Let’s say that you hold some passionate, but obscure belief. Maybe you believe God will fling a meteor at the earth and all the good people will be sucked up into heaven. Maybe you favor a return to the gold standard. Or perhaps you think Roseanne Barr should be elected president this fall on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. Whatever it is, this belief animates your life, gives your daily existence shape and meaning, but no one you know really understands why you care so much about it. Then one day you drive to a mountaintop in the Vermont woods and spend 10 days in splendid isolation with several hundred other people who fervently believe the same things you do.
That’s what a week and a half at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference feels like. The conference, the oldest and most prestigious of its kind in the country, is a curious mix of summer camp, trade convention, and religious retreat, all set in an idyllic meadow surrounded by forested mountain ridges. Over dinner, writers, young and old, famous and wannabe, talk earnestly about narrative arc and slant rhyme, not only as if these were topics of everyday conversation, but as if they were the only things worth talking about. At the same time, the conference is an industry gathering where the power brokers of the publishing and the MFA program worlds can do business in a relaxed setting while, in their midst, unpublished writers go around like Willy Loman with his sample cases, hawking their novels and books of poems to literary agents and editors.
Bread Loaf dates back to 1926 when the poet Robert Frost and the novelist Willa Cather, among others, urged Middlebury College to launch an annual summer writing conference on the grounds of a former horse farm on Bread Loaf Mountain a few miles from the Middlebury campus. Frost, who lived part of the year in nearby Ripton, Vt., attended 29 sessions of the conference, kicking off a tradition of literary star wrangling that has brought everyone from Norman Mailer and Toni Morrison to Anne Sexton and Eudora Welty to the conference.
Bread Loaf does not wear this history lightly. From the moment you arrive “on the mountain,” you are constantly being congratulated for your general awesomeness for having been invited, and Frost’s name is invoked so often you half-expect the white-haired old poet to come shambling into the dining hall to line up for his morning eggs. But if admission to Bread Loaf puts you in a club — and the conference does its best to make you feel that it does — it is indeed an exclusive one. According to the most recent figures put out by the conference, in 2011, Bread Loaf turned down the applications of 73% of the writers who wanted to attend, and 94% of those who applied for a break on the tuition and fees, which this summer totaled $2,725.
So, what does $272.50 a day and a top-quartile prose style buy you? The accommodations are Spartan in the manner of an old-fashioned New England boarding school, and meals, though surprisingly edible, are shared family-style in a main dining hall. With a few exceptions, the only beverages on offer are water, tea, and coffee. The campus, basically an old inn, a converted barn, and several dozen smaller and larger whitewashed cottages laid out across a remote mountain meadow, is lovely, but a bit on the lonesome side. All you need is a crop-duster plane and a freaked-out Cary Grant and you’d have a pretty good setting for a Hitchcock film.
According to lore, Bread Loaf was once known as “Bed Loaf” and was an extended bacchanal in which famous poets and novelists pounded red wine and rutted in the meadow grass, but if any of that was going on during my stay earlier this month, it was fairly discreet. The conference I attended was staid, sober, and suffused with the Protestant work ethic. At every hour of every day, starting at nine a.m. and often going until 10 or 11 at night, some famous or semi-famous writer was giving a public reading or running a writing workshop or teaching a class on the craft of writing.
Even mealtimes are a potential career move. Do you want to take that empty seat next to Kathy Pories, senior editor at Algonquin Books? Or, look, over by the salad bar, that’s Janet Silver, former VP of Houghton Mifflin, now in the hunt for clients in her new role as a literary agent. Or perhaps you’d like to join Irish poet Eavan Boland, head of Stanford’s Stegner Fellows program, and novelist Lan Samantha Chang, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — the Putin and Obama of the MFA world — for roast turkey with gravy and a side dish of academic realpolitik.
This, ultimately, is what Bread Loaf is selling: a close-up view of how the sausage gets made in literary America. The ostensible focus is on the writing workshops, and they are unusually good at Bread Loaf. Mine was led by Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life, who is a gifted writer and teacher, and featured nine other students, who with only a few exceptions, were talented, serious writers whose work I expect to someday see on bookstore shelves. But a workshop is a workshop, and you can have nearly as good an experience at a fraction of the cost any one of dozens of literary conferences that have sprung up like mushrooms in recent years. And, really, for the cost of a hardcover book, you can meet and chat with any of the writers I met at Bread Loaf when they appear at a bookstore near you to sign their latest work.
What Bread Loaf offers is not just the opportunity to rub shoulders with eminent authors and publishing worthies, but a chance to do so at a time and place when their usually trip-wired bullshit detectors are disarmed. At book signings and public readings, authors are hawking a product; they’ll be nice to you, but only because they want you to buy their book. At Bread Loaf, a certain high-school cliquishness obtains — there are cool kids’ tables in the dining hall, and gossip abounds — but that can only go so far. I have read everything Samantha Chang has published, and like every other writer I know, I’ve lusted after getting into the Iowa MFA program she oversees, but at dinner we didn’t talk about any of that. We talked about mutual friends and our children. Justin Torres, likewise, may get his stories in The New Yorker and receive rave reviews on his first novel, We the Animals, but on one rainy night early in the conference he was just a guy needing to share my umbrella on the way to a reading.
The same applies to the publishing professionals, though the calculus is different. Agents and editors at Bread Loaf are quite explicitly there to do business. Each conference attendee can sign up for two private 15-minute meetings with an agent or editor, and an enterprising attendee can fit in four or five more by choosing the right seat at mealtimes or buttonholing an agent outside a Friday night dance. Most literary conferences offer similar access to publishing folk, but because of Bread Loaf’s reputation, attendees not only gain access to a slightly better cut of agents and editors, they also get the reflected glory of the Bread Loaf name.
This matters. As I wrote in a piece earlier this month, literary agents receive thousands, and in some cases, tens of thousands of query letters pitching unpublished books every year, and can take on only a handful of new writers. A conference like Bread Loaf serves a function much like a selective university does for job recruiters: it culls the untalented and unserious. The selection process is imperfect, of course, but when agents and editors sit down with writers at Bread Loaf they are free from the unspoken dictum of all publishing gatekeepers, which states that they can say no and be right 99 percent of the time. At Bread Loaf, as at other well-regarded conferences like Sewanee, Tin House, and Squaw Valley, publishing professionals can get out of the defensive crouch they typically adopt when talking with anyone trying to sell them a book idea and actually listen.
These are the practical reasons to attend a literary conference like Bread Loaf, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t consider them as I was writing that check for $2,725. (Yup, I applied for aid and didn’t get it.) As businesses go, publishing is a lousy one, but it is a business, and given a choice between sending my work in over the digital transom and spending a few grand on a writers’ conference where I can get the full attention of agents and editors, as well as smart feedback on my manuscript from the workshop, I’d write that check every time.
But writers’ conferences are about more than face-time with agents and sitting down to dinner with the poet laureate. I am a man who, like thousands of my fellow Americans, spends nearly all his free time on a pursuit that doesn’t pay and offers few plausible paths to fame or fortune. I’m 46 years old, sober, and hard-working, with more education than I know what to do with, yet I’ve never made more than $40,000 a year, and most years I make less. I don’t yearn for the return of the gold standard or believe in the divine rapture, but I think I have some insight into how those true-believers feel when their wives and husbands say, “That’s great that you’re going to save us from everlasting hellfire, honey, but right now I could use a little help with the groceries.”
But then I go to a place like Bread Loaf where everyone, even the most successful poets and writers, has sacrificed for his or her art, and I feel a little less crazy. Over the years, I’ve watched dozens of writers more talented than me quit the field. For some, the constant rejection wore them down, while others simply needed to make more money, but most of the time, I think, they quit because they stopped believing in themselves as writers and, absent that belief, writing poems and stories came to seem an indulgence they could no longer afford.
That’s why people like me go to conferences like Bread Loaf. Like most Americans, I live in a world that cannot see the point in work that doesn’t bring in money or instant prestige. I myself can’t see the point in work that doesn’t bring money or prestige, yet I keep doing it, day after day, year after year. At a place like Bread Loaf, I can see up close that people not all that different than me have turned this queer habit of mine into a job that gives them money and prestige. But — and this is the great secret — I also meet hundreds of other people just like me, who will never make money as writers, who will never win a Pulitzer Prize or be the poet laureate, but keep on writing because they love it. And, seeing them, I know I am not alone.
Photo Credit: Amedeo D’Adamo