Reversal of Fortune

July 12, 2009

Dear Margaret,
A general applicant spot in fiction has become available, and we would like to offer it to you. Though not on the official waitlist, your work merits a place at the conference, if you would like to consider the spot.
                         — e-mail from an administrator at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference,
1:13 p.m., June 26, 2009

Regular readers of this space are probably well-acquainted with the tailspin of anguish, sadness, depression, and near-hopelessness that I fell into on May 17, when I received my rejection notice from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, that annual gathering of writers both famous and undiscovered which had welcomed me into its embrace every year since 2003. I was stunned, I said. Shocked. In the next weeks I wrote only four more pieces for this space, making some allusion to my outcast state in each one. And then I fell silent.

I felt like I’d been broken up with by a boyfriend. I tried to adjust. “Today is the first day of the rest of my writing life,” I wrote across the top of the planner page for the week of May 24, and I went back to work. I joined an online workshop where I asked for feedback on the story that had failed to gain me my seventh admission to Bread Loaf. I produced about ten pages of text for the novel I think will be my next big project. I even did a little bit of work on the novel I’d lavished exclusive attention on in Georgia. In other words, I decided to keep on keepin’ on rather than spend the rest of the summer eating sticky buns and watching all three seasons of Friday Night Lights over and over again.

But there was a melancholy that seemed to hang over me like a cloud. I felt like I did in 1964, when the selections for Senior Chorus were posted and my name was not among those of the girls elevated from eleventh grade Glee Club. I remember looking in the yearbook that had just been delivered and finding girls in the class ahead of me who listed Glee Club but not Chorus in their activities. I’d pass some of them in the hall, peering at them, trying to figure out how they had gotten through their senior year without the social and other rewards that Chorus promised for me. Before the summer was over, however, I got a call from my beloved Sister Kilian, the guidance counselor who was preparing schedules and noticed my absence from the Chorus roster. It was a mistake, she’d learned, a snafu in the typing of the list. I did indeed have a place among the senior singers, and I went on to have the best year of my high school career, socially and musically.

The week of June 21 I was still doing some sighing and indulging in some self-pity about Bread Loaf. My oft-stated resolve to go anyway, sit up on the hill and enjoy the leaves and the light, go to the readings, write meandering nature sketches in my notebook, seemed hollow and foolish. I would have neither the heart nor the chutzpah to insinuate myself even into the public activities. I thought seriously of contacting the people I rent my little house from and asking if maybe they had a waiting list of conference participants who didn’t want to risk the uncertainties of the campus accommodations.

On Friday, June 26, I was up before 5:00 after a restless night. I did the normal things — centered myself with C&C (Coffee & Contemplation), read some fiction, wrote a meandering quarter page about finding a stash of early twentieth century juvenile fiction (girls’ series books) in my cousin’s basement the summer before seventh or eighth grade. I had a bowl of cereal with some fruit about 11:00. Not long afterward I felt the fatigue that sometimes overtakes me after a high carbohydrate indulgence. I did the laziest, most counterproductive thing I can imagine — I went back to bed before noon on the kind of day that’s known around here as a Susquehanna Sparkler.

I woke feeling disoriented. The bedside clock said 2:15. I’d had a strange dream about being in the wrong place, feeling anxious that I was there, although it was not clear in the dream what the place was, why it was wrong, nor where the right place might be.

I got up, went to the computer and, still not quite fully awake and present in the real world, went through the automatic clicks that gathered any e-mail that might have come in. I found myself staring at a notice about the upcoming reunion of the Millersville University Class of 1969 (click-trash), a note from a friend with the subject line “Offensive Michael Jackson Joke” (click-trash), and another from the office manager at Bread Loaf.

30K. With something attached.

Click-open. ” . . . spot . . . available . . .  offer it to you . . . work merits a place . . .  if you would like to consider the spot.”

I blinked, maybe twice.

Click-reply. “YES!! THANK YOU!!” Click-send.

The time stamp on my e-mail is 2:20. The time stamp on the text message sending this news to a friend is 2:21. I had the deposit form printed out and the check written by 2:40. I handed it to a window clerk at the post office before 3:00.

“What did you do?” someone on a writers’ discussion list asked me. (It occurred to me later that several people on that list had indicated their official waitlist status, and no one had written to announce they’d been offered a spot.)

I don’t know what I did. I don’t know what happened. I don’t care.

My boyfriend’s back.


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