Breadloaf Blues

Looking for a summer vacation 30 years ago I went to Breadloaf Writers Conference  with a canister of Alice B. Toklas Gingersnaps in case things got boring.

“What happened next?” asks Memphis Earlene.
“I came home with an empty canister, and I don’t remember the rest,” I tell her.
“How you got to be so old and be such a damned fool astounds me.” Memphis Earlene says.
“Me too,” I say, because there isn’t any defense.
What astounded me? How white the place was. One black woman contributor, one black guy on fellowship. Also how male dominated. Two thirds of the contributors aka Paying Customers were women, two thirds of the famous writers were men. A certain casting couch atmosphere obtained.
Not that there wasn’t lots of fun to be had (more about that some other time) but for a place to style itself the foremost writers conference in America and still be so white and male in 1981 struck me as parochial.

Which is why, in 2013 I keep track of the numbers of women whose books get reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. More ethnic diversity, same gender imbalance as Breadloaf 1981.  blue crazy

ON the other hand, my Alice B Toklas ginger snaps are legal in California if you’ve got a note from your doctor.
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5 Responses to Breadloaf Blues

  1. G & C Walne says:

    Yes, another in a long list of injustices…….. I am sure that you are as sickened as I am at the verdict in Sanford , Florida— but you are also probably less surprised….. My brain told me they would go for manslaughter ( I knew they would not convict on what it was—2nd degree) but my intuition told me he would get off…… I trust my intuition…………………………………………………

  2. vicki says:

    Ah yes, I remember it well. I was sitting on the grass during the picnic lunch, and had two of your ginger snaps, then later started walking down the path to the barn. The sky was oddly radiant and I stood looking up wondering if it was a solar something I didn’t know was happening in the sky that night. Then I saw a well-known writer hanging against a dorm wall and he called me over to help him walk. He said: do you feel odd tonight! I feel like the sky is spinning and I want to sleep with all of the women writers in this place.
    Well, I said, isn’t that what you usually do anyway?
    Yes, but it’s different tonight. Don’t you feel it? he said. Tonight, I feel real about it.
    Did you eat a ginger cookie at the picnic lunch? I asked him.
    I had three, he said.
    Oh my god, I thought.
    Later I found him under a bed in the dorm called Cherry, which was for women under thirty. I was having a fun conversation with three of the girls who had become my friends, and I looked down and there were legs coming out from under the bed. I looked at the girls. They rolled their eyes. One said: He came in our room and we told him that guys weren’t allowed in the Cherry dorm rooms, so he said: I’ll just lie under your bed then.
    I shimmed under the bed, and said: Are you all right?
    I needed a safe place to be tonight, he said.
    I kissed him on the cheek and said: “You’re safe here.” and shimmied back out from under the bed. One of the girls said, will you take him with you when you leave?
    Not on your life, I said. If I’m spotted on the walk with him at night, they’ll think I’m sleeping with him. But, it’s kind of cute. He feels safe with women.
    I found out that he left in the middle of the night, and I didn’t see him for two days. But ever since those cookies, he would tell me the dead-honest truth every time we talked. I could tease him:
    I’d say, if it’s Tuesday, it must be the tall 22 year old, with the boy haircut, right?
    How’d you guess?” he said. Now, she’s following me everywhere. Would you walk me back to my dorm?
    Can’t, I said. They’ll think I’m sleeping with you.
    Oh right, he said. I didn’t know you were married.
    I’m not married, I said.
    Then what’s the problem? he asked.
    The morning after, you’ll run away from me for the rest of the conference.
    Oh right, he said. I hear ya!
    Turns out, I met you at that conference, and what a charge that was! We’ve been friends ever since. Now you’re on the net with your own voice, and it’s you when I read it. You in all your crazy wonderful, sarcastic, brilliant glory. And I love it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Wow! Bread Loaf has certainly changed since you guys were there 30 years ago. I went in 2011, was accepted but couldn’t go last year, and will be heading there next week. It’s all cleaned up, and the vast majority of scholarships and fellowships are designated for women and minorities, and women outnumber men as instructors and featured guests. There is zero improper sexual anything, anywhere! Triumph of feminism? Maybe.

    I have to say that in addition to being squeaky clean, BL was hands down the best conference experience I’ve ever had.

    One thing I have to say really does bother me — the price. I am up to my eyeballs in debt because of Bread Loaf and other similar advanced writers’ conferences. It’s pay to play, so lots of the best writers can’t go near it. I have a friend, an 80-year old white male, childless, who took care of two sick wives, trying to get some help with an excellent novel, the one piece of work he wanted to get out before he dies. He could only afford to apply on a work-study scholarship, the 3K out of his price range (he lives in an upscale trailer park). Virtue, tough lives and talent come in all genders and hues, and I wish the deciders could have cut a break for an old white man.

  4. Breadloaf is pricey and prestigious but it’s not the only game in town, Christina–The New York State writers Conference at Skidmore were we met was half the cost of Breadloaf, and there are other writing resources available that don’t cost arm and leg (see Poets and Writers)–the only way serious writers can make a living these days is to teach. Am rooting for your 80 year old friend.

  5. I promise I’m not on the PR staff for Bread Loaf, but my experience at the place 30 years after you attended is that it was, for me, hands down, the most helpful, respectful and integrated conference and though I bitch about the price, I got a single room, fantastic housing, and whenever I was wandering around looking lost, someone was always at hand to say, Can I Help You. It was like Club Med.

    While Skidmore had some great things — Saratoga Springs, gorgeous campus, gym and foremost, Amy Hempel and Mary Gaitskill — I felt we were treated like children, I’m beyond that type of conference. The clientele there was heavy in over-privileged extremely snotty white kids, and scholarships were only for undergrads, and not a brown face in the lot. Bread Loaf was more diverse in the type of person they accepted — fewer rich kids with MFAs, more international and more black and Hispanic and all ages and income levels and occupations.

    There is also an in between class of fellows at Bread Loaf — something between student and presenter, which you don’t get at other places. I also found the faculty, the visiting agents and editors extremely interactive. I made contacts there that I didn’t anywhere else, because there’s an attitude of outreach.

    I’d also highly recommend SLS — Summer Literary Seminars. Unfortunately, my 80 year old friend has tried and walked out of several lesser conferences gleaned from P&W in recent years. It is hit or miss and we can only go on the recommendations of friends who are of similar mind and skills.

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