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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What I Learned from Charlie

Inside the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference
by Eugene Cross

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to return to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Ripton, Vermont, where since 1926, writers have been gathering to compare notes on the craft, discuss their respective triumphs and frustrations, and listen to countless readings and lectures. It’s an amazing place, rich with the type of natural beauty you find imitated in paintings hanging from the walls of doctors’ offices. There’s a sense when you’re there that you’re taking part in some great tradition, and of course, there’s the lore to back that up, famous anecdotes concerning the conference’s founder, Robert Frost, and various faculty who’ve taught there over the years, stories as old and treasured as the place itself. It was my fourth trip there and as lame as it might sound, I fall a little more in love with the place each year.

One of the nice things about the conference is that they allow you to list your top choices for whose workshop you’d like to be part of. You’re not guaranteed your first choice, but most likely you’ll end up studying with someone you’ve put down. This year I got my first choice. This year I got Charlie Baxter.

Because I’ve long been a fan of Baxter’s stories, (I teach his brilliant piece "Snow" every semester), and because I’m shamefully behind in my reading list, this summer I picked up The Feast of Love . I should note that I live in Northwest Pennsylvania where the weather is often described as “fickle.” This summer, “consistently shitty” would have been closer to the truth. But it wouldn’t have mattered if it’d been eighty and sunny every day. From the moment I cracked the binding on The Feast of Love, I was hooked. My running shoes collected dust in the closet, my golf clubs sat unused in the garage. Even my favorite summer pastime, sitting in a lawn chair with a cold beer, took a backseat to Baxter’s novel. I like a lot of what I read, but it’s been a long time since I’ve dreaded a book having to end, even longer since I’ve purposefully slowed myself down to delay the closing of that world, which is exactly what happened with The Feast of Love. I read the first two-thirds fairly quickly and then I bogged down, taking in a page or two here and there the way you might savor some vintage booze or gourmet dish you knew you would never have again. Because even though I’ll reread it, mainly to remind myself of all those things I love about writing and what it’s capable of, I’ll never again have the experience of reading it for the first time. When it ended, I resigned myself to that. I thought I was done trying to slow down time, trying to preserve something you feel a deep gratitude for. Then I took Baxter’s workshop.
Anything I write here will fall short, which says more about me than it does that workshop, but for the sake of sharing some of what I learned, here goes:

1) Don’t always telegraph your scene and then write it. Sometimes a little mystery goes a long way. Sometimes a touch of confusion at the start of a piece isn’t the end of the world. If the writing is there, the reader will wait to catch their bearings, and then keep pace.

2) Pay attention to silence, the way it’s utilized in good writing. When two or more characters are in the same place together and no one is talking and discomfort or unease or confusion is the prevailing emotion, the writer has to find some way to convey that artfully, to let the reader know that no one is speaking without coming right out and saying, “No one spoke.” This, like so much else in writing, is easier said than done. Baxter calls these “Expressive air-pockets of dead silence.”

3) Stay in the moment…obvious, right? Maybe just not for me. I sometimes get to a point when I’m writing a scene where I feel like nothing is happening or too much is happening or the wrong thing is happening and it’s making me uneasy, and then, stupidly, I decide to cut away, to insert that all powerful page break and essentially wimp-out. When the urge for this presents itself, try staying there a little longer, as upsetting or seemingly unproductive as that may be. You can always cut later. When Baxter described this in workshop he did so by tossing a pen to the floor and telling the class to stare at it. We did. For a moment it was strange, and then, not so much. The staring becomes sinister, the pen becomes sinister, and if you stay with it long enough, so does your scene.

4) No matter how good a writer you are, no matter how well received your books may be, or how well respected you are by your peers, you are never ever too cool to dance.

5) It’s rarely good to stop a story and say “This is how I see things now.” The struggle of the story is how things were seen then. This, like all good writing dictums, has its exceptions.

6) Inflection goes a long way. Italicizing a word or two of dialogue to place emphasis, is another trick the fiction writer has up their sleeve.

I could keep going, but I won’t. It was an amazing couple of weeks and not just for Baxter’s teaching, or for the fabulous writers who made up that workshop. In the end what I was reminded of and reassured by was just how many of us there are, just how many people out there are sitting alone in their studies or offices or basements or whatever, trying to make something out of nothing, trying to pull a compelling story, a heartbreaking, moving piece of work, from their memories and experiences and the musty air around them.

I can’t sit down at Thanksgiving dinner this year and bring up Baxter’s idea concerning expressive air-pockets of dead silence, unless, of course, I want to elicit one from my family. So it’s nice to be reminded, as I was this year, as I have been in the past, that for so many of us, these things do matter, and do warrant discussion and do in fact, make all the difference.

Eugene Cross teaches creative writing in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. His stories have previously appeared or are forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Narrative, Story Quarterly, Callaloo, Hobart, and Guernica, among others. He received a Master of Fine Arts in fiction writing from The University of Pittsburgh. To find out more or read a selection, visit here.


princess kanomanom said...

Moving story, helpful (and unique) advice.

I particularly enjoyed "...I'll never again have the experience of reading it for the first time. When it ended, I resigned myself to that. I thought I was done trying to slow down time, trying to preserve something you feel a deep gratitude for."


Also, #2/"air-pockets of dead silence" is a lovely way of stating something so critical in writing. Thanks for sharing.

Reese said...

This is lovely, moving, and exact--thanks for writing this!