August 10, 2010
Tomorrow marks the 85th convening of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. It will be my eighth year in attendance. When I stepped onto the campus as a contributor for the first time in 2003, I was in a sense coming home. I’d done my first graduate work in the 1970s at the Bread Loaf School of English, which meets for six weeks and ends the weekend before the writers’ conference begins. A chance remark in 2002 by a friend about roads not taken led me to change the end of a research trip to Massachusetts and return to the region and the “long winding road” sign at the bottom of the hill that one takes to get to the Bread Loaf campus in Ripton.
I’d been out of the classroom four years then, still pretty much spinning my wheels and looking for direction in my life. “My mommy stays home and writes chapter books,” Lynn told her fourth grade teacher the year I took my sabbatical. It had been six years since then. I’d left the classroom and was presumably “writing full time.” But the book was barely begun, and I had only one amateurish short story actually completed. I called my friend from the same phone booth I’d used thirty years before to keep in touch with him, thanked him for the unwitting impetus to come up here again, and stepped out into the light of the waning moon over Moosalamoo. That may have been the moment I got serious about writing fiction.
I left Harrisburg yesterday, two weeks after I got back from Part I of my Double Shot Summer. I stopped first to have breakfast with that friend, still a presence in my life and himself on his way to a summer conference that would put us this day on opposite but intersecting paths. I then took the western route to New England, from Berks County to I-81 toward Scranton, then I-84 to I-87 past Albany. I’ve taken this trip so often now that I can almost do it without the GPS. A brief glimpse of the Catskills comes just when I think I can’t drive another mile, can’t stop at another service plaza, I get off the interstate at Route 149 to Fort Ann. Most of the trip is behind me, and things just get greener and more peaceful and less city-congested as I go.
I don’t like to travel far on the day an event begins, and every minute on the mountain is part of the Bread Loaf event for me, before and after the official days of the conference. I spent the night in Rutland, a city, but a Vermont city, where the Blockbuster closes before 9 p.m. and you can buy beer and wine at the gas station.
This morning, I started out for the final hour’s drive to Ripton. I stopped in Brandon, an artsy town that sets a different theme every summer for local artists to interpret. It was pigs in 2002, bird houses another year, rocking chairs, and, to my complete delight, sunflowers this year!
Just outside Brandon I stopped at a cemetery I’d never taken the time to visit before. Beside it was a field of sunflowers, planted to carry on the work of a local farmer whose passion was sunflowers and who died last year.
As I maneuvered through the tall stalks looking for an angle my short stature and small camera could capture, I knew that I had found the name and the theme for this second part of the Double Shot Summer. In my bag was a greeting card I bought in Brandon, intended for a friend’s birthday some two months from now. It compares a solid friendship to a field of gold. As it happens, I will be returning to Vermont on that birthday, going even farther north to a month-long residency at the Vermont Studio Center. And I’ll be carrying the new novel I plan to work on there while the one I have now, surely finished in these next ten weeks, rests and waits for a second look.
The working title for the new piece?
Fields of Gold.
I’m installed now in my little house just beyond the eastern edge of the Bread Loaf campus. The waiters and the scholars and the faculty and the other staff are already on campus, and I can see lights in the Inn and cars in the parking lot. I am moving, as always, into the Next Big Thing.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: This is going to be the Best Bread Loaf Ever!!
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