When I woke up this morning to the sound of sirens outside my window here in DC, I asked myself, “How is there always a fire going on in this town????”
Violent sound is the exact opposite wake-up experience I had for ten days at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Ripton, VT. Sitting on top of a mountain (though, compared to Squaw Valley, it was really just a gentle molehill), Bread Loaf is isolated and extraordinarily quiet. Sure, there’s bugs and birds, but otherwise, there was barely any sound at all. And it was blissful.
I won’t do a day-by-day blow-by-blow, but I will say that most days were generally structured as workshop or free time in the morning, then craft classes and readings in the afternoon/evenings. My workshop was *awesome*, a group of women (and Francisco Cantu!) who gave me such useful feedback on a chapter of my memoir, feedback that actually applies to the rest of the book, so they really changed my life, or at least my book. Emily Raboteau was my workshop leader and I couldn’t have asked for someone more insightful and thoughtful.
I enjoyed all of the craft classes I went to, but the one I found most immediately relevant was Kirstin Valdez Quade’s “The Evasive Protagonist,” in which she explained how you know when your characters are avoiding painful situations or conversations. Turns out, I was my own evasive protagonist in an excerpt I chose to read to everyone, and was able to solve that lickety split.
And yes, I did my first public reading! Sure, I read at VQR, Yale, and Squaw Valley, but this was post-primetime (the 9:30pm reading), during the Dark Tower Reading Series, the one for people of color. I read a bit from my memoir about being extremely embarrassed when I went to see She’s All That with my mom, and the audience loved it! It was incredibly nerve-wracking reading in front of like, 200 people, but there was a spotlight on me, so I couldn’t really see anyone, so that made it better.
My reading was definitely a highlight, but there were also two dances in which we all drank just a hair too much and acted a fool on the dancefloor, but that’s always my favorite part of these things, and I wish every conference had that element.
Another highlight was the reading in the laundry room, which was *phenomenal.* Once it’s dark in those parts, there’s not a lot of light around, but there’s a vending machine in the laundry room and that provided the perfect amount of glow. Just made the whole thing feel way more like camp than it already did.
And I also went to a bonfire in the woods, which is the second most scared I’ve ever been in my life (the first being when my friends and I were followed by those racists in Barcelona that one time). I said I wasn’t going to go because—honestly, white people pick the scariest things and call them a good time—it was dark and creepy, but I found three other Black women who wanted to go, so we walked together. I figured we couldn’t all be murdered at the same time, and I was the one holding the flashlight (the one in my phone), so I’d be less likely to get killed. So we went. And we had a great time! But I had to have another drink to calm my nerves.
In short, I had the time of my life. Bread Loaf was what I’d hoped high school and college would be like, only during both of those times in real life, I was a fish out of water, struggling to be accepted and to get my work done sufficiently. Bread Loaf was the first time in years, maybe even forever, that I felt that I could truly be myself, my intelligent but goofy self, around perfect strangers.
“They don’t know me so I figured I’d just be me,” I told Rustin. “Not like they’d know the difference.”
I wish I’d followed that advice ages ago. At Bread Loaf, it freed me up to laugh so hard with my roommate at 2am, to dance with the Black girls in a runway show formation to Beyoncé, and to fall the flip out after a beautiful man touched my shoulder (and, yes, I confessed to my spouse about that).
This experience was so validating, too. My workshop mates were experienced enough to not tear my work to shreds, but to really make it shine. And I read from the same podium as Emily Raboteau, A. Van Jordan, Renee Simms, Nicole Sealey, and some other amazingly talented people. I could have fainted just thinking about the fact that someone believed that I deserved to share their space; the odder thing was, I started to believe it, too.
For the first time in a long time, I felt sufficient. I was sufficiently intelligent, sufficiently silly, sufficiently beautiful, sufficiently an artist, sufficiently aged. I didn’t feel the need to apologize for having an MBA or for not having a day job due to trauma. I didn’t feel weird for being married. I was enough.
I have to find a way to hold onto that feeling because it was just what I’ve needed.