by Evan James Roskos
On the fifth night at the prestigious Bread Loaf writers conference, I witnessed a barn dance. Disco ball. Christmas lights. Crowd surfing. Staff members up on tables. A purported broken rib. “Thriller” blasted from the speakers early on and to close it out. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” encouraged a floor-threatening, spontaneous mosh pit.
I couldn’t help but wonder why the conference organizers would subject a group of over 200 writers to the stuff of our collective social nightmares. Hadn’t we suffered through plenty of awkward dances as children and teenagers? Hadn’t some of us been stood up at these things? Hadn’t we felt our essential worthlessness when no one asked us to dance or, worse, did ask us? Hadn’t this horrible awkwardness inspired much of the poetry and fiction written by the gobs of sweaty, elbow-pumping people that danced before me?
Apparently the evil of dances had all been forgotten. Everyone seemed so…joyous.
The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference manages to be both wondrous and annoying, beneficial and tedious, too short and too long. Fortunately, I don’t have any ire towards the experience that would result in a response similar to the now-famous quote from the New Yorker article: “Bread Loaf is a fucking parody.” It’s not a parody. It’s a rare experience for people who choose to do something that is reportedly more unappreciated in America then ever -- write.
The goal of the conference is to provide writers of various experience levels with opportunities to improve their craft, learn more about the publishing process, and network with editors and agents and published writers. It’s a glorious ten days that stretches on like a slow, strange montage. Every moment is accounted for and the outside world is far away. (The closest encroachment is at the bottom of the mountain where cellphone service appears magically and the McDonald’s thankfully serves milkshakes 24 hours a day.)
Mostly, we all spent time listening. We listened to readings. We listened to lectures. We listened in workshops. We listened to the two entree choices at dinner. By the end, we’d listened to, easily, a billion words. And some animal sounds. (I counted three separate pieces that mentioned owls hooting. Also, my roommate said he heard a mountain lion. So I listened for that.)
There are some negatives. Since I drove, I found myself relegated to a cabin located a mile from the campus, hidden on a rocky road at the top of a steep hill. In the middle of the woods. I think I even heard a Sasquatch. Driving a mile up and down a rocky, dirt road is not that big of an issue, even at night when the only light comes from the poetic moon. But being a commuter at a writers conference -- even one who drives only a mile -- has drawbacks. A large portion of the campus population could run to their room to nap, to grab a snack, to change clothes. My cabin was so shaded each morning that I never really knew what the weather was like until I got to campus, often assuming it was cold when it was just warm enough to make jeans a bad choice. When the chill of the evening came through, I was either happy to still be in jeans or annoyed that I had to make another trip home to change clothes. (Having no internet connection in the cabin made it impossible to check the weather.)
The cabin included a shared bathroom decorated with squashed bugs on the walls and ceilings, remains that were already old when I first arrived; a shared bedroom with wallpaper that had been sliced and didn’t stick to the wall in a number of places; various smoke and carbon monoxide detectors that let out beeps at random intervals until one of my cabin-mates became so agitated late one night that he called the emergency number to have someone venture out to our dark corner of the campus to address the problem.
It seemed like all the moments outside of the scheduled classes and readings resembled the socially awkward exchanges of freshmen year of college -- from the overly friendly, enthusiastic meetings, to the instant friendships that dissolved by day four, to the people who would speak to you once and pretend never to see you again. (It was probably something I said. It usually is.) Cafeteria meals resulting in very shy people eating alone or drumming up some courage to ask strangers if they could sit. There was a very real prospect of eating a meal with Edward P. Jones. Or Charles Baxter. Or Julie Barer, agent extraordinaire. How do you have a casual conversation over vegetable curry with someone who has won the Pulitzer Prize? Or someone who could get your book published? Especially when you haven’t had enough sleep and you’ve told fifty different people where you’re from, what you do, and what you’re working on? I am not the only person who walked the fine line between self-promoting douchebag and generally nice, sociable person. But the overriding assumption is that we’re all walking that line together, so ultimately it didn’t seem to matter if people slipped one way or the other.
Amongst all of this whining, I would be remiss to leave out some of the brilliant performances by a variety of writers. Thomas Mallon gave a fantastic lecture on how fiction writers have failed to fully utilize space travel outside of science fiction. He also closed out the conference by reading from a novel-in-progress that involved Delores Grey (someone you might know if you are “really, really gay,” according to Mallon) and the mysterious death of a lesser-known actor she had befriended. Randall Kenan also gave a great performance, reading an unpublished story about a woman who had the chance to be Howard Hughes’s personal chef. Mallon and Kenan’s readings highlighted the importance of performing a piece rather then just reciting it. Of course, someone like Lynn Freed could pull back on giving her characters specific voices and just bask in the crowd’s reaction. Often during her lecture and reading, the audience exploded with laughter, causing Freed to look around at us, her face asking why we were so surprised at the humor. She knew how funny her writing was, but her understated facial expressions and well-paced reading completed the experience. Perhaps the most amazing performance of all came from Luis Alberto Urrea, a man who may have unknowingly started a cult thanks to his readings and workshop. Praise followed his name throughout the conference and his reading wherein he recited a story. No, he embodied it. No, he relived it. I’m not sure I can explain. I guess the best news is that the conference organizers will provide many of the lectures and readings on iTunes via a podcast, so interested folks can at least bask in the glory of the sounds of these and other wonderful performances.
Eventually, I realized I wasn’t made up for hours of listening and networking. Perhaps this is a flaw in my genetic structure, or a result of the same horrible childhood that I hope will support my career for years to come. Whatever the case, what began as an extended panic attack turned into a memorable, productive experience. Considering the conference places great emphasis on the writing, not the writers (no one receives an introduction at their reading), it felt strange that little time was given to actually sit in the many wooden chairs left on the bright, beautiful campus and write. The conference leader, poet Michael Collier, had recommended that we try to pace ourselves, to skip what we felt we should skip to maintain our energy levels. Armed with this decision, when the bell signaled the start of an event I often left my small circle of new friends, found a chair, listened to the mumbled voices tumbling out of the Little Theater, and wrote. Yet, even after hearing hours and hours of words flutter (or cram) into my ears, even after realizing I had to pace myself, I still found myself putting my own work aside to listen, leaning forward to hear more. How could I not at a place like this?
Evan James Roskos attends the Rutgers University - Newark MFA program. His work has appeared in Reed and Granta and will appear in an upcoming issue of StoryQuarterly. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and their fat, toothless dog Sable.