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I don’t think I have ever felt more exhausted in my life—and in the best way possible. I did a lot of research about Bread Loaf before attending, research that went beyond the conference website so that I could try and ascertain the opinions and experiences of former attendees’ time on the mountain. Much of this was discovered on blogs, essays, and articles, and although the details and perspectives varied each time, the pangs of physical and mental exhaustion resounded again and again in everything I read. But knowing this and experiencing it are two different things.

Each day, all day, brims with important and stirring readings, lectures, classes, workshops, and events. But it is also limited. Unlike AWP (a very different kind of conference with very different objectives), Bread Loaf doesn’t have scores of panels or lectures about the same or similar subjects taking place during multiple times over several days. At Bread Loaf, it’s now or never. A lecture or reading is given once, and then it’s over, so see it now or lose the chance, (hence the difficulty in deciding what’s “acceptable” to miss in order to decompress and conserve one’s energy).

So, on a given day, a scheduled event nears and we all stagger into the rustic, wooden barn known as the Little Theater, bleary-eyed and shivering (it’s been rather chilly and damp up here, rather reminiscent of autumn) to share the same space and exhaustion while listening to the work, wisdom, and guidance of experienced and established writers who teach us something, everything, and perhaps manage to quell that precise issue we might be grappling with in our own work. Butthese are also individuals who are like-minded, who are here and who continue to return for the same reasons that we sit (and sometimes squirm) in “butt-numbing chairs” hanging onto each word: we are all just people who share a passion for writing, reading, and the process and progress of both as well as the belief in the necessity for contemporary writing and the breadth of its capabilities in our troubled world.

Somewhere in the deep woods of my mind, I always imagined reading and/or experiencing poetry with other people while sitting beside a fire. Clichéd? Perhaps. But I suppose it always seemed romantic, luscious, warm, decadent, and so inviting. It happens here at Bread Loaf, and not just with poetry, of course, but with all of the participating genres. And it is beautiful. So, so beautiful. And since the weather has been cooler, it’s been perfect. Hearing the fizzle, crack, and snap of a fire tumbling around in the hearth while the soft Irish lilt of Eavan Boland’s voice glides over her gorgeous poetry is some kind of blessing that I can’t explain. During each reading, particularly during the poetry segments, I find myself tearing up, feeling foolish and maudlin. But when the sun goes down, the Vermont air is cool, and the mountains are shadowy titans in the background, I look around and I am surrounded by the silhouettes of almost 300 people gathered around the same warm flames, listening to the same poems and stories that move us, scare us, comfort us, connect us, and ultimately, change us. Wouldn’t you cry, too? 

Some Post-Loaf Reflections...

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As I was preparing for Bread Loaf these past few months, I made the presumption that I would make new friends while attending the conference. And on August 13th, I drove up to the mountain, my belly in knots, with the hope that I would meet many different people and leave after ten days surrounded by a wider circle of colleagues and writers. What I did not expect, for whatever reason, was the fiercely tight and warm community that begins to form as soon as all enthusiastic loafers pour into the safe literary haven that the conference yields. 

On the first night of the conference, after (almost) everyone arrived and settled in (there were bad weather/flight delays for some), we all filed into the Little Theater following dinner to hear Michael Collier’s opening remarks that welcomed us and launched the first readings and the start of the conference. Not only were his words endearing, comical, and witty, but they were also reassuring and comforting. I felt a sense of relief, the sense that the pangs of nervousness coupled with the excitement that I had been feeling were not unusual, and it really was okay. He explained some of what we would face in terms of community, trust, friendship, and the deepening motivations and explorations for why we all continue to pursue the craft of writing; hearing this from him was heartening and necessary, but then actually experiencing its organic growth over ten days was something else, something remarkable.

Michael went on to describe his first experience with the conference when he was living on the west coast and working for a gentleman known as Delmar Beavers (my spelling is questionable) who couldn’t understand why he [Michael] would spend so much time, effort, and money traveling cross-country to be with hundreds of writers, poets, and “whatnots.” Delmar thought it was “weird.” Michael stated, “It was an intense experience that was completely like and completely unlike what Delmar conjured. One of the things he hadn’t foreseen was how tightly knit a community could become in such a short amount of time and how difficult it was to describe to anyone outside the community.”

This is something that has felt rather accurate over the past several days, and perhaps it’s part of the reason why my nostalgia has felt rather heavy. It is, perhaps, part of the reason why I dreaded returning home and felt just a little bit blue as the end of the conference drew near. Though I was exhausted and eager to enjoy the comforts of home, once again, I was scared and crestfallen to be leaving the literary oasis in which I and roughly three-hundred others found solace, inspiration, knowledge and wisdom, friendship, and just a really, really great time together.

When I am asked about the conference, particularly by those who do not share the same thirst for writing, I try my very best to explain, but I’m never sure how much to say, how much to hold back, and I find myself wanting to share every detail. (However, I have made an effort to hold back a bit so that I do not bore people). It almost feels like an odd chore because few seem to understand how transformative those ten days on the mountain are for writers who go through it, all learning and growing and changing together. It’s intangible and mysterious, something that cannot necessarily be seen or touched; therefore, it is difficult to fully grasp. It is felt and endured deep inside, perhaps best represented in forthcoming writing, revision, and our perspectives of both. 

In his opening remarks, Michael Collier also stated, “For the next 10 days, there is no home—there is only the here and now of this peculiar arrangement of time and space. At the center of this unique environment is the inescapable and enduring one that Robert Frost imagined.” Yes, this is definitely true. OR perhaps it was home. A particular type of home. At least, that’s how it felt for me. A literary refuge of sorts. I felt welcomed, warm, and safe. I was constantly surrounded and embraced by poems and stories and language. And although we all felt over-stimulated by discussions with the same people for several days while continuing to meet new faces and names until the day we left the mountain, I also loved that I was surrounded by the same like-minded people, all of us continuously engaged in compelling conversations. And I came to trust that these individuals would just be there each day. They became family for ten days. Though we were, perhaps, all attending the conference for different reasons and for our own diverse edification, we were all in it together, and it didn’t take long to sense that both individually and collectively, we were achieving something important. Something truly worthwhile. That is something for which I am thankful, something I will hold onto as I move forward with my writing and revision, remembering and utilizing all of the lessons, conversations, and wisdom exchanged between writers and friends on the mountain.