When I was a senior in high school, my adored English teacher took me to the Bread Loaf Young Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. I don’t even really remember entering anything, or applying in any formal way. I suppose I must have, but I honestly don’t remember that part at all.
I just remember that she told me I had gotten in, and that she would be driving me there and back.
She had a convertible, and it was May. So I thought this was a pretty great plan.
Also, I adored her. And when do you get to spend time with an idolized English teacher like that? The one who looked you in the eye after knowing you for two whole months and told you that you should seriously check out Keats? The one who took you to see a play in a nearby town and squealed and grabbed your sleeve during intermission when she spotted Edward Gorey in the crowd, and then went up and introduced herself and you to him? The one who brought you to see Denise Levertov read, who changed everything for you, and then Marge Piercy, who changed it all over again?
The one who once taught an entire class with an empty wastepaper basket on her head, just to see what we would do if she did?
I was pretty psyched to drive up to Vermont with her. Let’s leave it at that.
And yeah, Bread Loaf was amazing.
My memories of the weekend itself are pretty scarce, actually, except for the clear and certain recollection of how perfect it all was. I remember just a few things.
It was intense. It was exhilarating. It made me feel like a writer.
Bread Loaf is a writer’s conference, so naturally we spent all day long steeped in workshops, alternately writing and reading to each other. I fancied myself to be a bit of a poet at that age, as one does, and furthermore I was deeply into my ee cummings phase, as one is when one is 17 years old. So I wrote floaty, frothy, free form poetry, and also a bunch of lighthearted short stories about my childhood.
Regular readers of this blog will know I only really outgrew one of those literary tics. Alas.
Oddly enough, I don’t remember having any real fear of reading my work out loud to my peers — I think my general sense was that they wouldn’t have let me in if I wasn’t at least as good as the rest of them. So, I figured, here I am — let’s see what the rest of you guys have got.
I do remember that this was my first real exposure to what I called then — and still call today — the Dead Baby School of Fiction. It seemed like everyone else there was maniacally intent on shocking — SHOCKING — the rest of us with their grim, nihilistic outlook on life. And it seemed, after a while, that every story these kids would read would somehow, eventually, inevitably, involve a dead baby. I am not exaggerating. Dead babies appeared with truly shocking regularity over the course of this weekend.
If I had been a drinker at the time, I surely would have made it into a drinking game.
But then there was this one wonderful instructor. A woman writer who just captivated me. I don’t remember her name, but she was tall, and very thin, and had long, wavy, gloriously unbrushed and wild black hair that was streaked with grey. Her voice was low, smoky, throaty with self deprecating laughter. And she had an absolutely stunning tattoo on her left arm — a ring of roses wrapped around her slender, bony wrist. Bright red buds, deep, twining green leaves.
I thought she was breathtaking in her originality. I had never seen an older woman with tattoos, never mind one who was in a position of authority over me. The personal history, the utterly foreign and — to me — unimaginable life that her voice, her body, her laughter hinted at was straight up intoxicating to me.
I do wonder who she was.
There was a boy, of course. He was blond, I think, which is unlike me. I normally went for the dark, moody, and tragic type back then. But this boy was more like the boys I would go after later in life, and indeed, would eventually marry. Fair haired, fair skinned, wicked smart, and funny as hell.
So this boy was there. And I would sit with him on one of the long, green wooden benches behind the main building, writing increasingly silly verses and reading them to each other, competitively, then finally collapsing into fits of giggles all over each other.
Then it rained, and we took shelter under the eaves, watching the rain pour down from the gutters like only a springtime rain in Vermont can. In minutes, it was over, and the world was bright, glistening, and wet. We ran outside and sprinted across the blazingly green meadow that stretched out for acres across the street, through the thicket of woods beyond, and down to the river that tumbled within.
On the banks of that river, we stopped to catch our breath, our hands resting easily on each other’s backs as we bent gasping over our knees. In a minute or two, we made our way back up the slope to the meadow, towards home.
Now bear with me, because here comes the part about the rainbow.
Upon reaching the meadow again, we were greeted by an enormous rainbow, arching far and wide across the cloud-speckled Vermont sky.
I’m not going to lie to you. It was a double rainbow. Go ahead. Roll your eyes. I’ll wait.
And as I stood there, panting on the edge of that meadow, wet from the rain and lashed with the branches of the woods by the river, I thought:
This is what life is like when you are a writer. I am going to be a writer, and I will teach at workshops like this one, and I will get a tattoo of roses around my wrist.
And perhaps I will also take up smoking, because my voice isn’t nearly sexy enough.
I did take up smoking, eventually, but I didn’t do much else about that vision of the future I had at Bread Loaf, double rainbow and thrilling races across fields of green with some awesome boy notwithstanding.
I have no idea.
I went off to college the next year, and it honestly never occurred to me to major in English, or to write fiction in my spare time, or to enter contests or write for the school literary journal or anything like that. Even when I started winning more prizes for writing competitions that I didn’t remember entering. Again. Seriously, is this something that English teachers just do?
I think I believed that the only kinds of people who wrote for the school journal and who wrote fiction in their spare time and who entered contests were necessarily and exclusively of the Dead Baby School of Fiction, and I instinctively knew that I wasn’t one of them.
When I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, I had fantasized about writing romance novels for a living. But that no longer seemed like a worthy pursuit to me, not after I had been exposed to the heady glamour of writing term papers on Dostoevsky, or lengthy critiques of Thomas Hardy.
Except for that one brief weekend at Bread Loaf, I just didn’t think of myself as a writer. I figured I would just use my writing, like a tool I was particularly skilled at wielding, in whatever discipline I ended up pursuing. So that’s what I did. For years.
I felt like a writer
But for that one brief weekend at Bread Loaf, I did feel like a writer. And I didn’t feel even a little bit self conscious about not writing about Dead Babies, or about broken glass on window panes, or loaded guns in dresser drawers. I wrote about what was in me, which is generally pretty frothy, lighthearted stuff, and I was damned happy to do so. And I thought I was pretty damn good at it, too, if you want to know the truth.
But once I left Bread Loaf, I started to think about my writing as similar to playing my euphonium, a thing that I was also pretty good at without really trying too hard. Playing the euphonium was all well and good, and I could sight read a piece of music like you wouldn’t believe, but there was simply no glory in it. It’s not an orchestral instrument. You don’t play it in jazz bands. You play it — maybe — in a dinky little town band on the village green in summertime. Sousa marches and whatnot. And I knew, back then, that I was destined for greater things, so I gave it up.
I was naturally good at it, and I gave it up.
And I thought that only Dead Baby writers could be serious writers, so I gave that up, too.
I didn’t write for pleasure again — purely for my own gratification — until about seven years ago, when I started writing this blog. It took me that long to get back to it, for writing to start leaking out of me like water from a dam that was strained to the breaking point.
And then last year, more than 20 years after Bread Loaf, the dam simply burst. Out of the blue, I started calling myself a writer again. Out of the blue, I started thinking of myself as a writer again, and I just stopped caring about whether or not I wrote about the right sorts of things. I just wrote about the stuff that was in me, and I was damned happy to do so.
Out of the blue, I wrote two whole books in less than a year. Frothy, lighthearted romance novels that make me collapse into giggles all over myself.
I don’t know why I just let it all go like that after Bread Loaf, but I’ll tell you this: I am breathless with gratitude that I have it back now.
Today is my 40th birthday, you guys. And I don’t want any other present in the world.
Just this. Just my writing.
But it just might be time for another trip to Vermont.