“It is nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter.”
—Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman
I commence my search in the bookstore titled “Prairie Lights.” It is not situated in a prairie. At the entrance there is a sign that decrees “World Famous Bookstore & Poke Stop.” A mingling materializes in my mind. Maybe I’ll remember what I’m looking for. A hardcover volume? A Pokemon? If so, I am quite undeniably certain that this is the right place to start. I cannot go in immediately because there are two doors. I have already encountered a tricky problem, a nearly insoluble pancake. Is one healthier than the other? Is one an exit only? Perhaps both are exits, and the entrance is inscribed on a different face of the building. My brain is already scrambled, I pancake eat just to want my now. At that moment a melodious voice says-sings “excuse me” and a girl swings open the door on the right. She disappears behind the oak. I stare at the slab of wood, slowly rotating clockwise around its hinge…at the last second I wedge my hand in the narrow crevice and wrench the door open. I walk inside with a dignified air.
I consider asking the woman at the desk the following question: What am I looking for, and can I find it in here? She will probably ask me a question as a reply, such as: I don’t know. Are you looking for a book? It is certainly possible that I am looking for a book; however it is equally likely that I am looking for something else entirely. So I decide not to stress her out until I figure out what I am looking for. I wander through the store, my gaze sprinting left to right along the spines of books, occasionally hurdling over a few that look boring. None of the titles ring a bell, though I do see the name Flann O’Brien. I knew a Flann O’Brien once. After I finish the fiction section I walk over to the next shelf but I realize that I am wasting my time; maybe it is a book that isn’t in this store, maybe it is a book that hasn’t yet been published. So I am quite sure it is not a book. Because I know I will find what I’m looking for in this town. But I might as well look around a bit more; this is a nice bookstore, and I may never come again. As I am wandering I see a girl picking books off a shelf and tasting them. I believe it is the same one with the mellifluous voice. She is doing this with a big smile. There is one book that she does not put back; eventually she takes this one to the front. She wears a sky blue lanyard with a key and card hanging from it. I have bumped into some blue lanyards today already. They seem to be very significant—does the lanyard represent wealth and distinction, like a toga praetexta? A mingling once again materializes in my mind; this time, though, it feels almost epiphanic, and with it comes a memory; not a memory, really, but a feeling, a feeling of superb happiness at the sight of so many books. A faint smile emerges on my face.
I buy the book by my friend Flann O’Brien. The synopsis on the back is very weird (a book inside of a book, it says), but he’s a weird person, I remember. After the cashier bags my book, I ask, Can I exit through either door? She looks at me curiously, then her face resolves into a smile and she says, Of course, any door you like. I thank her and walk out through the door on the right (which, you may notice, is not the one I came in through).
Now, on the sidewalk, I am lost. I look left and right (and up, for that matter), trying to determine which way I should go. Almost everyone is walking left to right, so I shall follow suit. I watch as a spaghetti of people go by (several of them wearing blue lanyards) and I casually insert myself into the noodle. For some reason I decide to follow two boys with blue lanyards. They seem to know what they are doing. Of course, I do it casually, keeping my distance; otherwise they could get suspicious. But they are talking with great density and prolixity, so I don’t think I will have a problem.
The lanyards cross the street twice, both times during the red hand signal. I stay behind and wait, not wanting to be hit by a car. I watch as they slowly amble across, then horrified I see a large vehicle driving down the road toward them at a not inconsiderable speed! I almost cry out in despair. The car approaches closer and closer and then I close my eyes.
When I look again, I have the person-in-motion signal. I pick up my pace, hoping to keep up with the lanyards (who, luckily, are still ambling and jabbering). Suddenly they disappear. I run up to the point of disappearance, and look down. Sewer drain. I look to the right, and see them behind a glass door. I enter the building (“Java House” it is called) and immediately I feel a sense of happiness. The rich smell of coffee permeates the air. I don’t like the taste of coffee (no matter how many sugars I put into it), but its aroma is heavenly. The café is rather large, yet very warm and cozy. As I wander around I see a table of blue lanyards, though not containing the two I followed earlier. They are typing on laptops or reading while drinking coffee (though I can’t say for sure it is coffee). They are all extremely focused on their own things, yet they radiate camaraderie—the lanyards must have special powers.
Suddenly they all rise from their seats simultaneously, closing laptop lids and notebook covers and whatnot. The four of them push their chairs in and head toward the entrance. I think they are on a mission, as they are walking with great fervor and anticipation. I can hardly keep up—and by that I mean stay at an average distance of ten meters behind.
I trail them for about five minutes, catching snippets of their conversation but not able to concatenate them into sense. Soon, after crossing a street on a red hand signal, they say some final words and split. I don’t know whom to follow. Then I recognize the girl from the bookstore—how did I not notice the book in her hand? I decide to go wherever she goes, which is into a building—there is nothing special about it, really. It’s just a gray building named Phillips Hall. She walks up the stairs one-by-one, quite slowly, so I must either go one-by-one or do a very slow two-by-two. I choose the latter. She still hasn’t looked below her—I guess it’s normal for someone to follow you up a staircase. But she holds the door open for me, and smiles. I smile back, but am puzzled. Does she know me?
As we walk down the hall, I feel like a restless Geiger counter.
She stops at a door, opens it, and walks in. I follow her gingerly, and see a room of ten other students (including the girl who just walked in, that is) and a teacher. I think I’ve found where I belong. As I sit down, a swinging object lands on my desk. I see a key and a card. I trace a string of blue all the way around my neck.
“Great! Everyone’s here. Let’s get started.”
Alan Tu is a tenth grader at Pittsford Sutherland High School in Pittsford, New York. He attended Session 2, 2016 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.
I’ve lived in Eastern Iowa all my sixteen years. As such, I’ve visited Iowa City many times in my life, because my grandma lives there (she fuels my writing habit by providing companionship at City of Literature events and buying me books). However, before the Young Writers’ Studio, I had never set foot on the University of Iowa’s campus. Overall, there were many surprising things—pleasant and not—that I realized during my time at the Studio.
I’d been looking forward to the Studio actually since my freshman year. Upon seeing that they accepted “exceptionally talented and mature freshmen”, I figured I should hold off another year—plus, assembling a portfolio ended up being a lot more involved than I had initially thought. When I went at it this year, I knew I wanted to use the novel I’d been writing, as a) that was my only big project, and b) I was really looking for critique and readership, and figured “What better place to get that than an intensive two-week writing camp?”
The dorm food was oh-so-nicely marketed as “sumptuous culinary delights.” I’m just going to stop here and quote my amazing teacher, Maria Kuznetsova: “Um, no. Just no. Moving on…” When I didn’t want to eat dorm food, I loved the free rein we were given to explore and find food elsewhere. The Studio-sponsored activities—readings and the cat-filled rolling-hill paradise that is the Pizza Farm, namely—were all phenomenal. At every reading I attended, the wordsmiths (of all mediums and genres!) were genuinely happy to be there, as were we as Writers from Diverse Locales.
Writing exercises have always been frustrating for me. The main reason is because if it’s restrained to a certain topic or length, my writing extends beyond the word length and ends up taking a totally different approach to the topic at hand. The morning Stretch sessions and other things we did in class, however, embraced those two qualities and really let me be me in that regard.
The Missions Inscribable were something I always looked forward to; like a box of chocolates, I never knew what I was going to get. Seeing as each class only had one teacher, these provided a nice, easy way to get acquainted with the others. Additionally, the different styles of writing allowed us to get outside of the respective focuses (fiction, poetry, and creative writing). One of my favorites was definitely Christine Utz’s murder mystery at the Natural History Museum. I haven’t really gotten into a character before as deeply as that, and a whodunit is always fun.
One other thing I found in Iowa City, besides the sweltering days that occupy most of summer in Iowa, was a vast network of friends. And, I might add, not just casual acquaintance types, and certainly not the typical cliquey pods found in most settings populated by high school students. I found people who, in the end, have proven themselves to be wonderfully talented, compassionate, and charismatic in a just-shy-of-overwhelming way.
The talent shows were a fantastic way for a whole bunch of introverts to emerge from their self-created caves, and really did a great job of showcasing the many diverse talents we had there. I’m also lumping karaoke in with this as well, as I for one was eventually convinced to join into “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Everyone was engaged and supportive, which was really great considering the sheer awkwardness of the whole crowd.
Shame Prom…where do I start? The decor enhanced the experience tenfold, and having the leftover fries from graduation dinner certainly helped as well. My mild fear of dancing in public was pretty much negated, at least for that night. Seeing Judge Judy and shamed dogs on the screen alongside celebrities such as our very own Sloth Daddy made the whole experience absolute gold.
It was a great idea to create an anthology of everyone’s work, even if I didn’t get to contribute to it myself because I was overcaffeinated and working to get the project finished. I’m really happy I was able to use my graphic design skills as well, as that was another staple of conversation between my friends and me.
The weekend Dunk Tanks provided a much-needed break from the seminar/workshop routine of the weekdays. I chose songwriting, and was not disappointed. As a guitar player, I’d previously tried to blend my writing and musical skills to no avail. With the right balance of guidance and free writing time, this mini-class made me not only a better musician, but a better writer as well. When we broke down song lyrics into syllables and looked at rhyme schemes, it tapped into the poet side of me—something that I’ve tried to coax out, but it’s never productive.
As the end of camp grew distressingly closer, I tried to get as much contact information as I could from all of my friends. Socialization and writing help were my two main goals, after all. Even now, after all this time (only a few weeks, feels like eternity), I still am deeply saddened by the lack of late night lobby chats and pie shake incidents (it was sad, but also entertaining. Regardless, we don’t talk about that). With the like-minded crew of writers to aid me, I’ve been able to reach out for edits and complaining about my characters, something I honestly lacked before the Studio.
Would I go back? “Corn”, a simple one word statement-turned-question (sans punctuation) placed in the maw of the Question Hole? Will I probably infiltrate the inner workings of the IYWS just to visit Stephen Lovely? Once again stopping to quote a Studio teacher, this time the illustrious Riley Johnson: “Yes.” You may have noticed my perhaps overuse of parentheses; not entirely an accident nor just playing it off as a writing tic. Parentheses have a beginning, as did the Studio, in which I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into. Both also have an ending, perhaps bittersweet but completing something that the author put in as an aside. That aside is what matters; it’s the two weeks of hard work, late nights, and sloth jokes that made this summer one of the best yet.
Nick Johnson is a junior at Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He attended Session 2, 2016 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.
The first thing that hits you in Iowa City is the weather: a wall of heat that seems to come out of nowhere. The clouds in the sky give no indication of the humidity,
no way of knowing what would come. Sitting in the airport, waiting for a shuttle to take me to the University of Iowa, I really didn’t know what the next two weeks would be like. Before coming to the Studio, I felt stuck. The environment I’ve grown up in puts an emphasis on math and science, and tends to shun those who don’t excel in these fields. I listened to students ridicule English and the humanities, disregarding assignments as unimportant and unnecessary. I never told anyone that I write. When I got accepted to Iowa Young Writer’s Studio, I told two people. I spent the summer waiting, waiting to be somewhere where I could be creative, wanting to leave so that I could write without the fear of being judged. I arrived at Burge Hall, with only three hours of sleep, and prepared (to the best of ability) to meet my home for the next two weeks.
As clichéd as it sounds, Andy Axel was not someone I could have prepared for. A poet by trade, Andy’s classes revolved around getting out of your own head. Writing didn’t have to be serious or have meaning, Andy said, it should be fun and exciting. For me, a nonfiction writer whose main goal was to express an idea, this came as a shock. I had always thought that the main goal of my essays was for others to view it and understand its meaning. But Andy had different ideas. One of our assignments was to just write in gibberish, another one revolved around finding internet comments and creating them into some form of poetry. These pieces didn’t have to be understood, or accepted by a larger audience. They were for you. Andy’s lazy personality and love for poetry was infectious. In this classroom, where the desks were arranged in a circle and we would frequently go off track, I met writers. Teenagers with the same passion as me, who wanted to discuss literature for fun, not because they had to. Everyone wrote differently; the three poets all had a style—prose, structured, and free verse—while the playwright attempted to channel David Mamet, and the fiction writers wrote about new worlds and familiar suburban ones. My classmates were eager to learn and share ideas, everyone’s love for art came out in different ways, and I felt like I had a place among people who didn’t disregard art, but created it.
On my last day at the Studio, I was sitting with one of my friends. We were talking about a book Andy had giving to me, a collection of personal essays by Charles D’Ambrosio. I made an offhand joke that no one could call me an essayist, because I wasn’t a good writer. My friend got mad, said that I couldn’t say that after two weeks at a writing camp. At that moment, I realized how much I didn’t want to leave this community of writers. These were the people that constantly encouraged me, it was the first time someone hadn’t just nodded at my self hate. At the Studio, I had long talks about the styles of writing, books, and the future. Here was a place where I could share my poetry (something that I never admitted to write), I could talk about writing openly, share unfinished works without being judged. I had discussions about everything, from the correct pronunciation of words to death, and I could call myself a writer and not be ashamed of that fact. I was just me. I was me.
When I got back from the Studio, I felt lost. I started crying in the airport. Walked up to my father with tears in my eyes. He asked me what was wrong and I couldn’t tell him. That for the first time in my life, I was confused about what I wanted to be. Who I was. In Iowa, I was me, but back home, I didn’t know who I was anymore. I wanted to go back, to have more time with friends I might never see again. I wanted to be in a class that could make meaning out of nothing, around writers who would spend all night transcribing a friend’s words just so that they could show him that he was loved. In a town where people sing for fun. The Studio never asked me to learn, or to find meaning in anything, or to attempt to come out of this experience enlightened. I’m not sure if I did learn anything. But the experience, the community and the memories I now have made me realize that I have lost something by coming back home.
Mansee Khurana is a rising junior at Dougherty Valley High School in San Ramon, CA. She attended session 2, 2016 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.
The only day my iPad was on mail alert, I felt excruciatingly nervous on my way back home. My mother was driving the car and we had just crossed Bittan Market. My iPad beeped and I jumped to check my email. It was April 1, 2015 and I had been accepted to attend the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.
Few people knew what it meant for me. The months preceding my acceptance to IYWS were extremely painful. Due to various reasons, mostly stress regarding my academic performance, I had begun to lose faith in myself and my writing. In fact, this lack of self-confidence made me hate myself. Whenever I was alone, it didn’t take me two seconds to sit somewhere and start crying or disparaging myself. I sometimes went to bed, wishing time would stop.
But after April 1, I had something to look forward to. I had first heard of IYWS in my freshman year and I knew I had to attend the workshop. It seemed as though someone was calling me, something was waiting for me 7,890 miles away from my hometown, Bhopal, India. Actually, a lot was waiting for me.
If you go through the journal I maintained at Iowa, you will see one sentence written on almost every page: “I feel more alive.” How absolutely true it was! I woke up, walked, talked, ate, sat, stood as a writer. For me, each day in Iowa was a day spent in paradise. Deep within I used to think of myself as an unworthy person. I believed I wasn’t as talented as the other writers who I was going to be with. Truth be told, I was on the verge of breaking down one day when I told my teacher, Dan, that my acceptance was probably an error.
I still can’t figure out what magic happened last summer that helped me grow into a better, positive and confident human being. Perhaps I failed to tell my roommate, Chloe, and my friend, Jazz, how empowering and exhilarating their friendship had been. Perhaps I never told my teacher and the fellow poets in my class that they gave me a place where I knew I belonged. Perhaps I never told Stephen Lovely, the teachers and the wonderful counselors how their smiles simply made my day. Perhaps I never told the other campers that without them, I would never have felt so unafraid. Perhaps I never told that wonderful person who once complimented me for ‘having a smile like sunshine,’ that I no longer felt ashamed when I looked at myself or that I had started laughing heartily.
Despite all of this, I must say, I have no regrets. The Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, indubitably, has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Not a day goes by without longing to go back to the wonderful place that was Iowa City. Not only do I believe more in the future of writing, I believe in my own voice. I have learned to embrace my roots and know that my dreams are valid. I know that there are people out there who appreciate my poems for what they are. I know that I am the writer I want to be and I will and must continue to grow. I know that home is not the place you come from but where you belong.
Congratulations to all those who will attend the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio 2016! Let the experience mold, surprise, inspire and change you!
Devanshi Khetarpal is an 11th grader at St. Joseph’s Convent Senior Secondary Girls’ School in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. She attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio in the summer of 2015.
High school age creative writers, Hark, Hear Ye, Hey, Yo, Spread the word! The Application Period for the 2016 Iowa Young Writers’ Studio is approaching! We’ll start accepting applications via Submittable at 8 AM central time on Monday, February 1 and stop at 8 AM central time on Monday, February 8. Details about the application process here.
These girls applied, and look how happy they are!
This past summer, during Session 1 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, fiction writer and radio wizard Liz Weiss took students into the studio at KRUI, Iowa City’s sound alternative, to tell true stories and read from their poetry, fiction, and essays. Here’s the first of two podcasts. You’ll hear about a Russian girl’s family that adopts a pig and conspires to serve it to her for New Year’s dinner; an American patriot who finds a portrait of George Washington hanging in a British aristocrat’s bathroom; a woman who falls through a wall during an earthquake in Japan; a boy who mourns the loss of a cheap watch he bought at 7-11; and a terminally ill fish euthanized in vodka. Enjoy!
Technical difficulties? Contact our Audio Help desk at firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s staffed by a person with absolutely zero expertise, but he’ll try to help.
There is a certain beauty in saying goodbye. The idea that you may never see some place again, some people again, causes such a profound ache, such a flurry of memories, that you can’t help but notice a certain grace in it. Maybe it’s just my teenage melancholy speaking, but that’s how I felt, leaving Iowa.
We make things more beautiful in retrospect, everybody knows that, but the funny thing is, even when I was at Iowa, even when I was in the middle of a heated discussion about Fitzgerald or Ginsberg or what it means to be a writer in the modern age, there was a little voice in the back of my mind that would whisper, These are some of the happiest times of your life. You will miss these moments later.
My roommate and I began emailing long before Iowa started, very soon after we were assigned to each other. We would share little bits of information about ourselves, the books we loved, the music we couldn’t stop listening to, and all the little things that make a person real—her favorite punctuation mark is the m-dash, her favorite flower is the carnation, her favorite time period is the Renaissance (because Shakespeare!), she’s a granola fiend, she listens to the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack just as much as I do. I was stunned at how similar we were, how perfectly we seemed to fit, but when I finally set foot in the Burge Lobby that first day, I realized it wasn’t a coincidence. I had something in common with everyone there. Everyone there could feel the words of great authors, not just read them. Everyone there could write for days on end or argue about Wes Anderson films or tell stories about symbolic turtles, long into the night. We were a motley crew, but we complimented each other perfectly.
I spent two weeks honing my craft in ways I didn’t even knew I could. I spent two weeks learning to find the stories around me, to write the ghosts in characters without ever mentioning their troubles, to hear the poetry in the noise, to turn a city into a sonnet. Every night I went to sleep having written something I wanted to keep, or having read something I never wanted to forget.
I fell in love in Iowa. I fell in love with these people who would risk having to pay overweight fees on their luggage, just so they could bring more books to share and devour. I fell in love with my workshop, a group of people who inspired me and transformed the way that I write, who provided me with a reading list that will last me until my final days. I fell in love with Iowa City, a cement wonderland among the cornfields that bleeds ink and poetry, that opens its cafes and bookstores to young and hungry storytellers clutching Moleskins and watching the world with inquisitive eyes. What I wouldn’t give to relive those two weeks again.
The moment I set foot on the plane back to San Francisco, I knew I had left a piece of my heart behind. It’s still sitting there somewhere—maybe reclining on the couches of the Burge lobby, or lying hidden in the drawer that my roommate and I filled with sugary snacks. Perhaps it’s hidden among the bookshelves of the Iowa City Public Library, where I almost saw Hillary Clinton, or in a coffee cup at Java House, where I curled into a couch at least once a day and just wrote. Maybe it’s nestled somewhere among the cornfields, drinking in the sunlight.
My roommate and I still send each other letters. Not emails anymore, but real, pen-and-ink letters. Every time I tear open one of her new arrivals, I can’t help but feel that ache for Iowa.
There is a certain beauty in saying goodbye, but I don’t think I’m ready to say it yet, even now.
Sarisha Kurup is a junior at The Harker School in San Jose, California. She attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio this past summer.
I’m sure I’m not the only one, but it’s hard to crystallize my two weeks at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio into a cohesive structure of paragraphs somewhere between a testimonial and something that’s actually fun to read. But I’ll try anyway, for the sake of Stephen Lovely (he is really lovely!), Sloth Daddy, Margaret Reges, and the crazy, amazing, passionate, sincere family I found in the middle of a state I never thought I’d be enthusiastic about.
I’m listening to Vanessa Carlton, drinking watery orange juice on an airplane from Cedar Rapids to Minneapolis to New York, from home to somewhere that doesn’t quite fit me anymore. This song reminds me of driving and looking out of the window – but it’s all clouds out there and I find myself wishing Iowa still had a place for me – because I’m almost kind-of home and my roommate hasn’t yet left.
And it’s my twenty-seventh consecutive awake hour and this watery orange juice tastes partly-cloudy, like under-salted eggs and a dull whine. I long for 3 a.m., eating Chinese snacks that taste like shrimp and honey and listening to Stevie Wonder really loudly.
I’m sitting here and willing myself to be back in Iowa City. I find some comfort in knowing that I’ll be back in the state for a debate tournament in a little over two months, but it’s hard to find peace in that when I know that the pictures I take there will be missing some of the most important faces in my life.
I got on the plane to Iowa completely blind as to what I was going into. Well, that’s not quite true. My upstairs neighbor, Anna, was also going, but I always thought she was way too cool to want to have a conversation with me, so we largely avoided anything but awkward smiling and eye contact in the elevator on the way up from school. As we got on the plane to first Detroit, then Cedar Rapids, we were making polite conversation about our assigned reading, whose workshop we were in, what we had to come prepared with, and that sort of thing. We were supposed to find three people named Sean, Violet, and Pearse in Detroit, and luckily we did – Violet and Sean were sitting behind us on the plane and Pearse sauntered over at our Detroit gate, sporting a hilariously small suitcase and a hilariously large camera around his neck.
Fast forward to the van from Cedar Rapids to the Studio – I was one of six in a car with four complete strangers and one Pearse, but I knew that we were all here for the same thing and that we were all bubbling with nervous energy and excitement. I really didn’t know what to make of my situation, and honestly, I still don’t. All I can say is that the Studio taught me things I didn’t even know I didn’t know.
I don’t want to go on and on and drone. Andy Axel (my workshop leader and mustachioed man extraordinaire) taught us that if you remember something in too much detail or too frequently, it gets diluted with bits and pieces you may tack on somewhere between remembering and wishing. But I know that every single person I met in those two weeks was willing to welcome me and whatever poetry I threw at them with open arms, and that they would even love me for it. I know that we will still send each other paper letters and emails, and there’s never not a moment I’m relating something from the workshop to what I’m doing in the moment.
I know that I can never listen to the soundtrack of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ without thinking of late night writing bursts with my roommate and granola sent from home. I can’t smell peppermint Orbit without remembering long walks around campus, into bookstores and out of the real world. I can’t even think of sloths without remembering our fantastic workshop – our safe haven of desks with the blackboard as our backdrop, sporting quotes from us as proudly as an athlete sports a varsity jacket (but we wouldn’t know. We aren’t sportsy).
It’s really difficult to express just how phenomenal each and every person is. On the very first day, we had to link elbows and realize that whoever was next to us would become our family. We went through countless icebreakers and questions from the Question Hole, made trips to CVS in the rain, spent hours and hours at Java House and Prairie Lights poring over story after story, learned that we had to split pie shakes and that Bohemian Rhapsody karaoke in its entirety burns about 500 calories, and visited the storied Pizza Farm (no, the pizza doesn’t come from the ground, to my disappointment).
I wish there was a way I could pour my whole experience into a final thought. I’ll leave you with this: if there’s one place that I could say affected me the most, I wouldn’t even hesitate before naming the Studio. It’s the only place I’ve felt my essential self, like I could be sincere and like I didn’t have to hide what I wanted to do because everyone else wanted to do it, too. We no doubt created a bond that will last long after camp is over (CAMP IS NEVER OVER!) and we made friends who will always be willing to read our work, tell us the good and the bad, and who will be there for the rest of our lives (and who will lend us money while we’re writing our magnum opus). We’ll look forward to finding them on the bookshelf, buying their books for our friends and family, or even just pointing and saying “I knew them when!”
Now, please excuse us because we need to speak in private.
Iowa, you don’t know how you’ve changed me. Thank you for everything.
Maya Osman-Krinsky is a junior at the Bronx High School of Science. She attended Session 2, 2015 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.
Have you ever thought about how incredible fiction writing is? Strangers slap words down on paper about fake people struggling in a fake world against fake villains/problems/disasters and somehow make me care enough to weep when a character I adore is thrown to the lions. It’s beautiful. It’s why I set out to be a writer. But if you’re a writer, you probably understand what a lonely existence it can be.
It’s a solitary endeavor few people understand. I’ve been blessed to have supportive parents captivated with books, and to have friends who write a little. Even so, I felt alone. My parents might have an idea of the volatile impact writing has on a person from listening to me ramble excitedly about a new plot development in my novel, or despair over an flat scene on different occasions, but they couldn’t really help me. I could bounce ideas off my mom, for which I am deeply grateful, but when it came to the actual craft, I needed more. I needed someone who understood the mechanics of it, who knew the fierce joy of having written a beautiful scene, who experienced the crushing certainty that his or her writing was pathetic and the sheer delight when they realized it was not. That it was a stunning gift to the world and worth doing. I wanted to talk with people who enjoyed writing, who loved creating characters and imagining worlds, people whom I could relate with. I wanted to know people who treated writing as a passion.
I found that at Iowa.
I found people who cared as much as I did. I made friends who loved nothing better than to sit over the surprisingly tasty meals offered in Burge and discuss literature, or plot problems. I learned under brilliant instructors like Ashely Clarke and the hilarious director, Stephen Lovely.
I’ll never forget my fiction class with Ashley. I miss our circle of eleven desks where we discussed anything from the plausibility of John’s undead skeletons moving without muscle to the wild crazy theories I threw out that my class actually listened to. I miss questing out into the artsy city on writing missions. I miss proofing my classmates’ amazing stories and receiving feedback on my own. There is nothing more thrilling than hearing people discuss your characters and world like they actually exist. I had fun figuring out how to steal a taxidermied polar bear from the museum for a writing exercise (the stairs were an issue). I miss making puppets and costumes for the ridiculous swede Margaret helped us make of The Wizard of Jaws. I miss the silly and profound questions shoved in the Question Hole. I miss the late night writing sessions and the inherent comradery of being in a roomful of writers. These superb human-beings came from all walks of life, with different beliefs and experiences, but all of us were bound together by our passion to write.
This camp didn’t only change my writing, it changed me.
When I was younger, my parents worried I’d be snatched someday because I would go up to strangers and confidently strike up a conversation with them about anything and would even walk away with them. As I grew older, though, I slowly became more antisocial, began to question my self-worth and struggled with self-esteem issues. I still do some days. As a cause, social situations became awkward, uncomfortable things that made me feel like an idiot. I hated it. Understand, no one ever bullied me. I’m gracious with others, but merciless with myself.
On the last night before we all had to depart, we had a prom themed: “The Sorrows of Youth in the Context of Youthful Sorrows.” I usually hate dancing. It’s only ever made me more aware of my inadequacies, but that night, I didn’t care. I just danced. And danced. And had an amazing time. Later, lying in awake in bed at two in the morning, it struck me how great I felt. How radiant, how beautiful, how incredibly myself I felt. It hit me then how comfortable I was with these people; I felt like an equal. Finally what God has been trying to tell me for years got through to me: I was special. I had worth, I didn’t need man’s approval, only God’s. I felt like I could do anything.
I still do. Iowa started the process of reclaiming me, from secret fears, from self-doubt, from the cage I had put myself in. Of course I still struggle, but I’m stronger now. More confident. And it’s a magnificent feeling.
I originally chose the Iowa Young Writer’s Studio because it was the closest to my home out of all the camps I found online. If I could, I’d choose it again because the city was beautiful (think cobblestone, trees, and pianos in the street!), the program structured just enough to teach me, but loose enough to let my writing thrive, and the people beyond wonderful.
It’s the people I miss the most.
This fall I’ll be starting senior year a different person. And though I will be busy applying for scholarships, fighting senioritis, and rushing to finish my novel before I graduate, I’ll always remember. The Studio might be done for me (though I still dream about it sometimes), but the impact it had isn’t. Thank you, Iowa, for the incredible experience.
Kayla M. Bruehlman is a rising senior at Argyle High School in Argyle, Wisconsin. She attended Session 1, 2015, of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.
When asked about my summer, I proudly boast that I’m a graduate of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. The same question continues to inevitably arise from that statement: “Is it worth applying to?”
I always answer with the same enthusiastic, “Absolutely!” Because, if you’re anything like me, you never know what will happen.
I knew I wouldn’t get in. I was a freshman with mediocre grades, a freshman who couldn’t compete with older kids. In fact, before even reading about the historical significance of Iowa City, I was immediately attracted to it because it was far from home and I needed to escape.
In fact, I considered it such an unlikely event that I could get into the Studio that I told people that I honestly didn’t have any summer plans.
Iowa City is, according to UNESCO, the most literary city in America. Kurt Vonnegut, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, and many others all came to Iowa to hone their craft. There’s magic in the air in Iowa City; sitting in the beautiful pedestrian mall gives one inspiration to write.
I think the most brilliant people in the world are those who understand their strengths and weaknesses. When we harp on our strengths, we can become legendary. When we correct our weaknesses, we don’t become perfect, but rather better. Iowa harps on this philosophy, and has inspired me to as well.
The Studio definitely isn’t for everybody. If you’re looking to avoid reading over the summer, please don’t even consider applying to Iowa; the reading, while very enjoyable, is heavy. While I read more at Iowa than I did in English class at home, the reading we did at Iowa was filled with my teacher, Ashley Clarke’s, favorite pieces. I look forward to returning to English class in the fall with much more enthusiasm.
Iowa’s program is very well-rounded; including the workshop, which is all about revision. Every other day, students are expected to generate new ideas for writing. It truly is a paradise for writers.
George Seyfried is a rising sophomore at Fairfield College Preparatory School in Fairfield, Connecticut. He attended Session 1, 2015 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. If you’re considering applying to the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and would like to ask George questions, you may contact him at email@example.com