The Hat

August 13, 2009

Wearing a hat is like having a baby or a puppy; everyone stops to coo and talk about it.
Louise Green, b. 1950s
English hat designer


He was crossing the uneven terrain of the lawn outside Treman Cottage, where the first outdoor reception for Bread Loaf 2009 was taking place. In my seventh sojourn here I am still shy, still uncertain at these meet-and-mingle events. And I feel awkward and graceless trying to balance a plate of food and a drink while the conversation I am trying to have slides above so many other voices and floats off into the air. But it was an hour till dinner and I hadn’t eaten well all day, nervous about my manuscript being up first for discussion. I was mostly there for the fruit and the baked brie.

“Hello, Margaret,” he said, putting his cup of wine on the ground and holding out his hand to me. “I am Eduardo. I know you from the Speakeasy. I don’t contribute much, but I read all of your posts. I am very happy to meet you” His Spanish accent was strongest in the musical way he said his own name.

I smiled and shook his hand. “Thank you,” I said. “How did you . . . ?” I was about to ask him how he knew who I was, since I wasn’t wearing a name tag. He anticipated my question. “It’s the hat,” he said.

I should probably explain about the hat.

In the months before I went to Bread Loaf for the first time, I signed up for a week-long writers’ retreat and workshop in Virginia, about two hours northwest of Richmond. Held at a former summer camp on the Cowpasture River, it promised a serene setting with home-cooked food, a careful reading and evaluation of a manuscript, both in a small group and in private conference with an experienced writing teacher, and ample time to write. The place offered three separate weeks for writers, all under the direction of the same leader. I chose the third week because it fit my schedule.

Well, the food was good. Really good.

When I arrived I learned that all the other participants lived in the same two Zip codes in Richmond, that they had worked together with the leader as a group for more than a year, and that they had also been together at this facility the previous two weeks.

I felt like the new kid in a cliquish middle school.

The hat, provided to each of us by one of the participants, turned out to be the best part of the experience. My fellow writers, as well as the instructor, were pretty much workshopped and retreated out. By the third day, things got awfully loose, and the last day was given over entirely to a costume party based on The Sweet Potato Queens’ Guide to Life, a book designed to “empower” women to raise their self-esteem and their powers of positive thinking that I hadn’t read and wasn’t interested in. (I skipped the trip to Goodwill to shop for a costume and just wore my hat.) I also got hit up for a $25 contribution to the purchase of an expensive first edition of the out-of-print county history that had helped the instructor write her first (and only) novel, as a gift for all her hard work with this group.

The workshop had been disappointing (except for the food), but I really did like the hat. I took it with me to Bread Loaf, thinking it would probably be amusing to wear it there. By that time it had acquired some of the pins you see, in particular one that says “This is what 50 looks like” (I have since magic-markered a 6 over the 5, which makes it only slightly obsolete), plus “Ask me about my perfect child” and “I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.”

“Wow, that’s some hat,” said a classmate when I arrived for the first session of workshop at Bread Loaf 2003.

“Yeah,” I said. “This is the best thing I got out of a workshop I was in earlier this year. That kind of tells you what the workshop was like.”

“It’s pretty cheesy,” said my new acquaintance. She stretched out her well-shaped, tanned legs then and, with a toss of her long blonde hair, turned to the person sitting beside her, a man with sideburns that looked like hockey sticks curving down to the corners of his mouth and full sleeve tattoos, and began a conversation. She never spoke directly to me again.

That was perhaps the brightest, lightest moment of the whole ordeal. I have related the details elsewhere in these pages, and if you’ve never read that piece and really want to, you’re probably clever enough to find it. I have also divulged the details on a discussion board where I know Eduardo.

Bread Loaf 2003 was not a total loss, of course. After all, I chose to reapply, again and again. In fact, I got four good story openings out of it. One of that workshop leader’s gambits was to give us a short assignment each day. That strategy was not without its pitfalls, however. For the last day she directed us to “write a character sketch based on someone in this workshop.” That is not an assignment I’d likely give even to a group that’s been together a long time and has built a lot of trust. Two people chose to portray me, and both emphasized my excess weight and my ridiculous hat.

Bread Loaf is a place where you see lots of personal fashion statements: combat boots with a gauzy summer frock on a shapely young woman, a six-inch Mohawk (that’s on a man), retro thrift-shop getups and t-shirts from other writers’ conferences. I’ve worn The Hat at Bread Loaf and elsewhere ever since 2003, and no one else has ever made fun of it. Last year, as I scooped scrambled eggs onto my breakfast plate, I heard someone across the buffet table say, “I have that hat.”

I looked up. Jenny, one of the veterans of that Virginia experience, now at Bread Loaf with one book published and working on another.

There are certain experiences you can have only at a place like Bread Loaf. “I started this piece when I was camping with the Chilean army,” I heard someone say the other day. Twice I’ve heard people talking about compressing binaries, and about their problems with enjambment. Today I took a class from a young man who has written a memoir about his time as a Buddhist monk and a novel drawn on his experiences as the middleweight barroom boxing champion of Alaska. I’m told there’s a poet here who can hot wire my car if it comes to that.

Only at Bread Loaf will I ever be able to pick up a book by a participant, open to a passage where she describes beginning her first extra-marital affair on the porch of the residence building at a women writers’ retreat, and know that I was sleeping (I hope) a few feet away.

May my freak flag fly forever.

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