Twenty years ago this summer I went to Vermont for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I heard some literary luminaries speak and read—Philip Levine, Francine Prose, William Matthews, John Irving, Nancy Willard, and many others. The setting was beautiful, and I made good friends there. I enjoyed just about every lecture and reading despite the hard benches and forced silence. I was thrilled to listen to authors whose work I’d taught. Tim O’Brien, fresh off the success of The Things They Carried, led my workshop.
But, for all that, the moment I recall best is a low point in my writing life.
I understand Bread Loaf is very different now, but, oddly, I did no writing when I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. The “Writers’” in the name of the conference weren’t me. They were stars I saw eating lunch or standing in a circle of fans between talks. I said seven actual sentences to Tim O’Brien. He signed my book. The only you-time was the half-hour participants spent with writers assigned the task of reading their work, and every late afternoon I sat in those famous Adirondack chairs anticipating the thirty minutes a writer would look at me and not the other way around.
I was writing short stories then, just starting my second writing career having given up creative writing since college. I’d written poetry before but decided I needed to hitch my out-sized aspirations to something more likely to make a living.
The trouble was, I was terrible.
I have a habit of taking myself too seriously, adopting avocations with secret assurance I’ll instantly become great. Soon, I’m laboring at an impossible pace and speaking without self-consciousness about my “process” and “work.”
The summer of ’91 I was especially frenetic because my wife was pregnant, and I was running out of time to take my rightful place in Literature. For six months I produced story after story I was sure were equal to anything I taught. Tragically, I couldn’t see the difference. My readers were my wife, my boss, and another beginner, a colleague’s wife—no one predisposed to criticize an amateur. Had I been more honest with myself, however, I might have heard their saying, “Make it simpler “ as “Make it less pretentious.” I wanted to believe I’d be famous.
I try to be the pessimistic realist who lowers his expectations when he sees his anticipation can’t be met, but the day of my appointed conversation, I didn’t. I walked in to find my reader most of the way through my story and frowning.
There must have been a polite greeting I can’t recall. She complained I’d given her too much to read, meeting the page limit by changing the margins and spacing and reducing the font by one point.
“Even if it had been the proper length though,” she said, “I couldn’t have finished it.”
The catalog of basic errors took most of our time—my language was imprecise and stale, my characters were flat, my plot was cumbersome and unlikely, the story was nothing I could know anything about, and my resolution was derivative and insincere. Along the way, she paused to ask, “You see that, right?” and each criticism twisted her voice a little higher. By the time she reached the story as a whole, she was shrill, half laughing. “You know what it reminds me of?” she said, “pornography written by a young adult author.”
That’s when my eyes flooded. I did see how very bad the story was. Her criticism cooled my work, made it someone else’s, an ugly object. But I wasn’t crying about that. I thought about the years I’d lost. On the brink of being a father, I figured my chance had passed.
I said so, and she looked at me indulgently. Only the accomplished can deliver the perhaps-this-is-not-for-you-speech with such conviction and impact. You can’t even hate them.
Those stories are upstairs somewhere. I still move them from house to house but don’t read them. When I returned to poetry a few years later, I put aside greatness. Accepted into a low-residency MFA program at Bennington a few years after that, I left every expectation behind, determined simply to get better. I’m still at it.
But my third semester at Bennington, my appointed reader joined the faculty, and I remember my heart sliding a little seeing her across the cafeteria. A classmate said I should introduce myself and tell my story, show her she hadn’t crushed me after all thank-you-very-much, but I didn’t want to.
Low moments groan in memory like ship horns in fog. They shake you without being seen and, though their warning can seem distant, they still speak to you particularly. You can’t always know what course changes these encounters create, but the course continues. And maybe you’re moving in a better direction. No circling fans, not a writer the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference refers to, maybe somewhere better, locked in another pursuit.
In any case, when I passed my appointed reader on Bennington sidewalks or stairways, in gatherings or lectures, she didn’t know me.