Finding My People and Reclaiming Myself


Kayla Bruehlman (at a different camp where they do mud archery)

Have you ever thought about how incredible fiction writing is?  Strangers slap words down on paper about fake people struggling in a fake world against fake villains/problems/disasters and somehow make me care enough to weep when a character I adore is thrown to the lions.  It’s beautiful.  It’s why I set out to be a writer.  But if you’re a writer, you probably understand what a lonely existence it can be.

It’s a solitary endeavor few people understand.  I’ve been blessed to have supportive parents captivated with books, and to have friends who write a little.  Even so, I felt alone.  My parents might have an idea of the volatile impact writing has on a person from listening to me ramble excitedly about a new plot development in my novel, or despair over an flat scene on different occasions, but they couldn’t really help me.  I could bounce ideas off my mom, for which I am deeply grateful, but when it came to the actual craft, I needed more.  I needed someone who understood the mechanics of it, who knew the fierce joy of having written a beautiful scene, who experienced the crushing certainty that his or her writing was pathetic and the sheer delight when they realized it was not.  That it was a stunning gift to the world and worth doing.  I wanted to talk with people who enjoyed writing, who loved creating characters and imagining worlds, people whom I could relate with.  I wanted to know people who treated writing as a passion. 

I found that at Iowa.

I found people who cared as much as I did.  I made friends who loved nothing better than to sit over the surprisingly tasty meals offered in Burge and discuss literature, or plot problems.  I learned under brilliant instructors like Ashely Clarke and the hilarious director, Stephen Lovely. 

I’ll never forget my fiction class with Ashley.  I miss our circle of eleven desks where we discussed anything from the plausibility of John’s undead skeletons moving without muscle to the wild crazy theories I threw out that my class actually listened to.  I miss questing out into the artsy city on writing missions.  I miss proofing my classmates’ amazing stories and receiving feedback on my own.  There is nothing more thrilling than hearing people discuss your characters and world like they actually exist.  I had fun figuring out how to steal a taxidermied polar bear from the museum for a writing exercise (the stairs were an issue).  I miss making puppets and costumes for the ridiculous swede Margaret helped us make of The Wizard of Jaws.  I miss the silly and profound questions shoved in the Question Hole.  I miss the late night writing sessions and the inherent comradery of being in a roomful of writers.  These superb human-beings came from all walks of life, with different beliefs and experiences, but all of us were bound together by our passion to write. 

This camp didn’t only change my writing, it changed me.

When I was younger, my parents worried I’d be snatched someday because I would go up to strangers and confidently strike up a conversation with them about anything and would even walk away with them.  As I grew older, though, I slowly became more antisocial, began to question my self-worth and struggled with self-esteem issues.  I still do some days.  As a cause, social situations became awkward, uncomfortable things that made me feel like an idiot.  I hated it.  Understand, no one ever bullied me.  I’m gracious with others, but merciless with myself.

On the last night before we all had to depart, we had a prom themed:  “The Sorrows of Youth in the Context of Youthful Sorrows.” I usually hate dancing.  It’s only ever made me more aware of my inadequacies, but that night, I didn’t care.  I just danced.  And danced.  And had an amazing time.  Later, lying in awake in bed at two in the morning, it struck me how great I felt.  How radiant, how beautiful, how incredibly myself I felt.  It hit me then how comfortable I was with these people; I felt like an equal.  Finally what God has been trying to tell me for years got through to me:  I was special.  I had worth, I didn’t need man’s approval, only God’s.  I felt like I could do anything.     

I still do.  Iowa started the process of reclaiming me, from secret fears, from self-doubt, from the cage I had put myself in.  Of course I still struggle, but I’m stronger now.  More confident.  And it’s a magnificent feeling. 

I originally chose the Iowa Young Writer’s Studio because it was the closest to my home out of all the camps I found online.  If I could, I’d choose it again because the city was beautiful (think cobblestone, trees, and pianos in the street!), the program structured just enough to teach me, but loose enough to let my writing thrive, and the people beyond wonderful.    

It’s the people I miss the most.

This fall I’ll be starting senior year a different person.  And though I will be busy applying for scholarships, fighting senioritis, and rushing to finish my novel before I graduate, I’ll always remember.  The Studio might be done for me (though I still dream about it sometimes), but the impact it had isn’t.  Thank you, Iowa, for the incredible experience. 

Kayla M. Bruehlman is a rising senior at Argyle High School in Argyle, Wisconsin. She attended Session 1, 2015, of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.