Excerpts from a 30-year-old diary: Bread Loaf 1977

I’ve kept a daily diary since the summer of 1969, just before I started college, and I haven’t missed a day in almost 38 years. I thought, to totally humiliate myself, I’d present some excerpts from my diary from about 30 years ago when I went to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I generally wrote 700-1200 words a day, so this is just sections, which hopefully will not be too boring. I’m trying to present material that I think might be of at least minimal interest to others because it mentions some writers of note. It also exhibits my hilarious utter lack of sophisticated reflection on what I experienced.

Thursday, August 16, 1977

The bus left Port Authority at 9:30 a.m. and we made pretty good time up the Thruway, getting to Albany in 3 hours. My phobias didn’t bother me, but I was very tense. I chatted with Barbara Unger, a 35ish poet and teacher at Rockland County Community College.

We really are in the middle of nowhere, especially where they stuck me, in Gilmore, which is ¾ of a mile from the rest of the Bread Loaf buildings. I do have a room all to myself and I suppose I should be grateful for that. I’ve met so many people I’ll never be able to remember all their names.

Dinner was fairly bland but wholesome, and after that we hung around till 8 p.m. when we went into the Little Theater. Bob Pack and Sandy Martin, the directors of the conference, introduced themselves and made short welcoming speeches. Martin said that the average Bread Loafer is 35 and there are many varied people here – kids my age and younger; middle-aged women; even retired septuagenarians.

Maxine Kumin read her poetry, and she was pretty good, and afterwards there was a reception social at the barn…The waiters are all Contributors, and if you miss the first 15 minutes of meals, the doors are slammed in your face.

Wednesday, August 17, 1977

I think I’m getting civilization withdrawal pangs; it was such a shock to see the first page of the New York Times saying Elvis Presley had died. I got a lift this morning with Carl Dennis next door. He teaches at Buffalo, and his poetry books have been published by George Braziller. Several years ago he was a Bread Loaf Fellow and now just comes back to see his old friends.

I went to all 3 morning lectures: Bob Pack, director of the conference, spoke on the importance of words, the particular word in poetry. He used poems by Frost, Robinson, Dickinson and even Paradise Lost to make his points, and he was pretty interesting.

Stanley Elkin came next and he was a disappointment. He played cranky old man and didn’t give a lecture, but just answered questions. I asked him a question that I thought deserved a serious answer, “Does a short story have to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and what order should they be in?” and he just laughed and said that of course they did and anyone who changed the order was just “stunting.”

The audience sensed Elkin’s superiority and they were fairly hostile. At the end he said, “I’m sorry,” and hobbled off on his cane. The next lecturer was Mark Strand, who chose to address the subject of “craft,” but his delivery was so pedantic that my mind was wandering before he’d gotten through a third of his text.

I found a letter in my mailbox. As a Scholar (it says in the leaflet that I won the National Arts Club Scholarship in Prose), I’m invited to the cocktails at Treman House for Staff, Scholars, Fellows and Assorted Visitors. There is a lot of drinking going on here—a hell of a lot.

I had lunch with Carl, David, Debbie and an elderly couple who called each other “Mom” and “Dad.”

Thursday, August 18, 1977

After writing yesterday’s entry, I smoked some hash with Bob and Charles, then fell into a sort of restful semi-sleep. At 5 p.m. David came back, and I persuaded him to drive into town. It was a relief to get back to the real world. I hadn’t realized (how did I miss it?) that we are on the top of a mountain.

Vermonters impress me with their courtesy and their progressiveness—there are no roadside billboards and the soda cans have press-ins, not flip-tops, and there’s a 5-cent
refund on the aluminum.

We made it back to the Little Theater just in time for John Irving’s reading of the start of his forthcoming novel The World According to Garp, which sounds like it will be hilarious; I wasn’t bored for a minute. I walked back in the dark with Kevin, Bob and Charles. Traipsing up the road to Gilmore somehow reminded me of that recurring scene in Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.” I looked up and was amazed –almost intoxicated – by so many bright stars, something I’d never seen before in my life.

Last night I went down to the study with Rick and Greg and David, and we sat by the fire and read each other’s work. I think it’s neat to be living in a house where 12 guys in their 20s are all reading To the Lighthouse. (Idea for story: A dozen guys, each reading a different Virginia Woolf novel, are living in a house in the woods. Title: “Virginia Woolf Is For Lovers.”)

I attended each lecture today. Toni Morrison spoke about a “useable past” in fiction and read from the new Song of Solomon. Marvin Bell gave a brilliant lecture on receptivity being important to creativity and seemed to stress instinct, readiness, and continuous working – he said the more you do something, the better you get at it.

John Gardner got me appropriately riled with his talk of “Moral Fiction,” attacking post-modernist textured fiction (Gass, Barthelme, Sukenick, Barth) for not having any values or philosophy at bottom.

I had a discussion group with John Gardner from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and he was fascinating; I did my share of talking and got him to admit that he was using overkill, that of course texture is important – but only if it’s “in service” (my words, with which he agreed) to character, plot and values.

Gardner is a strange-looking man with that Veronica Lake-like blond hair but he’s sweet and smart, and he’s leading me to rethink some of my preexisting ideas about fiction. And that’s good.

Friday, August 19, 1977

Noon. Kevin and I just walked back to the house after a fantastic lecture by John Irving which was actually a story he wrote. He and his 13-year-old son Colin read it aloud; the point of it was that made-up stories are always better than the true story, that “but it really happened that way” is the worst excuse for unsatisfactory fiction.

I feel that a lot of what’s going on here has been useful to me. Even Stanley Elkin’s bitterness seems justifiable; the man has paid his dues and has been very ill. He looks 20 years older than 47.

John Gardner is more accessible than I thought he would be. He and Bill Gass, he says, like to tramp through the woods and scream at each other, arguing about fiction. I now get the feeling that a lot of what he says is just for effect. For instance, when asked his opinion of Nabokov, Gardner came out with “I think he’s a cheap diabolist,” eliciting shock from the crowd. Right or (probably) wrong, that takes guts.

Mark Strand read from his poetry last evening; the man is icy cold, but as I told Carl Dennis, I guess someone’s got to write poetry for the cold people. And one has to admit he’s good.

I had breakfast in the Barn with Dannye Romine, a fellow Fiction Scholar, a thirtyish woman who’s the book editor of the Charlotte Observer. We missed the first lecture but did go to hear William Meredith’s talk on the uselessness of personal anguish unless it is raised to the universal level; he used Bellow’s Herzog as a starting-off point.

Then came the Irving performance, which was great. I’d better get back to the Inn or I’ll miss lunch.


Saturday, August 20, 1977

After lunch yesterday, I went to a panel discussion on “Getting Started”: Kumin, Bell, Meredith and Irving hit some nerves as they talked about how they write, but I imagine every writer works slightly differently, and the aura, the inspiration, Kumin’s “prickle on the back of the neck” vary with each individual.

We took the jeep back for dinner, and I ended up sitting next to Patti Pack, the director’s wife, who told me that 100 years ago two families owned this inn and operated it as a kind of 19th-century commune. When it was bequeathed to Middlebury College, they thought it was a white elephant and didn’t know what to do with it until Frost came along.

After dinner, Toni Morrison read a beautiful passage from her new novel. She’s a terrific reader and deserved her standing ovation.

Back at the Barn again, I sat with Ron Carlson, who’s 30 and teaches at Hotchkiss and looks it. But he’s incredibly sympathetic. Ron gave me a lift back to the house, where I tried to relax.

At 10 a.m. today, the literary agent Georges Borchardt spoke on first book contracts. I skipped the next two lectures and sat in the Barn (it was freezing outside, the coldest it’s been – and nobody was prepared for it) with Dannye Romine and Raymond Sokolov, the Times food critic and novelist, who’s a Fellow.

I could see John Gardner going over David’s novel with him. David was told that he could be a good writer and have a good novel, but he has to stop thinking about old rules and dig “deeper and deeper and deeper.” I had lunch with Debbie and that nice Gloucester teacher (a blonde divorced poet); we had a long discussion on literary “cuteness,” a big problem for me.

In our discussion group, John Gardner lectured on how to write a novel and he was just so brilliant (even though I disagreed with him) that it was too much for me to take in at once. He believes first in character and that everything stems from that. A good novel should take at least 5 years – work on it till it’s an ecstatic experience, “ex-stasis,” out of yourself, as if God had written it.

But Gardner did say that you can do anything in a short story, so I feel he’s not totally against me. I’ll never be able to write (to sweat out) a novel like Gardner; my temperament makes me basically an artificer, not an artist. I prefer games and play to “serious, big” statements. Maybe that will change, but now I feel I’m so young, I don’t have any big statements to make. However, I do seem to have lots of little statements to make.

I’m going to see Tim O’Brien tomorrow at 11 a.m. for my manuscript conference. I’m not very concerned with what he thinks of my stuff.

The mice are starting to bother me: they got into my cookies. Ugh! At least I didn’t scream like Hilma Wolitzer did the other night (so I heard).

There are about five more entries but this is probably all anyone can stand – if anyone feels otherwise, I’ll post the rest of this moronic diary.

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17 Comments

  1. FWiW, I love this. Incredible the moments you had, and how momentous they were (in hindsight) even to a third party witness here.

    I was too young to have the notion of Song of Solomon as a “new work,” or World According to Garp as a “new work” either. You have helped me taste that feeling.

  2. I don’t think it’s moronic at all. In fact I think it’s great—maybe because I’m around the same age you were and I’m identifying with you, or maybe because it IS just great. I especially liked this part: “Traipsing up the road to Gilmore somehow reminded me of that recurring scene in Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.” I looked up and was amazed –almost intoxicated – by so many bright stars, something I’d never seen before in my life.”

    What’s it like having this chronicle of your life 30 years later? How often do you go back and read your daily entries? When you read them can you recall the moments you’re describing, ones you might not be able to recall w/o help from the journal? Even though you think it’s moronic and without reflection do you think this was a useful exercise? Did it improve your writing ultimately? Constant sophisticated might not have been the point of the journaling, I think, as that would have been exhausting. Better to get the events down and save the reflection for later.

  3. Oh my god. Nothing at Bread Loaf has changed except the names of the starring writers and agents. I was there in 2005, in the building directly across the road from Treman, where every evening at cocktail hour I got to hear the tinkling, laughing sound of the open-bar party for Scholars and Fellows I was not allowed to attend.

    My favorite bit of Bread Loaf lore is that Gardner’s ex wife once hired a crop duster airplane to leaflet the campus with flyers stating that he had not been keeping up his support payments.

  4. I hope you’ll post the rest of what you have. I’ll bet a number of others are interested too. I just like that your journal entries are about you, in that you are experiencing these events, but you also get out of the way enough so we can also see Gardner, Elkin, Morrison, Irving, and all your peers. You already knew that you didn’t have to be the center of every moment, what every writer has to learn eventually! Great stuff.

  5. Ron Carlson was my thesis advisor. He is a very sympathetic man, indeed. I can’t imagine him at thirty, the age I was when we were working together on my first novel…

  6. Thank you so much, everyone. (Did Ed censor the mean ones?)

    Jade, I’m glad I helped you with the feeling you describe, and I hope that you will experience some new works as I did. Hearing them was much more exciting than I was able to describe. It’s interesting that I have very definite memories of things at Bread Loaf which were not recorded in the diary. (That is often true of my diary.) For example, I took away from William Meredith’s lecture his comments that as he became older, he felt less and less the need to publish so promiscuously and to write so often. Maybe I remember that so well now because I’m old enough to feel the same way.

    Patrick, I don’t know if I can answer your first question since I have always kept a diary. I don’t think I have read these entries since the early ’80s. I just store the diaries in my family’s house — I mostly have lived in a different city — and so I rarely look at them or think about them. I do worry about them being destroyed in a fire. I would like to have them in some library someday, but I don’t know how to go about how to ask libraries who might be interested. Each book is the same hardbound red standard diary; they’re not notebooks.

    I didn’t remember, I think, that Marvin Bell was at Bread Loaf that year, as I had dinner with him and his wife in South Florida a few years ago. Also at that dinner out was Liz Rosenberg, who was Gardner’s second wife, perhaps his wife when I was there. Suzanne, I can’t imagine Liz hiriing a crop duster and so perhaps it was Gardner’s first wife, although I suspect the story is apocryphal.

    Patrick, it was useful to me to read this, but I wouldn’t presume to advise anyone to keep a daily diary. Everyone is different. Obviously I’m obsessive-compulsive to keep writing every day.

    Suzanne, I never did go to Treman. Now I realize how idiotic and impolitic that was. My excuse was that I don’t drink.

    Tayari, I love your work. Ron Carlson is probably the single best creative writing instructor I’ve ever witnessed. I spent an amazing day with him in February 2006 when he was our guest at the Jewish community high school where I was then teaching. Ron is energetic, generous, remarkably intuitive and manages to bring out the best in writing students. I did not see him for many years although I loved his stories until 2000-01 when I taught at Arizona State as a part-timer in the English Department and looked him up. I was shocked that he remembered me and even seem to know I’d published stuff. He has since been very kind to me. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Ron Carlson.

    Matthew, I would like to go back and read _On Moral Fiction_ again. One thing that’s not in my excerpts is that there was a lot of bashing of Robert Coover’s _The Public Burning_, which I liked a lot. But Gardner was a terrific person, one of the few people from Bread Loaf I did end up corresponding with. He is a character in my first book and calls my story immoral — and then my story gets its revenge on him, necessitating a tetanus shot. He thought that was hilarious and showed the story to people at Bread Loaf the year my book came out (two years after this diary).

    Some famous writers were at Bread Loaf that year that I never mentioned or even got to meet.

    The next spring there was a reading at the National Arts Club, and those four of us who had fellowships, scholarships or waiters’ scholarships from the Club were named Fellows for the year. They were Raymond Sokolov; Tom, the guy I had a crush on; me; and a poet whose name I can’t remember but whose work I liked a lot as it got published in literary magazines (I think I recall he died of AIDS in the mid-80s).

    Sandy Martin, the co-director of the conference, came to the reading, and so did William Meredith. When I later wrote my friend Rick Peabody how nice it was for Meredith to attend the reading, Rick wrote back, “You dummy, don’t you realize that ______ is Meredith’s boyfriend? How do you think he got the other scholarship?”

  7. Victor, thanks, but as someone who titled a book _Narcissism and Me_, I think I rarely get out of the way enough.

    Oh, and my sentence in the comment above contains a misplaced modifier making it sound as if I liked Ron Carlson’s stories *only* until 2000-01. That is not the case! It should read: “Although I loved his stories, I did not meet him again until 2000-01…”

  8. Well I’m hours late in reading this but I, too, really enjoyed the details of your stay. I’ve never been to Bread Loaf but went to the Squaw Valley conference and I so enjoyed talking to all the accomplished writers. It was like a week of hard thinking. By the way, I am friends with John Gardner’s son Joel,who is as blond as his father. So are the grandkids. Joel is a photographer and writer who is trying to make a documentary about his father. He’s a great guy.

  9. I must have gotten the crop-duster story from this Rebecca Mead article. She doesn’t provide her source:

    http://www.rebeccamead.com/2001/2001_10_15_art_writer.htm

    “Gardner, in particular, set the Bread Loaf tone by drinking heavily, holding forth brilliantly for hours to a circle of admirers at Treman, and bedding the odd enthusiast. Gardner’s first wife once hired a plane to drop leaflets over the campus declaring that the author of “On Moral Fiction” was a neglectful father who was late with alimony payments, the kind of large gesture absent from today’s conference.”

  10. Thanks, Suzanne.

    I guess it is true, as David Milofsky seems to confirm it. But it didn’t happen in 1977. He and Joan, his first wife, separated only the year before, and I’m not even sure they were divorced then. The next year, in September 1988, he began directing the creative writing program at Binghamton — that’s where I used to write him. He met Liz Rosenberg there and married her in 1980, divorcing her two years later.

    When he was killed in the motorcycle accident in September 1982 — I didn’t write about it, but twice I witnessed him riding it and he seemed a little reckless — it was just a few days before his planned wedding to Susan Thornton.

    One thing I recall from Bread Loaf — it’s funny that I didn’t write down some of the stuff that’s stayed with me the longest — is Gardner discussing how writers could make a living. He advised us the easiest way was to “marry money.” When I told that to Liz, she said, “That’s funny because he never did.”

  11. Richard, et. al,

    The feeling it mutual. Just to set the Gardner business to rest, however, the airplane incident definitely took place because I was there to see it, though apparently it wasn’t in ’77. I was there yearly from 1985-71. I’m guessing Joan rented the plane in ’78, the same year Gardner arrived on the black BMW with a pretty young woman (Liz Rosenberg) seated behind. The contrast with the preceding year was dramatic. Then, Gardner had arrived with his wife and several tow-headed kids in a white Mercedes and established himself in a big house at the end of the property. They’d all troop in at mealtimes together but Gardner held forth in Treman until the early hours. I remember this because I was staying in Treman that year and on a number of occasions had noctournal visitors of both sexes who mistook my room for the bathroom–or so they said. It was a raucous and virulently politically incorrect time. I have to say I miss it as I met people there who turned out to be close friends for life and have never before or since felt so validated as a writer, though MacDowell came close.

  12. I was also at Breadloaf in 1977. And Tim O;Brien was also my advisor. Hard to imagine a more auspicious year to be there (though the part about Elvis dying the day we arrived still seems weird. Not that I’m an Elvis fan. Please.)

    Just wanted to say you captured the two weeks perfectly. I left there feeling overwhelmed by great writing and didn’t try my hand at fiction again for about 20 years. But I can’t think of a better or nicer group of writers to make me feel inadequate!

    p.s. I wish you’d post the rest of the diary – it’s not even slightly moronic.

  13. Richard,

    I saw my name in one of your short stories. Did we meet that summer at Breadloaf? I think we were in the same cabin. I might be the same “Kevin” from your diary. I studied with William Meredith that summer — and he read one of my poems at the conference that summer. I seem to remember Carl Dennis selling books out his trunk — although that may be a ridiculous mis-memory.

    If you get this email, let me know. I read somewhere you became a lawyer — myself as well. Now I teach journalism and creative writing.

    Either way it was fun to read the diary. It brought back what an amazing collection of writers we were able to experience that summer. Morrison, Gardner, Elkin, Stand, Irving, Meredith, Bell, on and on.

    I seem to remember Strand and Simic and Daniel Halpern were alawys hanging out together. What a cool time.

    Take care,

    KB

    KB

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