There’s this funny thing about expanding your safety zone, about leaning into discomfort, about taking a plane halfway across the country (two-hour layover) for a few weeks with a group of guitar-strumming, quill-toting, insomniac huggers: every expectation will be challenged.
What did I expect?
God, I was terrified of Stephen Lovely. Such a fine name had to be ironic, right? He must be dour. Straight-laced, trolling the halls for miscreants, and with a taste for the blood of young writers. For the record, Stephen could not be more aptly named, and he even manages to field about twenty “lovely” jokes a day with aplomb (what more can you ask of a person?). He will make you laugh. This is a man who could make an obituary sound like a comic strip. Seriously. He’s hip and happening. And I swear he didn’t write a word of that.
I expected a strict schedule, a rigorous, exhausting curriculum. And in a way, I found that. What I’ve experienced of the IYWS is not so much an overpowering workload, but rather an intense emotional and intellectual stimulation. Your teachers will push you, but ultimately your decisions about what to make of your experience are yours—you’re not graded or anything. But the thing is, in this community, I’ve never met a person who didn’t want to write or read or talk about reading and writing, because ultimately, we are all here to get better. The only sense of overpowering, per se, is that there is so much opportunity—every moment, really, you could be dissecting a poem or running around Iowa City or going to book readings or getting lost in the basement with your friends or writing under a tree—that you never want to pause. I suspect I’ll collapse the moment I get home, and break my long-held record of 16 hours of sleep at a time, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
As for the strict schedule, the structure of the program is really excellent in that it recognizes two perhaps unlikely teachers, in addition to the traditional workshop and seminar: your peers, and Iowa City. We are given ample free time to forge friendships, to explore the city, and to write. I count a backpacker, a stand-up comic, and a singer among the friends I’ve made here, and I guess those descriptors don’t really get at the heart of what makes the people here so truly special: openess. We’re all away from home, but having a common love unites us, and makes us willing to embrace the unfamiliar. That’s not to say I had twenty best friends in the first five minutes, or anything. There was the requisite first night of homesickness, the question of where to sit in a crowded lunch room, the intense awkwardness of trying to befriend people in such a short span of time. But with a week of camp under my belt, I think I can safely say I’ve never made such good friends so quickly.
Iowa City is a magical place where the bookstores are labyrinths that each seem to have resident cats. Need I say more?
I definitely didn’t expect the pie shakes, a treat unique to Iowa City’s Hamburg Inn No. 2, and a rite of passage for budding writers. Literally a milkshake made of a slice of pie. Students have been known to rhapsodize about the nature of perfection after tasting it. Comparisons to ambrosia are apt. In short, a deliciousness you must try at least once, although, honestly, who stops at one?
I didn’t expect the huge ants. The things look like they’re on steroids. Easily avoided though, unless you belong to the particular breed of person who chooses to lie spread-eagled on a field of grass, as I most certainly do.
I didn’t expect the weather. Pack shorts, sunscreen, and an umbrella.
I had no idea what do expect from the individual workshops and teachers. I’m in the poetry workshop, with the estimable Mr. David Gorin, a trickster sent to earth by the woodsy gods of Poetry. He has beautiful words. The mornings of the class are spent in Seminar, where we discuss poetry in levels and layers that are so head-turning I suspect that once I’ve recovered I’ll see the world in a different color. David is a masterful shepherd, but the class couldn’t work if it weren’t for the individual perspectives and geniuses of my classmates, whom I thank deeply (because I’m sure they’re all carefully reading and annotating this blog post). In the afternoons we workshop pieces, and I rather expected to be hurt by criticism. The thing is, though, what this experience has taught me is that in the ideal workshop, every person in the room has the solitary intent of making a piece say what it wants to say in the most delicious way possible. That was this case with my class. I never felt the need to worry that criticism of my work was an indictment of my ability. Basically, I loved it.
So, in summation, if you’ve managed to slog through this whole post:
You have a passion. A gift. The Iowa Young Writers’ Studio is one way—a glorious, mind-blowing, intense way—to develop it, and in deciding whether to come here, I urge you to be guided not by expectations or fear, but by your love.
Julia Salseda is a rising high school junior from South Pasadena, California. She is attending Session 1 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.