When the doors bang shut behind you, in that way that old, wooden doors do, and the odor of morning nourishments, the eggs, the blueberries, the toast, rush forward to greet you, the writer who has just come in, has but one thought, a thought only tangentially related to the business of writing: where the fuck is the coffee? Waiting tables has long been the fallback of artists -- the entire city of New York is built on the premise that the dreams of artists will carry it through another 24 hour cycle of food and drink -- but can it really translate into literature? Apparently, at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, yes.
It is May, and in approximately two weeks 25 people will find out that they are being offered a coveted "waitership" at Bread Loaf for 2012. While there is, surely, a large proportion of humanity that remains bemused that writers actually crave this lowly service-industry position, a fair number of them do just that and with good reason. At the moment of my writing this, this year alone, I count two former Bread Loaf waiters whose novels have reached the NYT best seller list, Dolen Perkins Valdez (Wench, Amistad, Reprint January, 2011) and Heidi Durrow (The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, Algonquin, Reprint 2011), and another two described, respectively, as "Written with the elegance and quiet menace of snowfall" (Alexi Zentner's spine-tingling novel Touch, W.W. Norton, April 2011) and "timely beyond measure, (conveying) with impressive precision and nuance how we are vectors on the grid of global capital; how difficult it is to even attempt to be an authentic, let alone admirable, human being when we are, first and last, cash flow" (Peter Mountford's A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2011). Urban Waite has had his book (The Terror of Living, Little, Brown, 2011), lauded coast to coast, most recently in the Boston Globe, and Patricia Engel's Vida (Grove, September 2010), has just been optioned for a movie.
Add to that Laura van den Berg's collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Danzc, 2010), Paul Yoon's short-stories, Once the Shore (Sarabande, 2010), winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, Jennine Capo Crucet's How to Leave Hialeah (Iowa, 2010), and Tiphanie Yanique's How to Escape From a Leper Colony (Greywolf, 2010), not to mention a few books which bear mentioning though the publication date is in our, mercifully near, future, Eugene Cross' Fires of Our Choosing (Dzanc, 2012), Cathy Chung's Forgotten Country (Riverhead, 2012) and Justin Torres' We The Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fall, 2011), and you start to get the picture.
The poets, too, put up a great showing, though I did not speak with them in person for this piece. Reginald Dwayne Betts' Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010) and A Question of Freedom (Penguin, 2010) came out and, along with their author, took the airwaves and public television by storm, Xochiquetzal Candelaria's Empire (Camino del Sol) arrived on the shelves last month from The University of Arizona Press and Robin Ekiss' collection, The Mansion of Happiness (University of Georgia Press, VQR Poetry Series) won the 2010 Shenandoah/Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers and was featured in Poets & Writers as a pick for the coveted list of debut poets. That last was an honor that also went to former waiters, Kiki Petrosino (Fort Red Border, Sarabande, 2009) and Jericho Brown (Please, New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2008).
Waitering at Bread Loaf is a long standing tradition whereby those who garnered scholarships to the conference on the strength of their writing, were affectionately "taken down a notch" by being asked to work as waiters for the duration of the conference. The payoff, of course, is intangible and priceless, including the chance to read in the famed Little Theater over two late night sessions devoted entirely to the waiters. So what is it with Bread Loaf?
For most waiters, the real gift is the friendship of their peers, people who, as Laura van den Berg puts it are "not just wildly gifted writers, rigorous readers, and reliably wise when it comes to talking about the joys and (often massive) frustrations that constitute the writing life, but people I could, give the '3 AM call.'" Eugene Cross arrived having never submitted work to a "real" literary journal, with no idea what the acronym AWP stood for and believing that "agents were for movie stars and athletes." He left with friends he counts among his most honored literary heroes.
Mary Akers went from honing her bussing skills to writing and publishing two books, an autobiography she co-authored (One Life to Give, The Experiment, 2010) and a collection of short fiction (Women Up On Blocks Press 53, 2009). Bread Loaf gave her "a sense of camaraderie with my fellow emerging writers and the courage to accept that I was where I belonged." Zetner agrees that, at Bread Loaf, the writers are all at the same point in their careers, and though the conference helps in concrete ways by introducing participants to agents and editors, "the way that Bread Loaf participants spread across the world means that anytime I'm at a writing event anywhere, I am amongst friends."
Justin Torres talks about the waiter reading as a rite of passage:
I remember squinting into the spotlight, the hush as I rustled papers, an enormous wave of nausea, and then, suddenly, my voice came out steady and the words did their job. I felt people listening, caring. I felt like I belonged there, at that podium, in that light; I felt I had something to say. I left the (Little Theater) that night with nothing less than a new sense of identity.
There is something particularly stirring about listening to the words written by conference attendees, whether waiters, staff or participants, fellows, faculty or guests, because those words spoken by a single voice, punctuate and silence the intensity of conversations and gatherings and feting and dining and lecturing and critiquing that go on close to 24 hours of the day for ten straight days. That latter is a blessed cacophony of yearning and skill tumbling in waves of advice proffered to one another -- and not only from the senior to the junior, the accomplished to the neophyte, but every combination in between. But when it pauses to listen to a single poem or four pages of a novel, the effect is a particularly keen stirring of purpose and affirmation. When the waiters read, each for three minutes and not one second more, they and the audience are uniquely transformed. They, from the oft somnambulant unpracticed server of the evening's specials, into the writer, that future star-power seeping through their voices; we from the distracted and inattentive beneficiaries of their service into willingly seduced listeners aware of our single common journey.
In the post-waitering years, Cathy Chung has a triad of former waiters who anchor her creative life. Rita Zoey Chin, who became a best friend over a reading by Ilya Kaminsky, Frances Cowhig who goes on retreat with Cathy each year, and Meaking Armstrong, Fiction Editor at Guernica (and former waiter!), who, with some help from Alexander Chee, published the first excerpt of her novel. In the midst of forming those bonds, Chung recollects the most transformative moment of the conference, the waiter reading:
I was anxious and horrified and couldn't decide what to read, and Shane Oshetski sat me down and just told me exactly what I needed to do. I went up there and I read into that incredible and blinding light, and it was completely exhilarating. I felt wholly connected to the audience, and to everything Bread Loaf was and has been. It was rapturous, really... the feeling of connection you get to these incredibly talented people, the knowledge of the history you're a part of, the sense of belonging to all these people who love and live by words, the feeling that you're all doing it, you're all trying to do this thing together.
For these waiters, as for waiters who woke up bleary-eyed for their morning shifts for 85 years before them, the conference has given the gift of limitless and deeply supportive community. It is a gift that rewards those willing to take a gamble that, if a writing conference with as much prestige as Bread Loaf enjoys, makes you an offer that seems entirely thankless, seize it with both hands and an open heart. Come August the waiters of 2012 will take their unsuspecting selves off into the mountains. One thing is certain: they are, each and every one of them, going to become, sooner or later, the steady and assured voices of the American literary tradition.