Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bread Loaf-Orion Environmental Writers Conference: A Retrospective

Last week I became a Bread Loaf convert. Specifically, a Bread Loaf-Orion Environmental Writers Conference convert. Every writer should attend this conference. Actually, not just writers. The conference was nearly 7 days of workshops, craft classes, laughter, and lots of in-depth conversation between poets, essayists, and fiction writers, but also people like soil scientists, mussel biologists (or people married to one), ethnoecologists, environmental science professors, geologists, oceanographers, and so many more. This cross-seeding of disciplines was the key to its success. That, and it benefited from not having any fellowships (except need-based) or work-study positions as the regular Bread Loaf (or the Mother Loaf or No-Orion [Norion] as we took to calling it) does, which removed any competitive, hierarchical atmosphere, to the benefit of both accomplished and beginning writers.

It was the most satisfying writing conference I've ever attended. Our teachers gave an astounding amount of attention to our workshop submissions, meeting with us individually to go through what we'd written and continuing conversations about our work and ambitions in various areas, whether in writing or research. I will forever be indebted to Alan Weisman, whose books I have always loved, but whose talents and attention as a teacher and mentor have begun to heal my bruised writer's heart. (Sidenote: more about that subject forthcoming in Full Grown People.)

But pictures! Because this blog is where I attempt to curtail my babbling tendencies. Speaking of babbling, this was my favorite part of the conference:

This stream is a short walk through an open field -- where the editor-in-chief of Orion magazine, who is an ornithologist, led birds walks early several mornings -- and right in this spot I could sit under these old woods on a large flat rock and listen to the water rushing and tumbling. I haven't done that in many years. It made me awfully homesick for Montana but I think I might have fallen in love with Vermont just a tiny bit that day.

Being able to walk in the woods helped compost and root the madly rushing ideas that made the conference so invigorating. Two people in my workshop and I got not-quite-lost coming back from Robert Frost's writing cabin, tramping through deep woods and a lot of muck. We found this map. Luckily they were better at reading maps than I am because it made me dizzy.

What was awesome was that we were slogging around in a lot of mud, which was a new experience since another member of our workshop was a soil scientist and his essay was a fascinating look at the life and biology of mud; one of we three walkers was a serious birder and taught me (who knows zilch about birds) to look for them and at them in new ways; and while he was trying to show me where elusive birds were I was remembering the essay of another workshop member, which was about his guiding experience in the Tetons and teaching people to see in new ways.

I've been at good writing conferences before, but nothing that recharged my brain synapses in quite this way.

I also just oiled my beloved boots, which was necessary because I forgot to bring my waterproof sandals with me and my boots spent the entire conference either soaking on my feet or like this:

By the way -- fires! It was chilly and rainy the whole time so they lit fireplaces in all the buildings. The parts of me that aren't Russian are completely Scottish at heart. There is nothing that makes me happier than being able to walk in the rain and come back inside to a fire (even if not peat).

Except, also, of course, this.

Neither of those people is me, but good conversation, long walks, and soul-restoring scenery sums up what makes my life feel most whole. Seven days of this and I feel like a much better writer, but also a better friend, thinker, human being, and inhabitant of the planet.

Driving away from Bread Loaf on Sunday, I was surprised by a feeling I thought I'd never experience again: that a new place had found a home in my heart.


Jayne Moore Waldrop said...

It was an amazing experience. Thanks for this post.

Antonia Malchik said...

It was, Jane!