Bios and Belonging

– Recently returned from three months in Marseille, Sarah is an assistant editor for Afar magazine, an avid traveler and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Huffington Post, Food & Wine, and The Paris Review.

– Kristi is an amateur chef and professional writer. She’s written guide books and cook books based largely on the three years she spent back-packing through Europe and is currently working on the third in her trilogy of travel memoirs.

– In 2012 Rachel was named one of America’s most promising essayists. Her world-famous blog, “Eat Me,” has won her the eyes and hearts of the nation at large. She is was a writer-in-residence at the University of California Berkeley where she is pursuing a PhD in eco-friendly journalism.*

Monday evening I went to a reading series featuring Bay Area travel writers. The bronze-gilded salon of the Hotel Rex was dimly lit and crowded with young professionals and seasoned writers, standing, sitting, lounging and laughing over generous glasses of merlot and flutes of champagne. I entered the room. I knew no one. I surveyed the suite for a place to land. My face flushed pink by the heat of the room and the warmth of my turtleneck sweater. There was an unclaimed chair in the back corner. I draped it with my red pea coat and pulled out my journal. I pretended to write something terribly profound (or at least mildly interesting), struggling with the desires to be seen and to disappear.

A short woman with dark curly hair boldly wove her way through the tables and bodies. She carried a gold-covered bucket into which people were tossing small scraps of paper. “Business card?” she called to me over the din of the crowd. “I don’t have one on me,” I stammered, as if I’d left them in my other handbag–the one I took to last weekend’s cocktail party. “If you have an extra sheet of paper you can just put down your name and e-mail address,” she said, nodding at my journal and walking away. I ripped out a sheet and scribbled down my information, making a mental note to come up with a business card. And maybe an occupation to go with it.

I fidgeted in my chair, my eyes darting from the single young woman thumbing through her phone as she nursed a full glass of wine, to the tall blonde woman in the pink lace blouse, to the silver-haired man in black slacks and a jacket, to the curly-haired bucket lady, and then to the bar in the back of the room. The row of empty glasses twinkled, taunting me.

I never buy myself drinks at these sorts of things. It’s enough that I paid to ride into the city. I could probably buy a whole bottle of wine at Trader Joe’s for the price of a glass at the Rex. But these were real writers. And I wanted to be a real writer. Maybe if I started by acting the part.

I left my coat on the chair and shuffled toward the bar. The crowd began sitting and the room grew quiet. The girl serving drinks left the table to check the main bar for another bottle of Pinot. I made awkward eye contact with the dark-haired woman standing in front of me. She passed her eyes from a half-filled glass of wine on the table to the handful of dollar bills between her fingers. The emcee took the microphone and began to prattle on about the tight-knit community of the world’s greatest travelers. The drink girl returned, sans bottle of Pinot. The dark-haired woman sighed, settled for Chardonnay and moved through the room.

The drink girl looked at me. “How much is a glass of wine?” I whispered. “Six dollars,” she said. I opened my wallet and counted the bills. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I only have five.” She looked sympathetic. “They take cards at the main bar,” she said. “No, that’s alright.” I headed back to my seat. I shouldn’t have tried.

The emcee introduced the first speaker of the evening, running through a stream of awards and publications, accolades that stroke a writer’s tender ego. That night I heard readings from three writers, all of whom have traveled and published more in the past several years than I probably will in the next three decades. I’m not being pessimistic. I’m just being honest. Travel requires money and publishing requires connections, neither of which I have, but both of which I could maybe possibly attain someday if everything goes well and stars of my career as a travel writer align. If my life doesn’t take another sharp turn, throwing me from the vehicle of predictability and spiraling me into a new city, a new community, a new destiny. But I’m sort of getting used to the sharp turns by this point. In fact, I almost expect them.

Much as I enjoy listening to and discovering new writers, (and much as I’d really like to be one myself), there’s something about those introductions, those bios and profiles and long lists of accomplishments that really just get at me. The awards, the adventures, the experiences that people only chance to come upon. It’s all a bit much for an undirected newbie who isn’t even sure what she aspires to be. And maybe that’s really the problem–not that they have what I want, but that I’m not so sure that I want it anymore.

About 15 months ago (around the time I was turning in MFA applications) I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted. Of how I ought to be introduced when I was the featured speaker at one of these events.
An insightful observer and deep-hearted spirit, Amanda Carroll (that’s the pen name that I picked because it’s way easier to spell and pronounce, but that I haven’t been using it because I haven’t really written) is a published writer and freelance editor. She has won an arbitrary number of somewhat important recognitions and frequently speaks in schools and at conferences across the country. Amanda’s first book, Paris When It Fizzles, tells the heart-wrenching tale of the spring she spent teaching English and living outside of Paris. In her free time Amanda teaches English to refugees, reads books beside the pool and attempts to master the art of French cooking. Or something like that. It was a work in progress.

It’s a little idealistic. It’s a little ridiculous, but at least it was a start when it came to laying out the career that I was pretty sure I wanted. Here’s the thing though, in the months that passed between my application deadlines and the arrival of my acceptance/rejection letters, an awful lot of things changed in my life. And even more changed in the months that passed between my decision to move to California and the start of my program. Now, a quarter of the way through my MFA, my real hopes for my future (the deep-seated secrets I sometimes whisper to myself at night), hardly resemble my hypothetical bio. They hardly resemble anything I would have expected from myself a year ago. But they are harder to attain. Impossible on my own.

As I sat in the salon of the Hotel Rex, playing with my purse straps and speculating on the lives of the people around me, I wondered again how much I wanted to belong. I wondered if there’d be a night when I would stand and make small talk. If I would feel that I was on the inside of the circle. If there would be a time that I’d be on the other side of the podium even. I wondered if I wanted that, or if I wanted it enough.

When the reading was over I stood and put on my coat. My eyes scanned the room, busy once again with a scuttle of writers, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, and flashing their little business cards. I walked out of the hotel and onto the streets of San Francisco. When I got back to Oakland, I entered my apartment, cool with the darkness of evening, poured a glass of wine, and sat down to a blank piece of paper.

*All of the above are fabricated bios of hypothetical people, none of whom should be hypothetically hated on just because they do hypothetically awesome things.