North Carolina Writers' Conference
In the early 2000s, I was post-undergraduate and floating along, not really sure what to do next. This seems to be a pattern with me, where I finish a major undertaking and then feel adrift, waiting for the next goal on which to hyperfocus. I wanted to visit a friend in Raleigh, North Carolina that summer, and I wanted to make the trip worthwhile. I had notions of becoming a professional writer, and thought attending a conference might help with that goal, in the sense of:
1. Attend conference
3. Become professional writer
With this amazingly specific, time limited, measureable, achievable, and reasonable goal, I bopped along, looking for my opportunity.
I found an advertisement in Writer's Digest for the University of North Carolina's Writing Conference. They offered scholarships, and I figured if I got in, it wouldn't cost anything more, as I already had the plane tickets and the scholarship covered everything other than food. I submitted a portfolio of poetry. I had never really written very much, even in undergrad, so today I just look askance at my former self. The requirement was to send it in on paper, in a manila envelope, stamped. They required a phone number instead of a self-addressed, stamped envelope. I mailed it off, and waited.
Truth be told, I didn't so much wait as completely forget I had submitted the application. I received a call one evening on our shared home phone from a strange area code. I came to the phone and a voice told me I won. I got the details, and prepared to change my itinerary slightly to allow for the conference.
The conference felt lonely. I knew no one, and my introversion during those years kept me feeling isolated even in a room of people. We roomed in a former hotel, though now it housed student athletes and guests of the university.
I still remember the introductions of many of the other attendees: long resumes of their publications and work. I went simplistic, and simply introduced myself by name and that I wrote poetry and prose. I did share that I graduated from University of Houston, and the others seemed impressed though I later explained that the program they were thinking of was the graduate program and I was only an undergraduate. Many brought work they had published, and read them aloud. I did not. I felt myself shrinking into myself. I did not belong her, and why had they chosen me?
We had done critique circles in my creative writing program in Houston but I had expected, I don't know what. Something else. Lectures, perhaps. Something new. I gave my thoughts to those who shared their work, and at times the energy in the room shifted palpably, as though I was gaining power. The recipients of my critiques paid close attention to my opinion.
Maybe I did know what I was talking about, I thought. My posture straightened ever so slightly.
The workshop leaders provided prompts once the initial critique circle ended. This part felt better. I could write. I knew I could write. Then I remember I had come for poetry. Damn.
I had nothing. When it was my turn, I explained that I hadn't written a poem.
"That's OK," said the leader. "Just read what you have."
I did, and I felt that shift of energy again. I received positive feedback. I felt a surge of what, maybe power? Maybe just self-efficacy, or confidence being restored to me. I did belong here, after all.
There was an older man, maybe in his 60s, attending the conference. Much of his work was sensual, and at times overtly sexual. As a very young 22 or 23 year old, I felt totally uncomfortable hearing this type of work critiqued. Somehow, my school's critique circles had managed to avoid such open sexuality.
I rushed out at lunch time to find somewhere to grab a quick bite and read.
"Sabrina!" he called.
I stopped reflexively.
"Let's eat together."
I opened my mouth, readying an excuse.
"My treat," he said. "I insist. I won't take no for an answer."
I shrugged, and trudged along with him in the Carolina heat uphill to the beer house he'd decided upon.
I don't remember much of what we talked about. I do remember he had a wife, and did not hit on me, at least not overtly, though I admit I can be pretty oblivious. I do remember him flattering me about my writing, and mostly just wanting someone to talk to and listen to him. We spent a nice meal together. We returned to class, and were friendly for the rest of the conference.
What does it mean that when I think of it, I sometimes wonder about all the ways it could've gone sideways, and how lucky I was that it didn't?
The rest of the conference passed much in the same way as I described above. I left feeling the sparkling effervescence that comes after spending time working with those of like minds, feeling refueled with creativity, but feeling depleted from having created. Not long after, I started working on an ill-fated teen novella. Since then, though, I haven't been able to stick with any longer works, and have always flirted with shorter forms, including poetry. Sometimes I ask myself what was truly the point of going to that conference.
Growth, learning, exploration, I tend to answer myself. So what if you didn't learn some BIG LESSON from attending a conference? You met people, you felt good about yourself, you gave feedback to others that helped them. Not everything writing-related will help you achieve a larger goal. Hell, you can't even write a goal properly. (Maybe that was one of the lessons I needed to learn then, but didn't until I went to grad school on a completely different path.)
The thing with writing narrative, linear work is that readers expect you to have started the story with some point, some goal in mind. Real life isn't always that way, though. Once I accepted that many threads of my story would remain tangled, or loose, and focused on enjoying the journey, things began to change for me. I still struggle at times, especially when I am mid-goal and hurrying things to get to the end, but not everything has to have a point.
Sometimes the journey IS the point.