Saturday, June 18, 2011

Why I'm Afraid of Writers (a Breadloaf Example)

I went to Breadloaf Writers Conference in 2000. I hadn't been around other writers for about six years -- since the end of grad school. I was married to one, yes, but we were busy. For one thing, we'd had three kids in those six years. I brought my husband and kids to Breadloaf with me. I was there as a scholar. We stayed off-campus in a desolate house with a vine growing through the floorboards in the bathroom.

I imagined Breadloaf was going to feel like home. I was going to be among my own kind. I felt odd in suburbia -- an imposter. I rarely told people that I was writing, but I'd had to come clean that past year. My first novel and my first collection of poems were going to be published that coming winter, within a month of each other. Moreover, I'd been obsessed those six years -- still writing, squirreling away time, writing through blind fatigue. I wanted to be with people who understood that hunger.

Instead, Breadloaf was a shock to my system. I found some friends, yes, but I was terrified by the frenetic energy. I observe people but found myself in a sea of observers -- sharp ones. I was there as a poet, but was struggling to identify as a writer at all. I was a fraud in suburbia but I was also one here.

I went home the first night and didn't sleep. The second I got about an hour. The third maybe two. I paced the rooms. I ran my hands along the wood paneling. I sat on the edge of the bed, listening to Dave sleep. And I was terrified. I was coming to understand that I was a freak among freaks. I wasn't at home among writers -- not at all. Some were cruel. Others stared through me, bored before I even spoke. I liked Olena Kalytiak Davis. She said very little and gravitated to my youngest. She walked him around the cafeteria, introducing him to everyone.

(I remember meeting Komunyakaa -- I had the kids come to hear him read, will never forget the line "let the devil beat your head like a drum." -- and Reetika Varazani -- newly pregnant. Three years later, she and the child would be gone. Amanda Davis was there too. She, too, would die in three years, plane crash.)

My antidote was what it's become. I fell into the work itself. I was there to learn something and that's where I poured my efforts. Michael Collier, my workshop leader and director of the conference, told me that I'd probably abandon poetry. It was often what happened when someone wrote both fiction and poetry. I haven't yet -- in large part because I'm contrary. I explained my process, told him I knew my opening lines and often my closing image. He seemed to think this wasn't a good idea. He told me to try not to know where I was headed. I went home and wrote as blindly as I could -- bad poems -- and learned that my process isn't fixed on where I'm headed but how I'm going to get there -- and that works for me. I learned to embrace it by first trying to shrug it off.

All in all, conferences throughout my life have been really important to me, and I've attended many now -- on the faculty side. I tend to cling to the workshop itself, what happens over the course of a few days or over a week can be completely transforming -- the right collection of people in discussion, focused on the work at hand. I'm still very wary -- and maybe growing more wary -- of those times when the faculty is supposed to be free just to be with each other. The after hours part. I'm not good at that. And I'm pretty sure that I never will be.

Eleven years later, I know a lot of writers well enough that they're honest and raw and open with me as I am with them. And I understand the podium. Behind a podium, I know what's expected of me. But put me in a room of writers and there's probably no time in my life -- except for pure grief -- when I feel the inadequacy of language more keenly. There we are. There's food and drink. There are conversations to have. There's banter. This one tells a story. This one tells another.

But it all feels like a waste of time. I can't help feeling like there's something we should be telling each other -- about what? These lifelong relationships we have with the page. This longing. This need. Isn't this where we should make our confessions to people who'll understand? Confess what exactly?

This is what we don't talk about -- or, at least, I haven't found the language for it -- not enough to dig at it, to push through to why ... why do we do this?

What is there to say? It's hard. We push through it. We try to continue.