Welcome to Camp Bread Loaf. Put your apron on.
So, quick history: The Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference is the oldest and, some say, most prestigious writing conference in America. Its founding is associated closely with Robert Frost, who lived and wrote nearby; John Irving, Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty, Amy Hempl, and other big names have participated over the years. It’s also different from the traditional writer’s retreat in its hectic pace—there’s something (workshop/reading/meeting/craft class/lecture/dance/binge-drinking) going on 24/7, and we participants are constantly warned to pace ourselves.
About 220 people go, most of those paying full tuition, but I’ve been admitted on a ‘waitership.’ This basically means that I get to serve chicken parmesan to fancy writer-types as a kind of work-study program, and in exchange, I get to participate for cheap and just generally get real fat on some knowledge.
I show up after a long drive through pretty rural Vermont, run into Michael Collier, the director, and then gather with the rest of the waiters on some picnic benches outside. There are 25 of us, strangers. We introduce ourselves, naming genre and fun facts, freshman-orientation-style. Everyone seems to be genuinely gracious and funny and weirdly lacking in pretense.
The head waiters, Cara Blue Adams and Nicholas Boggs warn us: we will be exhausted. We will cry. We will sweat and work hard and remember this forever. I, for one, am pleased with the attention paid to drinking. The directors seem to understand the necessity of booze in oiling the social joints of cave-dwelling writer-types.
Cara tells a first day story about previous Bread Loaf adventures: “She set his boxers on fire while they skinny-dipped in the lake.”
Excitement grows. Mouths water. My initial worry about the smoking ban dissolves upon finding cigarette butts behind the barn, and the frequently overheard statement: “I only smoke during Bread Loaf week.”
The waitresses and waiters sleep in different dorms, and we girls gather on our own porch to toast with champagne. The boys meanwhile, drink PBR.
So it begins.
First day of work as a waiter. We are very scared.
Surprisingly, we have not all been broke, frustrated waiters before. In fact, we’re a strange mix—we’ve got a ballet dancer, a cage fighter, a criminal, a mathematician.
I’ve been waitressing for years and I am still terrible at it and I spill coffee on fancy essayist Scott Russell Sanders and his wife. I wait for some kind of eloquent, well-versed curse, but he is very nice. Everyone continues to be really, really nice. I’m confused. This is not how waitressing is supposed to go.
I woke up super early that morning and went for a jog on the mountain. It was gorgeous—fog hanging on the hills, brooks running through the woods, the long windy path mowed through the hayfield—and I think my lungs are confused and afraid of the clean, clear air. “Where is our poison,” wheeze my lungs. “Where is the smog and the swampy humid toxic stew?” But it is all clean and beautiful. It is just like, whoa, nature. Nature fucking everywhere. Nature-palooza. It is also the last instance where I’ll have the time or energy for a jog.
Names so far for the boy’s dorm: Nutshack. Balliday Inn. Dome Home.
For the girls’ dorm: The G-Spot.
Jennifer Egan stands in front of me in the breakfast buffet line, scooping scrambled eggs onto her plate, while in my head I am screaming YOU WON A PULITZER. YOU ARE A FUCKING PULITZER PRIZE WINNER. WHY ARE YOU EATING EGGS. You should be eating truffles out of your Pulitzer Prize trophy. Do they even have a trophy? Is it a medal? Do you get a shiny thing? I don’t know. Ms. Egan is gracious and friendly and walks and talks like a normal human. I buss her plates at the end of the day, thinking, Pulitzer crumbs.
Percival Everett and Danzy Senna’s kids are insanely cute and they really want chocolate milk.
That night there’s a party for the waiter/fellow/scholar campers. We drink vodka out of paper cups and scream CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR NEW BOOK! at one another, trying to be heard over Beyonce, until we give up and dance (poorly). I take a break outside and end up lying in the grass next to Mario, another waiter, a Mexican ballet dancer whose talent brought him around the world until he quit dancing, took up writing, and ended up at Iowa.
We go quiet and look up at the wealth of stars you can make out there in the Vermont wilderness. It’s Perseid season. We point out Cancer and Sagittarius and count the meteors we see dashing along every couple of minutes: One. Two. Three. Four.
Tension builds. We go to bed late and wobbly and wake up early, rushing, without a break in the day. Casualties so far: at least two waiters have cried, one burned himself on a sterno can, several others are beginning to feel ill. We gather on the porch and there’s talk about sexual tension and who should bang who.
I’ve joined the ranks of waiters-who-have-cried. Last night I drank a cup of leftover vodka, sat outside and stared at a rock. I then went into the Barn, the big open loft where people gather to hang out, where an old friend introduced me to a literary agent. I promptly dropped my beer into his shoes, and after helping me clean up, said agent booked it. Success.
Phrases overheard thus far at Bread Loaf: “I stretched and belched and thought I was ready to fuck.” “The axe-murder party—I was writing a lot about blood.” “I never wanted to have sex with my sister.” “I just want to fist everybody’s poems.”
During my first workshop, led by Lan Samantha Chang, the director of the Iowa program, everyone gives intelligent, thoughtful advice and somehow manages to do it without sounding snooty or talking about their mothers. We laugh and yell and interrupt one another and walk together from the barn to go to lunch.
That night is a waiter reading—half the waiters, including me, read for just three minutes. We all brace ourselves by toasting with sake shots.
I’d expected it to be good, but I’m clean blown away. I sit there and watch my new friends transform in the spotlight. Jameelah Lang’s short nonfiction story gives me chills. Jeremiah Childers makes my jaw drop when he reads his poem, gets serious for the first time, lifts his black eyes. Alexandra Kleeman, who I have a writer-crush on since reading her story in Zoetrope months back, draws her elegant hand across the air, lilting in her sweet voice as she reads something sinister.
Afterwards there are hugs and handshakes and then a bonfire with another keg. I talk to strangers and turn in early, exhausted, but I lie awake for hours because Vermont August night is so very cold and my teeth chatter and my mind goes half-drunk with the pictures from my fellow campers words—wells and white teeth, untongued bells, axes in backs.
We’ve all hit a wall of exhaustion. We burst into laughter at nothing. Standing in the dining room after our 6th consecutive night of (light) manual labor, after I strip the latex, gravy-covered gloves from my hands, we all spontaneously start a rhythmic clapping which crescendos into a short kicking dance before the two dozen of us double over with hysterical laughter, half-crazed. It’s fun and it’s a little frightening.
To mark the halfway point there’s a ‘Barn Dance,’ so once dinner’s cleaned up we converge at the Balliday Inn to share a bottle of bourbon, a gift from a former head waiter. We surge into the barn all at once, screaming, and get to dancing—I’m not a big dance person but to my own huge surprise, I’m having a ton of fun, because the point is so obviously just to wile out, and nobody is trying to be cool. We go manic and shake around, a couple of us turn out to be legitimately badass dancers, and there’s some hip-swinging and fist pumping, shrieking over Carly Rae Johnson. In the hallway, another waiter and I complain that everyone in our group is gay and/or taken, and when is it going to get naked up in here?
When they cut the music after midnight we all howl a chorus of boos and demand the DJ brings the party upstairs. In a little dark room, in the noise and heat, I climb on top of the circled tables and march around, then conduct a slow waltz with one of my workshop classmates, dipping low with his hand on my back.
There’s more Maker’s Mark and plastic cups. I look at the smart girls whipping their hair and think, They are going to be somebody someday. I run downstairs and do cartwheels in the hall and then I run back upstairs and stick both my hands up the shirt of a French-Canadian memoirist, making little guns of my fingers. He and I walk like this through the crowd, over to the DJ booth.
“Play more music!” I say, my finger-pistols poking out the fabric, threatening.
All around the lights and bass and thumping, the keg has run dry, and I twitch both my thumbs at the DJ, saying bang, bang.
If I hear one more profound “mm” from an audience member in the middle of a poem, I am going to punch somebody in the mouth.
It is too early and too bright the day after the barn dance party thing, but somehow, some of the campers wake up early and run through their hangover in the traditional “Writer’s Cramp Race.” Most of us sleep in and try to recoup. We have a slow day, a break in the middle of the conference, and we all take it a little easy, finally enjoying some free time. My roommate (yes, we have roommates, it is camp) goes to a nearby lake. A lot of us go to a picnic by Robert Frost’s old house in the woods. I touch the desk where he used to write. I touch his bookshelf.
That night is the last waiter’s reading and again I’m knocked down by the talent of the people who are already my close friends. David J Daniels makes me sit up straight and grab my knees with one of his poems; Tom J Earles comes out with a rapid-fire Southern stream that makes us all jump. Mike Copperman reads his fantastic piece from The Rumpus; Lauren reads an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, A Stitch of Time, about a brain aneurysm that robbed her of the ability to recognize words.
At the bonfire afterwards, we take turns pumping the keg, and someone picks up a fiddle, another a guitar, and we quit words for a while to listen to the music. I’m silenced. I’m grateful.
Christ, has it seriously only been a week.
Between lunch and dinner shifts, I go to Meghan Mayhew-Bergman’s craft class on inserting the strange and beautiful into your story. She ends with a slide contrasting the schmaltzy-beautiful (Celine Dion, Nicholas Sparks) with the strange-beautiful (Tori Amos, Mary Gaitskill). “Which one do you think makes money, though?” she adds. Troof.
I’m all scooped out from the poems I’ve heard tonight. The staff reading chokes a few of us up-- Matthew Olzmann sucker punches me especially, then makes us laugh on the very next beat.
All the waiters have been saying what a marvel it’s been to become such good friends with someone, and then see, suddenly, that they are also genuinely talented. We’d never read one another’s work before, and now I want my hands all over their words.
And it’s true, we are good friends now. We eat and work and drink and sleep and laugh amongst one another and I feel closer to these people that I would’ve ever dreamed, since I’m not exactly a social butterfly, and I never thought I liked writers. I thought they were pretentious bubbleheads who talked in poetry voice and referenced Odysseus. But here Stegner fellows make fart jokes.
David tells me that A.R. Ammons once said, of his week at Bread Loaf way back in the sixties, that in those short days he'd acquired more than 50% of those friends who made up his understanding of the literary landscape. I believe it.
We can sense the end now, and we get to take the night off. We all go to the local A&W and play a football/baseball hybrid with broken toys. Jacques climbs on the picnic tables to dance, working it. We’ve crossed the line into tight friendship and we touch one another’s shoulders; we hug; we tackle. We’re beginning to sense the end.
On the way back, some of us pull over and walk down to the cold clear mountain river that winds through Middlebury. We stick our feet in the water, wade ankle deep, skip stones. We promise not to write a poem about it.
After, back at camp, the son of the Vermont Studio Center director plays fiddle in a barn strung with Christmas lights. He plays folk music and bluegrass and I am hushed. I hold my own hands. I do not interrupt.
Back in the Nutshack, we all play Scattergories in true sleepover style, screaming out RYAN SEACREST and PINK ELEPHANTS and GET YOUR GROOVE ON simultaneously. Alexandra says, “Um, something private we women normally do in the shower but haven’t been doing as much here,” and everyone bursts out hysterical laughing. We agree that the head waiters, Cara and Nick, are amazing, and we are thankful for them.
It all dissolves into pizza and liquor until there’s only four of us left. We talk about our livers, our mothers, our previous arrests. Marriage proposals we never made. Towns we wish we lived in. We play truth or dare. At 3 AM we all tromp down to the bridge by the campfire site and lie on our backs on a blanket, dizzy spun-headed; one of us remembers a line from Siken’s Scheherazade, saying, “Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake and dress them in warm clothes again. How it was late, and no one could sleep…”
I get 3 hours of sleep and zombie-walk through my breakfast shift.
I meet up with Samantha Chang and we talk about MFA programs, their necessity or lack thereof, what life at Iowa is like. I think about the future. I feel, for the first time ever, that maybe writing is a viable life choice, that maybe I have direction, maybe this is something I could do.
At dinner, in the epitome of summer camp, we do a skit: one of many Bread Loaf traditions. We are coordinated, singing with trays and swinging dishrags in unison. Molly plays the trombone, Lauren belts a solo, Samantha Chang’s 5-year-old daughter dances with a boa. The crowd goes wild and we go back to serving coffee.
The final staff reading: Harriet Clark gives me goosebumps so hard that I can see my own hair move in front of my face. I look forward to buying her new novel. I go to bed early, trying to get rid of the BLARS—the ‘Bread Loaf SARS,’ the cold that everyone’s been giving each other—which has crept up on me throughout the day.
It’s our last full day of Bread Loaf. What are we supposed to do?
Me— I’m supposed to work three shifts in a row, and my BLARS are at their worst. So I’m up at 6:30 again, and spend the day shuttling between the buffet line, workshop, lunch shift, coffee service, an amazing punk-rock-poetry reading by Matt Hart, and finally our last dinner, which is all gussied up, with wine service and white tablecloths. We lowly waiters don’t get to take part in fancy wine dinner fun, but we do get to watch the drunk grownups and high-five one another as our last work shift winds down. Michael Collier makes a thank you speech, mentioning the BLARS and moose sightings, and there is constant applause. I have gotten really, really good at clapping.
As we clean up, Cara gives us each a copy of The Southern Review, of which she is the editor. The issue is smooth and blue and beautiful and full of now-familiar names. I rub it on my sleepy face.
Afterwards, we’re all dressed up and we head on to The Beast—final official name for the boys’ dorm—where a toast to our head waiters Cara and Nick quickly degenerates into a giant mushy group hug and a full-length rendition of our waiter skit song, the mass of us rocking back and forth, making our sick lungs sore.
And then there’s the last dance.
We rush the barn again, wear ourselves out again, down glass after glass of complimentary beer and wine, we get wild, we whoop, we rub butts on other butts, right, because this is a party, let’s get weird. One waiter goes off to get naked with a guest. Another is trying hard to lure in a staff member. I speak closely outside with the memoirist, and we trade crime tips; he explains how he stole a motorcycle when he was 14 (it’s a long con). One by one the dancers drop out, until even the DJ quits. We move up to the observation deck afterwards, again, where we move the tables aside and write PARTY! on the blackboard.
In the wee hours, Nick Dybek invites me and a couple others back to Treeman—the house where the fellows stay.
Treeman is small and homey, and there, at three in the morning, poets snore passed-out on couches, and I nurse a beer slowly in front of the fire in the cage, listening to small talk around me, winding down. There’s only hours left. Out on the porch, one of the missing waiters shows up—he and a fellow tromped down to the river in the dark, where they ended up shin-deep in mud, wary of bears, praying for the woods to have mercy on them.
And all night we stumble and clutch at one another and try to explain how much we’ll miss, how close we’ve become. Just before dawn, the last of us fall asleep curled up in the living room, on the floor, in front of the still-going stove.
And then it’s over. It’s the last day. It’s time to drag our beat-up bodies out of bed for one last breakfast and say our goodbyes, time to pack, to figure out the route for home. Jeremiah and I walk down to the river for one last adventure. We step knee-deep through clear pools, grab at mossy rocks, and I try to burn this image into my foggy brain. There’s not much left to say. There’s not a face I won’t miss.
I’m grateful for my time on the mountain, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s changed my life. I’d worried about what I was doing—nobody reads literary journals, right? Shouldn’t I be writing a novella of lesbian erotica?—but now I feel like maybe, possibly, I’m on the right path. The people I saw up there were happy, they were writers and they were making it work. I know I just have to work more, work better, work harder. True, I look at the Atlantic now and read contributors thinking vegan; carnivore; gluten-free, and I’m still trying to shake the BLARS, and last night I circled the dinner table out of habit, bussing plates, offering coffee.
But, dear Bread Loaf-- you made me excited about the future.
I’m grateful to you. I thought you should know.