Bread Loaf is considered one of the top writing conferences in the country, if not the world, isolated as it is in Vermont’s hills and farm land without cell phone reception but plenty of talk. I’ve been lucky to attend four times, first as a paying contributor in my twenties, then as one of the famed waiters in my thirties. I guess I served those plates well (or not), because I’ve since been invited back twice as staff, a more than enviable position despite the hard work as we have full access to lectures, readings, and workshops while on scholarship. All this among the Green Mountains where from any of a dozen yellow porches a person can watch the sun drop until the cicadas (and the bell) call dinner time. More importantly, my fellow staffers these two years last were a tight bunch and among the most talented, good-hearted, and gorgeous people I’ve ever met. Staffers call it Family Loaf.
Nonetheless, this year for the first time I suffered prolonged bouts of homesicknesses. Listening to Robert Cohen’s morning lecture, “Lyricism and its Discontents,” I wondered why I had so oddly fallen into the latter. “If experience,” Cohen read, “and for experience we might go ahead and substitute the word “death,” teaches us what’s real and what isn’t, then to pretend otherwise either in substance or in aesthetic form is an evasion, a shirking of the writer’s responsibility toward truth.” I suppose in this top of the hill paradise, I was having trouble with the real. For two months, I hadn’t picked up my pen to account for anything real of not. After a summer of buzzing around the country promoting my novel, The Quickening, I was at a loss as to where I was. True, the publication of a first book is an exhilaration. But as Samantha Chang whispered to me in the hallways one afternoon, a person doesn’t have time to understand a first book while it’s happening. With all our young dreaming about it, sometimes it feels like it’s not happening at all.
Cohen’s lecture inspired more yearning in me than fear of the overwrought. “The meter is ticking,” he read, “wither should we bend our steps.” Cohen ended by reciting Kafka’s last recorded sentences, bare-boned as they were and written on “conversation strips” to friends, doctors, and nurses as the writer lay dying. These sentences, Cohen argued, were the real as learned through the worst of experience. “His larynx had shut like a door,” Cohen said, and “no other form of communication was possible.” The room hushed as one by one Cohen quoted Kafka’s strips:
“I quote: ‘Every limb is as tired as a person.’”
“I quote: ‘Let the bad remain bad; otherwise it will grow worse.’”
“I quote: ‘Does my larynx hurt so much because for so many hours I have done nothing with it? ’”
Cohen ended with Kafka’s description of the flowers on his hospital window sill. “I quote: ‘How wonderful that is, isn’t it? The lilac, dying, it drinks, goes on swilling.’”
Writing is not intended during these conferences, at least not for the staff. The work on top of the regular conference schedule doesn’t allow much time for sleep, let alone story making. But Cohen’s lecture inspired in me a terrible urgency: I wanted to write. Was it Kafka’s haunting sentences that provoked me? The idea that writers, as with everyone else, only have so much time? After a summer-long hiatus, I tried to imagine that this urge to sit at my desk meant my writing life would return to me, that I did not write simply to dole out a final product from the back of a swindler’s truck. I was not satisfied to be A Writer. I wanted the verb, just as much as I had for years longed for the noun. If anything, this year’s Bread Loaf taught me that my chosen profession, desperate as it sometimes seems, is the most comfortable home I have.
What might beginning writers take from my musings above? If they aren’t already shaking their heads in disgust, I hope they take to heart that the process itself is not only vital—it may just be the most satisfying part. For years, I yearned simply to be done with it. Admittedly, I don’t wish to go back to the darkest of those times, the days and months when I believed I was writing to a company of ghosts—and writing terribly at that. But there’s something about being inside a story, about having the possibilities at your fingertips and the dream still in your head, that I hope never again to dismiss.
If you want to hear more of Robert’s Cohen’s lecture, and other lectures and readings from the conference, you can download them for free on ITunes U. Go to www.middlebury.edu/blwc to find the link.
Finally, I have again amassed a fat shelf of Bread Loaf books (among those from other writer’s books I’ve gathered up this year). I’ve arranged them by title and will force myself to read them in order if I can hold back. I hope to avoid jumping from one to the next in an excited fit. With an admitted bias toward fiction, here are some BL writers and books you should be on the look out for:
Poetry Collections: Jericho Brown’s PLEASE; Ken Chen’s Juvenilia; and David Roderick’s Blue Colonial
Short Story Collections: Laura Van Den Berg's What the World Will Look Like When the Water Leaves Us; Jennine Capo Crucet's How to Leave Hialeah; Belle Boggs’ Mattaponi Queen; Tiphanie Yanique's How to Escape from a Leper Colony; Lori Ostlund's The Bigness of the World; and Stuart Nadler’s upcoming The Book of Life.
Nonfiction: Kim Kupperman’s I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Other Side of Silence
Novels: Nami Mun's Miles from Nowhere; Jessica Anthony’s The Convalescent; Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest County in the World; Heidi Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky; James Hannaham’s God Says No; and Patricia Engel’s Vida
And don’t forget Loaf’s powerful faculty. This year in fiction alone: Margot Livesey, Andrea Barrett; Lan Samantha Chang; Kevin McIlvoy; Robert Cohen; Jim Shepard; Amy Hempel, Stacey D’Erasmo; and Percival Everett. Read them and weep.