The Pie Was a Final Draft: Homecoming

By Michaella Thornton

Last month, at age 45, I attended my first Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, and it was glorious. I sang karaoke two nights in a row with writers I love and admire (Salt-n-Pepa’s “None of Your Business” and Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer” for life), I broke bread with friends I first met on Twitter/X, I hung out with my college roommate and dear friend and her family, I attended incredible sessions and got lost in the book fair daily, and I remembered the inescapable magic of being surrounded by other creative people who understand what it takes, what it means, to write, and, if you’re lucky and hard-working, to publish that writing.

Kansas City is where I went to Winstead’s after prom to share a skyscraper shake with all of my other nerdy, beautiful girlfriends. In 1994, I was a sophomore in high school when Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s now iconic shuttlecocks were first placed on the lawn of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. My, how so many Kansas Citians first complained and balked at the whimsical, larger-than-life sculptures I instantly loved. Those who wrote “letters to the editor” in The Kansas City Star were livid. In fact, the first article of clothing I bought when I was pregnant with my daughter was a tan and orange shuttlecock onesie from the museum’s gift shop.

My girlhood is full of memories running up and down the hills of Swope Park for cross country, debating and mopping the floor against the boys of Rockhurst, and trick or treating in Ewing Kauffman’s wealthy neighborhood for the thrill of receiving full-size candy bars and a chance to see Bo Jackson be, well, Bo Jackson. When I was home from college, I interned for two summers at Kansas City Power & Light in the Worry-Free Department like some delightfully weird George Saunders’ short story.

While AWP is a conference many writers first attend in their 20s or 30s, such was not the case for me. I was too broke, too unsure of myself as a young writer to think I even belonged at such an event when I was in graduate school 20 years ago. Imposter syndrome didn’t even begin to cover it. Even though I was studying creative writing at a well-respected MFA program, I didn’t feel like I belonged at AWP. This was a prestigious networking milestone other writers and students attended—not someone like me.

I am the first woman in my family to earn a graduate degree and the second to earn an undergraduate degree (and I earned two undergrad degrees in four years because insecurity often fuels achievement). My mom was the first woman on both sides of my family to attend and complete college. I come from a long line of smart and stubborn women, and my education, my lot in life, is the result of their cumulative, hard-fought struggle.

As a writer, I think about this fact a lot. Poor or working-class kids aren’t often encouraged to pursue the arts. In fact, if we make it to college, we’re told to go into law, medicine, engineering, or business. We’re told to make money, to not waste our time with the arts.

And I understand why that is in this late-stage capitalist hellscape, but this often unspoken insistence that writing is something you do only if you’re wealthy or already established also makes me wonder about all of the other writers who may feel like they don’t belong, who struggle to be heard.

I think a lot about Sharon Olds’ poetic maxim: “I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.”

Why are some of us “late bloomers”? Could it be that we’re not late at all? That labeling another’s artistic journey as tardy is just another way to shame someone for not having the time, resources, or luxury to make art in the first place?

Could it be that we were attending to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? That those of us who show up to write later in life may have been working and caring for others? That we’ve seen some shit (illness, addiction, poverty, intergenerational trauma, and more).

Walking into the Kansas City Convention Center each day felt like the homecoming I didn’t know I needed. I was here, finally, walking past the journals I’ve been published in and the journals I aspire to be in. It felt beyond good to listen to writers whose words I had only heard in my head before now read their sentences and stanzas out loud, to feel their voices imbue their words with even more meaning and presence.

Writers can be insufferable and weird, sure. We all are to varying degrees. And yet there’s this beautiful, slick veneer on those who keep writing, who shrug off all of the reasons why they shouldn’t or couldn’t write and just keep doing it anyway.

And that’s what I needed to see and experience in person: The willpower and tenacity of those who are still at it, still seeking and writing and trying, no matter what.

Read Kella’s other work here at Reckon.

Michaella Thornton
Michaella Thornton

Michaella Thornton learned how to bake at the hips of her mother and her grandmother Anna Lee. A lifetime ago, she baked professionally before realizing baker’s hours require early mornings. Kella’s prose has been featured in Brevity, Essay Daily, Fractured Lit, Hobart After Dark, Reckon Review, New South, Southeast Review, among others, and her writing has been nominated for a James Beard award and Best of the Net. Many moons ago, Kella received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her daughter.

2 responses to “The Pie Was a Final Draft: Homecoming”

  1. You are a gifted teacher, too–now I know where all that extraordinary empathy with our complex and endlessly astounding community college students comes from. Thank you for writing this.