Posts Tagged ‘Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference’

13 May, 2015

The Charlie who “Threw Me Back”

Ten years ago, when I didn’t know narrative from Narrative Magazine​, I sat at a dining table with Dimitri Kasaan, and another writer whose repute and influence was beyond my small understanding at the time. It was early and in my memory we were the only ones there. He was talking about writing, good and bad, Bread Loaf, Charlieand the experiences had, over a long career of teaching, with how best to help students along. Listening to this, I was seized by a sense of horror. What if I was guilty of producing bad (creative) writing? I knew my non-fiction/journalism had a purpose, and that the writing was good, but that did not necessarily translate into an ability to write good fiction after all. Hair stylists aren’t all versed in hair coloring, and a conductor may not always be brilliant at playing an instrument. But here before me was a man who sounded like he could tell the difference. A thoughtful man, who hadn’t made it his business to condemn the aspiring, willy-nilly, but was in full possession of the skills of discernment.

I don’t even know if we’d been properly introduced, and perhaps it is a testament to the absolute innocence with which I had set foot in that exalted place, but the words burst forth from me: Please, would you read a few pages of my work and tell me if I should just give up? I remember that he looked a little startled, but I pressed on. I would take your words to heart. I don’t mind if you said it was terrible, it would save me a great deal of time. I’d like to know. Perhaps it was the absolute earnestness of the request, perhaps he could tell I really did mean all that, but he agreed.

I ran away to the computer center and printed out the beginning to the first novel I ever wrote, and got the pages to him. We bumped into each other later that day at lunch, and he told me it was powerful work. Those words – they could have meant powerfully bad work, I suppose, but I took it to mean the opposite. Or if not the opposite, then at least work that was worth doing, or that there was something there that was important enough to be written down. It wasn’t a waste of paper or a waste of me.

I think so often about that moment. I can see it in detail. I can hear the noise of the writers around me, gathering after workshop for lunch, the constant clatter of food service, the voices pitched toward and away from each other, and the hum of excitement and energy that pervades the campus hovering above it all. Most of all I see him, this gracious human being who had no obligation at all to have read the work of someone he had only just met, someone so clearly out of her league in the conversations about creative writing. I see that moment in movement and sound, but also as a still photograph that is both the before and the after. If I had not felt that grace, would I have continued to write? Even after that “powerful” work went on to languish in the house, unpublished save for the shortest excerpt imaginable from a 487 page tome? Or would I have petered out, a memorable summer fading in time?

I can’t say. There were other people at Bread Loaf who nurtured me and held me up. Others who believed in me, and encouraged me, including Lynn Freed, my teacher – now mentor, and dear friend – who introduced me to Jill Bialosky (who later sent the entire 487 page tome back with the kindest of notes).

I only know that I can trace the thin red line at the feet of that particular writer, beyond which waited all the writing that I have done since. Charlie3Someone who knew nothing about me, and had no reason to pay me the slightest heed, did. And it made all the difference. I kept on writing, and reading, and eventually publishing, and teaching, and doing a few good things in the world, all of which were invariably touched by that one conversation, those few pages, that one large-hearted human being. Over the years we’ve seen each other under other circumstances, in other cities, among other people: repeatedly at Bread Loaf, dancing in his white shirt in the old barn and in a tuxedo at the Cipriani Wall Street (#108 in that first batch of images) in quiet, over dinners and drinks and good conversations. I have had the deep privilege of having him in the audience when I read from my second novel both where it all began, at bread Loaf, and in his hometown of Minneapolis. Somewhere at the center of every meeting however is that snapshot from the past which made all those other gatherings possible, and which I can never forget.

Thank you and Happy Birthday to you, Charlie – from your very own starfish.

8 September, 2009

The Lush Life of Bread Loaf

img_0932It is a little shameful that I have not written a word here since that last brief bleep from the mountain in the wee hours of the morning of the 14th of August. But only just a little.

Last year, the summer before Bread Loaf, I suffered a head injury as I charged around a house-to-be-sold in Maine trying to vacuum in the dark. I cursed and shrieked and woke up my sleeping neighbors and ended up in the ER demanding stitches. Odd how a year changes things. I suffered two physical injuries while I was at Bread Loaf this year. First, another bang on my forehead which resulted in a similar quantity of blood trickling melodramatically down my face. Forget the ER. I stuffed ice under a hat tilted rakishly over one eye and went about my business. Next I scorched myself by leaning – with relief, no less! – on a stove. This was managed by securing a pack of ice to my arm with the shawl that I happened to have draped around my neck that day. I sat thus through my entire workshop with the inimitable and wickedly funny Ann Hood, and thus avoided an unsightly blister and, indeed, ended up with a dark slash that looked more like a particularly edgy tattoo than a burn.

I recount these incidents because, besides being humorous anecdotes (and leaving the scars which I wear with some pride in retrospect), they had no impact on my frame of mind. Minor burns and head wounds are now within the realm of the controllable in my life. Indeed, during my time at Bread Loaf – to which I had fled literally from the radiation room – img_0780I had only one moment when the searing pain of those self-repairing nerve endings made me stop what I was doing and remember that I was not entirely whole or mended. And despite the fact that fatigue had dogged my footsteps every night on which I couldn’t get a sufficient amount of sleep all through treatment, while at the conference I could keep going on only two or three hours of sleep a night, night after blessed night.

There is something about Bread Loaf. I’m sure everybody who hasn’t been there is pretty tired of hearing that by now, but it is true, there is. Nothing that troubles me “on earth” – in my personal life, in my family history, in the world of wars, elections won or lost, not one of the things that move me to opine or rant – touches me while I am there. It isn’t conscious, it isn’t by design, it is just how the days unfold.

So it was a strange adjustment for me this time, knowing that the the first thing I had to do when I came back was see not one but three physicians. The first act, to take the first of the doses of Tamoxifen that I will be ingesting every day, twice a day for the next five years of my life, and have the surgeons and oncologists and pathologists look at me and declare me in one state of repair or another. 3,650 pills in all. A few days back, as I stepped up on to the scale to be weighed, a nurse exclaimed “You aren’t going to take off your shoes? And you’re wearing heels? Wow that’s brave!” And I smiled.

img_08221I realize that there are only two ways to talk about Bread Loaf. In silence, or with words that verge on the lushness that Charles Baxter nudged us to consider during one of his lectures; the kind of language that we have learned to shun because it is routinely ridiculed by critics. I am taking up Charlie’s challenge. Down the line, you will be able to access this years Bread Loaf lectures via iTunes and listen to what he says and agree that sometimes lushness is called for. Here are a few people I hold close, and what they had to say about being at the conference. Here is Alexander Chee whose post is titled, “Consider Writing an 86 Proof Sentence” (a quote from Charlie), and Eugene Cross, whose post for the Hayden’s Ferry Review Blog is titled, “What I learned from Charlie.” Hmm. Curious. Here is Christian Anton Gerard, poet and fellow staffer:

img_0155It’s occurred to me this week that perhaps one of the reasons we do what we do is because of the lack of time we feel in the world. We run to the top of a mountain to make time…We will tell our friends and family about that time in an effort to show how wonderful and perfect the world of writing can sometimes be, but like (a friend) said, “the beauty in our moments on the mountain is in the fact that we never know if we’ll be here again… Which makes every moment here a completely tangible, but slippery thing we will cling to for the rest of our lives, but never be able to fully explain to anyone else.”

It is indeed a gift for all of us to have been there, and perhaps even more so for us to have been there together, but the fact that we can always be there together because we’re all clinging to the same slippery time-rocks, which we share only among each other is a gift and something newly spectacular in and of itself, I think. If you need me. Any of you. I will be across a hayed field in the middle of a beautiful creek at the bottom of a wooded hill. I will be picking up rocks and loving them even as they slip away. I will be running after them, sitting atop them. I will be sated when you wade in with me.

img_03751So, did I care how much weight was added to the scales with my high heels? Is there a way to measure the weightlessness of finding ones soul-sisters and brothers, of knowing how to love and be loved in return by beautiful, brilliant strangers who become friends over the turn of a single phrase? What is the weight of the light that fills up my body and my heart when I am where I am always among friends, always among people who share the same dream, who are gifted not only in the art of creating worlds with words, but in committing everything they have to holding each other up? img_03882We’re all familiar with the way people look and behave when they have experienced grave danger, some disaster, or even some period of time which has been consumed by worry about their own fate or that of someone they care deeply about. They tip, tearful with relief into the arms of their beloveds. What happens at Bread Loaf is not unlike that. You get there and you realize that you have left worlds and lives bereft, most of the time, of people who know what it is like to nurse a craving for words, a sort of eternal itch that tangles the fingers and brain so that not to write and read and talk freely about reading and writing and muses and wordly habits is an acutely felt torture. You get there and you tip, delirious with relief, into the arms

day4

and minds

day2

and words

img_0147

img_00422

img_0029

and silences

img_0818

img_0437

img_9985

of your tribe.

img_08962

And you hold on

img_0853

until you have to let go.

img_99192

img_0925

img_9982

It is, indeed, a precious thing to recognize exactly what it is – what person or collection of people, what peculiar combination of forces or energies, what place, exactly – brings one the keen joy that renders a human being both full of oxygen and just as breathless. The body can endure all manner of slights from the universe so long as the heart can sing, and at Bread Loaf I always find that song, the voice with which to sing it and a heavenly orchestra to provide the music.

Here, in the one recording I have of the staff reading, are some of those musicians: Nina McConigley, Gerald Maa, Greg Wrenn, Zachary Watterson, Avery Slater, Ted Thomspon, Christian Anton Gerard and, at the very end, myself.

track01

As I think about the year to come, and all the success it will bring to the people who were beside me this year, I am moved to close this post with the fabulous Eugene Cross, in living color, reading a section from his short story, ‘Hunters.’ The full story can be read here at Hobart.

9 August, 2009

I’m Leaving in a Mini-Van

The mini-van is actually a clapped out jalopy. When I take her into the local Firestone place down the street for inspection she is tucked way in the back. Parked, I kid thee not, next to the dumpster. People who are car-proud usually keep them sticker-free. Here are some photographs of the crazy stickers on the back of mine.

img_9663img_9723img_9662
img_9661img_9664img_9660

Anyway, I’m leaving in this Mini-Van today and heading out to the place in America where, I hope, when I am dead, my ashes will be scattered: Bread Loaf in Ripton, VT. This is where, for the past five years, I have had the enormous good fortune of attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. It is the first place where I ever sat in a workshop – which ended up resulting in the beginnings of my first novel. It is the place where I grew most into the parts of myself that I love, in my writing as well as in my personal life. The place where I felt completely at home and affirmed for the best iterations of my personality and where whatever was dark could be laid to rest. I will try to blog from there but I cannot promise to do so; there is an inviolable trust among its participants that I am not willing to break. But perhaps I will be able to write about the impact of a reading, a lecture or provide a guest post from a friend or two that will communicate what it means to be there.

Bread Loaf is unique for the fact that it is a conference where writers come to be around other writers rather than to write. Of course people come to Bread Loaf hoping to meet agents, make connections, and get their books published – I certainly did – but sooner rather than later, this desire is replaced by the realization that the best thing that can happen to a writer is to fall freshly in love with the art-form. img_1077The campus is situated on a loaf-shaped mountain in the village of Ripton, inaccessible by cell-phone – unless one chooses to go and perch upon a particularly craggy rock in the significantly tall grass, but why would you? There are pay-phones of the variety that is hardly ever seen anywhere these days, and phones linked by a network in small cottages which ring with a sound that most people in high school now would never have heard in their lives. Few Bread Loafers use the phones, in the end. There is wireless access in some spaces, and people will send the occasional email home, but there is very little time or, indeed, desire, to communicate with the world outside Bread Loaf.

The conference takes place over ten days and is charged from the get go with a schedule that brings the campus together for no less than four readings and a lecture by its distinguished and relentlessly gracious faculty and fellows each day alongside workshops in poetry, fiction and literary non-fiction, and craft-classes and panels and special talks and social gatherings. Most evenings are also given over to late-night readings by the amazingly talented waiters and staff (to which group I have belonged for the past three years as well as this), its accomplished scholars and fellows (Jhumpa Lahiri was a fellow img_1116 – the year her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection came out), as well as its faculty. Readings in the famous, and famously Spartan, Little Theater, go on until around ten thirty or eleven on many nights. There are also themed readings in the Blue Parlor, handled for the past three years and again this one, by the talented Nina McConigley whose book will undoubtedly be out soon. And there are informal readings arranged by conference participants during the day. And parties, and meals and conference-wide receptions and dances all of which revolve around being with and around and about writers and writing.

If I had to pick the one thing that made the dream possible, it was this one place. There’s a detoxifying atmosphere to Bread Loaf. Being exposed to 200 plus incredible writers at all levels of their career is like taking your seat among the blessed. You get a snapshot of the literary exercise, the journey, from before it img_1345 began to where it will still go, before you existed and after you are gone, and it is both sobering and heady. How can you compare anything to being able to stand and read from your very small contribution to the literary endeavor, in the same place where writers like Robert Frost, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty, Anne Sexton, William Meredith, May Sarton, Ralph Ellison, Sinclair Lewis, Wallace Stegnar, Carson McCullers, and Edward P. Jones and a hundred others, have stood to read from their work long before they achieved greatness in their chosen field? A plain theater, hard seats, one light on a wooden rostrum and nothing but your words in the air, nothing but people who love words listening.

For me, Bread Loaf = heaven.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


Twitter