What It’s Like to be a Bread Loaf Waiter

I’d hoped to blog a bit from Bread Loaf.

I’d hoped to document the “waitership” experience. I’ve been been given this once-in-a-lifetime scholarship, and I wanted to document it, minute by minute.

No go.

There’s just too much is going on. Too much work.

But I have got to say: except for Dave Koch’s account, a lot of what people say about the Bread Loaf waiter experience is incorrect. They’re often journalistic accounts. The other, more personal accounts are self-pitying (yes, it’s hard work). Still more are condescending (those little hard-working waiters! Look at what jerks they are!). Some whine about the place and its various hierarchies. Others are a bit too much in awe.

I’ve been both a waiter and a contributor (but as contributor, I had something called a conference grant. Conference grants have no glamor—you’re a given a cut-rate to attend and told that you’re talented, that’s it).

So I can say as a person who’s experienced both sides of Bread Loaf, the life of the waiter isn’t an easy one. That was the biggest surprise: I’d thought waiters had the smooth life, riding shotgun on the road of life. Before I’d been a Bread Loaf waiter, I thought when I wasn’t seeing those guys around, they were going to secret, glamorous parties. Clinking Champagne glasses. Laughing in exclusive cabins, eating better food.

No. No, they weren’t: I now know that they were either sleeping or hiding from the local authorities. Or working like hell.

Should you go to Bread Loaf if you’re not accepted for a waitership?

Yes.

Just create your own fate and ignore your insecure tendencies, whatever they are. Don’t be a full-bore networker. Instead, read your work at the Blue Parlor. Get to know the people around you. Read their work. Prepare for your workshops (in other words respect the other writers in your workshop). Don’t act desperate. Don’t talk for too long to the agents and others in attendance.

And for god’s sake, don’t suck up to the waiters. It makes them (or maybe I should say, me) feel weird. The waiter has no power at all and probably doubts his or her talent, too.

There’s a lot going on at Bread Loaf. You get exhausted. You get “Bloaf” or “BLARS”—it’s not a spa trip. Read what Michael Collier has to say about it, here. There is so much to learn and experience, you don’t need a waitership.

Really: YOU DON’T NEED A WAITERSHIP.

In any case, go to the bonfire (night of the waiter readings, in the woods in the back of the barn), but also go to the waiter reading before that (really, go to the waiter readings, they’re often the most interesting readings).

And when you’re at the bonfire, remember: the waiters have to buy the alcohol themselves, so don’t suck it all down. Instead, go into town at some point and buy some of your own and share it. Bring it to “the pigsty” where the male waiters live and party (it’s in the building that houses the barn, on the ground floor, in the back). It’s a great place to make friends, because early-on in the conference everyone goes there, including fellows and so on.

Or better, out-class the waiters, like the people in Annex are doing. They seem to be having their own (better) party every night—with Hendrick’s Gin, no less.

Or don’t go to the parties. It’s not all about drinking. It really isn’t. Play Scrabble instead, or something. No need to fall into some predetermined behavior. But get to know people. I’ve made some very good friends here. You can keep to yourself, but you’ll be wasting your money.

For everyone, Bread Loaf is like this: you arrive on the mountain, surprised that so many people feel the same way you do about books and reading and writing. And you want to be with those people night and day.

But don’t be under the impression you’ll have time to write. It’s not a residency. So get to know people. Really, get to know people.

Should you attend if you’re accepted as a waiter? YES. Just bring Advil. Lots of it. You’ll make the best friends you’ll ever have. Weirdly, I feel like I’m friends even with Dave Koch, even though I’ve never met him. I know he knows all about suffering (and busing tables), so we’re friend on some level that’ll last forever.

The fellows are the best reason to go. The first time was here, a fellow named Naeem Murr gave me some of the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten, in a one-on-one discussion.

Peter Orner in yet another discussion gave me confidence. Pia Ehrhardt has given me more than I could ever give back. I’ll always be grateful to all of them.

And also:

Bring protein bars: the food can be iffy and tedious.

If you REALLY NEED TO MAKE A CELLPHONE CALL and can’t Skype it for some reason, go out into the field across the street from the main building and look for a large rock on the left. Climb up on it, stand there, and look like a jerk. You’ll get reception. That was my personal discovery. I take credit (or blame) for that.

Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments. 

About Meakin Armstrong

Fiction writer, fiction editor, journalist, and copywriter.
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