(This essay is one in a series of pieces about what I am reading during National Short Story Month 2011. To see a list of the stories, visit What I’m Reading During National Short Story Month 2011.)
May 19, 2011
The summer before she’d met Neil, even though she was pretty sure that what she was looking for was not creative expression but something like a makeover to end all makeovers, Macy had spent a week on scholarship at a writers’ conference. She looked at the men and women around her and thought, We’re like the people at Lourdes, . . . except we’ve brought our poems and short stories and inexpressible wishes, instead of scrofula and dermatitis.
— Amy Bloom, b. 1953
American fiction writer
from “Where the God of Love Hangs Out”
It is 2:43 pm in the Eastern time zone as I write this. On this day last year, the e-mail notifying me that I had been accepted as a general contributor for the 2010 edition of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference came at 3:39. It came in the same e-mail batch as the notice that I had not been awarded the scholarship for a returning contributor that I had applied for. I knew before I opened the two notes what they said. The rejection was only 6K, the acceptance some 25K (because forms to fill out and send back with my deposit were attached).
Longtime readers of this space know my history with the venerable Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference — that I attended for the first time in 2003, had an unhappy experience because of a bad fit between me and the workshop leader, that I threw that off and went back to work, applying and being accepted and attending every year thereafter. In 2009 I was initially rejected. and longtime readers will certainly remember that unhappy episode, when I wept and wailed and carried on as if I had been dumped by a lover, the exact analogy I used, because that’s what it felt like. When the rejection was reversed, for reasons that were never explained to me, I went back to his embrace, grateful for his attention again. Last year I was accepted again without any snag, and we had our annual tryst on the mountain. As I drove down the long and winding road that leads away from his door, I whispered, I’ll be seeing you.
I take this whole thing very seriously, too seriously, some people think. Some people, even some people who have been there or been to similar programs, don’t understand why I worry and agonize, why I will be hurt and bereft and beside myself with regret over the work I sent as my application materials if I am not chosen this year. I’m not sure I understand it myself.
The project I began at the beginning of May, National Short Story Month, has helped me focus my writing and reading energies away from constant worry about Bread Loaf. I determined to read one short story per day, and I further determined to make that 31 stories by 31 different authors, 80% of them stories I had never read before, 20% stories I love, stories I come back to again and again, stories I use as mentor texts in my own development. I also began posting a brief passage from each story as my Facebook status each morning, as I had posted some lines of poetry each day during April, National Poetry Month. (The list of stories I have read is linked in the statement at the top of this piece.)
Many of the stories were in collections that have resided on a shelf or in a stack somewhere in my house for a long time, without being opened. Finally delving into the material got me in touch with why I had been attracted to that author’s work in the first place. More than half of the stories so far, just past half way into the project, have been by writers I actually know, writers I’ve sat beside in workshop, writers I’ve taken a craft class from, writers I’ve sent fan letters to via Facebook who have then responded. This makes me see more clearly the richness of my writing world, the models and the opportunities and the support that are there to help me find my way as I develop as a fiction writer.
I haven’t absolutely loved every story I’ve read. One seemed incomprehensible, one was badly edited, one was just plain boring. Another had an element of magical realism, a genre I am not particularly drawn to, and yet the story held my attention. At the end I cared about the character, about his loneliness, even though the methods he was using to deal with his emotional pain were so fantastical (albeit not in his world) that I barely had a frame of reference for them. And one of them, a story I have pulled apart and outlined and analyzed and modeled one of my own after, made me cry again when I read it, although it is the only work by that author (who has published two novels and a dozen stories that I’ve read) that says anything at all to me.
When I was active in the Emily Dickinson scholarly community, I used to delight in instances I called “accidental Emily,” a reference to the poet come upon suddenly outside the academic world of literary criticism, in mainstream literature or popular culture.
The story from which I take today’s quotation, Amy Bloom’s “Where the God of Love Hangs Out,” has such a random reference to the world of the writers’ conference. Most advice is to avoid characters who are writers, and a story about writing a story or about being in a writing workshop rarely succeeds unless it comes from a master (Unless, by Carol Shields, comes to mind), or has an element of horror (Stephen King’s Misery is a good one) or the comically ironic (Margo Rabb “How to Tell a Story“).
Macy, the character in Amy Bloom’s story, is a young woman who has “married up,” that is, married out of the social and economic class she came from. She is a stranger in a strange land who has taught herself that “you listen and you listen and you copy their ways,”‘ who has changed her given name and told everyone her parents are dead, though she has a coked-up mother who sometimes asks her for money.
In her week at the writers’ conference, Macy “went to every reading and performance that was scheduled and she went late, in hopes of finding a seat next to a good-looking man, or even just a nice man, and she stood in line to have books signed by people she thought were complete idiots, just to improve the odds. She wrote down a few other things that happened at the writers’ conference, in a lavender suede notebook, and then she threw the notebook in the dumpster.”
In my weeks at writers’ conferences, I go to many of the readings and classes and lectures, often sitting beside good-looking men, nice men, nice women too, men and women who have what I want — talent, ideas, and the discipline to produce work that is worth reading. I listen and I listen and I copy their ways. I use plain top-bound spiral notebooks, and I never throw any of them away. Just yesterday, looking for early work on a story I am revising, I found this, written on January 5, 2005: “What on earth makes me think I can write fiction?”
I’m still very much the apprentice, very much the wannabe. I’ve had genuine interest and encouragement from many talented people. It’s 4:19 now, and no news has come yet from Bread Loaf. It’s time to go to the gym, pump off some of my tension, and then come back to work. A new character came to me yesterday, a compulsive shopper who has decided to take the bus to the downtown stores rather than drive her Volvo with the big trunk to a shopping center, as a way to limit herself to buying only as much as she can carry. I need to follow her, and to listen and listen.