Day 11 was the final day of fiction workshop. It was my turn to be workshopped, and going last was a new experience for me. The last two years I was the first to be critiqued. As “Akers” I am often expected to go first. In grade school, I would be the first to answer “here” in morning roll call (in High School Lisa Agee beat me out), the first to do whatever painful thing the gym teacher would make us do, the first to have to see the nurse for the scoliosis test, the first to get my report card…always first.
But I’m all about equal opportunity, even when it comes to firstness, so I was happy to go last this time. The personal advantage for me, meant that on the last day when I was exhausted and my brain was mush, I’d only have to read and comment on one story since the other one was mine.
I’ve also thought a lot about the workshop experience–the dynamic, if you will, and I realized that it changes over time. The advantage to going first is that everyone is fresh and gives your work a really careful read. The disadvantage is that they are often still tentative in their comments. The dynamic of going last is reversed: everyone is really comfortable with one another, but they’re often worn out by story number ten. I have to say, though, that my group was really coherent and generous right to the end. I got some great comments, compliments, and suggestions. It’s the best workshop group I’ve attended at Bread Loaf.
At the end of the workshop, we presented a bottle of wine to Ursula and a card that we had all signed (the day before, at the Gala Reception and also that morning, furtively, for those who hadn’t been at the reception). She lifted the bottle out of its wrappings and said, “Oh, Chardonnay, my favorite! How did you know?” I smiled and said, “I’ve been serving you all week.” It was a funny moment.
Oh, and I forgot to mention that the day before, at the Gala Reception, Ursula had told me that she wanted to nominate my story for Best New American Voices, which was a wonderful surprise. Of course, Bread Loaf can only nominate two (total) from the conference and each workshop leader nominates two, so I may not even get past that first cut, but it’s still nice to be asked to the dance. I was allowed to revise the story, based on the workshop comments, but since that was on the last day, I had less than twelve hours to do so, along with the final barn dance to set up, a reading to attend, my husband to not ignore, and bottle club to work, nine to midnight.
So. I ate lunch, helped set up the barn (the poets–who weren’t workshopping–had already done most of the setup), squeezed in a few minutes of revision before the afternoon reading. Jason Schneiderman was reading, and I did not want to miss him. He was my head waiter the year I waited tables and I just adore him as well as his very funny and poignant poetry.
Dinner was the special, final sit-down dinner with wine and tablecloths and everything fancy. I had hoped to sit with Laila and her husband and daughter, but lost my nerve when I saw they were sitting at the head table–just didn’t feel like I had earned that spot yet. I know, I know, chicken me. I should have. I ate the rest of my dinner feeling bad about my decision. But the staff table was nice, too, to be with my hard working costaffers one last time, Michael did his thank-yous and the prime rib was good. (Unfortunately I had requested the ravioli which was “squash” ravioli, but it was sweetened and nutmegged and tasted exactly like pumpkin pie. Just didn’t work for me. I can still work up a shudder, just thinking about it. And I’m not a picky eater.) Fortunately Len shared his prime rib. (Sounds sort of Biblical, doesn’t it?) And the dessert made up for everything: a fabulous, dark chocolate mousse that was to die for. I should have asked for two.
I worked on story edits during the final reading. I did want to attend. It was David Baker and Sigrid Nunez, and I heard it was wonderful, but I really wanted to make the most of the opportunity that Ursula had generously given me, so I revised. At 8:30 I had to set up Treman for Bottle Club, which means setting out cheese and crackers and opening the liquor cabinet, lighting candles, setting out mixers and generally tidying up. Len made a fire in the fireplace (it was very cool out) and it all looked very cozy.
After Treman was set, I went up to the dance to serve beer and wine and boogie. The staff may not get to dance on the dance floor much, but we dance behind the serving tables, and it’s a nice big area, so we’d boogie, pour, boogie, pour, boogie. The DJ was excellent–lots of hip-hop, good sound system, no silences between songs–and the crowd was having fun. By 1:30 a.m. we were cleaned up, by 2:00 a.m. I was back at my computer, propping my eyelids open with sticks to get my final edits done. I usually don’t have much luck with eleventh-hour edits, but the excellent and specific comments from my workshop group helped me to target the problem areas. I may not have done as thorough a job as I would have liked (toothpaste in the nail holes, rather than spackle) but I’m pleased enough with the results, and happy to be done.
I still had to print it out and turn it in to the office, but that could wait until morning. My pillow and my patient husband were calling.