As of now, I’ve finished revising a story I began writing at Iowa. That was a month ago. One whole month. But that’s not all. It was the only story I had written during the summer. Three whole months and only one story to show for it. Whenever people asked what I had written during the summer, I assumed they thought I had written a 300-page novel. Well, maybe I’m making an ass out of you and me. Again.
To be honest, I didn’t write anything after Iowa. I had Empty Nest Syndrome in a way (I think that’s what I had). After I left Iowa, my writing life had no purpose. I even used Junot Díaz as a scapegoat. A few people at Iowa said that my work reminded them of his. I took it an extra step further by telling myself that I should stop writing, that I had no story to tell because Díaz had already done better than I ever would. But through a good friend, I realized that I would never be Díaz and that Díaz would never be me. Later, I realized that I was making excuses because I was afraid. I was afraid of everything that dealt with writing. I was afraid of what would happen to me and I stopped blaming Díaz.
Anyways, my first step was admitting that I had a problem. The other steps were to just keep on reading, writing, and editing. I did that by fixing the story from Iowa. And let me tell me, it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever written. Well, everything I write is always better, in some way, than what I’ve written previously. My writing is like bricks for a building. I keep putting brick upon brick, and with each brick the building goes higher and higher. I still have a lot more bricks to pile on my building if I want it to reach the sky. I know that metaphor is a corny, but I’m a corny person.
Now, I’m not trying to write an advertisement for Iowa, but Iowa made me a better writer. I’m not a perfect writer. No one is (well, maybe Shakespeare but that’s up for debate). But Iowa made me know my strengths and weaknesses. I need to improve my weaknesses and keep going strong on my strengths. So kudos to you Iowa.
I have a love-hate relationship with writing. Writing will always cause me misery, but I’ll always love it. Stupid me.
—Leonel Martinez in an 11th grader at All Hallows High School in South Bronx, NY. He attended Session 2, 2014 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.
This past summer, during Session 2 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, a group of students recorded oral histories, original works of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, and category-defying acts of weirdness and whimsy—including a radio play, The History of the Gazebo—at KRUI, the University of Iowa’s student radio station. You can now listen to the entire broadcast! Huge thanks to the good folks at KRUI for allowing us to record in their studio, and to the polymathic Liz Weiss for hosting and producing.
Part 1, in which, among other adventures, a girl reckons with a Halal meat market in her Brooklyn neighborhood, a boy eludes the Paris police, a mother knocks a raccoon out with an apple, a woken sleeper meditates through an early morning Iowa thunderstorm, and a boy is teased for buying fake Yu-Gi-Oh! cards.
Part 2, in which a girl ingests a woman’s hair, a boy conceals his creepy Nicholas Cage blanket, children listen to their heartbeats “in seashells cracked by creatures who were no longer there,” a woman prays over a drainage ditch at noon, and Christopher Walken drops by to philosophize.
I had a lot of anxieties before coming to the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. I was afraid of being the worst and least experienced writer in my workshop. I was scared my roommate was going to be a nutcase, because I’ve had nutcase experience, but I was mostly afraid that I wasn’t going to make friends, because I’m not an outgoing person. None of these things turned out to be true. I don’t think I’ve ever known a more intelligent, sensitive, well-read and incredibly talented group of people than in the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. These people were writers, just like me, and I couldn’t have felt more safe and at home.
When I first arrived at the studio, I was greeted warmly by the lovely writer Stephen Lovely, the director of the program, and the poet Margaret Reges, who wore the coolest cat eyed rhinestone-embellished glasses I ever saw. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be placed in Jamel Brinkley’s workshop. He was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. He was real, honest, funny, never disparaging of anyone’s work, and his advice was unbiased and truthful. I’ve never had so much fun reviewing and discussing other people’s work, or having my own work critiqued in his class. I loved the other students in the workshop—they helped me see things in my work and others’ that I wouldn’t have noticed on my own, and I really felt we grew together as a class. One of the most refreshing aspects of the class was that the atmosphere was never competitive—we were all supportive and encouraging with each other.
I loved being outside of class as much as I loved being inside; the readings, the karaoke, the talent shows, the trip to the cemetery, eating the same thing everyday, sometimes just relaxing and writing in the lounge with friends. I never felt overworked or stressed—or if I ever was, I was vaguely happy to be stressed about writing, something I love. I can’t think of a single piece of literature we had to read that wasn’t brilliant. While I panicked quite a bit when we had to write a 10-page story over the weekend, I actually had a lot of fun panicking, especially with other people. I loved the program, and I can definitely say I would have stayed and enjoyed two more weeks there.
— Willa Cuthrell-Tuttleman is a rising junior at Friends Seminary in New York City. She attended Session 2 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio this past summer.
The young people have fallen in love with irony. I know it may sound curmudgeonly to diagnose an entire generation with an affliction that obviously not all its members share, and frankly, it is. Sue me. It’s been my experience that an ironic sensibility pervades the air we breathe. We give voice to it when we make sarcastic jokes, when we do things ironically to save face, and when we belittle our friends and peers for trying too hard and being too enthusiastic. I don’t pretend not to be part of the problem; the fact is, I once ironically bought a notebook on whose front cover was plastered a life-size puppy (I have since decided that it’s less ironic than adorable).
This is the culture I was escaping when I boarded my first solo flight ever, from New York City to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I was expecting the Young Writers’ Studio to be a rewarding program populated by people as deeply into writing as I am. I was not, however, expecting it to be particularly different from my school, which has plenty of writers who do things sarcastically and make sure you know it.
I was egregiously, massively wrong. Arriving at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio that first day, I felt the closest I have ever come to culture shock. During my two weeks in Iowa, I was overwhelmed by something I didn’t even realize was missing from my life: sincerity. It blew me away how sincerely everyone was fascinated by literature and art and whatever else they chose, and didn’t try to mask it in layers of fakery. I was surrounded by scenes of genuine passion: my friend Oliver Hermann reading rapturously aloud from All the Pretty Horses in Prairie Lights, my wonderful teacher Liz Weiss telling our class about her devotion to puppets, frequent cries of “Yeah, that story was dope” at three in the morning in my overpopulated room. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio changed the way I read and write because its amazing students and teachers know what it is to be unabashedly in love with fiction and poetry and everything else, and they understand why other people are as well. My friends at the Studio have already learned the most important lesson for our generation, going forward: the best way to murder irony is empathy, and the best way to nurture empathy is writing.
— Milo Davidson left his glasses at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, Session 2, 2o14. He’s a rising senior at Hunter College High School in New York City.
IYWS and Amy Butcher almost ruined my journalism career before it even began. I had just graduated high school, and would be going to Columbia, Missouri in the fall. I had declared a major in journalism. I was pretty sure I would be the best writer Columbia had ever seen. I signed up for creative writing with Amy Butcher, which included fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. I was good at fiction, bad at poetry, and I didn’t know anything about creative nonfiction. I think I picked the class at random.
Over two weeks I discovered that I loved creative nonfiction. I love taking real people’s stories and real facts, and placing them within a narrative. I learned that I love long form nonfiction, and that I love editing. Those loves relate to magazine journalism and editing. I figured that I could use everything I had learned in creative nonfiction, and win a Pulitzer.
So I came to Columbia and wrote my first journalism article for the student paper. I interviewed people, got good quotes, and remembered to ask my sources to spell their names. I didn’t have a recorder, so I wrote it all down in a notebook. I had a great time.
I wrote my story, using all of my new techniques from Iowa to create a great, engaging story. Then I sat down with my editor, and she looked at my beautiful, clean copy, and asked, “Did they really say this?”
I said, “Ummmm…. I think so.”
The truth was, I had no idea. “It was the gist of what they said.”
While that may cut it in fiction, and possibly creative nonfiction, misquoting what people ‘might have said’ is illegal as a journalist. My story got cut down to a few bland quotes that I knew were accurate.
What does that have to do with IYWS? When I showed up at Iowa City I didn’t know a thing about creative writing, or creative nonfiction. In two weeks, Amy Butcher taught me what was allowed, and not allowed, in the genre. I learned the rules and I began to write. IYWS taught me, in essence, how to learn to write. It taught me how to learn new genres and forms of writing that are strange and alien.
After misquoting my sources, and having my byline next to a boring article, I had to learn how to truly write journalism, and how to accurately quote sources. IYWS gave me the tools to start that process. IYWS not only taught me a lot about my creative writing, but gave me the tools to learn journalistic writing for my career. I’m thankful for that assistance, and I’ll keep on learning, and I’ll keep on writing.
— Ruth Serven attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio this past summer. She is a 2013 graduate of Veritas Classical Academy in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She now studies journalism at The University of Missouri, Columbia.
A couple weeks back, I lay in a twin bed, unable to sleep. My mind raced with the things I’d learned that day at camp. Have I articulated what my main character wants? Is my prose bogged down with too many subject—verb—subject complement sentences? If I told my story backward would I figure out a way to approach the ending? I lay there, wanting to turn on the light and dig into my work, but I couldn’t wake my roommate. Besides, morning would bring another full day at the Baltimore Writer’s Studio, and as its Director, I’d better be awake. But before I fell asleep, I thought back to the first time I’d felt like this. I was seventeen, and I lay awake in strange dorm room, my mind alive from the first day of classes at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.
People repeatedly call me crazy for loading a bus with Baltimore teens and taking them out the woods of western Maryland for a week-long creative writing camp. But to me, an ‘03 and ‘04 alum of IYWS, it’s the most natural thing in the world. Of course there are kids who want to leave civilization and study with a community of writers. Of course they’ll still focus in hour six of workshops. Of course they’ll spend their free time working on their novel. As a teenager at IYWS, these were my people. Now, I’m lucky to spend my professional life bringing a similar experience to kids who might otherwise not have it readily available. I direct Writers in Baltimore Schools (WBS), a program that provides low-income school students with a vibrant environment for literary development through in-school and after-school writing workshops, and two years in, our sleepaway writing camp has become our flagship program. I think that’s because there’s nothing comparable to giving young writers time, space, and community, be it in the woods of Maryland or small town Iowa.
IYWS marked a turning point in my understanding of the study of writing. As an extrovert born into a big, loud family, sitting alone in a room is often torture. Unfortunately, to get writing done, this must happen. But IYWS introduced me to the concept of a community of writers: people who are in it together, all striving to hone their craft, yet giving each other the necessary space to get work done. Writing will always be a communal activity for me, and I have IYWS to thank for that. A favorite step of my writing process will always be handing over a draft to a trusted reader and then sitting down to discuss what needs to happen in the piece. For me, that’s truly when the story comes alive. There your friend is, sitting and talking about your character as if he/she’s a real person. It’s exhilarating. At IYWS, those conversations marked the landscape of Iowa City: in the cafeteria, at Prairie Lights, strolling through the city cemetery, and on the dorm roof (was that allowed?).
In creating the Baltimore Writer’s Studio, I sought to replicate this community of writers. WBS uses its in-school programs to identify young writers who could benefit from an intensive week of writing workshops. These kids often come from Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods; many attend schools where 96% of the students receive free and reduced meals. When I asked one kid how he’d learned to write such fantastic sentences, he told me it’s because he listens. He stands on his street corner and listens to the dealers and junkies tell stories. He’s twelve, understands why he doesn’t want to get involved, but will take what he can: their sense of storytelling. We hold our campers to the highest standards. At the end of five days, they will have produced a “core story,” another shorter, prompt-driven story, and a few pieces of poetry. The bulk of the Studio is organized around production of the “core story,” thanks to a curriculum developed by Teach for America alum Will Wheeler. Early in the week, students develop their main character and shortly thereafter, decide what their character will do or face—the basic stuff of story. As writers ourselves, who also struggle to finish work, we wanted to challenge students to write a complete short story in week. And that they did. In the last hours of camp, several students met me beaming: “Miss Patrice, that’s the first story I ever finished!” As someone with a Word graveyard of story beginnings, I congratulated them as if they’d solved a deep mystery of the universe. Because to me, they had.
Being on the grownup end of things, you often miss what happens outside the formal schedule of camp: the romances, the spats, the existential crises (and thank goodness). That’s where my memories of IYWS come in and help me understand that our Studio provides the kids with something beyond the classroom outputs. I recently turned to my teenage journal to see what the weeks in Iowa had meant back then, and while I cringe sharing this, it helps me remember how IYWS was an awakening.
A day, yet an eternity. We discussed the philosophy of architecture and its immortality while getting acquainted. We read sonnets raging with expletives that told you to turn to page 91 if you wanted to make love or 127 if you wanted to die. Page 127 wasn’t there. We walked through tunnels spray-painted with phrases like “The best social critics leave their marks in spray paint.” We giggled about a building shaped like Noah’s ark. A critique session turned into an afterlife discussion, and then our teacher told us that we’ll all have to hang out at her house. We decided to make tee-shirts that say “A lie to you, but fiction to me.” Permanent marker black on tee-shirt white. Our night out on the town was spent hopscotching around Locke quotations embedded within the sidewalk. Then off to a radio recording of an author’s short story reading at the bookshop downtown. The people are lovely. A lad with leopard print sneakers and night sky eyes. A girl who told me to come down to her room to cry about sonnets and discuss Beckett.
At IYWS, I began to see the world through a new lens, and as a community of writers, we explored Iowa City. We bought pies at the Amish market and invented legends about the Black Angel statue, and while most of this never made it into our stories, it taught us that fascination with the quotidian was okay, because after all, anything was game for stories. And when I talk to Baltimore kids about their work, that’s what I hope they come away understanding: writing can give a little extra oomph to life. You’re forced to see in a new way. Because you have to describe in a way you’ve never heard before. And it’d better sound good or else your community of writers will call you out.
Patrice Hutton directs Writers in Baltimore Schools. She’s currently a graduate student in writing at Johns Hopkins University. Her fiction appears in Mount Hope Magazine, Prime Number Magazine, and Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine. She attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio in 2003 and 2004.
Over the two weeks in Iowa City, I learned a vast array of important knowledge that will stick with me for the rest of my life. For example, chickens in fact have knees, that there is no prom like a prom thrown together at the last minute by a group of pioneering young writers. I learned that the street performer Skinny Luther cannot, in fact, juggle six balls while swallowing a sword for a total of six seconds, but can juggle five balls while swallowing a sword for a total of eleven seconds, and that he now holds the record for that. But more than that, I learned the names and faces of (most of) the sixty-five other brilliant young writers that joined me for the second session of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.
The camp began with a bang. The opening ceremonies involved the lovely Stephen Lovely reading to us all in what turned out to be quite a hilarious event including details of our ukulele playing, accordion wielding, and Irish dancing peers who find themselves in the occasional drum circle. From there, the amusement levels dropped no lower as we filtered to the inaccurately named Carnival Room (it did not contain any carnivals, to my great disappointment) in order to engage in an awkward ice breaker made delightfully morbid by the witty, dark humor of counselor Margaret Reges. Many of our days were made brighter with the help of her and our residential professional amateur meteorologist, James Longley.
On the second day, everyone got right down to business, heading off to our rigorous morning seminars where we met our teacher and classmates properly. I attended the poetry class led by swashbuckling Margaret Ross. As expected of a crowd of nine poets (including our valiant captain, Margaret), we were a group of rough cut individuals who didn’t play by the rules. Immediately, the group became infamous for being the cuddliest, closest knit group around as we pirated our way through Iowa City, plundering and pillaging every coffee shop we visited with the quiet, awkward sounds of poets loitering.
Quickly though, others joined the fun of coffee shop loitering. It dominated the studio as the main pastime and sport. Nothing can quite top the endless hours spent at Prairie Lights and Java House, bickering over which of the locations was more productive and which one had better drinks. This led to the Great Coffee House War at the end of Week One, A.L. (After Lovely), which culminated with a six hour jam session between Nina and me at Java House as we worked through a year’s worth of writer’s block and emerged victorious with pages of new plans for her work-in-progress novel.
The business of week one stepped aside briefly for the Intermission Weekend, a time of peace and prosperity across the land of Iowa City. On the first day of the two day national holiday, we put our differences aside and signed up for dunk tanks, electives of various forms ranging from song writing to improv. I found myself along with three other poets from my class in the Food Writing course. The class of about 12 spent the morning at the food market following people around discreetly and writing down everything they did. Havoc was wreaked, pie and donuts were had, and a joyous time was achieved by all.
Sunday followed, bringing a day to sleep in before heading to brunch. A large populous had made the journey to a local breakfast place to indulge in the joys of eggs, sausage, and pie shakes. Two brave travelers stayed behind though in wait of a third, and upon hearing the news of a forty-five minute wait, began their legendary trek to the boonies of residential Iowa City to indulge in the delights of Sunny’s Restaurant, with its reportedly amazing French toast, and much more debatable Tempeh Reuben. The path was a long one, but the writers found themselves an enjoyable yet affordable meal that had them leaving satisfied, other than the tempeh, which was as debatable as reviews suggested.
Week Two, A.L.
The Tragedy, though fierce, did not lessen the trip at all, but instead improved spirits and brought about much mirth and joke making from the staff and students alike. Week Two ended with an hour long “prom,” whose theme was voted upon by students from a wild list of eleven themes. Though close, classics such as “North Korean Submarine Luau,” and “Magic the Gathering: a Magical Gathering” all lost out to “Rumspringa,” and so the Amish themed dance began.
The following day was of course one of great sadness as dozens of campers returned home from their grand pilgrimage to the holy land of writers. Two-thirds of the writers, counselors included, went without sleep, many wanting to stay up to see the first shuttle off. For the 5:30 shuttle, there were a dozen or so bystanders to wave the crowd goodbye, a number that increased after a trip to Java House for morale boost much needed. After reaching its peak at the 9:30 shuttle, the group began to dwindle as there simply weren’t enough people remaining. After noon, there were four campers left standing. Gabran, a young novelist, and I joined our counselors David and James for one last lunch at the fine eateries of Burge. As a somber last dare, James challenged Gabran to make and eat a chicken sandwich using grilled cheese sandwiches as buns. This last meal will surely be marked throughout time as both the grandest and saddest of all meals ever attended in those halls.
It wasn’t long after lunch that Gabran’s parents picked him up, and time had not long passed before mine came for me. The once bustling Burge Commons were now quiet and empty, wearing only the scattered bodies of counselors and teachers who remained without anyone to counsel or teach. Dear Leader Lovely was all that remained to brighten their days as they began to prepare for Session 1 of 2014.
Noah Dversall is a junior at the Dayton Regional STEM School in Kettering, Ohio. He attended Session 2, 2013 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.
You walk across an expanse of tired cement at midday. Your feet ache at the peak of their arches, and you find shade only in pixilated spots from faraway, overhanging leaves. The time is uncertain. There, above you, the liquid sun lolls past a blurry zenith. In the bag over your shoulder is a folder of inked pages, a battered paperback, and a granola bar. You’re pushing against the vapor of sleep. You seek a kind of rest that mimics the feeling of reading that poem in your bedroom last night, the one that made you stare at a wall for fifteen minutes. Was it shock? No, something more like a discovery of solid truth, an event that has only happened three or four times in your brief life. When you turned out the light after closing the book, its last words bounced from one corner of your skull to another. The echo was dimly there when you woke and walked down a carpeted hallway.
Look. Over there is a sweaty park where the grass curls over itself and treetops weave together. A timid wrought iron fence surrounds it, but it only hits the middle of your knee cap. As you fling your leg over, entering the place of pause, two squirrels bound in straight lines away from you at a 90-degree angle. Here you tumble to your knees, bruising and folding countless blades, and you find a cloud of gnats that begins to call you its sun.
Gnats are foreign where you come from. There, juniper-covered mountains block all blue Pacific exhales. Inside the cloud, the spaces between each buzzing point seem enormous, cacophonous, cathedral-like. Some kind of solid block is being built around your head that wobbles on your limp neck. The gnats try to help you understand the importance of gaps. You have been learning about gaps all week.
Remember when life seemed as straight as the squirrels’ paths? You were in third grade when driving fast enough would get you to high school, college campus, your own dog, “Dr.” and death. All of those things were gnats pummeling into your forehead. Living was a series of points logically connected.
Here, though, in Iowa, beside 65 people with the same things in their shoulder bags, you are off the map. In some kind of timeline elevator. Wherever real life isn’t. Three days ago your heart broke after a poem about a suburban lawn by a blonde girl from Long Island. Yesterday you ate falafel on a searing, black metal bench with people who all had poems to write. Today your teacher, Margaret, showed you how cranberries could be described with: “Could there not be a sudden date, could there not be in the present settlement of old age pensions, could there not be by a witness, could there be.” Somehow your class understood. Somehow, you’re living in the gaps, where linear living splits open for a small, sacred while.
Later, though, you will be home on some anonymous couch, wishing that gap of Iowa City could be what you know as the everyday. You will feel a magnetic pull towards any coffee shop but will deflate when it lacks a layer of pens running on journal lines. You will rise from a crumpled bed with aching muscles. Mysteriously, you will search for nights of bad karaoke and places to dance in vaguely Amish dress. You will try to find Gorky Park. You will want someone like Margaret to tell you that what we need is to accept what we don’t understand, and you will reach out your hands as far as they’ll go just to find these people who make the future right in front of you, this now.
You will want more of all of this.
You’re holding a book above your head in the park, blocking the sun that spews past tanned pages. You’re falling asleep. Now you’re waking up, blurry, and here comes your friend Rachel flinging her legs over the fence, walking towards you. You sit up. You open your eyes.
–Elena Saavedra Buckley
Elena Saavedra Buckley is a rising senior at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She attended Session 2 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.
We are all given boxes to put ourselves into. Sometimes these are helpful, though most often not. Interactions with others might be fleeting, we so desperately want to convey a fact that this is us, so we latch onto things that gives some semblance of meaning no matter how far they fall short. Ideology, sport teams affiliations, appreciation of mussels versus peach cobbler, horoscopes, etc. Have many times have you heard “I’m a conservative” or “I’m a conservationist” to convey a sense of personhood in the immediate without too much sleuthing?
Well in Iowa City we kind of switched up the gamble. We said, this is a group of people who not only appreciate literature ah yes sitting in a salon discussing the merits of Voltaire but a body so duly dedicated to the craft that they are willing to invest their lives in its pursuit. And it is this that I emphasize. The passions of students and facilitators alike led to such a dangerous aplomb, we threatened to eat up the Midwest in our visions of eccentric creation. I can imagine earlier this year a certain Mr. Stephen Lovely plucking names from velvety dark tophats, judging their merit based on the tingling of energy each piece of paper produced, and the distance it had to travel to reach his really fun swivel chair because wow what an agglomeration of diversity in one place and such an electricity in the air!
My memories span vistas of fictitious underworlds, explorations of city streets, hearts moving out of bodies due to the surgeon-like qualities of kind words. One day I was making copies of a poem I was working on and somehow got locked out of Courier. Momentarily alarmed, I decided to take the change in circumstance with ease considering this is camp, I should give wandering a chance, and I did. I ended up away from the hunched up proximity of the University of Iowa campus and found myself by the bank of the Iowa River on a vast grassy expanse. The solitude of my journal and the most likely tick infested grass growing bountifully was too much. A few days later I took some of my friends from our militant feminist performance art collective Cantroversial and ran freely, climbing trees, listening to Age of Consent as we neared adulthood and the consequences it entails. Yet this is just one place of solace. There are too many to tell you now, but I want to create a picture of how I feel about this place, this place that I grew strangely attached to unwittingly. There were the unexpected slabs of metal built into the concrete sidewalks of the city, sharing briefly with you history and its poetic measure, there were Adam Fell’s passionate seminars where we discussed the implications of mystery in our works as artists, embarking on voyage to the countryside to give sociological analysis of fried Klondike bars on sticks and the strangely inhumane entertainment of conscripted six year olds on bulls.
Yet if our common connection was literature, we soon far surpassed the initial tie into far off terrains. It is the relationships that will remain even if physical immediacy has other plans. Zoe this is a call out to you girl, we shook up the Amish awakening with our slightly off-kilter spasmodic homage to Kate Bush. Sophie, that moment when we decided to get frozen yogurt together by ourselves discussing the complications of race and pre-BA woes, thank you. Brandt it took major cojones to run through underground hallways at Maddie with a paper ax, kiss a certain penguin in an act of playful selflessness, and open up about your brother while Moneymaker blasted in the background. Adam, you have given me hope about writing generally, the self-deprecation is degenerating into dormancy, and how essential this task is that we find ourselves in.
So I want to swing around to where I started my rambling with. The idea of definitions and pre-circumscribed perceptions. I remember that first day, driving from Cedar Rapids, first meal at Burge (the oreo fluff surprisingly vacant, they didn’t want to startle us too much too early), Lovely orating (onerous would come later), there was a definition defining us: the love of books. Yet delving into IYWS in the weeks to come, I discovered it was much more than that. It was an appreciation for Debussy, a common hatred of humidity, empathy developed over similar familial complications, dedicated plans on how to bridge cultural differences with the Russian exchange students (Gorky Park inspiring such change), an understanding of all of our collective complexity. IYWS was not just an experiment in grammar and workshop. It was a moment of pondering. And it is because of that that we broke free.
Colin Marston graduated from Brophy College Prep in 2013 and attended Session 2 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. In the fall he’ll begin studying at the New School in New York City.
If you choose to believe me, good.
Before, I only held the patches of America that could touch the ocean. I cradled them in my hands, their salty smells and crowds of people a familiar comfort.
My hands have grown, like parts of teenage bodies tend to do. They became large enough to grab you: you, the flat expanse of Iowa City. For better or worse, you are mine. You belong to me because I both danced and screamed in your streets, because I knew your hot cement on my back at night. You belong to me because I was happily trapped by your humid air. You belong to me because I got lost and got found within your borders, simply because of a two week writing workshop.
It was your nights that caught me; it was your nights that pulled me close and broke my skin. You kept making me push the limits of language, and you kept making me bite my nails. Zoë read Borges aloud as we sprawled on our makeshift king bed—two twin mattresses placed side by side on the ground. My hands were always covered with notes from class. Ignorant fish. Reverse diction. Slurpee Pope. I never understood them in the morning, but they left inky stains on my sheets.
In Iowa City, there was a near constant blood rush of ideas to my head. I thought on the lawns of strangers. I thought while doing handstands against walls. I thought while drowning in coffee. I thought in class, while also trying to seize each and every piece of wisdom that was nonchalantly tossed my way. I thought in a willow tree and I thought in the laundry room. The constant cry of imagery and themes left me exhausted, but I kept thinking about them as I drifted into sleep. Iowa City, your words crept around me—small animals of their own.
Iowa City, there are other people that hold you. I am not afraid to share. You belong to Dan. Dan who found the balance between sympathy and interrogation, Dan who understood the plurality of it all. You belong to Lisa, because she does not get scared in your cemetery, and because she knows girls are allowed to hold their middle fingers to the sky. You belong to Margaret. I always thought poets looked like Margaret, but I never envisioned them spewing dry wit and profanity like an opened fire hydrant. You belong to Stephen. You belonged to Stephen before you belonged to me, or any of us.
You belong to everyone who was in the back of the bus, in the black of the bus. We travelled outside your limits to the Washington County Fair, where we watched pregnant teenagers chain-smoke and I pulled my groin riding Spanky the mechanical bull. I’m still black and blue. I bruised for you, Iowa. I bruised for you, and so by the transitive property you belong to all of us. The bodies in the black of the back of the bus. We lost radio signal thirty miles away from campus, and pulled over to the side of the road. I have never seen anything as beautiful as their faces, all of them pushed cheek to cheek against the windows to see the darkening cornfields. Colin is laughing his maniacal laugh. There is Elena’s mermaid hair and there are Rachel’s bow-shaped lips and there is Zoë’s heart throbbing into my arm. We are electrically charged. Our knees stick to fake leather. The sky still has pieces of blue, and so I try to store this moment in my head. I should have known remembering has specific downsides. Now, I am waiting for you in my faraway bedroom, Iowa City. I am full and whole and here.
I did not realize it was over until my suitcase was being hauled into the back of a van. Stereo heartbreak: I was surrounded. While moving through airport security lines, I remembered my favorite line of an Elizabeth Bishop poem we read in class: “Now practice losing farther, losing faster.” With you, Iowa City, I am practicing.
Madeleine Cravens lives in Brooklyn, New York, and attends Bard High School Early College. She participated in Session 2 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.