My Bread Loaf

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The author (in the center in the blue shirt) with the 1973 Bread Loaf kitchen crew.

“The kitchen crew is the armpit of Bread Loaf, you know,” an assistant cook said to several of us who were working with him one morning in the kitchen on the campus where the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference is held. I can’t recall what led him to bring up the subject. Maybe he had heard the story about our two dishwashers who had crashed a gathering of women Conference members one evening. “Oh, we’re not writers!” the dishwashers gleefully responded to a question directed to them. “We’re on the kitchen crew!” Later, they raced back to the warren of rooms at the back of the Bread Loaf Inn where the female staff slept, gathered us together, and described how the authors seated around them had sat clutching their glasses of sherry or cups of tea, gaping soundlessly. The writers may have finally gone on to discuss something literary, but that part of the story would have been anti-climactic as far as we were concerned.

Whatever the cook’s reason for offering his armpit observation, it was pretty much lost on us. We would have had to have cared what someone else thought of us for the analogy to mean anything, and we didn’t. We were far too busy having a good time.

The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, which meets at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus in Ripton, Vermont, will be starting a new session on August 10th. Over the past eighty-six years, thousands of aspiring writers have taken part in what many describe as the country’s premier writers’ gathering. Articles about Bread Loaf usually dwell on the intensity of the experience. Many applicants don’t make the cut in the first place. Those who do get to spend a chunk of their vacation time attending a full schedule of workshops, lectures, and readings while they compete for the attention of faculty members and pretend that they love having their best writing critiqued.

It sounded like a rough way to spend two weeks to those of us working in the Bread Loaf kitchen in the summers of 1973,’74, and ’75.

When describing their time at Bread Loaf, writers often dwell on the beauty of the site, so I guess some of them must get outside or maybe look out a window at least. However, by the time I finished my sophomore year at the University of Vermont and started my temp job as the Bread Loaf pastry girl, I was pretty jaded about the wonders of nature. I grew up in Vermont on what might kindly be referred to as a very small hill farm, and my school bus traveled rural mountain roads every day. For me the magic of the Bread Loaf campus wasn’t the view, but the way the landscape had been domesticated. The array of late nineteenth/early twentieth century buildings that dotted the enormous, carefully maintained meadow didn’t scream wilderness by a long shot. They were more like some very wealthy child’s discarded playhouses, and that’s how my friends on the kitchen crew and I treated them. During our free time, we explored every floor and wing of the Inn and all the dormitories, taking advantage of any opportunity to peer into the paneled or papered bedrooms and the bathrooms filled with primitive plumbing. The Library, the Theater, the Barn that held a lounge and a snack bar, and the pond at the back of the campus were all our territory.
We branched out to the Middlebury College Snow Bowl and the Green Mountain State Forest, both close enough so we could hike their ski trails and old roads between our breakfast, lunch, and dinner shifts. Sex and drugs were available for our more adventurous co-workers, but the rest of us had a little Peter Pan thing going on, one in which we ran wild over the Bread Loaf campus and beyond. The place seemed like the summer camps I’d only read about in books, but for grown-ups. Whenever we had enough, we would catch a ride with someone down to Middlebury for shopping and ice cream at Calvi’s during our afternoon breaks.

It was good to be us.

The writers we fed were just our excuse to be at Bread Loaf. The waiters and waitresses coming in and out of our kitchen three times a day were all Conference participants working off some of their tuition and fees. They cared about the literary guests who showed up in the dining room, but no one who really worked in the kitchen was impressed by writers. The professional cooks at the top of our hierarchy may have set the tone for the rest of us. They were permanent Middlebury College food service employees who would go back to the main campus to work in the fall. They knew way too much about the carryings on of academics to feel any awe of some more book people. The baker, my personal supervisor, remembered Robert Frost from back in the day when he’d been associated with Bread Loaf. She made it clear that he was no big deal. The year before I started in the kitchen, a science fiction writer on the faculty did all his laundry and then sun bathed nude on the lawn while he waited for it to go through the wash and dry cycles. This did not go over well with the long-term kitchen staff. I heard about it several times.
Many of the younger, temporary members of the kitchen crew were college students, some from prestigious private schools. Everyone was looking forward to a career, even if in many cases those careers were somewhat vaguely defined. We didn’t see ourselves as being that different from the average Writers’ Conference participants who were also looking forward to careers. We also weren’t much younger than some of them. Our ability to pass among the writers unnoticed made it possible for us to pick up odds and ends of information, and our sense of parity with them led us to feel qualified to comment upon what we heard. The man who had published an article in Playboy…Just one? The young woman who was so happy and hopeful because of the response she’d received to her writing from her assigned faculty member…That was nice, but did it mean any of that work would ever be published? When the rumor came back to the kitchen that a writer had suffered some sort of nervous breakdown, we felt badly, but, hey, writing isn’t an easy field to break into.

At the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, even the kitchen crew knew that.

We younger members of the kitchen staff would probably have been more taken with the writers the years I was at Bread Loaf if they had been more like the naked guy I had heard so much about. The same year he had been at the Conference I was told that another writer had attended a dance in the Barn where his gyrations had been “obscenity in motion.” Stories like those led me to have expectations. The writers were very tame while I was there, though. Disappointingly so. I went to some kind of cocktail party once and hung around the fringes of a women-in-literature meeting. Everyone kept their clothes on. No one got up and danced.
I did see John Gardner from my bedroom window once, though. I knelt on my bed and watched him walk up a path toward the Inn’s back door. He was easy to recognize from his photographs because of his long, gray hair, and he was wearing a pullover shirt with full sleeves gathered at the wrists. There was a man who knew how to look like a writer.

I also went to hear Lore Segal speak in the Theater one evening. How that came about is a total mystery to me, because while she is a highly regarded novelist, short story writer, essayist, and teacher, I had never heard of her then. My only recollection of the event is that Segal had dark hair. What makes the incident notable to me is what happened years later. After I started publishing children’s fiction in the 1980s, I learned that Lore Segal is also a children’s writer. Was that what she was talking about that night? If I were listening to her speak now, I would probably be taking notes.

I appear to have been remarkably uninformed about contemporary writers when I was young, especially considering that I was an English major. But I’ve no doubt that that obliviousness contributed to my enjoyment of my time at Bread Loaf.

One day at dinner, the waiters and waitresses returned to the kitchen after their first foray into the dining room with news.

“Anne Sexton is here!”

“Anne Sexton is here!”

“Have you heard? Anne Sexton is here!”

They were truly thrilled, like kids who had caught a glimpse of Santa. It was fun to see how eager they were to pass on their information to someone, anyone they could get close to. While the meal was being served, the story came out. Maxine Kumin, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet I had never heard of, was at Bread Loaf that summer. Anne Sexton, also a Pulitzer Prize winner I knew nothing about, had come to visit her.

“And she’s going to do a reading. Tonight!”

That evening, while Anne Sexton was giving her reading to what I am sure was a standing room only crowd, my friends and I went swimming. We had a good time. I’m glad I didn’t miss it.

I’ve been to a few writers’ conferences, myself, over the years. Not many, though, because I don’t enjoy them very much. What I really prefer are salon-like gatherings that last maybe three hours or so. Coincidentally, that’s about how long my work shifts were in the Bread Loaf kitchen. My longest bout at a conference was a three-day event at which I served on the faculty. It was held in a woodsy, though somewhat flat for my tastes, venue in Rhode Island. I brought some walking shoes and a camera, expecting to get out on the trails at least once. I managed to sneak out for a little while during lunch on Saturday, but otherwise it was all presentations and panel discussions and critique groups all the time. It was like…work.

That’s writers for you.

For many years after I left Bread Loaf for good, I would have these frustrating dreams of returning to the Inn that dominates that campus. In them I was never looking for a second chance to hear Anne Sexton read. I was always trying to return to the back of the old building, to the kitchen with its network of high-ceilinged rooms — the pantry where I washed fruit for dessert, the bakery with its blackened bread and muffin pans, the narrow chamber with the long table where my friends and I ate our meals together.

The dreams suddenly stopped around the time I began to publish regularly. My dreams are almost always easy to interpret, but how do you work out the meaning of a dream’s absence? In this case, it was easy, too. The old subconscious recognized that the moment I signed that first book contract a door slammed shut. There would be no going back to the Bread Loaf I had known, because, unless they were carrying trays, writers were never allowed in the kitchen.

Image credit: Gail Gauthier (author)


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I was watching Burn Notice, the USA Network show about a suddenly unemployed and unemployable spy, when I experienced a flash of insight. “Hey,” I said to my husband. “That’s what happened to me. I’ve been burned.”

I know I’m given to hyperbole. (“Gauthier demonstrates a real talent here for humorous hyperbole and episodic classroom comedy,” a reviewer at Booklist once said of me—quite a few years back, to be honest.) So maybe I’ve only been toasted. At any rate, the scent of singed flesh hovers over me, just as it does over Burn Notice’s Michael Westen.

After a ten-year career in espionage, Michael woke up in Miami to find that he had been unceremoniously let go and blacklisted by his handlers, or burned. After a twelve-year career as a children’s writer, I received my first major rejection from my long-time publisher in March, 2008, which was kind of like being let go, leading to what has felt like de facto blacklisting, or burning. My “letting go” wasn’t as dramatic as the “letting go” Michael experienced, of course. It did not, for instance, involve my waking up in a strange bed. And while Michael has often seemed mystified about what happened to him, searching to find someone who can set him straight, I’m pretty clear on what happened to me.

But the end result is the same. Michael Westen and I had work we liked, and we don’t have it anymore. We’re burned, and we’re spending a whole lot of time trying to get back into the game.

Unlike Michael, who was a model spy, I know I made some mistakes—two standouts and probably more that I either didn’t recognize at the time or have forgotten about. The big ones, though, were working without an agent and writing the wrong book.

After many years of submitting manuscripts directly to publishers and magazines and getting only two short stories and an essay published, I had the very good fortune of having a book picked out of the slush pile by an editor at G. P. Putnam’s Sons. I am living proof that that could still happen for a lone writer back in the ‘90s. (Ah, but all kinds of good things were happening for all kinds of people back in the ‘90s. And then 2008 came.) The two of us worked together on six books over the next ten years or so, and Putnam published two more of my books after my editor moved to another house.

During that time I would meet other authors who were stunned that I had managed to get published without an agent and still didn’t have representation. I’d like to say that my independence gave me a rogue status among my peers, but, really, I always got the feeling they thought I was out of my mind. Clearly they were right. I avoided seeking out an agent because it was the path of least resistance. I was getting published without one, wasn’t I? On top of that, if you’re a writer, you hear as many horror stories about agents as you do fairy tales. Even if I stumbled upon one of the fairy tale kinds of agents, I was anxious about having to deal with another person. I understood the author/editor relationship. If I had an agent, wouldn’t I be sticking someone in between my editor and myself? Wouldn’t that be weird and difficult? So I decided that I would let things go along as they were until the folks at Putnam didn’t want something I sent them. Then I would look for an agent.

Well, there’s a decision I’ll be living with for a long time.

My second major error was spending most of 2007 writing a science fiction novel with a third-person narrator. My reasoning was: 1. I wanted to do it. 2. Some on-line friends and I were always bemoaning the fact that so little science fiction was written for children. Child readers were up to their tiny armpits in fantasy and paranormal stories, but novels about aliens and space travel and other traditional science fiction elements were much less common. We were dead sure that kids were patiently waiting for someone to write them some sci fi. 3. Children’s and YA literature are overwhelmed with first-person narrators who fall into general stereotypes. You have your wiseass first-person narrators who are social outcasts, your small-town (often southern) first-person narrators who are surrounded by quirky small town characters full of knowledge about life, your teen girl first-person narrators with teen girl friends who are all into dating and shopping, and your angst-ridden teen boy first-person narrators who, if they attend a boarding school, will almost certainly know someone who is going to die, just to name a few. With first-person narrators, it’s all too easy to end up creating a kidlit character who sounds just like one of last year’s kidlit characters who sounded like a kidlit character from the season before. Hey, I was going to break free from first-person predictability.

Some people would suggest that I made a third mistake when I didn’t run my story idea past my editor contacts before I spent a year working on it and the better part of another year revising it after its first rejection. If someone had been able to convince me to save my sci fi story for another year—or decade—I would have been spared the experience of learning that some agents won’t even consider science fiction. And then there was that third-person narrator I was so excited about. I was the only one. Of the agents who did agree to take a look at my novel, more than one said he or she had trouble connecting with the main character, something that might not have happened if poor Olivia had told her story directly, in the first person.

Oddly enough, Michael Westen is a first-person narrator, giving viewers spy info in voiceovers. Michael has no trouble connecting with people, by the way.

We may differ on how to tell a story, but Michael and I are similar in that we both have a history. We have experience in our field. I, for instance, have had those eight books published with a major publisher. My agent quest cover letter described my ALA Notable Book, my titles published in Germany, France, Italy, and Japan, my three books that had gone into paperback editions, my sales of paperback book club rights, and my two Junior Library Guild Selections. What it didn’t describe were bestsellers or even big sellers. I am what is known as a mid-list writer, which means that my books sell modestly over a number of years rather than racking up the big numbers during their initial publishing seasons. Therefore, though I have a publishing history, it isn’t what you’d call a big draw. The mid-list, where I was quite comfortable, by the way, is not a particularly popular place under the best of economic times. It’s looking a little seedier than usual right now when there’s not a lot of money to spread around among all the books being published each year, forget about the books from a few years back.

So there I was, a mid-list author approaching agents with a novel, the genre of which wasn’t eagerly embraced, written in the third-person when first-person was all the rage. If this were an episode of Burn Notice, Michael would use a first-person voiceover to say, “Good writers/spies negotiate when they’re in a position of power, when they have something so desirable to sell that they can, in fact, sell it themselves. They do not wait until they have a manuscript/intel that few people want.” Then he would go on to explain how to use guile to deal with this awkward situation. But it’s not an episode of Burn Notice. Besides, I am short on guile. I am not good with guile at all. So I continue to smolder.

Three of my books went out of print this past year, which isn’t the end of the world. I know because I’ve had books go out of print before. It is the fate of all books, particularly now when schools and libraries, the traditional market for hardcover children’s books, are struggling financially. But the loss of those titles raised a few more blisters than usual this time, coming so close together and so soon after my failure to find my book a home or even a champion. A speaking engagement and book signing at a library for this fall fell through because the only book I have left now is for a younger audience than my contact was working with. School and library visits, the time-honored method of marketing and generating extra income for children’s writers, have been drying up these past few years, anyway, to the point where I think it’s safe to say I rarely make them. On top of everything else, traffic at my blog is way down, and my small following of commenters has up and disappeared.

I smell smoke.

I like to think that I’m holding up after my burning better than Michael Westen is after his. I’m not running around with guns and explosives, at least. I know that I’m not the only writer suffering. It’s not so much that misery loves company as that I can’t come up with a reason to expect my situation to be better than that of all the other writers (many with agents) who are also having trouble selling their next books. Nor can I come up with a reason to expect my situation to be better than that of all the other people in all walks of life who are struggling in this post-2008 world. And, like Michael, I still have a few contacts from my old work life—a couple of friendly editors and an agent who said she would look at another submission. I have some places I can take the book I’m working on now, the one that is most definitely not science fiction and uses a first-person narrator. I am not without resources.

I didn’t have any resources years ago when I was, as we say these days, a pre-published writer. As a child, I lumped becoming a writer in with…becoming a spy. Or a cowgirl, a private detective, or an astronaut. They were fantasy jobs. The odds of any one particular person being able to get a G. P. Putnam’s Sons to publish her books…or to get a government agency to employ him as a spy…were laughably small. One of my family members has indicated that my oppressive optimism is my very worst flaw, but, nonetheless, I can’t help but believe that the odds against making a writing comeback won’t be anywhere near as bad as they were against entering the field in the first place.

Obviously, Michael Westen feels the same way about spying or he’d have no show. The two of us continue our struggles, episode after episode and submission after submission, believing that some day we’ll be back where we used to be. No further ahead, perhaps, but at least working.

(Image: flame, from calliope’s photostream)