When I told my friends excitedly that I was going to spend two weeks in Iowa to attend the Young Writers’ Studio, they gave me perplexed looks. “Iowa?” they asked. “Isn’t there like, nothing but corn?” My best friend (God bless her) tried to be more encouraging. It might be a transformative experience to meditate in the midst of the corny wilderness, she told me. I could find inspiration in an ascetic existence and live on nothing but the land.The more my friends spoke about their extremely skewed views of Iowa, the more nervous I got. What if they were right? What if I was about to commit to two weeks of sitting on great, expansive corn fields in solitude with only pen and paper? But a small buzzing voice in my head told me that it was going to be a far greater adventure. To be honest, I couldn’t expect anything less after going through an extremely rigorous application involving jumping through flaming hula hoops held between the jaws of malnourished lions in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Only sixty or so of us survived. We don’t talk about it.
What we did talk about at the studio was writing, and it was an experience like no other. I had before never been surrounded by people who were so different from and similar to me at the same time. My peers were from a wide range of places and backgrounds, but they were all talented and fabulous in their own ways (attend one of our talent shows and you’ll see). The one beautiful thing that bonded us was our love of words.
During the Young Writers’ Studio, I sometimes had the strange feeling that I was somehow removed from the world as I knew it and transported into a better, more perfect universe. I was in a universe where the best afternoon was spent drinking white ginseng tea in a quaint bookstore with friends, where reading love poetry under the summer shade wasn’t cheesy, where practically every coffee shop I walked into was filled with other writers constructing their own complicated, wonderful universes.
For me, Iowa City will always be the place where I had a record number of “firsts.” I went to a used bookstore for the first time and proceeded to spend more money than I ever did in a regular bookstore, resulting in an obese suitcase on the trip home. I had my first Middle Eastern eating experience with a delicious serving of falafels. I had my first nighttime stroll through a cemetery, where I held my iPhone flashlight up to sketchy gravestones and had a staring contest with the Black Angel. I had my first workshop experience, during which I watched with horrified appreciation as my peers delve deeper into my writing than I thought possible. I emerged from the studio not only as a more cultured individual (trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve tried a blueberry pie shake), but a more insightful and daring writer.
When I returned home and settled back down into my less perfect life, I made sure to tell my friends that Iowa was not just a big ol’ cornfield and that my experience at camp was far more than an ascetic existence. It was, in fact, one of my most enriching summer adventures yet.
—Siqi Liu is a rising junior at Naperville Central High School in Naperville, Illinois. She attended Session 1 of Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.