So I landed in Reno tired, my eyes red from lack of sleep, lungs breathing in stale cabin air all the way, and I have the jitters. I’m anxious and my nerves are jangly, but it’s not because of the din and jingle of the slot machines by the luggage carousels. I’m not jittery because of the long roundabout trip, free courtesy of Southwest — Oakland to Los Angeles to Reno — or because of the even longer trip I did just 24 hours before (Oakland to Austin to Los Angeles and back to Oakland 12 hours later, just to drop off my daughter). I’m anxious because this is my very first writers’ workshop and I’m in the presence of real writers.
A bunch of us workshop participants are being picked up at the airport and so I click on the link in the email signature of one of the participants. (Let’s give her a pseudonym, like, uh, Janet.) Janet is already published all over the place: PANK! Storyglossia! Jitters, yes? I suppose it’s illustrative of my mindset — much of which I’ve already explored elsewhere — that my first nervous thought wasn’t “Wow, I’m in the company of these people!” but “Crap, what do I have to say to these writers?”
You might say my fears were alleviated almost instantly, because these writers were just plain nice. (More about this later, on Day 2 or so.) The drive from Reno to Squaw Valley is beautiful: desert plus snow-capped mountains all at once. The fellow writer who picked us up at the Reno Airport drove all the way from Idaho. My U.S. geography is hazy but I knew this was pretty darn far, so I figured I’d shut up about being tired.
We arrive, we register, and the organizers have put the writers up in condos and houses all over the Valley. My room is practically a luxury suite. One roommate’s a lawyer from DC who’s thinking of quitting it all for an MFA in my neck of the woods in the fall. The other roommate’s already been to Iowa (!) and is on his way back to Honolulu where he lives. I mean, I’m in the company of professionals. This is a big thing and I’m trying not to feel inadequate.
We head to our first event which, happily, involves drinks. The folks of color somehow mostly find each other, as we usually do. (I might add that this wasn’t out of discomfort or anything; I suspect it’s some sort of mysterious gravitational attraction. Sociologists probably have a term for it.) Anyway, we’re chatting in a circle and an older woman comes up to us and says “Oh, I love the fact that this conference is so diverse. My son married a black woman and they have mixed children.” We smile and nod politely, because, after all, it’s a nice day outside.
And outside — outside is just gorgeous. It’s a valley, all right, ringed with snow-capped mountains and trees whose names I don’t know and the deep blue ceiling of the sky above. I can’t say it feels like we’re in the middle of nature — there’s a Starbucks and at least a couple of massive parking lots — but it’s close enough. “In the mountains, there you feel free” indeed.
We writers are from all over the place — two of the folks in my workshop flew in from Sicily and Melbourne — enough so that I feel like a relative townie. One’s a computer guy from somewhere near Sacramento by way of Nigeria, and describes his town (Roseville) as “Suburbia 101.” Another is an incoming college junior (!) at USC. Another is a recent MFA grad whose current state of “homelessness” has become a running joke among us since he has to explain to everyone who asks that he has no current place of residence and that he’ll be in India for a few months and that all his belongings are in a storage facility in Ann Arbor.
There’s some of us from the Bay Area too. One’s a Sri Lankan woman who’s a Kearny Street Workshop vet and also from Oakland. (Funny how one figures out which part of Oakland you live in by asking “What’s your BART station?”) She has a notebook filled with these amazing doodles and could probably make a living selling her work.
One’s from Mountain View, or Sunnyvale, or one of those places you drive by on the way to the outlets down in Gilroy, and she says at dinner that she quit her job to become a full-time writer, and that this was her second year of doing so.
I look up from my salad and say, with a smile, “In this economy, that’s both reckless and an enviable thing.”
She says, almost without hesitation, “Well, I kind of have the Rich Husband Syndrome.”
I like her for saying this. (Later she gave us homemade oatmeal cookies, which made me like her more.)
By the way, my stereotype of black-clad MFA skinny hipster-types has been forever shattered. But maybe those are the visual artists. Or the poets.
At the introductory meeting Sands Hall warns us about bears, who are a real presence in the woods and mountains around us. Raiding your fridge isn’t normal behavior for these creatures, she says. Her advice is not to freak out when you see a bear in your kitchen, but to tell the bear to leave. Politely.
I think she’s dead serious about this, but I don’t believe it for a minute. Or rather, I don’t believe I’d have the presence of mind to follow this advice. I know my first reaction will be involuntary, and would require a change of clothes.
The evening ends, after an al fresco dinner, with a stirring talk by Jason Roberts, filled with so many nuggets of wisdom, but the lights were out and I couldn’t see my notes. (I had stupidly forgotten the brand-new notebook from Staples at home.) The one I remember was his last quote, from Marilynne Robinson, I think, which went something like this:
At some point in your life you discover that you can do unusual things with your mind.
My jitters are gone, by the way.