On a sunny August morning, Middlebury College's Bread Loaf campus, nestled in the Green Mountain National Forest, looks like a classic Vermont pastoral. On one side of scenic Route 125, a row of sunflowers lines a long, neatly harvested hayfield. Across the asphalt stands the graceful, three-story "Bread Loaf Inn," mustard-yellow with dark-green shutters and a classic wraparound porch.
Inside, the place looks like a bustling bed-and-breakfast with a suspiciously young clientele. The magazines displayed on the tables aren't Time or Yankee, but urban favorites such as New York and obscure literary journals. Collegiate-looking men and women mill about in groups or stand in line for a buffet breakfast of eggs and spicy home fries. When the caffeinated coffee runs out, the crowd murmurs restlessly. But the young waiters who dart back and forth don't fuss with apologies -- they tell the diners, in no uncertain terms, to hold their horses.
This is the annual Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, where waiting tables is an honor and the person sitting next to you might just be the editor of one of the magazines in the lobby. Founded in 1926 with the encouragement of Ripton poet Robert Frost, who was a fixture there for 29 years, Bread Loaf is an intense session of verbal calisthenics for poetry, fiction and nonfiction writers -- some just warming up, others already at the top of their game. Every other day for 10 days, the 230 participants attend 10-person workshops, where their writing is assessed. When they're not worrying about what Susan Orlean thinks of their metaphors, they're expected to fill their time with classes on aspects of the craft, lectures and readings from established writers. A handful of big-name editors and agents lurks round the edges of the event.
Michael Collier, a poet and professor at the University of Maryland and director of the conference, says Bread Loaf shouldn't be confused with the more leisurely model of a writers' retreat. It's a "hectic" experience, designed for learning rather than for on-site writing, he says.
For the 25 full-scholarship students known as "waiters," the experience is more hectic still, as they race to finish clearing plates in the dining hall in order to catch the 9 a.m. lecture. But it's a small price to pay for being recognized as an especially promising writer: The waiters were chosen this year from 600 applicants. "You get treated differently as a waiter," says a former server who's now on the Bread Loaf staff. Besides the coveted waiterships, applicants who've been published can try for tuition scholarships, and those with a book or two under their belts can become Bread Loaf teaching fellows. About a third of the participants use one of these merit-based scholarships to offset the $2081 bill for tuition, room and board.
In the past, those who paid their full way at Bread Loaf were known as "contributors," but Collier doesn't like the term. "'Contributor' means you contribute a manuscript to the workshop -- everyone's a contributor," he says, stressing the fact that scholarships are funded primarily by Middlebury College, not by students who pay full tuition.
The distinction matters. A 2001 article by Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker portrayed Bread Loaf as a caste system where weekend writers with deep pockets were, in effect, sponsoring their more talented peers. Mead reported that "if you're willing to pay ... you stand a better than 50 percent chance of getting in" to the conference, in sharp contrast to the fierce competition for waiterships.
Four years later, the likelihood of general admission stands at about 17 percent, given a total applicant pool of 1500; 170 students pay full fare. While a "caste system" may exist, there's joking and easy mingling across the ranks. "Don't we have a cute waiter?" crows a woman with Betty Page bangs, who happens to be married to the man serving her dinner.
Mead's New Yorker piece was full of irreverent anecdotes from the conference that was once informally known as "Bed Loaf." But Mead also posed the deeper question of whether Bread Loaf -- or the similar MFA programs that have proliferated around the country -- can really make its students into better writers.
Collier, a tall man with keenly focused eyes, has strong feelings on the subject. He remembers Mead asking him, "Can writing be taught?" "I knew then the story was going to be a disaster -- she didn't get it in the least," he says. "When someone asks that, the underlying question is: Is this a worthwhile endeavor? Are you preying on people's desire to get published? Of course you can't teach someone to write," Collier goes on, "but you can teach habits of mind and attention. Then it's up to the person to do the rest."
That statement is echoed later in a lecture by poet Edward Hirsch, who has a Roman fringe of gray hair and a sneaky wit. Speaking on "The Enigma of Creative Process," Hirsch expands on the role of inspiration and other ineffable, unteachable qualities in writing. Eminent writers, he says, have used bizarre rituals to summon their talent -- the German poet Schiller, for instance, used to keep rotten apples in his desk because he thought the odor enhanced his creativity.
Does this mean Bread Loafers have no option but to "pray to the Muses," as W.S. Merwin's teacher advised him? No, says Hirsch. For all the importance of inspiration, "most young writers fail because they just don't work hard enough. Very few people come even close to their ceiling." The lightning of genius may or may not strike, he continues, but to get as close as possible to your personal best as a writer is "all you can do."
That kind of intense work, says Collier, is the bread and butter of Bread Loaf: "What mainly goes on here is invisible." It's particularly invisible to reporters, to whom the workshops are closed. This policy may have something to do with Mead's article, which took a jaundiced look inside a nonfiction workshop. More recently, a waiter typed dispatches from the conference to a blog on Slate, dissing his workshop colleagues.
But the decision to make the intimate classes off-limits also seems to reflect Collier's vision for the conference, which he's helmed since 1995. In past decades, Bread Loaf was a stage for the clash of larger-than-life literary personalities. The classic Bread Loaf stories -- Robert Frost trying to upstage Archibald MacLeish, novelist John Gardner's wife hiring a plane to drop leaflets proclaiming him a deadbeat dad -- are all about the faculty, not the students. When he attended Bread Loaf in the 1980s and early '90s, Collier says, he found that "the program didn't focus enough on work. There was no time to look at work methodically, and it created a lot of anxiety, a lot of acting out in the social realm." That may begin to explain the conference's past reputation for student-faculty boozing and schmoozing.
Today, Collier thinks that the workshops are more about writing, less about "performance" and "students sitting at the feet of the master."
"Michael's done wonders here," says Edward Brown, who has run the Bread Loaf Inn for 14 years and lives across the street in a white farmhouse with his family. An occasional workshop participant himself, Brown has watched Bread Loaf change. "It used to be all about the faculty
... this idolatry," he says. "Now it's all about the participants."
The new focus is reflected in Brown's task today -- to snap posed portraits of each workshop group, which the students can later buy as souvenirs. He zips across campus in a motorized golf cart, passing windbreaks of tall spruce and lawns dotted with Adirondack chairs. Most workshops are held inside the Barn, a massive old structure whose central hayloft is now a lounge with wireless Internet access. (Cellphones don't work up here, to everyone's chagrin.) Other workshops take place in the white wood-frame cottages scattered up and down Route 125, built by the college after wealthy sheep farmer Joseph Battell willed it the land and inn in 1915.
Some of the writers look camera-shy, but Brown eases them into place with a crack and a smile. "You learn a lot about the faculty by taking their pictures," he says. "Andrea Barrett, for instance," author of the best-selling story collection Ship Fever and a Bread Loaf alumna herself, "she'll just come right out and go for it. That's how she is in life."
When the two-hour workshops are over,
it's time for a late afternoon reading featuring former Vermont state poet Louise Glück and novelist Francine Prose. The readings couldn't be more different. Glück intones her quasi-mystical poems about nature and decay in a raspy, oracular voice. Prose stammers occasionally, but her spot-on portrait of a yuppie second marriage, from the recent novel A Changed Man, draws guffaws from the audience. Prose is no stranger to Bread Loaf. A former faculty member, she calls the campus a "300-acre madeleine," referring to the snack cake that opened the floodgates of memory for French writer Marcel Proust.
Afterward, at an outdoor cocktail party, newcomers to Bread Loaf are collecting memories of their own. The crowd has a grad-school look -- Collier says the average age of participants is "early thirties" -- and black is a popular color. Two young women from MFA programs in the South say they're "power-drinking" in order to get through the day's grueling schedule of events.
Did they read the New Yorker article about Bread Loaf before coming? Yes, both women say, giggling, and they think "Bed Loaf" is a misnomer: "The boys sleep too far away!" But then their conversation turns to the events of their workshop: What did the teacher mean when she instructed them to think about how characters do things, rather than why?
Another participant, a memoirist from Canada, remembers the New Yorker debacle well. She was a member of the nonfiction workshop that Mead described as a hotbed of addiction memoirs in the making. "What she wrote wasn't factually wrong, but you could interpret it differently," the memoirist says, noting that two members of the workshop went on to publish books, neither of them about addictions. One, Phyllis Vine, wrote a respected history.
As twilight sinks over the hay field, writers who are late for dinner take a furtive last gulp of their drinks and head out through the tape enclosing the makeshift cocktail lounge. Because of the presence of a few underage students at the conference, Bread Loaf is subject to Middlebury's stringent alcohol regulations. But while the bacchanalias are a thing of the past -- and praying to the Muses is probably passé, too -- the writers here say they've found one key thing they were looking for: community.