Sunday, August 9, 2015

Bread Loaf

Back in 1984 or 85, I was a flight attendant with dreams of becoming a writer. I lived on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, in what is now called NoHo but back then was nameless, the way east end of that beautiful street (still my favorite street in NYC) on the border of the Eat Village. I had a boyfriend who I loved madly, an actor who was also working as a bartender. At night I would scribble my stories in composition books, stories about three women who went to school together in the 60s and what had become of them and their children two decades later. After much prodding, I began to read those stories out loud to my beloved. One night he urged me to take them to someone in the English department at NYU. They're good, he told me. I laughed. But you love me, I said. Of course you think they're good. He told me, I love you enough to tell you if they weren't good. 
So the next day, or the next, I did just that. And in September I found myself in a class with EL Doctorow, and in the spring in another with William Decker, a former editor at Viking who had edited the likes of Katharine Anne Porter. Bill was the third man on my path to becoming a writer ( number one was my dad, number two my beloved). He invited me to his apartment overlooking Washington Square Park and told me two life changing things: I had what it took to become a writer. And he was recommending me to the renowned Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont that summer. 
I didn't know then that with the help of Robert Frost and Middlebury College Bread Loaf had been founded back in 1920 and that the likes of Eudora Welty, Anne Sexton, and so many other literary heroes of mine had graced those lovely yellow buildings on those rolling green hills. 
And so my beloved drove me to Vermont and helped me get settled into my room at Cricket, where I met four other women with dreams just like mine. I didn't know then that they would be lifelong friends. Or that my workshop with Nicholas Delbanco would change my life even more. But one chilly August Vermont afternoon, sitting on two Adirondack chairs overlooking those green hills dotted with bales of hay, Nick told me I wasn't writing short stories; I was writing a novel. A good one. 
Those words were the ones that turned my scribbles in those composition books into my first novel, Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine, which was published in 1987. Here's it's original cover. (How I loved this cover! Thank you, Deb Futter and Bantam Books!)

(And unbelievably, all these years later, this novel born at Bread Loaf, has never gone out of print:

So yes, Bread Loaf led to me getting my first novel published. It set me on a life changing course. It made my dream of becoming a writer come true. 

But it did more than that. It immersed me, for two glorious weeks in a Vermont August, in the world of literature and the craft of writing; in poetry and prose; in crazy dancing and late night revelry and friendships that go long and deep. I've gone back to that mountain many times since that first time when I was a nervous 20something clutching her notebooks of stories. I was a Fellow there in 1987; and a faculty member many summers since 1988. 
Tuesday I pack up my little Fiat and make the ride to that mountain again. Waiting there are writers who I've come to know and love over these many summers, and many more I'll get to know over the next intense, exhausting, exhilarating two weeks.
Even after all these many years, one thing doesn't change there: 
I'll be immersed again in the world of literature and the craft of writing; in poetry and prose; in crazy dancing and late night revelry and friendships that go long and deep. 
And maybe, just maybe, one young writer I sit with on an Adirondack chair overlooking green hills and bales of hay, will feel the magic of this place, just like I did. Just like I still do.