The Entire Predicament

On the lawn in front of Tamarack, I sit in the sun with my friend Julie Barer, the literary agent. We are neighbors at Tamarack dorm. It’s late afternoon. She’s reading a novel, as is Kathy Pories, of Algonquin Books, and Judy Clain of Little Brown, also housemates. Upstairs, the agent PJ Mark is asleep in his room napping. Mitchell Waters, another agent and member of our household, is down at the store buying us all beer and wine for tonight, because he is one of the nicest people anyone will ever meet.

I’m on the porch, feeling my feet start to sunburn, but too lazy to move. I have finished my craft class. Now I can just hang out.

Julie is, as we might say, pretty as a picture. She is glamorous in her black and white print dress and large red sunglasses, and has arranged herself on a white towel in the dark grass. An incredible quiet sits over the whole house, as if fortune has decided nothing bad can happen while we’re there.

I am on my computer, reading terrible news about the rest of the world.

A short conversation breaks out, and when it ends, Kathy, Judy and Julie urge me to turn my blog into a graphic memoir that will eventually be sold as a book with the title Koreanish. The shape of the idea is like what I’d been thinking about already, but they make it seem like the very best thing I can do. PJ wakes up, and will eventually think this is a good idea also. Then it’s time for cocktails before dinner, and PJ, Kathy, Judy and I get dressed and climb in Julie’s car, and drive the short distance to cocktails at Treman, a house at the edge of a beautiful field that acts as the faculty lounge for the conference. The cocktail hour begins with us waiting because we’ve arrived too early and the social staff can’t serve us until 5:30, so instead, PJ and I sit on the porch and discuss the lack of cellphone reception. We’re watching someone in the field with his phone to his ear. He’s not talking, PJ says. He’s completely faking it. Look at him. He is just smiling and nodding.

We watch him in silence for a moment.

They should have stone circles that tell you where to stand for reception, he then says.

We go inside where Hank, a U Mass MFA program student I normally see around Amherst Coffee, stands at the bar, laughing, in between the bottles of liquor and beautiful flowers, which we can’t approach just yet and we shout things at him across the distance. You look more handsome surrounded by the things we can’t have, I say, and he laughs at us even more. The house specialty cocktail is the Bloody Mary, and Ru Freeman, head of Social Staff, whose novel comes out from Atria next year, declares to me that she’s the one who mixed it and when I ask for the recipe refuses to tell me what’s in it.

My blood, she says, and laughs.

They’re delicious, whatever is in it, and I have two quickly.

I meet Lynne Freed and talk about how much I love Greece with her (she goes there every year to write), and Bret Anthony Johnston, who’s just arrived, is welcomed lavishly. Paul Yoon makes fun of me for how late I stayed up the night before with him, hanging out there on the porch, as does Eugene Cross, a social staff member we all think of as the best-looking man on campus (except Paul). He’s also somehow one of the nicest.

We decamp for dinner–a barbecue on the lawn–and then go to the readings by fellows. Lucie Corin begins and is greeted with wild cheering. She reads an incredible excerpt from a new story, The Eyes of Dogs, that you can find over at Conjunctions, a retelling of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. The ending of her reading is sort of shattering, and there’s a long silence that I think is the sound of us being shocked, and then there’s more wild cheering.

When I tell her later at drinks after the readings that I think her story is a perfect metaphor for the experience of living under capitalism, she gives me a big grin. Yes, she says. Later in the evening, she’s talking about “Things I slapped Alex for saying”. But for now I’m okay.

A lot of other things happened. I’ve been thinking about it, and right now it seems to me the very best way I can describe what happened at Bread Loaf over the weekend is to just describe the writing exercise Lucy used to write her story The Entire Predicament, which is the title story of her collection. She did this at Treman in front of the fire, on the couches with me. I did an exercise I normally give my students, she says. I don’t usually do them but I like to now and then. This exercise is called the Entire Predicament, and it focuses on putting your character into as ornate and complexly layered a predicament as possible. You begin with a physical predicament, and then you add an emotional layer, and then you look for a way to add a moral layer, and so on.

It’s a way of getting students to raise the stakes, she says.

Bret says, They need to think a story is more than one thing going wrong for a character.

So my character, she says, begins the story tied up, upside down, in a doorway, naked. She doesn’t know why she’s there or how. She doesn’t remember how she got there.

This is an excerpt from her story, The Entire Predicament:

Anyone could see I can do nothing, nothing, but there’s nobody I can see to see me. As I turn I can look across the planks of my porch and if I tuck my chin I can see my lawn above me and the broad black band of the street with no cars parked along it because everyone’s taken thir cars to work, and on errands and vacation. Or else the neighbors are cowering in their houses, cars tucked into their garages with the doors squeezed shut, or else they’re peeking through their windows and they can see me and I make them afraid to come out.

And that’s my Bread Loaf report.


  1. Alex,

    1. Read Edinburgh in Taos and I have nothing smart to say. amazing.

    2. Please tell Toni Nelson & Robert Boswell hello for me. Better, buy Toni a vodka tonic. Also say hello to Rus Bradburd & his wife Connie & their daughter. You’ll like them.

    3. Hope you are well. Looking forward to the new novel.

  2. This reads likes an uninterrupted dream of a writers’ conference and makes me want to pretend to talk on a cell phone. Hope the loveliness keeps finding its signal.

  3. Rob:
    Thank you. I really appreciate that.

    Sadly, I was back home by the time I got these instructions for Bread Loaf, but I liked Boswell’s reading and I hope to meet those guys another time.

    Novaren: Likewise appreciated! Thank you.

    Susan: Thanks. And you should give the above exercise a try. I’d love to see what you could do with it.
    In fact, everyone should.

  4. Aww. I just caught up with this. Paul had told me. Your account evoked the reality of the dream for me, again. Let’s catch up again someday same place, same time, same drink and, bathed in Loaf Light, we will encounter all that is affirming.

  5. Just read this entry…fun to re-live the Treman porch life for a little while. Now why isn’t Eugene here with a cocktail right now….?
    xo Margo

  6. Hi Alex! Saw your name on Margo’s blog and hopped on over. Send me an e-mail when you have a chance–I can’t find your address. Been thinking about you and hope all is well. xo, LS.

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