When I first arrive at the Hotel Rex for Weekday Wanderlust, an evening of wine and booze and writers extolling their amazing adventures around the world, I am unenthusiastic. I’ve been anxious for the last two days: I have offended people, been aggressive and pushy in a way that I can only compare to Saturdays as a child, when I would wait hour after hour for my brother to wake up and take me to the movies – waking up him hourly to remind him of his promise. An introvert by nature, the idea of being in a room full of people I don’t know can be quite overwhelming and intimidating. This crowd includes people I know, however, other travel writers, classmates from the workshop I am in San Francisco to take, my instructor, Don George, other highly accomplished writers and editors all from the travel writing field which, on this night, feels so elusive to me. This is a room FULL of writers – most of them published! Who am I? How can my voice be so unique as to tell a story that others would delight in reading? I order a Balvenie 12 year – a single malt familiarity that is out of my price range but will likely make inroads to quiet my nerves.
The first writer speaks. God… the poetry. The description isn’t over-solicitous, it is on-point. I am there with her in Chile, feeling the same admiration for a departed poet, whom I have never heard of but now love with all the intensity that she does. I want to write like her. She’s got an MFA. I don’t have an MFA and I probably never will. Yes, I’m comparing myself. She and I are on the same road, but she, with every word, increases her stride and pace, and is little more than a shadow off on the horizon. I love her style and long for her success.
The next writer speaks. He’s more my speed, though speaking on a topic of which I know very little, being a parent, except for the role I played as a child to my own. He’s funny, observing with pained humor, how his children reacted to the world that he provided them. He has taken a track in writing that I am unfamiliar with and largely disinterested in at this point in my life – books, children’s books to be specific, but his presentation is an amusing contrast to the first.
The final speaker rises to present her piece. She has been a classmate for the last four weeks and describes this alien place in a foreign country, Argentina, that I will likely never visit. She describes it as though she is standing in it, revisiting the physical anguish of dehydration that adds a layer of personal struggle this story that describes every hillside, every lakebed, the searing heat, in finite detail. She has been published in an anthology produced by my instructor. Her accomplishments are a few steps ahead of mine but not so far ahead that I can’t make out her outline anymore. I can appreciate the joy of her success, I share it with her as I have shared the last four weeks.
In between each speaker, Don reflects on what has been written with all the joy that a teacher or parent feels for his fledglings. He is, at times, emotional, recalling their successes and their stories. But he always follows that discomfort with a laugh to lighten the mood. And when he reaches the conclusion of our evening, he speaks about the community that returns month after month, to listen to new stories by new speakers. He talks about how unique the San Francisco environs are to the writer, how supportive they are of literature, unlike anywhere he’s ever been. Coming from a man who has been so many places, that’s saying something. And it occurs to me that this is my community. We are all unique and beautiful, awkward and uncomfortable. We get anxious and misplace it in how we interact with others. We sweat over pitches, bite our nails to the nub waiting for replies from editors who agree that we are unique and beautiful and awkward and worth sharing with the world.
This community… As I drove over the Richmond Bridge yesterday, after a week in Santa Barbara, looking at Marin County from its crest, I got that “I’m home” feeling. What am I going to do in less than 2 weeks, when Southwest airlines carries me away from this community, home to the cold and ice and winter of the mid-Atlantic in February? How do I stretch these next 2 weeks out and make every minute count? And most importantly, most resolutely… how do I get back to this community that I have grown to love so very much?