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!
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.