This morning I lay awake on my narrow camp bunk counting the remaining nights at Bread Loaf. My body feels as if it is at the break point on this marathon, but my brain is soaring, fearlessly flying higher and higher. If I read half of what I have been stimulated to buy and half of what has been recommended, I would not finish, even if I had a normal life span instead of only borrowed time. If nothing else, these weeks at Bread Loaf have been a sobering reminder of how time limits literacy.
I have met many unique and talented writers here–some in person and some only through their public readings, others through both. The women in my nonfiction workshop have the instant intimacy that small group membership confers, even though we have very different interests and backgrounds. Tomorrow our ability to be helpful will be sorely tested. Sundance, isolated by gender and generation, will be the last in our workshop group to have his writing discussed.
We workshop participants have a universally dazed look after our written submission has been critiqued–as if we had learned to ride a bike and were showing off our “look-no-hands-confidence,” only to suddenly crash in front of our friends and teachers. We pull ourselves and our bicycles upright, trying not to cry, while silently yelping from the searing pain of newly scrapped skin. I suspect some of us will depart Bread Loaf without the dreams of fast riding and writing that we brought with us in our carefully packed camp duffles.
My nonfiction workshop leader is Patricia Hampl. In an idealized world, I would like to enter Hampl’s personal university and study for two degrees–a doctorate in English language and a masters in personal dignity and carriage. She has an exquisite ear and eye for language. It has to be torture for her to wade through our awkward assemblage of effort. Revealing little, Hampl’s neutrality is slightly unnerving. Metaphorically, she is Switzerland at the height of World War II while we are ambivalent allies making use of her to hold our projections, our riches and our secret synaptic sins.
I was very happy to be assigned to Hampl’s group, even more so when I discovered there was a bonus surprise. Helen Fremont, the author of After A Long Silence, is a Bread Loaf Fellow assigned to assist Hampl. There was no mention of this paired structure in any of the pre-camp literature, so I was delighted to find Fremont in our group. I arrived at Bread Loaf the day after we walked the cemeteries of Wappingers Falls in search of the stone marking the grave of the grandfather I never met and find the author whose story started my search.
There is more. Helen Fremont could be Henry Smokler’s sister; Charlotte her mother. Not only do they have the same large and luminous eyes and mannerisms; they also have the same curious minds. More importantly, both of their families came from the same street in Lvov. A serendipitous coincidence or true synchronicity? I asked Fremont to sign a copy of After A Long Silence for Charlotte. Perhaps Helen’s presence is why the fates conspired to give me this gift of brain bread and distance and you the “virgin time” of minding Marley, home, and wilting garden all alone.
Today I had what is listed on the Bread Loaf program as my “publishing consult.” I met with Carol Houck Smith, Senior Editor at Large for W.W. Norton. Coincidentally, Carol is the editor for Stanley Kunitz, who was Uncle Ed’s roommate at Harvard. Also, she is a serious gambler when it comes to longevity. In 1993, when Kunitz was eighty-seven, she signed him to a three-book contract! She didn’t even flinch when she learned I had metastatic breast cancer. Instead she excited to learn that was born in Utah and had never lived further east than Boulder. Apparently she loves stories about the west. Learning that I had been a life-long diarist, she said: “That is wonderful! I think you have the beginning and the middle (i.e., my nonfiction workshop submission “Blackie and Snowball and the Great Fried Egg War” and my Bakeless submission, “My Book of Ruth”). Now all you have to do is live long enough to write an ending!”
I like Carol Houck Smith very much, especially her forthrightness about mortality. She apparently hates “memoirs” and thinks there is a terrible dearth of well-documented autobiographies. Learning that I was an excommunicated Mormon, she said: “Hopefully, that puts you in the perfect position to explain Mormonism.”
At the conclusion of our meeting, she sent me to meet Alane Salierno Mason, who has just joined W.W. Norton, telling me, while laughing, “If we both die, Alane can take-over.”
The first thing Alane said was: “I don’t mind working with agentless authors because I had good mothering!” I felt as if I had been struck by lightning.
The readings and lectures continue to be rich, stimulating and dream disturbing. My mind goes to bed banquet-full and takes hours to settle. Birch Cabin, which seems to be made of birch bark, is an echo chamber for every door, water, and voice sound. I fall asleep late and wake early, in part because I share an adjoining wall with a member of the choral, an eighty-eight-year-old man dedicated to the rehearsal form. This morning I woke to a dream which contained my second lesson on the purpose of Bread Loaf.
It was late afternoon; the sun was out just after a rain storm. My back to the West and warmed by the sun, I stood outside of Bread Loaf’s Little Theater observing a scene through the screen door where all the lectures and readings take place. Inside, in the dim light, there were only a few audience members–six or seven in a theater which seats three hundred. At the podium were twice that number of participant presenters. They were simultaneously exhorting the scattered audience to follow their lines, to respond as if they understood and could affirm what the presenters had written and were reading. I saw writers at that moment as apprentices to the art of strip tease; some shyly, some brazenly revealing the wounds and delights of their lives. The audience members looked back without interest as if they were listless sullen high school students waiting to be released from class.
As soon as I woke up, I started laughing at the dream scene–not disdainfully, but amused by the universal need we writers have to be heard. A desire which, the dream reminds me, is twice as great as our desire to listen.