Tracy Strauss, a poet, prose writer, educator, and past recipient of a Somerville Arts Council Artist Fellowship, recently attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, set in Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest. We asked Tracy about her thoughts on the conference, and she passed along this terrific description of her particular experiences, ranging from the view (stunning), to the road (harrowing), to the writing (refocused).
Diary of a Bread Loafer
by Tracy L. Strauss
I just returned from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Ripton, VT, where 200 writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry gathered for twelve days of literary exploration. As I reflect upon my first-time attendance, I can say that my experience atop “The Mountain” was challenging, exhilarating, and inspiring.
Each day was filled with a lineup of lectures and readings by great writers, panel discussions on acquiring an agent and approaching book and magazine editors, craft classes, and writing workshops. A familiar face, Chris Castellani, of Boston’s Grub Street, was also present on the mountain to talk about writing centers, colonies, and other professional development opportunities.
Evenings brought the chance for us Bread Loafers to read our work in the Blue Parlor, where we cheered each other on and shared our latest pieces of poetry and prose. (Each day’s itinerary was delivered to us via The Crumb, Bread Loaf’s daily dose).
Studying with Patricia Hampl, I had the opportunity to share a chapter of my memoir-in-progress with faculty and fellow writers for critical response. A discussion about metaphor and structure brought my project into rack focus within my inner eye, and sent me off with keener vision, motivation, and direction.
During breaks in the action, I would take some time for a little solitude, sitting in one of Bread Loaf’s many Appalachian chairs, looking out at the contemplative majesty of the Green Mountains. The sun glowed over parts of it, casting shadows over others. My journey to Bread Loaf, as in the writer’s life, seemed to be pictured in those mountains in the darkness and light, in the peaks and valleys, standing tall, reaching for the heavens.
The stars were amazing at Bread Loaf. The sky was like a planetarium, with perfectly lit constellations and even the distinct appearance of the Milky Way. Many times I found myself standing in the middle of a field with fellow Bread Loafers, our heads craned back as we stared up at the stars, unable to tear ourselves away.
Before my trip to Bread Loaf Mountain, I had heard about a sense of elitism that some said pervades the Conference. What I did witness was easy to simply tune out. Many attendees, myself included, chose rather to tune in the camaraderie between newfound friends, and, in doing so, unnecessary competitiveness disappeared from the radar.
With no cell phone access and limited internet, many Bread Loafers went a little batty over the course of twelve days in literary seclusion, but the Conference scheduled two fun-filled barn dances to provide an outlet for such energy. Imagine a bunch of writers at a dance the kind of social situation most of us dreaded in junior high. Then imagine us in our own skins, dancing to “Thriller” and “Crazy,” and having the time of our lives.
Meals were a time for us to share stories about ourselves, and, in many instances to make further connections with agents and editors and writing consultants who sat alongside us at the dining hall tables. Midway through the Conference, we took a 1.5 mile hike to the Robert Frost Farm, where we enjoyed a picnic lunch, toured Frost’s cabin, and listened to a lecture by Jay Parini, who spoke about Frost’s inspiration in nature. Bread Loaf also continued its tradition of the Poets and Prosers Pig Roast one evening, with vegetarian options available.
My trip to Bread Loaf began with some bumps in the road: literally, recent floods washed out the road to Ripton, forcing me to take a detour, which meant a steering-wheel gripping forty-five minute drive through an unpaved ditch-ridden “road” that wound through the woods. At one point the path split in two, and I did not know which one was the path to Bread Loaf. I wondered if I was re-living Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” (Frost, who shared his craft at Bread Loaf from 1939 until his death in 1963, is legacy at this Conference.) I chose right, however, as a half hour later I came upon a small sign that read “To Bread Loaf” and included an arrow outlined in yellow “Caution” tape.
My time away from Massachusetts seemed to isolate me from my life yet it simultaneously brought me back to it. The road I traveled home was smooth repaired and open and filled with a renewed sense of clarity, and the drive to write.
Images: Tracy Strauss reads in the Blue Parlor; view of the Green Mountains from Bread Loaf; on the porch at Bread Loaf; “To Bread Loaf” sign with caution tape.