“A subtle, humble paradise.”

lasky photo

Natasha Lasky (right) and IYWS pal Siqi Liu

On the last day of school, the air stinging with the smell of sharpies used for yearbook signing, crowds of students passing by with sunglasses and towels on the way to first-day-of-summer pool parties, a friend casually asked me what I was going to do over the summer.

“I’m going to Iowa for a couple of weeks for a writing camp,” I told her.

She paused scribbling “HAGS” on a yearbook page, to look up at me, perplexed.

“Iowa? I guess that could be fun,” she concluded.

This was the reaction I got, time after time. “Why Iowa?” “Where even is Iowa?” “I’m sure you’ll be eating a lot of corn!” Some misheard me and thought I said riding camp, but their excitement quickly faded into pity once I explained to them that I would not be engaging in equestrian adventures, instead I would be sitting at my computer in a dark room for hours, typing.

Iowa.  I had heard such wonderful things about IYWS, and some of my favorite writers had been to the graduate program: Sandra Cisneros, Curtis Sittenfeld, Jennifer Haigh. But after flying over corn field after corn field, I started to feel a black hole in my stomach. What was this Iowa City, filled with Dairy Queens, “hawkeyes”, and barbecued pork?

I had to remind myself that I came here to be plunged into the world of writing and reading, but even that idea frightened me. I used to be the kid who would carry a stack of picture books down the stairs to read while I ate dinner, the kid who would write 40-page stories about the magical land where socks went when they were missing from the laundry, the kid whose favorite conversation topic was my favorite and least favorite words, but that had all been systematically crushed under alternating layers of SAT prep and chemistry homework. I hadn’t written in a long time, and I feared it would show.

But as I entered Burge Hall for the first time, the thing that struck me was this aura of enthusiasm. Joy, even.  The counselors I met seemed so excited, even to hand me a shirt and lead me through the labyrinthine hallways to my dorm, and I started to feel like this was a place I could stay.

That atmosphere of joy remained for the entire two weeks. A love for writing and reading was palpable, so much so that it permeated every experience, no matter how small.  When I overheard a camper say, “I’m working on my third novel. It’s about vampires, but not the Twilight kind,” while grabbing a slice of pizza from the dining hall, I could feel myself grinning, with the knowledge that someone my age had written not one, but three books. When my amazing fiction teacher Madeline McDonell talked about the beauty of words and language as if she was talking about her best friend, and the incredible possibilities of third person POV as if it were the cure for cancer, I felt that awe and inspiration too.

I sang bohemian rhapsody with the rest of the camp for karaoke. I talked to a published author about the inherent superiority of waffles to all other breakfast food. I went swimming in the lake, bowling, to Dairy Queen (twice), to as many readings as I could possibly go to.

The city I had once feared had become this place of refuge, a subtle, humble paradise. A place with more than one independent bookstore within walking distance, with pie shakes and cupcake shops and grassy places to go and sit.  I went to Prairie Lights for some tea and coffee cake, and returned with a stack of books so big I could hardly carry it. I bonded with people talking about weird words like “aepyornis”, and these people would became some of my closest friends.  This unfettered self that loves writing and language endlessly and unconditionally, this childhood self that I had lost under the pressures of high school was coaxed out by the teachers and writers of Iowa City, and I realized how much I’d missed her.

When it was finally time to leave Iowa, my flight home was abruptly cancelled, and I had to spend an extra night in the dorms.

“That sucks!” that same friend from home told me that evening over the phone. “An extra night in Iowa, I bet you’re dying to come home.”

“Not really,” I told her, looking out the window of my dorm, at the sun disappearing behind the golden dome of the Old Capitol Building. “It feels like home.”

–Natasha Lasky is a rising junior at the Menlo School in Atherton, California. She attended session 1 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and enjoyed it so much that she came back to stay an extra night.