BREAD LOAF & BILL MCKIBBEN
Updated: Aug 26, 2019
This coming Thursday we're dropping a new, Special Interview Edition of The Multiverse, where my cohort Katie catches up with preeminent environmentalist, Bill McKibben – founder of 350.org, early climate change activist and educator, and lifelong resident of rural America.
Don't worry, I'm not giving away any spoilers. I will say though, that this is one my favorite interviews to listen to in Season 1, not only because Bill is so, well, likable, and the subject matter (climate change) is so, well, relevant to our whole refrain – "this land is made for you and me," but because it also careened me back into memories of that time in 2011 when I unsuccessfully hobnobbed at one of the oldest writing conferences the country:
(What does this have to do with Bill McKibben or The Multiverse? You'll have to just wait and see...)
Depending on who you are, the name alone might evoke visions of half-stale rye stacked to the ceiling in your corner bodega, or something lovingly pulled from an oven by a smiling, white-haired Swedish Oma. But nuh, bruh, it's a goddamn writing school nestled like a smattering of yellow legos upon the verdant hills of Vermont – "in sight of Bread Loaf mountain" (who names this s***?!) – and sprinkled with fairy dust by the likes of Robert Frost, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison and Anne Sexton.
There are lots of amazing things about attending the conference, don't get me wrong. First off, you have to apply and get in, which is a great form of validation that you don't totally suck and your dreams of being a "real writer" are not quite as stupid as everyone seems to think. True, it's pay to play (thank you, Grandma!!), but that's something you can just try not to think about because hey, you got into Bread Loaf!
Except when you attend meals in the mess hall, and you are reminded of the fact that the people serving you the veggie option three times a day are... how shall I put this... much, much better writers than you are. So good that they don't even have to pay to be there at all! And what's more, they also have the extreme privilege of serving you 1sts, 2nds, and whatever else you want, because goddammit, you paid for that meal.
There are other perks to being a 'Loafer too. Like drinking out of this completely non-ostentatious drinking fountain:
Picking up your mail at a quintessentially "Vermonty" mail window:
There are workshops with "well-known" (aka well-published) writers, planned social events where you "cut loose" with other conference goers (aka wanna be published writers), and (precious few) literary agents wandering about, hoping to get laid, followed by a trail of trying-not-to-look-too-eager-but-desperate-to-be-published-writers.
To be honest, I felt like I was supposed to be exchanging friendship bracelets or becoming blood sisters with America's next generation of great voices, cozying up with agents and publishers, and sleeping with (likely married) famous writers.
But I didn't really do much of that. Too shy, too weirded out by the pressure to "get something" from the experience. Maybe I was too insecure, I don't know. The legends about Bread Loaf are infamous (Bed Loaf, it's often called), but I spent most of the conference taking pictures of my roommates toiletries and trying to look poetic.
I also went for some long runs that summer at Bread Loaf, as the campus backs up to miles and miles of old Vermont logging trails. And while I didn't manage to secure a pubIishing deal for my latest manuscript (which finally came out in hardcover last October, b****es!), I did manage to forge a few tentative friendships with two fellow runners, both of whom were recent Middlebury alums. (Bread Loaf is connected to Middlebury College just down the road, where, incidentally, Bill McKibben teaches.)
(See, I told you there was a point to all this...)
So one morning, me and my new pals head out for what is supposed to be a mere 1-2 hour run on said logging trails (PSA: this is 2011, remember, and long before my pelvic floor was pulverized by 2 kids in case you were wondering), however sometime around hour 3 we realize we are hopelessly lost. I recall being exhausted, sore, and extremely thirsty around hour 4, and that our chipper conversations about what "inspires us" and how we will "never, ever sell out" (translation: or potentially sell anything), was meandering towards survival scenarios, when we finally popped out on a backroad and saw a woman walking her dog. Visions of the three of us holding each other through the cold night in some muddy ditch quickly cleared as we staggered up to her, praying she could point us back in the direction of the proverbial Loaf.
So here's the clincher you've all been waiting for in this twisty turny story about Bread Loaf, my friends. Turns out one of my running partners knew the woman, and she happened to be Sue Halpern, writer and – wait for it – Bill McKibben's wife, out taking their dog for a walk.
The three of us walked with Sue for a time. She indeed pointed us in the direction back to home base, and I ended up connecting with her over mutual contacts in the environmental field (I had studied Environmental Studios at the University of Vermont, just an hour north), and the Adirondacks, where we both had roots as well. Later, I recall texting with her a little, and her inviting me to use their upstate NY cabin as a writing retreat when they weren't there. She was probably the nicest, and most generous connection I had made during my entire Bread Loaf experience.
* * * *
But I never took her up on the offer.
In fact we never spoke again. I never met her husband, and never finished that poetry manuscript I toted with me to Bread Loaf and later imagined penning in their cabin retreat.
And yet... 8 years later, my then bud and now business partner Katie, as well as co-producer and co-host of The Multiverse, is interviewing Sue's other half.
And guess what? Turns out, he's just as generous with his time and support of others' creative (and political) endeavors.
And they're still residing in the rolling Green Mountains of Vermont, where writers continue to sojourn, and environmentalists, it turns out, dig deep roots.
... But this story doesn't quite have an ending as picture-perfect as that Vermont vista.
On the one hand, maybe it's just another story about tribalism: the tribes we think we should be a part of (Bread Loaf), the ones we just don't fit into (Bread Loaf), and the folks we meet along the way.
BUT: if you tune in next Thursday, we'll hear from Bill himself that climate change does not discriminate, by tribe or any other category. I don't want to ruin the episode, so let's just put it this way: If we continue to get lost in the proverbial woods on this one, Sue Halpern is not going to appear, walking her dog and inviting us to pursue our dreams in her writing cabin. That said, perhaps there IS hope for redemption if we can - ahem - overcome some of our tribal tendencies. (#shocker)
Till then, America: "This Land is Your Land...."