Any word spoken is inauthentic, dishonest, incredible when compared to what I have given the page.
And yet, I didn’t start writing for publication until the age of 35, when the barriers I’d put between myself and the fascination seemed tiny next to the mountain of poems, stories, and fragments lodged in my throat.
I came to marriage, motherhood, and writing on a “nontraditional path”. My experiences and thoughts should be considered in light of that MFA-lacking path. I am the black sheep on the boulevard and I am so lucky. I am lucky to write and read and publish and edit; lucky to find an audience in a literary community where publication is one smidgen of talent, another smidgen of hard work + discipline, but mostly a shit-ton of inexplicable good fortune.
Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference is a unique community that exists to support, encourage, and build bridges between writers.
I learned so much in those ten days, and so much of this learning came from reading, hearing, studying, and absorbing the work of my brilliant peers.
The food is delicious. The coffee is constant. The showers are clean. The staff is generous. The grounds are tended like the body of a beloved.
There are morning yoga sessions and AA meetings to support the challenges of life as we know it. There is a newspaper, The Daily Crumb, produced with all the diligence and hard work of editors who prepare it regardless and always.
There are countless generosities—from the kindness of the Innkeeper to the sudden dragonfly that preens overhead long enough for you to write her and thank her and kiss the cosmos that made her.
There is a sense of magic in the tiniest details—from the selection of room-mates (can you tell how I adore Alicia?) to the surprise thunderstorms and the readings that relocate quietly when electricity dies, the way writing demands this lip-biting perseverance from us, this galling, obscene persistence, this relentless motion forward despite what the world erects to slow (or even undo) us.
Stephen Dunn: “The secret life begins early and is kept alive by all that is unpopular in you.”
Introverts need not fear—there is space for those of us who insist on nourishing the unpopular parts of ourselves.
There is a secret blackberry bush behind the library where you can disappear and indulge stained fingers. There is a hidden creek near the horse barn with a small wooden bridge, and a fire circle two leaps away. There is a lush green glen where you can sink your face in the grass and no one can find you. There is a cordon of undemanding silence that rims the outer lips of the meadow. There is a library filled with books and couches, a refuge that stays open all night and all day. And there are others (countless others) for whom such a library feels like heaven.
There are moments when you cultivate the courage to approach a writer you admire, to launch yourself like a bathos-carrying missile in order to say something awkward, something irrelevant, something like: “I covet your words, your mind, your wonder, your daring…”
There is an ambiance of safe awkwardness in which that is acceptable, or not the end of anyone’s world.
Since the world we want to live in does not exist yet, there are human beings.
There are hierarchies.
There is a space you make for yourself in the space created by others.
I can’t speak to the experience of waiters or work-study scholars or writing fellows—that experience is best explained and described by those to whom it applies. I know people who could not attend without a work study or waiter scholarship. I know people who did not attend when financial aid was not forthcoming. I know people who could not attend for lack of assistance with caregiving (and yes all those people were women). I know people (like myself) who maxed out a credit card and relied on an overtaxed partner in order to attend.
In a capitalist system where value rises in relation to scarcity (both actual and perceived), competition, exclusivity, and prestige are part of the game we play in order to do what we love. Which is, always, above all, absolutely: to write.
To suggest there are no “winners” and “losers” is to deny the game itself, or to erase the institutions that both sustain, nurture, and develop us. I won’t diminish the experience of writers who applied to Bread Loaf and didn’t get in by trivializing their disappointment or offering dull platitudes. It makes sense to be sad or frustrated by a system that anoints winners. And maybe we should talk about that.
Maybe it’s better to address than deny the challenge of navigating a literary world that aspires to meritocracy and justice in a country where no one agrees on what those words mean.
In an industry where rising to the top makes it easier to rationalize why we deserve it.
Now I’ll say the thing no one wants to hear—the unfortunate truth, namely, that there is no such thing as a meritocratic literary conference or MFA program in the United States of America.
There is only the fluctuating, market-drive meaning of “merit” in subjective assessment protocols used to evaluate applications and to predict what a writer may or may not contribute to the literary community. There are so many generous writers and program directors trying to make this world more just, deserving, and genuine bt we are still operating in a system ruled by profit. We need money to live, survive, and thrive. It amuses me when these facts are treated as controversial or open to debate.
I know too many talented writers have never attended Bread Loaf. Or Tin House. Or Sewanee. Or Barrelhouse. Or any conference that acknowledges and develops their gifts and unique voices. You know these writers too. Hell, we all know the writers that are missing. And saying otherwise reveals a talent for self-hypnosis or an uncanny ability to make dicta of personal myth.
Each one of us benefits from privilege when we attend a writing conference or residency when we attend a writing conference that doesn’t include everyone who should be there. “Should” is a large word that includes people we don’t know about, mammals who lack exposure or access in ways we can’t EVEN IMAGINE.
Acknowledging this should not be construed as an indictment of Bread Loaf or writing conferences and/or residencies. It should not be construed as an indictment of scholarships or work-study or financial assistance based on something other than financial need. It should be construed in the spirit of self-interrogation and complicity that writing demands of us as humans who live in country that excels in global destruction.
A clear-eyed gaze helps us realize we don’t “deserve” something just because we benefit from the good fortune of having it. The un-American in me feels that humility is the appropriate mental and emotional response. The un-American continues to be unpopular on every topic from football to war. But the un-American in me won’t make our lives easier by shutting up.
Jericho Brown: “Writing the poem is how we face the terror.”
I want to share some things you can from Bread Loaf without attending the conference, and this mesmerizing audio collection of lectures and readings is a start.
Jericho Brown’s “Faith In the Now: Some Notes on Poetry and Immortality” changed something in me, and I can’t imagine a writer watching this video and not feeling the ground quiver beneath their feet.
Jericho juxtaposes happiness, which is cheaper, quicker, immediate, and consumable, with the longer arm of joy which lacks a “logical root”. Joy, whose value is wonder, whose origin escapes us, whose power shakes everything it touches. The poet describes the experience of leaving organized religion and church because “there was shame in sadness” and the joy he discovered there was a defiant response to slavery.
But does joy have to be experienced as a response to white supremacy? To quote Jericho, “In literature, black people don’t need white people to enjoy the scent of the earth.” And we all know “American ideals never existed in practice”—if they had, Trumpists wouldn’t be trying to turn back the clock.
“I do not romanticize the struggle,” Jericho says. Nor does he want to live for a life (or an afterlife) he can’t experience. Etched in my mind, this ars poetica: “I am more interested in learning about why we’d be interested in immortality than I am in immortality itself.”
Hasn’t poetry also resided in this liminal space between litany, song, and prayer? I love his analogy between writing poetry and the process of prayer wherein a line-break delineates doubt, waiting for the next line, an unbidden faith that it will come, that something has yet to be spoken, that something in the revelation will save us.
But I’m not saying what I mean, exactly.
In the barn one night, Jennifer Grotz read a poem that uses Simone Weil’s “attention is a form of prayer” as scaffold. Her poem was a prayer with an eye to the mosquitos and tendrils of corn on the night when rain “attended” her, when rain was made complicit in this relationship of rapt attention. Bread Loaf cultivates this rapture. And so we wait in the tangles of each Other, in this complex attention ecology.
Ultimately, finally, always—there is the fascination.
And the Kim Addonizio quote in my notebooks: “This is your genius: your own profound desire to write…If you are meant to be a writer, you will serve your genius as well as you can.” With humility, trepidation, terror, and maybe something kin to reverence.
It’s not a question of how good you are but how far you’re willing to go in fascination.
How much intensity and self-discipline you can bear.
How much rejection you can bracket.
How you honor creation in a product-driven economy.
How much loneliness turns to fear on your tongue.
—And there is the knowledge that you do not deserve this.
That no one really deserves this because everyone deserves this.
That Bread Loaf and writing conferences and publication are things we can’t earn, dreams to which we can’t secure a right.
There is privilege. And what you do with it. What you make, share, give back, and build into the future. Perhaps the poem you offer the page.