I remember the point in my life when I started taking myself seriously as a writer. Back when I was in high school, I was in a Barnes & Noble bookstore with my mom one afternoon when I spotted a poster advertising a writing contest for young writers. Poetry was allowed, so I dusted off one of my least angsty-teenager poems and sent it off. And I actually won!
As the recipient of the first ever Willamette Writers Young Writer Award (currently known as the Students Grades 9-12 category of the Kay Snow Writing Awards), I attended the annual Willamette Writers Conference for free. My parents dropped me off at the hotel near the Portland Airport, and I approached the registration table timidly, all too aware of the fact that I was by far the youngest person present.
But soon enough I felt right at home. I got my own name badge! And a folder where I could collect all manner of workshop handouts! I chatted with a woman who was writing a book about androids. And a college student (the attendee closest to me in age that I saw) recommended that I read Fahrenheit 451. I learned about character development and endings. Author Steve Perry, from my hometown of Beaverton, cracked me up with the anecdotes he told in his workshop about speculative fiction. I participated in writing exercises and felt the rush of inspiration under pressure.
I was a writer.
I still have that folder and the handouts. I can see where I had scrawled Fahrenheit 451 on a corner of the conference program. Yes, I think I even still have my name badge. Attending that event was a milestone for me because it marked the first time I realized what a vast community of writers there was out there and how natural it felt for me to be among them. These were my people. They were curious and observant, encouraging and passionate. Mr. Perry’s workshop in particular struck me because it was where I first got the idea to focus on speculative fiction. I had always loved reading those subgenres, it just hadn’t occurred to me until then to take them on myself and devote my creativity to them.
Of course, there is no writerly life without the writing; attending conferences and workshops feeds part of the soul, but it is not the same as regularly committing words to the page and creating new worlds to be shared. But I remain convinced that I would not be the writer I am today had I not been lucky enough to attend that conference. It was a jolt, and quite frankly I still get a little giddy whenever I attend a writing event (such as Westercon, which I will be attending next weekend!). And all from one little poem, and a serendipitous trip to a bookstore.