Bread Loaf angst

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As rejection letters go, the one mailed out by Noreen Cargill, the Administrative Manager of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, is extremely nice.

I’d been so hopeful, so excited.  I’d thought I had every reasonable chance; I’d twice been nominated by Bread Loaf Fellows, and my reference was a Bread Loaf faculty member--I was as much of an insider as an outsider could be.  I’d actually been there before, too, once as a paying contributor and once as a scholar, so I knew the ropes well enough to write a reasonably well-informed application, which I kissed it for luck when I sent it off—early.   

Every night before I fell asleep, I thought about reading my work in the Little Theater, sharing a room in one of the cabins with a cool new writer, walking through the Vermont woods during breaks.  I planned the craft class I would teach.  Positive visualization.

I also planned the nonchalant way I’d spin it aloud to my husband and best friends if I weren’t chosen:  I’d have a less chaotic August.  I’d have more time to write, more time to be at home, to work on preparing my fall classes.  I rehearsed my concession speech, but my heart wasn’t really in it.  In my veins, I knew, ran the unstoppable blood of champions.

When the letter came, so thin and anonymous, I turned my back to my husband and opened it, hiding my face just in case.  When I read its kind, logical refusal, I couldn’t speak.  I just shook my head.  Half-heartedly, I tried a few phrases from my concession speech, but the nonchalance was nowhere to be found.  When he tried to hug me, I was stiff.  He tried to put his arms around me.  I shrugged him off.

“I just can’t right now,” I said.

He moved off down the hall.  I phoned the writer who nominated me, who was driving and couldn’t talk.  So we hung up.  I didn’t mention the letter.  She said she’d call back.

I went to the little corner of the living room where my desk stands.  I sat down and looked at the manuscript of the novel I’d been working on before the mail came.  And then, to my chagrin, as my husband’s shadow hovered in the hall, I felt my face begin to crumple.

My husband is an extremely kind man.  He is not a writer.

He came back, pulled up a chair, and sat down in front of me.  “It must be a blow,” he said kindly, and then I began to sob.  Quietly, miserably.  The thought of Bread Loaf had lit my immediate future with a gold and glorious glow.  Now the lights were out.  

I’d imagined reading in front of the audience of luminaries, the way I’d seen Jhumpa Lahiri and Samantha Chang dazzle us when they were Fellows.  I’d hoped to impress my agent, who’d be there this summer, and make him believe that signing me would eventually turn out to be a shrewd literary choice, if perhaps never a lucrative one.  I’d dreamed of my well reviewed, commercially ignored book on the shelves at the little Bread Loaf bookstore, getting a second chance.

“I had everything lined up,” I told my husband.  “Which means it’s about the work.  The work’s just not good enough.”

My husband is a practical man.  “The odds were pretty rough,” he said.

Only 6% of more than 1100 applicants for merit-based financial aid received awards, said the letter.  66 people.  And only two of them, if things go as they have in years past, will be Fellows in creative nonfiction, the award for which I applied.

“It said you made the final round.  You could have been number three.”

“Or number thirty.  The letter doesn’t say how big the final round was.”   Or number a hundred and thirty.  Or maybe they put that on everyone's letter, to soften the blow.  My pessimism is one of my less appealing qualities, and it flares up wildly in the midst of disappointment.  I also possess an unpleasantly staunch resistance to consolation.  “It’s not that I think there aren’t any writers more brilliant than I am out there.  I know there are.  I just thought I had a chance."  My moaning goes global.  "I just want to win something.  Just one thing.  One definite thing that says my work is good.”

“You know your work is good.” He nods out our window toward the university campus.  “It got you your job here.”

“But you know how I’m always nervous, always worried that I’m lesser than.”  My colleagues are heavy hitters, Book-of-the-Month Clubbers, Poet Laureates, Famous Editors. “And it would have been so affirming if Bread Loaf’s answer had been otherwise.”

“Well, this isn’t the end.  There will be other conferences,” said my sweet, patient, hopelessly out-of-the-loop husband.  He brightened.  “What’s the best conference?”

“Duh,” I wailed through my tears.  “Bread Loaf is the oldest and most prestigious writing conference in the country.  In the world!  Everyone knows that.”  All you have to do is read the brochure copy.

“Well, but you have a long career ahead of you.  You’re still young,” he said.  In point of fact, I had just returned from Walgreen’s, where I’d purchased my usual box of Clairol Dark Brown Root Touch-Up.

“I’ve been publishing in national journals since I was twenty-two.”  I’m forty, practically antique for a Bread Loaf Fellow.  They’re usually young, hip, and inclined toward gorgeousness, like Danzy Senna and Amy Benson, the writers who’d been the Fellows in the two workshops I’d attended.  Like Michael Lowenthal and Tayari Jones and Ben Percy, with his unlined face and impossibly deep voice, and Camille Dungy, who has no pores.  “When is it going to happen for me?" I whined.  "There are so many awards out there—dozens and dozens of awards.”  Reading the “Grants & Awards” section of Poets & Writers is a special kind of self-torment, an acquired taste.  “Can’t I win just one?”

“You’ll win something.”

“I should have gone in 2006, when I first got nominated, when the book first came out.”  He nodded sympathetically.  I thought back.  Why hadn’t I?  “But I really wanted to take Grey to college.”  Bread Loaf’s August dates that year had conflicted with the drop-off dates at our son’s school.  It was his freshman year, a mythical rite of passage, when boy becomes man, all that.  At the time, it seemed I couldn’t possibly miss it.  Now, examining it in the harsh light of Bread Loaf’s rejection, it seemed like a pathetically unmemorable experience.  We unloaded a million boxes in the rain, hugged, and said good-bye.  Big wow.  Our son, who seemed unmoved at the time, hasn’t mentioned it since.  Family, schmamily.

“I should have gone to Bread Loaf,” I moaned piteously.

I flashed back to the time in my early twenties when my graduate professor, who’d written a paper about my first story, had wanted me to go with him to AWP, to stand there as Exhibit A and look full of promise while he delivered “How Minimal Is Minimalism?”  

At the time, I had no clue what AWP was.  I didn’t have the money to travel, and I didn’t want to leave my pre-schooler alone for that long.  My professor asked me where my priorities were.  I didn’t know.

“You’ve been doing other things,” said my husband, trying to console.

“I feel like Mr. f**king Holland.”  Mr. Holland’s Opus, a feel-good movie that warmed the hearts of millions, hadn’t warmed mine.  It had scared me.  A music teacher who foregoes his true love, composing, on behalf of his
students and other responsibilities is finally rewarded at the end of the movie—when he’s old and gray—by his devoted students’ performance of the one decent work he’s managed to complete.  Light bulb!  They were his opus, all those students whose lives he touched over the years, blah blah.

F**k that, I thought when I saw the movie.  The poor man should have followed his art, his heart.  But when push came to shove, I graded papers, pinched pennies, prepared for classes.  It was clear:  I was a small, small person.  I lacked courage and drive, as well as talent.

And here I was, a thin piece of paper in my hands, with my husband’s kind eyes gazing at me hopefully, willing me to cheer up.

“This is such a lousy business,” I said, speaking of writing.   “There’s so much insecurity.  So much self-doubt.”  He nodded again.  

“I know.”  It may have been something he’d heard before.  He may have wanted to add a few other nouns.

But my lovely, patient husband held my hands, brushed away a few more tears, and finally got me to smile a weak, grateful, co-dependent smile.  We hugged, and he headed down the hall to his office.

I sat at my desk.  “We do appreciate your interest in the Conference and only wish there enough awards for all of the deserving writers,” ends the letter from Bread Loaf.  Yeah, you and me both.

The letter is immaculately professional, immaculately kind.  The Bread Loaf folks probably sit around a table and analyze the text from every angle before they send it out, knowing that sad, embittered rejects will parse it, blast it, blog endlessly about it. “Good luck with your work.”

I sighed and set it aside.  I turned back to my novel manuscript, not at all sure of its worth.  

But, as Pushkin would say, there’s nothing for it. My confidence dented, my compass wobbling, I got back to work.


Epilogue:  The next day, this appeared--complete with get-back-out-there playlist--on Tayari's blog.  She's the best.


Faye said:

Dear, dear, dear Joy.

Forget them.

Their loss. So their loss.

(P.S. I'm 45 and just learned what AWP is this year. I should have chosen a more secretive username for your blog.)

May 28, 2008 9:13 PM

fayepoet said:

Oh, I'm so sorry for your disappointment. I could feel your angst, the sign of a good writer (according to my mentor).
I've been reading Ilana Simons's"a life of one's own," a guide to better living through the work and wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Chapter 5 is titled "Find Steady Support" and points to the fact that science says that you do better when you've got supportive input.The idea is that "positve feedback doesn't only feel good, but actually changes your creative observation."
So, case in point, Breadloaf threw you a curve and you feel dashed but here is your lovely, steady and supportive James, not an authority, for sure but truly the man who knows that hard work and persistence pays off as your Truth Book, your tenure, your new publisher, your students can attest. Are we a cast of thousands??? Maybe?? and if not yet, there will be many more.
Looking forward to your novel, a chapter a day,I'm impressed and hope you will soon give us a taste.
Loving thoughts,

May 31, 2008 9:51 PM

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