August 18, 2012
The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference lasts 10 days, but the portion in which an individual contributor’s work is examined or showcased is really very brief. The manuscript you bring to workshop is discussed in the group for about 45 minutes, and you have a private 30-minute conference with the workshop leader. If you want it, you can have a spot in the Blue Parlor, a series of readings held in a small room in the Inn, where the lectern is placed under a portrait of the stern-faced Jospeh Battell, whose woods these once were. Individuals are strictly held to a 5-minute limit, so that ten readers can be accommodated in each session, and we’re done in time for dinner.
Today was my day to have both of those opportunities. It was our second workshop session (of five) for the conference, a position I like. Participants are sometimes too tentative in the first meeting, even when the workshop leader’s style and procedure have been made very clear. (Helen Schulman, the faculty member who is leading my group, sent us an email two weeks ago that helped set the tone for our discussions.) Work that is looked at in the last session (or two) sometimes suffers from critique fatigue, and other kinds of fatigue. (A participant fell asleep during the discussion of my manuscript in my infamous 2003 experience. I do not think she was up late writing penetrating literary analyses.)
The manuscript I brought to workshop is a section of my novel (or what I now call “my first novel,” since I am at work on the second) that I wrote in 2010 but that no one has ever seen. It involves a trip to the grocery store undertaken by Brenda, the protagonist, on the day after Christmas, two days after her niece has died suddenly. She meets the neighborhood busybody who asks intrusive questions and makes insensitive remarks. There is also an excursion into Brenda’s past, a memory of a college roommate whose nightly three minutes of bible reading puzzled her.
The feedback I got was very helpful, as well as positive. I saw some structural problems, some places where I dropped a theme too soon and inserted backstory instead of letting my characters finish their interaction. I came away excited again about these characters and the world I have created for them, eager to get back to work both on revision and new material.
For my turn in the Blue Parlor, I chose a section of the workshop manuscript, something I have never done before. (In fact, i most often read nonfiction, usually an adaptation of a Markings post. They’re shorter and more self-contained than my longer fiction.)
The busybody that Brenda meets in the grocery store has appeared in my fiction elsewhere, in a short story where she gossips to the main character about a neighbor who has been arrested. Readers always like the scenes with Ginny. Everyone knows someone like her, and though she is annoying and appears in the story mostly to give the main character an opportunity to get angry, she provides a bit of comic relief in a serious text. In the grocery store, we get this:
“Brenda. Oh, Brenda.”
She heard her name and knew at once who it was. Ginny Ballantine from church. She wondered for a moment if Ginny would just go away if she didn’t look around.
“Brenda. Oh, Brenda,” Ginny said again.
Brenda turned around.
“Hi, Ginny,” she said.
Ginny put her hand out and touched Brenda’s arm. “How are you?” she said. Her voice had that fake softness newscasters use when they report tragedies.
What could she say? I feel hollow inside and I think maybe eating this whole tray of sticky buns before I leave the store might help? I have to talk to two ten-year-olds about their sister being in heaven and I’m not at all sure what to say? I’m supposed to be on a plane to Wyoming for a fabulous vacation with my boyfriend and I feel ashamed that I’m angry at Megan for dying and so I’m here talking to you instead?
“I’m fine,” she said.
“So what happened?” Ginny said. Her voice got even softer, as if that “what happened” was something you didn’t talk to just anybody about.
“We’re not really sure yet,” Brenda said. “There’ll be an autopsy, I guess.”
Ginny moved her cart a little closer to Brenda’s and leaned in. She lowered both the pitch and the volume of her voice. “The drugs again? The drinking?”
It was all Brenda could do to keep herself from yanking Ginny’s dangling silver earrings right straight through her fleshy earlobes.
. . .
“Tell Susan [the dead girl’s stepmother] I’m thinking of her,” Ginny said. “And if she needs somebody to talk to, well, I know she has you, I know you’re her best friend, but maybe talking to another mother would be better, and if she needs another mother to talk to, well, tell her I’m here.”
“I will,” said Brenda, tightening her grip on her cart and imagining poking the earring wires, bloody from having sliced through Ginny’s earlobes, into Ginny’s eyes.
This summer I read this section at the Chesapeake Writers’ Conference and at Sewanee, as well as here at Bread Loaf. It always gets a laugh, especially the part about the bloody ear wires.
I’m thinking maybe Ginny needs her own story.