Hello from the seventh floor of the Iowa City Sheraton. It is wonderful to see Iowa City from this height: the downtown ped mall, an enclosed footbridge between two buildings, the new hotel next door, the clock tower atop the building where The Cottage used to be. Trees and trees and more trees, not the legendary flatness you see between here and the airport. I think my experience in the Workshop would have been different if I'd had this perspective. The way I got my distance was to drive to Coralville, or to the malls in Cedar Rapids, or the Amana Colonies, but that's not quite the same thing. Right now, I am here, but I also have a wider view. I like that.
On Friday, before I headed over to register for the conference, I had to dash over to Old Capitol Center to buy all the contact lens solutions I didn't have time to buy before I left. I had the strange sensation of nothing having changed in twenty years. Same smells, same black and yellow on the sports fans, same points of interest: The Brown Bottle, Givanni's, Technographics, Active Endeavors, Hawkeye Barbers, Prairie Lights, Iowa Book and Supply. Of course there are surface changes: The fancy hotel next door, the fancy food market on its first floor with sushi and fresh-squeezed juice and expensive wine and expensive cheese. But it's still the Iowa City of memory, and it took me a little while to ease into it. I felt the inexplicably silly I get when I'm nervous. I thought my friend Katrina should have been here with me, and we should have been walking up the sidewalks arm in arm, laughing over stupid things, obsessing about Jorie Graham, looking for people to talk to.
The panel went well yesterday. The room was too big and wide--imagine 30 or so audience members scattered over as many tables--but we made the best of that vastness, and Barrie Jean Borich (our moderator), Rigoberto Gonzales, Ira Sukrungruang, and I talked around the theme of wildness for a good hour. (I also got to be Cheryl Strayed, or at least I got to read her remarks, as Cheryl and Lidia Yuknavitch couldn't make it due to not feeling well.) I read a brand new piece, "The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey," finished forty minutes before our scheduled time, a piece that owes a thing or two to Stephen Elliott and Cheryl herself. A little wilder me, maybe closer in spirit to parts of Lawnboy than to the world of Famous Builder, but it was good to revisit that part of me again.
Good, too, to see my classmate and old friend, Chris Offutt. I went to a reading of his on the top floor of the Englert Theater. He'd been reading for ten minutes. He looked up, stopped, and said, Paul? And I said, Hi Chris. And then he read some more. Afterward, we went over to the Mill. We were both a little nervous about going to the Mill, as that was the site of gossip post-Workshop. A lot happened in that bar, a lot of history, though it seems self-important to say that. Still the same cedar-paneled walls, still the same booths, but much, much smaller than it was in memory. I hung out with some current people in the Workshop. I drank a shot of something they'd offered, and in a little while I remembered that simultaneous sense of belief and a terrible, terrible wanting, as if you didn't get that fellowship or if you didn't get that agent you were Failure incarnate. I felt like I was them, and the person I'd wanted to be back then, and walking back to the Sheraton, I welled up, mostly happy, mostly with emotions too difficult to parcel out.