I felt underqualified to be there. People walked around in nice clothes while I wore a nice shirt and jean shorts. Over there, an established businessman talking to a professor. And over there, business cards being exchanged and collected into an impressive stack. I didn’t really have much to offer; I’m an undergraduate rising senior not in business, engineering, or medical school, but in International Studies and on top of that, hoping to be in a creative field, writing, to boot. So when I’d get swept into a conversation, they’d turn and ask who I was, then usually turn back to the conversation they left briefly to see if I was of any interest. Usually, not. Which didn’t really bother me as I knew, going in as an undergraduate with a creative bend, would be the result.
Still, to be among so many brilliant people was exhilarating. Just hearing a Mandela Washington Fellow explain their business or what brought them to Iowa City for the six week long program gave me new ideas to explore and a burst of energy and inspiration. I got to meet a radio host from Zimbabwe, a chef from Liberia, farmers from Benin, someone in the medical field from Angola. My world simply grew larger as I listened to them speak about their country and their profession. In short, I was in awe.
But then one time, after I brought out my French to some Francophone Africans, when someone asked me what I did and I responded (in short) that I liked to write about culture and identity, he asked me to send him some short stories.
I froze, not sure if I heard him correctly. I awkwardly chuckled, saying that I did more poetry than short stories and without missing a beat, he told me to send some poetry then, instead.
I have never been asked before to send my writing to anyone. I usually send my writing to friends or to apply for something. Never had a stranger been curious in the fact that I write things.
“What do you write about?”
My mind drew a complete and marvellous–blank. Again, a question I was not familiar with. I was more used to the conversation ending after I told someone that I wanted to be a writer. This was new territory for me and I was paralyzed.
But in a good way.
I spoke slowly, thinking as I mapped my way around, essentially, myself. I told him that I wrote from music sometimes and other times wrote about being Korean-American.
“Then send me that!” he said with a smile. But my mind was still in shock.
“I’m not used to someone being interested in what I do,” I said slowly, shaking my head, still trying to wrap my mind around a stranger from Equilateral Guinea who wanted to read my words.
“The thing is,” he said in a whisper, “that it is hard to write well so someone understands. Writing-it is what smart people do!” He grinned again, like it was a delicious secret.
Earlier today, I read something that explained why someone believed in poetry, because it demands that they feel alive. And then, things clicked into place. I wrote it down in my notebook, read it again. Let the words sink in, the words that I couldn’t piece together myself.
Little would I know that a stranger from the financial field believed in writing too.
I’m going to send him some of my writing tonight. I don’t even know what yet, but the sheer fact that he wants to read it gives me renewed energy. I don’t know if he knows the impact he had on simply asking and being genuinely curious is what I do.
Afterwards, he joked that whenever (not if) I published a book, that I would have to remember him. He gave me his business card and I said, of course I would. I would send him a copy, all the way to his homeland, with a letter.
When I published a book. Not if.
Dear reader, even writing that above statement unnerves me. The fact that a stranger had that much confidence in me without even reading a single thing I read was scary but also exciting. I don’t even know how to phrase it; in that moment, I saw my life spill in so many directions but I stopped myself before getting delirious on the possible. I had to graduate first. I have to apply for the Fulbright first, take the GRE.
But, dear reader, oh how lovely it felt to be believed in.