The floors creaked in the attic I rented. For three nights I tiptoed around ancient furniture resting on old Persian carpets, the hard wood floors beneath wailing with each imposition of my weight. It had all of the makings of what I imagined an attic to be: fake tiffany’s glass lamps, an old radio, a dusty vanity, and a porcelain doll in the corner staring at the twin sized bed made up for me. In Arizona, we don’t have attics. Or if we do, not ones like this.
I was in Minneapolis for AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, but instead of staying in the conference hotel like the more foresighted and experienced attendees, I rented an attic from Airbnb. Connie, my temporary landlord, made me carrot cake muffins to bring with me to the conference, so, with my muffins wrapped in tin foil, and my backpack thrown over my shoulder, I called an Uber to take me to the conference.
In the car, Ashraf, my driver, asked if I was a writer, if I was going to the big writing conference, if I had written a novel, if I was going to meet anyone famous, if all the writers were going to be out tonight drinking. I don’t know. Yes. No. Maybe, but hopefully not. Definitely.
I suppose I could tell you about the overwhelming atmosphere of the book fair. I could tell you that I was too scared to talk to the people at The Paris Review, because if I said something stupid, like I usually do, they would remember me forever and never publish my work. I could tell you that I walked up to a total of five booths because I was anxious. Because, maybe, I didn’t belong.
I am not in or graduated from an MFA program. I don’t have a finished manuscript. I have one published short story. I’m writing a novel but I don’t want to talk about it because then it’s something people expect me to finish.
However, in the first panel I went to, the anxiety was washed away. Once I was sitting amongst other people, all with notebooks and pens, I felt at home in the role of student. I wondered about the difference between those of us in the chairs with the notebooks, and the five people at the front with microphones. If there is 12,000 of us in Minneapolis trying to learn something, trying to find the secret to this whole writing thing, when do we actually get to be a writer?
At the end of the first panel, I reentered the book fair, ate a convention center taco salad at a standing table, and watched the people wandering through the aisles. I wondered which ones were successful, and what that meant. One book? Two? An advance? A National Book Award? No one looked particularly famous, the way that you imagine fame to look, with perfect wind-blown hair and designer couture. Everyone had the same tote bag, similar business-casual outfits.
After eating, I walked down one of the front aisles and saw one of the panelists that I had just heard speak the previous hour. He was sitting at a booth, looking uncomfortable, trying to talk to people about a magazine.
I told him I loved his chart on the plotting of epiphany stories, that I was in his panel. He shook my hand and thanked me, in a genuine, non-fame kind of way, but in a very ordinary kind of way. His palm was clammy, and I was glad to see his nails were not perfectly manicured. We talked for maybe ten minutes about writing stories and the workshop environment.
He is a writer. And I might be a writer. Though I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to say that word comfortably without cringing, or feeling some sort of doubt, like someone will call me out as a fraud. He attends workshops just like I do. He sits in panels and writes down charts like I do.The only difference between a writer and a not-writer that I can think of is in the act of writing.
By the end of the weekend, I met more people like that panelist, people who embraced me in their community. People who invited me out with them. People who asked me about my work, what I’m reading, or what I think about a certain book. People who made me realize that studentand writer are not mutually exclusive, but are in fact different words for the same thing.
On Saturday, I returned to the desert, thankfully out of the snow, back into sandals and tank tops with the Sonoran sun beating down on my shoulders. In my workshop, the first day back from AWP, my responses to everyone’s stories changed. All of a sudden, I had a new perspective, new feedback to give. I taught my fellow classmates the epiphany chart I learned in that first panel, and though the vast majority of them stared at me blankly, like it was something they all knew and I was full of hubris for trying to show them something I learned, one or two of my classmates wrote it down. A few of them got it, and I felt like we were developing a community of writers on our own: people who want to learn, and people who want to write.