Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Back from Bread Loaf

Home at last from Bread Loaf. What an extraordinary adventure. I had no idea what to expect, though I'd heard about the Bread Loaf mystique for years, and this naturally made me nervous. But what I experienced was a veritable heaven for writers. I met so many intelligent and talented people; it was also clear from the conference attendees that there is a pretty serious commitment to diversity. Writers gathered together from all over the country and represented every corner of the globe. I was so impressed.

I attended the conference as a Scholar--along with 14 or so other wonderful people. Unfortunately, I have very pictures of my Scholar group, but I assure you we bonded quite tightly and I miss them all. It was hot in Vermont and I am pregnant, and this meant that I was often trying to rest in my room so I had energy to go to readings and lectures.

But I'm pictured here with my workshop group (if I look tired, it's because I was sort of lagging after a week of heat--I had to come home early). To the far right is our workshop leader, Patricia Hampl, who I adore. I wanted to leave Bread Loaf with some understanding of non-fiction: how to think of it, what makes essays work, why people like non-fiction, etc. I had never meant to write any non-fiction, but the response to my essay "Letter from a Japanese Crematorium" was so strong, my agent figured I'd better try to consciously understand what makes the art form work well when it does. Trish was inspired on this subject, and I learned what I needed to know; now it's back to work. Also pictured in this photo, is our workshop "Fellow," Paul Austin, whose first book came out recently. He's the mustached man in the back. Everyone in the group was friendly, open, eager and smart. I was fortunate.

We have very little connectivity on "the mountain," as Bread Loaf is commonly referred to. I had wireless in my room, which meant that on a night when I had a strong signal, I could Skype with my husband. In a way, I didn't really miss the cell phone. It was quiet, and the location so tranquil, it was easy to just immerse myself into this world of thinking and writing. Among the highlights: a Charles Baxter lecture on "Lushness," Lynn Freed on "Writing and Travel," the provocative David Shields who questioned "James Frey and Attribution," and countless of readings. I couldn't go to every single reading: I was too tired. Every time I did go, I was impressed. I now have a stack of books beside my bed, and can't wait to get reading. So much of the writing life is solitary, and I actually like being on my own. But the constant socializing was really wonderful--we could sit and talk about journals we like, experiences with editors and agents, etc--all "writer talk" that would probably bore just about anyone else.

One thing about Bread Loaf: it was around long before MFAs really got going. Here's Robert Frost's cabin--he was an early supporter and participant of Bread Loaf. I spoke to a long time faculty member who told me that this year--my year--was particularly positive. I did notice this. Writers aren't always friendly and aren't always happy to share. But the overwhelming atmosphere at Bread Loaf this year was one of support and positivity, and that's nice. It's also not an accident. The staff goes to great lengths to keep the atmosphere and the people running the whole show positive and constructive.

I suppose that like a lot of other people, I sometimes wonder if what I am doing matters or is remotely important. Does anyone really care about books? But I didn't have to think about this in Vermont, and with my book release nearing, it was so nice to have people around me who understood what an accomplishment it is to have a book at all. I'm grateful for the experience, and you'll be reading more about the people I met on this blog, as their work becomes public. I hope to see some of them again at AWP next year (with a baby in tow).

I can't talk about everyone I met--there are simply too many people I enjoyed. But I do have to single out how fortunate I was that my dear friend Alexi Zentner attended Bread Loaf too--as a prestigious waiter. We met at the Napa Valley Writers Conference, and since then, have discovered that we have some kind of karmic writing bond. He's also a very good friend and when he saw that I was struggling with the heat, sent up plenty of bowls of ice to help me cool down.

The readings from this year are going to be available on iTunes--including the one from yours truly. I'll try to post links once this happens. In the meantime, I am getting used to the real world, still recovering a bit from over-heating and eager to start writing again.

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