John Gardner breaks the piney moonlight silence, haranguing boozily toward dawn in a cloud of pipe smoke and polysyllables.

Erica Jong tramps anxiously across the long lawns, a tawny nimbus of hair bouncing above the bright magenta blouse and matching harem pants.

Tim O'Brien, a smug reptilian grin spreading wide as the brim on his baseball cap, draws yet another awe-struck young woman into a private conclave.

And around the midnight piano, Geoffrey Wolff raises his throat to croon "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do."

The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference is in session: 12 thoughtful days and raucous nights among the Green Mountains of Vermont, a grassy fastness so deeply Wordsworthian it's as if Disney World had added a new wing: Writer Land, complete with spring-fed pond and authentic rock wall for poetic musing. No wonder nearly 300 delicate souls convene here annually, 16 miles from Middlebury in a shambling scatter of Victorian frame buildings dominated by the big three-story Bread Loaf Inn, where the punch-clock drudgery of normal life fades like the mountain planes in the empurpling haze.

For the 56th year of the oldest and most prestigious writers' conference in the country -- where the shades of Robert Frost and W.H. Auden, Saul Bellow and Katherine Anne Porter still gild the aura -- director and poet Robert Pack of Middlebury College has assembled a distinguished faculty of 15. And a record 242 students (or "customers": "We've never been able to find a suitable term," says Pack) have turned out to sit at the feet of all this certified genius. As they arrive, the narrow road begins to congest with bearded chain smokers in dented Datsuns and aging Novas. The broad porch of the inn fills with nylon backpacks, denim skirts, khaki hiking shorts and flannel shirts, the sartorial symbology of the post-Woodstock literacy. Most are hot-eyed unknowns in their late 20s and early 30s, punctuated by Lord & Taylor housewives and the odd polyester grandpa.

Through the throng float the staff: poet Howard Nemerov shuffling in slip-on deck shoes and denim coat, whistling to himself in toneless reverie; John Irving slamming a crushing forehand into the tennis net or lounging in a red flowered shirt that would shame a luau; poet William Stafford -- perhaps the last man in North America whose eyes actually twinkle -- a leprechaun apparition in plaid, licking an ice cream cone; Jong disembarking from her big four-door Mercedes with the WING-IT license plate, seemingly already uneasy at the Eddie Bauer style and lustrous literary mystique; O'Brien goring the grass with his golf club ("Updike says if you don't take a divot the size of a T-shirt, you're doing it wrong"); Gardner with his once-vatic mane trimmed for the amateur stage ("I'm playing a Puritan minister"), hung-over eyeballs looking like they'd been poached in clam broth, dirty jeans turned up at the cuffs; Stanley Elkin, crippled by multiple sclerosis, proceeding with stately dignity on his cane; and a half-dozen more with reputations deep or wide.

Within two weeks, all of them will grow close in the fecund chemistry of teacher and student, and in reenacting the popular myths of Bread Loaf: the scramble for approval, the marathon drinking, the casual sex. One staffer calls it "a kind of Fantasy Island" in which "a lot of straight types turn into completely different human beings. The trouble is, they fall in love. And none of these relationships lasts past September."

"All of that is true," says Elkin. "But that's only part of what makes it such a bargain. Contacts and contracts are made up here, and they also get show biz -- a kind of literary Chautauqua."

So it was during the first week of this year's conference. And by the time the program ended last week, the customers had been temporarily transformed, whether they came for the challenge of artistic debate or the draining torture of workshops, for the high drama of the evening staff readings or the low comedy of winey nights, for the legends of the Big Break or Surprise Discovery. "By the end," says Pack, "Bread Loaf is reality."

The Art of Criticism

"Oh God," moans a middle-aged female customer. "I just know that John Irving is going to stand up there and say, 'Okay, lady!' and I'm going to have to read." This last word is delivered in the clench-jawed vibrato customarily reserved for describing root-canal work. Indeed, none of Bread Loaf's elaborate summer-camp atmosphere -- with its daily newsletter (The Crumb), bookstore (staff writers only), maid service and laundromat -- can lessen the dread of judgment.

More than 1,000 writers -- bright grad students, college teachers, disenchanted journalists and white-collar drones with a secret literary life -- apply to attend the program, and one in four is accepted. Almost none has appeared in a major publication. They pay $540 for tuition, room and board, and their motives range from serious to cynical. Ken Graham, 29, a struggling author from Los Angeles, arrives after a "pilgrimage" through Massachusetts to Walden Pond and the homes of Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. "It borders on idolatry," he says, and his hands tremble with earnest anxiety when he thinks of submitting his work. But one of the 15 Washingtonians, a young lawyer at a government agency, says she came because "I was looking for a tax-deductible summer vacation" and aspires to "write trash, get rich, lie in bed and smoke dope."

Stafford believes "it's scarier for the teachers." After all, he has a reputation to maintain, and "this conference is different -- they're really expecting something." Like poet William Matthews and Jong, this is his first year at Bread Loaf (he has stood next to Gardner for five minutes without knowing who he is), and it is just dawning on the reclusive bard that he can be bushwhacked at any time of day by whatever fatigue-jacketed loon wants his opinion on anything from UFOs to haiku -- either after the lectures, where protocol demands that the speaker stand outside and take comments, or in the big communal dining room, where open seating is the rule and heads swivel like periscopes looking for a luncheon strike.

Yet as Stafford pokes at a plate of Bread Loaf's dismally bland food, his big worry is how candid to be with the students. Poet Linda Pastan sympathizes: "Some of the things are so bad that I don't even want to have them read aloud." It's a problem. Back in 1979, the story goes, Gardner in effect told a student that he was wasting his time trying to write. After the conference, the student returned home and a few months later killed himself. Gardner says he thought about quitting the conference. "The emotional price," he says, "was too high."

You can see why as Stanley Elkin convenes his first discussion group. Fifteen young people file quietly into the blue Victorian parlor of the inn and creep into seats. Elkin, like Nemerov and Gardner, has a reputation as a tough critic, and he looks it, humped like a dyspeptic gargoyle in the big wing chair. Although he is no more than 20 feet from the farthest customer, no one says a word. This is not the normal classroom lull of throat-clearing and leg-crossing. This is absolute fear-fed silence, and after a few minutes it begins to scream with tension. Elkin finally breaks it by asking them to write down the situation for a short story. This produces five more minutes so quiet you could hear someone petting a dog in the next county.

Finally, Elkin rasps "Okay," and points to a pleasant-faced young man with thick glasses. "What have you got."

The young man opens his mouth, but . . . nothing happens. Then he manages to croak: "My name is Jonathan, and I'm so nervous I can barely talk." The relief is palpable -- at first. But this is not an ice-breaking joke: He can barely talk. Elkin has inadvertently picked the only person at the conference with a bad stutter, and as the courageous Jonathan stammers his way through his fantasy of a crashed air pilot rescued by a magical Indian, the curiosity turns morbid -- how will Elkin handle this?

"I don't think that would work as a story," Elkin says flatly. "I think you are finessing your obligations as a writer by depending on magic to solve your problems." Panic in the parlor. Jonathan struggles to defend his narrative, which turns out to be the best thing anybody has to offer. How about the boy who kills his father with poison candy? "I don't like that, either. I've never read a successful story about a crazy protagonist." Nix on the New York woman who loses her lover, ditto the aging gent who loses his faith, nuts to a half-dozen more. Elkin then compounds the agony: "Let me tell you a story," whereupon he recounts, at length, Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" and Hemingway's "The Killers," interlarded with oracular dicta like "plot is the difference between what I want and what wants me," or "chance stinks."

At the end of the hour, the students slump out in mute despond. Nine days of this to go, and suddenly the pages of Harper's seem very far away. But then few are expecting artistic epiphanies. Most of the staff doubt that writing can be taught, although unpromising directions can be avoided and technical problems eliminated when manuscripts are analyzed in the second week. And the customers are hip: "Sure, I can learn something from the program," says Washingtonian Laurie Stroblas, 32, "but it's mostly the environment -- sitting around drinking with other people you can really talk to."

Night Time is the Right Time

"Where are the orgies?" a disillusioned newcomer asks after three days. In truth, despite the fabled profligacy, there are none. Sexual liaisons transpire in cloistered discretion, and many of the staff bring their wives and children (some, like Irving, get houses off the conference grounds).

Drink is the principal recreation here, as is evident from the wreckage of John Gardner one sunny afternoon. In corduroy jacket and baggy jeans, he scuffles slowly over to a spot near the big barn where Tim O'Brien is surrounded by a half-dozen customers. A platinum blond at O'Brien's elbow looks up at Gardner. "That was our room you were in last night," she says. "Oh," Gardner replies quietly, staring down at his crushed tassel loafers. "Well, sorry about that." "I think they were quite honored," says O'Brien, who looks a little worn himself today, trying to put a pleasant face on things.

But no need. Gardner's harmless late-night peregrinations are legendary -- he once ran out of cigarettes at 4 in the morning and began knocking on dormitory doors -- and his motorcycle debacles ("I don't bring it any more") are part of the oral epic here, where drinking hard is hardly reproved, where the "sociability committee" arranges some six cocktail parties (along with two dances and a movie). However, where one drinks and with whom is determined by a baroque hierarchy which distinguishes Bread Loaf from the 150 other writers' conferences held in the U.S. every year.

At the top of this chain of being are the 15 faculty, followed by eight staff assistants and 17 fellows -- who have published at least one book and work with the staff in teaching -- and a half-dozen guest lecturers and panelists. Persons in these orders may enter the sacrosanctity of a special building: Treman Cottage, where the tireless Gardner rails, arm hooked over the top of the refrigerator; where a pale blond stalks Matthews, a lean academic with a droopy Donald Sutherland appeal and the minutely rumpled look of a man who has been trampled by gerbils; where a handsome male staff assistant keeps changing rooms to evade a woman who has been after him for two years; where Elkin -- his gruff public demeanor yielding to a benign and infectious grin -- sits in an admiring circle as reputations rise and sink in the crashing waves of laughter and libido. The Treman bar is well-stocked and staffed at 12:15 for Bloody Marys, again at 6:15 and again after the evening readings. Business is brisk but brief: After a couple of hours, most of the crowd either drifts home or toward the more democratic environs of the barn.

This enormous building, a sort of literary bat-cave open right up to the timbered ceiling three stories away, is available to everyone, including the four sub-Tremanian orders: scholarship students (periodical publishing acceptable) and working scholarship students (the white-jacketed "waitroids" serve in the dining room, where Pack abolished the separate table for staff when he took over the conference nine years ago from John Ciardi); 100 contributors who bring their work to be discussed; and finally 100 auditors who merely bask in the salutary radiance.

In the barn on most nights, staff assistant David Bain can be found at the old piano banging out moronic ditties from the early '60s until the early hours, when the mood turns maudlin and the encircling crowd grows from a dozen to three dozen and turns from "Blue Moon" to "Amazing Grace" and finally to "O Come All Ye Faithful," caroling homeward across the lawns. (Except for one ancient phonograph, this is the only entertainment device at the conference, where radio and TV are banned. "If the world blows up," says Nemerov, "we'll doubtless be told later.")

The barn serves as a sort of rustic student union, where staffers are ambushed for advice and agents hustled for contacts. Nemerov, in search of an egg sandwich, gets an aspiring poet instead; and panelist Esther Newberg of International Creative Management has barely sagged into a chair when she is sandbagged by Truxton Hare, a prep-school headmaster from Philadelphia with a steamy first novel. Literary discussions flourish and wilt, young men slouch in Praxitelean arrogance against the pillars and Darwinian selection takes its course. "Well, it is a part of the conference," says philosopher and administrative director Stanley Bates, scanning the welter, "but no more so than any other gathering." "Probably less," says Wolff. "Most of the people have roommates and besides, the ground is wet."

The Life of the Mind

In providing what Elkin calls "a quick literary fix," the conference offers a crowded agenda of lectures, workshops, panel discussions by agents and editors and readings by the staff. Detractors regard Bread Loaf as a pretentious summer camp, and its faculty as a mutual aggrandizement society. Yet as the conference unfolds, it is clearly more than a holiday cabal of literary inbreeding. For less than $2,000, each staff member must read critically the work of two dozen students and expose himself to aggravating degrees of personal access. Most work harder than necessary on their one-hour lectures. Some are intellectually challenging, like Pack's commanding exegesis of poems by Hopkins, Yeats, Blake and Roethke; or novelist/TV critic Ron Powers' excoriating analysis of television docudrama and pop culture (People magazine, he says, is "mankind's first successful attempt to freeze-dry the airwaves"). Some are practical, like Pastan's warning that "to be childlike without being childish is as difficult as to describe boredom without being boring" or Gardner's witty redaction of his moral-fiction thesis, replete with snipes at pop genres like "nurse books" and "sodbusters" and epigrammatic advice on personality in fiction -- "the novelist holds himself back like a compulsive punster at a funeral."

Others have less industry or simply less to say. Nemerov rambles in an Delphic cloud, dropping apothegms like "everything foolproof is a challenge to fools" and inveighing against critics who say "I've changed my mind again, and I'm still right"; and Jong surprises everyone and embarrasses some by coming up with only 20 minutes of first-person stuff about how she wrote her 18th-century novel "Fanny." ("When I found it was an incest story, I found out something about myself that I hadn't confessed in years . . . Every writer has to sooner or later write an incest fable -- it's one of the three great plots.") She follows this with a brief reading from the book and then takes questions.

It soon becomes equally obvious that not all of the faculty are mutually respectful. When the conference convenes in the big theater for the evening readings, it is considered good form for the staff to attend en masse, as when O'Brien reads from his comic novel-in-progress, "The Nuclear Age," 4 1/2 years in the making, with another two to go. But when a nervous Irving begins a bravura reading -- to a packed house -- from "The Hotel New Hampshire," elder poets Stafford and Nemerov remove themselves to another building to talk with some students.

Jong gamely declares that she finds the conference surprisingly friendly, the "Bohemian Grove of writers' groups," but many of the staff have trouble taking her seriously. And if Gardner's exhausting didactics on "moral fiction" seem to dominate the conference, Elkin says, "I think John Gardner is a boring writer. He talks a moral game, but it's just something he came up with at a cocktail party." Gardner, a miracle of humility for a man with 30 books to his credit, is the first to concede that he can't follow his own advice: "I've been working on a book for five years. It's 500 pages and it's a real t---." Called "Nicholson's Ghosts," it's a "love-story murder mystery" with "a hard-drinking detective" and "all the Ross MacDonald techniques," but "slowed down to get the reader into a state of total paranoia." He says "I owe the IRS half a million in back taxes," and is faced with two alternatives: "write a really popular novel or live like a pauper." The Eternal Return

"I don't come here for the money," says Elkin, "and certainly not for the food, and certainly not for altruistic motives or the desire to 'find' somebody -- I'm not an agent." Yet he has returned every year since 1976, for the "good will and good jokes," as do most of the staff and dozens of customers. "I don't know why they let people do that," says a woman journalist from New Orleans, "I'd feel like I was turning into a groupie." But even the skeptical can become addicted. Gail Kent, a fortyish college teacher from New Jersey with no desire to publish, has attended three times: "You don't learn a thing about writing. What you mostly get is a high you can carry back with you."

Nemerov puts it best, sitting in solitary repose and staring at the empty tennis courts ("Zen tennis," he says "no mistakes!"). He first came in the early '60s and paid the obligatory devotional visit to Robert Frost in what is now called the Frost Cabin. "I walked up there and the first thing he said was, 'I can't hear you with this damn new hearing aid.' I muttered Cordelia's line -- 'then I'll love and be silent' -- but he didn't get it. Finally we went outside and sat on some mending wall and I found out he could hear fine if he wanted to.' "

Nemerov didn't return for almost 20 years -- "until my second wave of children were old enough to pick up girls." The oldest is now 18, and Nemerov is back at 60. The white-haired inheritor of the Frostian mantle lights another Pall Mall with his Bic and says, "Last year, I asked a couple of nuns why they had come, and they said because it's the cheapest good vacation there is."