Here’s a story.
Several years ago, I received a free pass to AWP. The conference was being held in New York and because Sarah Lawrence was a sponsor, they had some passes to give away to students. I was delighted to have the chance to attend, and I rode the train into the city in my favorite red dress, loving trains, loving the city, loving the promise of belonging to a community of writers.
I was a senior in my last semester of college, trying to decide what to do with myself. I’d always assumed I would attend an MFA program straight out of college, but the previous fall, when it came time to apply, I started to feel how small my experience of the world had been up until then, started to think, Maybe I’ll wait. Around that same time, I’d remembered how much I loved fairy tales, and I decided to apply to a few graduate programs in folklore. It was impulsive, by my cautious standards. Folklore wasn’t something I’d seriously considered before — wasn’t even something I’d really known you could study. But I felt I’d been going down the same straight path for so long, I wanted to know what it would be like to go in another direction for a little while. I wanted to see where it would take me.
By the time I was going to AWP, I think I was still waiting for my acceptance letters, though I don’t quite remember. What I do remember is attending a searingly good panel on nonrealist fiction, with speakers who included Rikki Ducornet, Brian Evenson, Theodora Goss, Kelly Link, and Kate Bernheimer. I remember thinking, Yes! This is what I love! This is the kind of writing I want to do! Possibilities opened up. I felt galvanized.
The next day, I went to the Fairy Tale Review table and spoke to Kate Bernheimer, probably inarticulately, about being torn between studying fairy tales and writing them. I don’t remember what she said, exactly, but I know she told me, “Let me know how it goes.” A few months later, I did, earnestly updating her about the choice I was making between graduate programs. She emailed me back, wonderfully kind and encouraging. It wasn’t much, just a few lines, but it meant a lot to me. It felt like a fine, lovely thread, tying me back to that golden feeling I’d had on the train to AWP, of belonging to something, creatively speaking, bigger than my own words on the page.
Later that year, I moved to Bloomington, and spent two wonderful years studying folklore at Indiana University. I loved folklore, and I loved the people I studied with, but by the end of my time there, I’d realized I couldn’t see myself devoting my life to the scholarly study of folklore. The perspectives I’d encountered at IU had changed the way I thought about storytelling and literature, but I missed writing stories of my own. I’d taken a detour into folklore, and I wasn’t sorry I’d done it, but it was time to try to get back to the path I’d always known I wanted to take.
A year or two later, I started an MFA program at the University of Maryland. I met other writers who were interested in exactly the kind of unreal fiction I’d heard the panelists talking about back at AWP. I studied with professors who encouraged me to make my writing more strange and surprising, and helped me refine my work through craft and revision. I read some extraordinary, life-changing books, and I co-founded a literary magazine dedicated to writing with a fairy tale sense of the fantastic. Most importantly, I wrote a lot of stories, many of them fairy tales in one sense or another.
Now, after several more revisions, one of those stories has found its way into Fairy Tale Review, the same journal I’d marveled over at AWP in New York, that my MFA classmates and I talked about in admiring tones. The Ochre Issue, which includes my story “May Queen”, will be officially released at the AWP conference in Los Angeles. Next week, I’ll fly to LA for the conference, where I’ll be reunited with some of my friends from the Maryland MFA. I’m excited (and humbled) that my story will be there, in the company of work by people like Courtney Bird and Carmen Maria Machado and Karen Green, but more than that I can’t wait to experience that glimmering feeling of writerly companionship again. There’s a certain kind of pleasant symmetry in this — in how much has changed between my first AWP and my second. Last time, I was uncertain about which path to follow. This time, I still don’t know where the path will lead, or what will happen along the way, but I feel sure it’s the one I want to take.