Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to present a paper I wrote at the Streamlines Undergraduate Language and Literature Conference in Dubuque, Iowa. The conference took place on Saturday, November 5th, though for me it began weeks earlier with the nerve-wracking process of submitting my paper. I stand by my opinion that nothing — not even presenting — compares to the anxiety of the submission process. The whole thing consists of sending off what I truly believe to be my best work to someone I don’t know, so that it can be judged against standards I haven’t been acquainted with. That’s enough to make most people question whether or not their paper is good enough in the first place, and believe me, I am most people.
Nothing in that moment seems to reassure me that something I wrote could, in fact, be good enough to be presented, published, or otherwise recognized as real writing. Chalk it up to me being a young writer without many rejections to roughen me up, or to being too shy about sharing my work, or whatever else you want. I suspect that at any age or stage of writing, reassurance about the quality of one’s work isn’t what a writer needs. It’s probably more important to cultivate an air of indifference toward judgement out of genuine affection for your work. That, or to have the voices of feminist writers like Dunham, Gay, and Kaling whispering in your ear, telling you to smash that submit button with confidence (I fell back on this latter option).
Fast forward to November 5th. I had made it through the submission process, and my paper, “Notes on Emptiness,” had been accepted to the Streamlines Conference. I had edited, practiced, and practiced some more. The final draft was mixture of literary analysis of the book Madame Bovary, personal memoir, philosophical musings, and quotes on emptiness from literature. Because it’s such a thorough mix of styles and concepts, I would have been surprised no matter which category they put me into. I ended up on the creative non-fiction panel along with four other students from schools across the Midwest, feeling like I was going to crush it with an unconventional nonfiction paper.
The presentation itself was exhilarating. As I explained my paper and started reading, I had the thrilling feeling that my audience was hooked. They laughed when I wanted them to laugh, shifted in their chairs and chuckled uncomfortably when I expected them to feel awkward, and nodded along as I drove home my argument. It was a rare opportunity to see people react to my writing in real time. I loved every minute of it, feeling like I possessed a superpower to control people’s emotions, simply by sitting at the front of a room and speaking.
I also got to listen to the papers of the other four people on my presentation panel. Dr. Miller once said to my Writing Poetry class last spring that you should always go to readings because you’ll either leave filled with admiration and a desire to write as well as them, or with the impression that it wasn’t that great and you can do better than them, and either way you’ll want to go home and write. I don’t think I need to clarify that I experienced the former reaction upon hearing the papers of other students. Not only did I leave feeling energized and excited about writing, I felt honored to be included in a group of such excellent writers.
The question and answer session at the end of my reading rivaled the actual presentation for my favorite part of the day. Both students and professors, genuinely curious to know more about my writing, asked thoughtful questions about my themes, processes, and drives. Discussing my own work is something that I’ve had little experience with, and it was a treat to be able to talk about it and hone those skills I rarely get the opportunity to practice.
No other experience has validated my work more than this presentation. I left the conference feeling like a legitimate writer, and had the whole four and a half hour drive home from Dubuque to contemplate the experiences that will bring me to my next destination as a writer.
Hayley Graffunder is a junior with a double major in Linguistics and English with a creative writing emphasis. She looks forward to studying abroad in Scotland this spring at the University of Edinburgh and will be writing for Arcadia University as a student blogger while she is away.