August 30, 2010

Jamaicans at Bread Loaf: Diana McCaulay

Bread Loaf is the oldest writers’ conference in the US.  Each year since 1926, writers gather in the mountains of Vermont at the Bread Loaf Inn and surrounding cabins where they hear readings from some of the best writers of contemporary fiction, take lectures and craft classes from skilled teachers and meet with publishers, agents and editors.  I’ve wanted to go to Bread Loaf since I knew of its existence, but being admitted is not easy and it is not cheap.  I managed it this year due to the publication of my novel Dog-Heart, and was proud to be one of two Jamaicans among over 200 writers – the other, poet Millicent Graham, who was the Fairbanks International Fellow and one afternoon, gave a powerful reading from her new collection of poetry The Damp in Things, published by Peepal Tree Press in the UK.  I sat in the audience, thrilled to hear a Jamaican voice in a packed lecture hall of mostly Americans.  Her books had already sold out.  Big up, Millicent!

The strangest thing about the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference was this:  I did not read a single book in the ten days I was there.  This may not sound so unusual – ten days is not a very long time – but I can hardly remember any such period of my life when I did not read at least one book. 

I read other things, of course – the workshop submissions of my colleagues, handouts for craft classes, the New York Times (a little treat to myself), The Crumb (Bread Loaf’s daily broadsheet to help you keep track of the many and marvelous events of each day).   But no books.

I bought books though, more than a dozen.  There was a little bookshop, which stocked the essentials – the books of the writers who were there, small fans (those rooms were hot!), gadgets to convert three-pronged  to two-pronged plugs, extension cords (one electrical outlet  in the room), ear plugs (nearly everybody had a roommate) and Claritin (there was a meadow across the street, blooming in profusion).   A full Bread Loaf survival kit.  So my reading lies ahead, now that I am home.

Why didn’t I read any books?  There simply wasn’t time; because there was so much to learn, so much to listen to, so much to experience.  Each day started with a lecture at 9.00 am, our two-hour workshops on alternate days until lunchtime,  a special talk at 1.30 pm, craft classes at 2.30 pm, readings at 4.15 pm, dinner at 6.30 pm, readings at 8.15 pm and again at 9.30 pm.  A test of stamina, both physical and mental.  It was my brain that churned, struggling to hold on to all that I was hearing.  I am a writer without formal education, a writer of instinct, a writer who comes to writing via reading and I was hearing much for the first time – the difference between acute and chronic tension, the importance of choosing the point of telling, the dangers of authorial intrusion, the nature of voice.  Hearing these principles in lecture was a kind of homecoming for me, a naming of literary traditions I had absorbed through a lifetime of reading but had no words for. 

Some lessons – the most talented and successful of writers look wrecked in the morning as they are flossing their teeth in the bathroom.  Producing gorgeous fiction or poetry does not necessarily mean you are a nice person.  You can relinquish your BlackBerry and the world will still find you.  It is possible to overcomplicate everything about writing – but in the end it comes down to one thing – do your stories draw people in and keep them reading, and if they don't, why not? 

Every evening after dinner, I left the crowded, noisy dining room, where many of the Fellows (definition of a Fellow - books in print, winners of literary awards) were waiters – yes, waiters – and walked across the meadow of wildflowers, through the woods to a small river.  

On the second afternoon, I followed the path of the river and came across a flat bank, where there were dozens of towers of small rocks, some four feet high.  I was charmed by this, imagining people like me, far away from home, lonely in the heady, literary atmosphere, making a little pile of rocks to say, I was here, even briefly.  I made my own pile, knowing it would be washed away in the first good rain.  Later on in the week, I learned a woman’s children had made the piles – I much preferred my own narrative.  The piles of stones made me think about perception and the stories behind the things we see – our job as novelists is to engage with those stories.  And after the walk to the river, I would emerge into the bowl of the meadow, the forested mountains on all sides, the sky full of the colours of sunset.  What an immense privilege to spend ten days doing nothing but thinking about words and their products, about the ideas behind words, about the methods of bringing words to the waiting page…       

First published by the Jamaica Observer, Bookends, Aug 29 2010.

About the Author

Diana McCaulay is a Jamaican writer, newspaper columnist and environmental activist. She has lived her entire life in Jamaica and engaged in a range of occupations – secretary, insurance executive, racetrack steward, mid-life student, social commentator, environmental advocate. She is the Chief Executive of the Jamaican Environment Trust and the recipient of the 2005 Euan P. McFarlane Award for Outstanding Environmental Leadership. Dog-Heart won first prize in the 2008 Jamaican National Literature awards.


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