The first thing that hits you in Iowa City is the weather: a wall of heat that seems to come out of nowhere. The clouds in the sky give no indication of the humidity,
no way of knowing what would come. Sitting in the airport, waiting for a shuttle to take me to the University of Iowa, I really didn’t know what the next two weeks would be like. Before coming to the Studio, I felt stuck. The environment I’ve grown up in puts an emphasis on math and science, and tends to shun those who don’t excel in these fields. I listened to students ridicule English and the humanities, disregarding assignments as unimportant and unnecessary. I never told anyone that I write. When I got accepted to Iowa Young Writer’s Studio, I told two people. I spent the summer waiting, waiting to be somewhere where I could be creative, wanting to leave so that I could write without the fear of being judged. I arrived at Burge Hall, with only three hours of sleep, and prepared (to the best of ability) to meet my home for the next two weeks.
As clichéd as it sounds, Andy Axel was not someone I could have prepared for. A poet by trade, Andy’s classes revolved around getting out of your own head. Writing didn’t have to be serious or have meaning, Andy said, it should be fun and exciting. For me, a nonfiction writer whose main goal was to express an idea, this came as a shock. I had always thought that the main goal of my essays was for others to view it and understand its meaning. But Andy had different ideas. One of our assignments was to just write in gibberish, another one revolved around finding internet comments and creating them into some form of poetry. These pieces didn’t have to be understood, or accepted by a larger audience. They were for you. Andy’s lazy personality and love for poetry was infectious. In this classroom, where the desks were arranged in a circle and we would frequently go off track, I met writers. Teenagers with the same passion as me, who wanted to discuss literature for fun, not because they had to. Everyone wrote differently; the three poets all had a style—prose, structured, and free verse—while the playwright attempted to channel David Mamet, and the fiction writers wrote about new worlds and familiar suburban ones. My classmates were eager to learn and share ideas, everyone’s love for art came out in different ways, and I felt like I had a place among people who didn’t disregard art, but created it.
On my last day at the Studio, I was sitting with one of my friends. We were talking about a book Andy had giving to me, a collection of personal essays by Charles D’Ambrosio. I made an offhand joke that no one could call me an essayist, because I wasn’t a good writer. My friend got mad, said that I couldn’t say that after two weeks at a writing camp. At that moment, I realized how much I didn’t want to leave this community of writers. These were the people that constantly encouraged me, it was the first time someone hadn’t just nodded at my self hate. At the Studio, I had long talks about the styles of writing, books, and the future. Here was a place where I could share my poetry (something that I never admitted to write), I could talk about writing openly, share unfinished works without being judged. I had discussions about everything, from the correct pronunciation of words to death, and I could call myself a writer and not be ashamed of that fact. I was just me. I was me.
When I got back from the Studio, I felt lost. I started crying in the airport. Walked up to my father with tears in my eyes. He asked me what was wrong and I couldn’t tell him. That for the first time in my life, I was confused about what I wanted to be. Who I was. In Iowa, I was me, but back home, I didn’t know who I was anymore. I wanted to go back, to have more time with friends I might never see again. I wanted to be in a class that could make meaning out of nothing, around writers who would spend all night transcribing a friend’s words just so that they could show him that he was loved. In a town where people sing for fun. The Studio never asked me to learn, or to find meaning in anything, or to attempt to come out of this experience enlightened. I’m not sure if I did learn anything. But the experience, the community and the memories I now have made me realize that I have lost something by coming back home.
Mansee Khurana is a rising junior at Dougherty Valley High School in San Ramon, CA. She attended session 2, 2016 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.