Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A loaf of bread

Commentary by JoEllen Collins


JoEllen Collins

We may not live by bread alone, but my recent trip to Vermont may help me in the basic quest to earn a little more "bread." The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, part of the Middlebury College programs, has existed for 80 years as a venue for serious writers who submit manuscripts as part of the acceptance process. I count myself lucky to have attended this summer program seven years ago as a non-fiction writer and then again this August as a fiction writer. I tell my readers about this because I think it is an interesting process for someone of my age and late start in writing as a vocation to jump off yet another symbolic bridge and immerse oneself in a 12-day experience perhaps more suited to younger writers with long careers ahead.

When the first bell rang announcing dinner, I had just unpacked my slim suitcase in a third floor room of the Inn at Bread Loaf (named for a nearby mountain whose shape resembles...guess what!). I recalled schools and summer camps as bells tolled for each event, a necessary means of communicating to the 200 participants scattered about several acres. My room took me back to college (though it was new to have the doorknob fall off, stranding me inside for a few minutes). It consisted of a small cot/bed, desk and dresser with a bath down the hall, typical college digs. I also attended, like a college-aged person, parties in the large barn, dancing under strobe lights to music I probably wouldn't listen to at home.

Going to the dining hall was challenging. I felt like the last person chosen for a relay team, something I knew often as a sickly young girl, when I looked at the tables already filled with vibrant people meeting each other after absences or sharing stories about their agents or achievements. Anyone who knows me will be surprised at how shy I felt confronting the question...whom could I join at any of the tables? As it turned out, of course, no one said "no" and the three shared meals each day were occasions to meet many different and often fascinating people.

One day I invited the Rudnicks, friend of mine who had connections with Sun Valley, to lunch. They have retired to the edge of the nearby Middlebury campus, as three of their children and two grandchildren attended the college, and they are avid fans of the town and the school. We were alone at a smaller table when a lady I hadn't yet met joined us. Without her sister, who usually accompanied her to all meals, she was alone, as I usually was, and asked if she could join us. Turns out that she is the wife of the retired president of Middlebury, a person whom my friends could not have been more thrilled to meet. I find this serendipitous situation similar to the one that got me to Bread Loaf in the first place, for eight years ago, after reading one of my columns, the Rudnicks stopped by my office at the Community School and urged me to apply to the conference. Circles of life, eh?

I was encouraged in my workshops and small craft sessions to try again for a new agent and to submit my manuscript (the second of three novels and two screenplays I have written since my return seven years ago). I will do so and revise the manuscript in the process, with the hindsight of time away from it and with the concrete suggestions of editors and session-mates. The talents of my fellow participants similarly inspired me. Most of them, in their 20s and 30s, have years to spend furthering their goals as writers. I again was reminded of my age in this vibrant setting...I'd better get to it. No MFA programs beckon me and I don't have the time some of the students there have. I envy and yet honor that process for them.

Just as when, at age 53, I was asked to choose a roommate in the Peace Corps our first night in Bangkok and nearly fainted at the embarrassment of feeling "out of it," I learned this time, too, that having to do these kinds of uncomfortable tasks is a way of stretching oneself. Playing the game of life, as in waiting to be chosen for a relay team, requires a willingness to be open to one's fears of rejection. Nobody kicked me out.

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