Michael Bourne on the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference

Michael Bourne writes “Keeping the Faith: Ten Days at Bread Loaf” at The Millions.  Bread Loaf is a, perhaps, the premier writing conference in this country.  I’ve cut to the second half of Michael’s piece here:

What Bread Loaf offers is not just the opportunity to rub shoulders with eminent authors and publishing worthies, but a chance to do so at a time and place when their usually trip-wired bullshit detectors are disarmed. At book signings and public readings, authors are hawking a product; they’ll be nice to you, but only because they want you to buy their book. At Bread Loaf, a certain high-school cliquishness obtains — there are cool kids’ tables in the dining hall, and gossip abounds — but that can only go so far. I have read everything Samantha Chang has published, and like every other writer I know, I’ve lusted after getting into the Iowa MFA program she oversees, but at dinner we didn’t talk about any of that. We talked about mutual friends and our children. Justin Torres, likewise, may get his stories in The New Yorker and receive rave reviews on his first novel, We the Animals, but on one rainy night early in the conference he was just a guy needing to share my umbrella on the way to a reading.

The same applies to the publishing professionals, though the calculus is different. Agents and editors at Bread Loaf are quite explicitly there to do business. Each conference attendee can sign up for two private 15-minute meetings with an agent or editor, and an enterprising attendee can fit in four or five more by choosing the right seat at mealtimes or buttonholing an agent outside a Friday night dance. Most literary conferences offer similar access to publishing folk, but because of Bread Loaf’s reputation, attendees not only gain access to a slightly better cut of agents and editors, they also get the reflected glory of the Bread Loaf name.

This matters. As I wrote in a piece earlier this month, literary agents receive thousands, and in some cases, tens of thousands of query letters pitching unpublished books every year, and can take on only a handful of new writers. A conference like Bread Loaf serves a function much like a selective university does for job recruiters: it culls the untalented and unserious. The selection process is imperfect, of course, but when agents and editors sit down with writers at Bread Loaf they are free from the unspoken dictum of all publishing gatekeepers, which states that they can say no and be right 99 percent of the time. At Bread Loaf, as at other well-regarded conferences like SewaneeTin House, and Squaw Valley, publishing professionals can get out of the defensive crouch they typically adopt when talking with anyone trying to sell them a book idea and actually listen.

These are the practical reasons to attend a literary conference like Bread Loaf, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t consider them as I was writing that check for $2,725. (Yup, I applied for aid and didn’t get it.) As businesses go, publishing is a lousy one, but it is a business, and given a choice between sending my work in over the digital transom and spending a few grand on a writers’ conference where I can get the full attention of agents and editors, as well as smart feedback on my manuscript from the workshop, I’d write that check every time.

But writers’ conferences are about more than face-time with agents and sitting down to dinner with the poet laureate. I am a man who, like thousands of my fellow Americans, spends nearly all his free time on a pursuit that doesn’t pay and offers few plausible paths to fame or fortune. I’m 46 years old, sober, and hard-working, with more education than I know what to do with, yet I’ve never made more than $40,000 a year, and most years I make less. I don’t yearn for the return of the gold standard or believe in the divine rapture, but I think I have some insight into how those true-believers feel when their wives and husbands say, “That’s great that you’re going to save us from everlasting hellfire, honey, but right now I could use a little help with the groceries.”

But then I go to a place like Bread Loaf where everyone, even the most successful poets and writers, has sacrificed for his or her art, and I feel a little less crazy. Over the years, I’ve watched dozens of writers more talented than me quit the field. For some, the constant rejection wore them down, while others simply needed to make more money, but most of the time, I think, they quit because they stopped believing in themselves as writers and, absent that belief, writing poems and stories came to seem an indulgence they could no longer afford.

That’s why people like me go to conferences like Bread Loaf. Like most Americans, I live in a world that cannot see the point in work that doesn’t bring in money or instant prestige. I myself can’t see the point in work that doesn’t bring money or prestige, yet I keep doing it, day after day, year after year. At a place like Bread Loaf, I can see up close that people not all that different than me have turned this queer habit of mine into a job that gives them money and prestige. But — and this is the great secret — I also meet hundreds of other people just like me, who will never make money as writers, who will never win a Pulitzer Prize or be the poet laureate, but keep on writing because they love it. And, seeing them, I know I am not alone.

Read the rest of Michael Bourne’s article by clicking here.

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