May 19, 2009
Dear Margaret DeAngelis:
I am sorry to let you know that we are unable to offer you a spot as a [fiction contributor] at the 2009 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
— e-mail received 9:08 p.m., May 17, 2009
Bread Loaf doesn’t use the word “rejected.” Rather, my application for admission has been “declined.” For the first time since 2003, I will not be going to the mountain as a member of the tribe this August. Oh, I’ll be there. I sent the deposit for the private off-campus house I rent in January. And I have always said that I would be there, invited or not. Many activities, for example the morning lectures and the afternoon and evening readings, are open to the public. Contributors and faculty and staff often have family members come along. They sit on the porch, read in the library, shop at the bookstore. I myself was extended very gracious hospitality in 2002 when I stopped by on a research trip to the region, simply because I said I’d been a student at the School of English thirty years before.
Bread Loaf is a warm, welcoming place. It’s just not welcoming me as a contributor this year.
It’s been 48 hours since I got the news. At the time, Sunday evening, I was sitting at the computer, reading the messages that were being posted at the Speakeasy, a discussion board run by Poets & Writers magazine. The results had started to come in Saturday night. Almost everyone reporting then had requested financial aid. Most were rejections (“declines” and “declinations” both sound stupid), but there were some who’d been awarded waiterships. I expressed sympathy for my declined friends and congratulations to my accepted ones.
Early Sunday evening a few non-aid-requesting rejections were reported. I remembered that this happened last year. The rejections all seemed to arrive before the acceptances. I wrote some more condolence and congratulatory notes, and checked my e-mail one more time before I went downstairs to watch a movie.
I was stunned. Shocked even. I know I talk a good game. Bread Loaf is extremely competitive. They get around 2000 applications for 200 spots. Bread Loaf acceptance has to be earned every year. You can’t play a legacy card or buy your way in. Send your best unpublished work and hope for the best.
And yet . . . I could show you in my notebook where I wrote last year that I had no confidence at all in the story I sent. I thought it was the weakest piece I’d ever sent. I prepared myself for rejection. But I got in. And got extravagant praise and helpful suggestions for improvement from the dazzling and not-easily-impressed Antonya Nelson, my workshop leader.
I could also show you where I wrote this year that I was pleased with the story I sent. I worked on it for about six weeks, took it through three or four drafts, wrote a killer statement of purpose (“What do you hope to gain from participation at Bread Loaf this year?”) and — here I really patted myself on the back — got the whole thing submitted before I left for Georgia, three weeks before the deadline. (I am usually at the post office four minutes before closing on deadline day, begging for a hand cancellation.)
I am taking this very hard. I feel like I’ve been broken up with by a boyfriend. I applied for eight residencies this year and was rejected by six. And I was okay with that. We were strangers. It was like a blind date that didn’t work out. But I am in a relationship with Bread Loaf. We’ve been together six years. I know what he likes and I can deliver it. I’m a Me!* Why has he rejected me? Are we on a break, or are we done for good? What did I do to lose him? What can I do to get him back?
In these forty-eight hours I’ve cried, had hour-long phone calls with long-suffering friends (who must love me very much), felt guilty because I’m upset about such a little thing when others’ lives are falling apart. My concentration is off. I could barely follow 24 last night. I had a fight with Lynn via Facebook over something stupid.
This morning I opened a drawer to get some colored pens and came upon the At-A-Glance pad of hour-by-hour scheduling paper that I use only in August and only at Bread Loaf to keep track of where I am supposed to be in the plethora of workshops and craft classes and agent meetings. I burst into tears.
I called my therapist, a woman who knows me well and whom I see mostly for every-six-weeks brain-dump check-in sessions. This is only the second time in our long association that I ever called her between appointments. What should I do? I said. Can I really sit in my beautiful house on the hill above the campus and work like I did in Georgia while my friends enjoy the feast? Should I even try to keep on keepin’ on with my writing? Wouldn’t it be better just to give away all my books, burn my manuscripts, and find something useful to do?
“Do something nice for yourself,” she said when I left.
I stopped at the town’s best florist to send flowers for a special occasion. A purple vase caught my eye. For reasons I can’t explain, I am drawn to the color purple for my fiction work. I use purple ink or stripe a passage with a purple highlighter when I write passages or create character studies in my paper journal. I keep drafts in purple file folders and purple-covered notebooks.
The bouquet I chose is called “A Handful of Happiness.” It looks nice on the table. Since I won’t have to pay Bread Loaf’s tuition this year, maybe I can grab a handful of happiness every week, and pop it in my purple vase, to remind myself that I am still a fiction writer. I have been rejected one time by one fabulous, prestigious, highly selective conference. This is not the end of the world.
In a few weeks, when things settle down for the gracious woman who manages the Bread Loaf office, I’ll ask her if she can send me the comments that the admissions readers made on my work. I’ll try to find out why I didn’t even make the wait list. I’ll try to figure out what to do to get my lover back. I’ll keep on keepin’ on.
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