Not the Typical Cliquey Pods

nick making a taco

Nick Johnson, post-camp, making himself a “non-dormitory” taco

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.