Essays / Features

Grief Wakes Me Early: A Letter From a Literary Conference

By Lorelei Goulding

The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference campus in Middlebury, Vermont.

I sit up in bed after a bad night’s sleep, trying to keep my sniffling quiet. My roommate sleeps across from me, in a cap and socks. She gets cold at night, even in the summer. I have noticed that she has trouble falling asleep too, and maybe that is why they assign roommates by age. Menopause is a time of depletion, marked by loss of bone and beauty and blood, and perhaps the conference organizers hope that such things will bond roommates to each other for these ten days.

It’s day eight at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. About two hundred writers sleep in (largely) twin rooms, awaiting another day of lectures, workshops, and shared meals. Everyone is talented, and more than a few are famous. The day before I’d seen Mitchell Jackson walking along the road to the cafeteria. I’m shy around the workshop leaders and fellows, but I’d managed tell him how much I enjoyed his conversation with Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond on the Dear Sugars podcast. The episode, “You Must Change Your Life,” is about the moment you realize your life has veered off its trajectory, that something has gone profoundly wrong. On the podcast, Jackson spoke about his moment of reckoning, when police found drugs in his car and he started calculating precisely how long a prison sentence he would serve, a story he recounts in his memoir Survival Math. He knew in that moment that he had to change his life, a quote from Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Strayed recounts a similar reckoning and realization in her memoir Wild. It’s not an uncommon theme for writers.

Jackson was gracious and kind. I was glad he didn’t ask if I was in the middle of a reckoning. That question has a long and complicated answer, impossible to summarize in a hundred paces on the way to lunch. Maybe he didn’t ask because I look harmless; I am aging and my 52-year-old body has become formless, thicker in the middle, and I am wearing a white dress more appropriate for a Victorian picnic than a craft lecture. I do not look like I am changing my life and I do not look prepared for any sort of reckoning as I pad across the lawn in thin flip flops and Medusa-hair, untamed in the humidity.

Lorelei Goulding

But this is what is happening. A weeklong reckoning has been slowly building since I arrived at Middlebury, the unmistakable fingers of grief grazing my neck, so gently at first I think it will pass without incident. The feeling pushes up at me from the center—where all my appetites reside—and I resist, as I often resist anything that feels indulgent; food, extreme emotion, time for writing in the face of other obligations. I’ve been working to suppress the eddying sadness. But this morning the tears wake me, after days of trying to quell an uneasiness that has been steadily rising. I recognize this feeling in me, now, after so many decades of living with myself. I must get out of bed. I grab my notebook and pen.

It could be either late summer or early autumn on this perfect indigo morning full of stillness and dotted with stars. I sit at a picnic table under a marquee strung with warm-white fairy lights. I look at my phone: 4:30AM, another ambiguous time that can also be either very late or very early, depending on the context.

Since I have been in Vermont I have started to dream, literally and figuratively. I am thrilled to be at Bread Loaf—privileged, lucky, not a little surprised—but shadows lurk beneath the questions that swell: How do we live if we are grieving the time we have lost, the time that is now gone, the time that passes as we speak? Everyone at the conference seems so young. I could be a mother to some; there are participants my age but not many, and fewer with families and children. There are tattooed poets and novelists with ungray hair and two-book deals. There is someone who strikes a warrior pose as they recite poetry in the tent one evening and sings their work the next, braver than I could ever be, and less than half my age. The audacity of their confidence awes me, how easily they inhabit themselves. How much they believe in their voices. How envious I am of their certainty. I salute their hardiness, their commitment to their art. But I pray for them, too—especially the younger ones—and hope they can cling to their idea of themselves in a way I could not when I was their age; dark moments come to us all, but for some of us the pole is greased and it is all but impossible to hang on to who you want to become.


In 1992 I was a senior in college, majoring in English at a state school in New York, with plans to work in publishing and dreams of becoming a writer. In the last semester of my last year, I was sexually assaulted. A family member whom I loved very much came to take care of me when it was clear I could not take care of myself; she led me by the hand through the days that followed. I gave a seven-hour statement in an open-plan police station to an officer who did not type quickly. I went to the doctor and tested positive for herpes and chlamydia. I met with the prosecutor who said that I would make a sympathetic witness. I attended my first therapy session and when I could not speak, the counsellor sat next to me on the couch and held my hand as I shook and cried. I write all this with sadness for that young woman who could not yet see that the course of her life had just been diverted; I also write this with the weary knowledge that is the exact story of millions of other women, except for the names and the places and the dates.

Because it happened in my dorm after a night out and I knew my rapist, this person I loved who came to take care of me said: “It’s not like it was really rape. It was date rape.” It was 1992 and such distinctions were made, then. She was—and still is—a feminist. She loved me very much, and I do not blame her for her words; MeToo was still decades and light years away. But I felt a kind of complicity every time I stepped onto the carpet in my room, and at night I replayed what happened to me—on the very bed I was lying in—trying to pinpoint what I could have done differently.

I only wanted to be able to go to class and finish out the year without seeing him on campus, but without definitive proof, like a rape kit or witnesses, it was my word against his. After the police contacted him, he started calling me. He left messages, telling me to shut my fucking mouth. He was tall, and an athlete, and he knew where I lived, so I kept quiet. I stopped talking to my friends about it, I stopped going to class, I stopped leaving my room, even though that was where it happened. The prosecutor called me in to say there was a lack of evidence; I had showered afterwards, the messages I left for a friend that would have been useful had been erased, and I waited too many days before I filed a report. They had no choice but to drop the case. On the way out of the police station an officer returned my clothes to me in a sealed evidence bag, neatly folded. I had trouble concentrating on my work and dropped my classes that semester, and eventually left university five credits short of completing my degree. I did not graduate.

By 1994 I had moved across the country. I did not know I was suffering with PTSD, but I had started writing and wanted to finish my Bachelor’s degree so I could apply for an MFA; maybe I could still be a writer. The first short story I wrote was about a woman living alone in her first apartment who had just bought a decorative bowl to put on her kitchen table, a housewarming gift to herself. As she unwraps it, an intruder breaks into the apartment through a window and attacks her from behind. She drops the bowl and it shatters on the floor. At the end of the story when she is in a daze, she gathers up the broken bits of pottery and tries to glue them back together. But now there are missing pieces and chipped edges; she realizes the bowl is permanently damaged, unfixable. It wasn’t a very good story, but I was trying to process something. It was not my exact experience.

I sent this story to the person who helped take care of me after the rape. I cannot recall if she asked if I was okay—she must have—but I remember that she was unsparing in her assessment of my work and did not offer any praise. She did not like the style. She especially did not like the voice; it was written in a southern dialect, and the language sounded off to her ear. She did not believe the narrator. I went quiet as I cradled the phone, tears in my eyes as I took notes. I still have that story, and she was right on all counts: it is a self-conscious piece of work, and I seem to be imitating Alice Walker or Toni Morrison or someone else I had admired at the time. I was uncertain of myself then, as a writer and in most other things.

I had spent a lifetime seeking approval from this person and when it wasn’t forthcoming in that phone call, it was a different kind of silencing. Again, I do not blame her; I was probably more vulnerable than she realized. When I started writing again a couple years later, I did so safe in the knowledge I would not show my writing to anyone. I did not go about it in a disciplined way. I did not take myself seriously as an artist. I had learned that my words did not carry weight; I was not heard on that terrifying night in my room, or at the police station, or in the prosecutor’s office, or by my own family. So when I wrote, it was haphazard; a couple of lines in the margins of notebooks, a few pages in the journals I received as gifts, scribbled poetry that surged in a fit of feeling scrawled on the backs of receipts. But more often than not, I ignored those inclinations to write. As much as others didn’t seem to hear me, I did not listen to myself, either.

The book I am currently writing has been pulsing within me for more than twenty-five years. When I was forty-nine, I took a memoir class, and it was the first time I had shown anyone my work in decades. I won a prize for the story that I started writing in that class, and it changed my life. Self-doubt and silence are often the bedfellows of trauma, that is true; even so, it took me far too long to pay attention to myself, to find the courage to share what I had to say.


It is 2022, exactly thirty years after the assault. It is only fitting that it is at this conference—surrounded so many young writers just starting out—that I can clearly see the spectacular derailment of my life. I see how much that night emptied of me, how since then a part of me has been trapped in amber, frozen and inaccessible. I do not forgive the man who raped me—I don’t have that need—but I must forgive myself my own numbness, for all that I did not allow myself to feel these three decades. I must forgive myself for doing the things I did to distance myself from pain, for ignoring all I had to ignore—including the call to words, more times than not—just so that I could survive.

Still. As I look around at the faculty and the fellows and the young participants, it is hard for me not to think (with more bitterness than I would like to admit, I am not above such pettiness) that I could have been one of them. I could have been an academic or a scholar or an author much sooner. I could have been an expert on Rilke or Austen or Something Important, as many of the workshop leaders are.

I am only myself. When I meet with my non-fiction workshop leader, the brilliant Melissa Febos, she assures me that your writing is very good, Lorelei, I cry like a child and feel foolish as she consoles me, more therapist than teacher. We do not talk much about my workshopped piece—instead I tell her I’m battling, struggling with the loss of time. I tell her I see the hope of my younger self in the unlined faces that surround me, that each one reminds me of the exact moment I left myself on the doorstep of self-belief. I feel haunted. She nods. She has been through many things too. She gives me a hug. And then she says something astonishing, and my life is changed again: It is never too late to become an expert of yourself.

I was thinking these words as I fell asleep last night. It is here in Vermont that I have allowed myself outrageous dreams at the age fifty-two, despite the crushing realization of all the time I have lost on the way to this moment. Maybe there isn’t enough time to become an academic or a scholar, or an expert in Something Important. But I do not regret my life. I do not regret my husband or my children, who tether me to this earth, the family I did not know I could hope for. I feel the tide pool of grief, yes; but now that I am writing, finally, I feel a calm that is new. I have arrived at words, at the right place in my life, at last. I am lucky to have made it here.

Sun breaks through over the landscape surrounding the Bread Loaf campus.

So. I heed the swelling words within me when grief wakes me early this morning. I am not the only one who has ever had a reckoning, I am not the only one who must change their life. It is not early. It is not late. It is simply now. Now I have time to go outside and look at the moon, glowing, a sliver as thin as a wood shaving, cradling its far larger shadow. Now I have time to look at the mists across the fields. To walk out to the Adirondack chairs and sit in the dark, alone, and look at the gently curved mountains against the lilac sky. To watch the grey-shadow deer bound across the grass, playful and alive. To sit with all the time that has passed within me, and to plan the time that lay ahead. When I arise from my seat in the breaking dawn, I see my own footprints that led me to this moment of quiet. I am too surly a person to be immediately grateful. But I am not anxious. I will not retrace my steps back the way I came to this place. I want to leave a different set of footprints in the grass that lead me to the rest of my life.

It is too late to be many things. I know this now, and I forgive myself for all I will never be, as we all must forgive ourselves for all we will never be. But if there is a single thing I may take home with me—back across the ocean, back to my family, and into my future—let it be this: that there is still time to be an expert in Something Important. It is never too late to become an expert of yourself.

Lorelei Goulding is from New York and lives in the UK. Her short story Birdie” won the Spread the Word Life Writing Prize in 2020 and she is currently enrolled on the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. She is represented by Marianne Gunn OConnor at MGOC Talent and is at work on her first book, a memoir.

One thought on “Grief Wakes Me Early: A Letter From a Literary Conference

  1. Thank you, Lorelei, for this stunning piece of writing. I could relate to every word, except that my assailants were family members, and it started before I had words to cling to. Dreams took their place and told me everything I needed to know. Now I am 71 and quite the authority on myself and have known for years that I must change my life, even as I try to save the life of my 80 year old husband, who is dying, but not fast enough, of diseases too numerous to name. It’s a slow motion game of Russian roulette. And I am terrified to pull the trigger.

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