision and distillation.

Numerous drafts

Numerous drafts of ‘Happiness’.

The visual impact of the manuscript drafts alone serves to show how Lavin’s initial ideas expand to stellar volume, then are revised and revised and revised. The move to typescript drafts, the translation of Lavin’s wayward handwriting to a consistent font, are likewise subject to the same furious annotation, before settling into light editing, then moving to fair copies.

The proof copy for the New Yorker, which published many of Lavin’s short stories, seems a departure from the first blast of creative energy. Its incarnation in the characteristic New Yorker font on pink paper seems almost tame in comparison to the explosive appearance of the early drafts, but it signals the completion of the story’s journey from idea to literary work.

Proof copy of 'Happiness'

Proof copy of ‘Happiness’ for the ‘New Yorker’.

The Short Stories series of the Mary Lavin Papers is an example of how literary papers can provide insight into the creative process. The “Happiness” folder provides just one glimpse into Lavin’s working method. The Short Stories series embodies Lavin’s movement through capturing, revising and editing to produce each story, and the wider collection sets this process within the context of a literary life.

  • This guest blog was contributed by Anna Hunter. Anna was part of the 2018/19 cohort of MA Archives and Records Management at UCD School of History.
  • This blog was written for the UCD Cultural Heritage collections and the Irish Archives Resource with support from the Heritage Council.


There are three pieces on Mary Lavin in the newly published Irish University Review.


Further Reading

Janet Egleson Dunleavy, ‘The Making of Mary Lavin’s “Happiness”,’ Irish University Review 9, No. 2 (Autumn, 1979), pp. 225-232.

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