This article is about Iowa. Iowa City is the home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a world-renowned Master of Fine Arts writing program. It features among its alumni John Irving, TC Boyle, Ann Packer and Nam Le. Over the years its teaching faculty has included John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Richard Yates, Kurt Vonnegut and, more recently, Lan Samantha Chang and Marilynne Robinson.
I was there as a participant in the Graduate Fiction Workshop, a summer program aiming to squeeze in a semester’s worth of knowledge into a three-week intensive course. My facilitator was ZZ Packer, Guggenheim Fellow for Fiction and author of the award-winning story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.
I had long dreamed of going to Iowa. And so, when I had to plead my case for funding, even up until the week I was supposed to fly out, I kept on pleading, until the funding came through. When the US consulate told me I’d left my visa application too late, I called them daily, restating the urgency of my case. As I had to tick more boxes, writing carefully worded emails and praying to gods I’d long lost contact with, I kept the faith, the vision and my dream.
When I found out I was definitely going (I got my visa on the day I flew out), I wasn’t sure if I admired or deplored myself. My marriage had been pretty much on hold since receiving the acceptance letter from the University of Iowa, which, rather than giving me the green light, had instead signalled the start of a much longer journey towards funding and getting clearance to travel. My wife had become my life coach, forever reminding me to call funding bodies, sign application forms and generally take a breath every now and then.
By the time I got on the first of four planes, I was seriously ill. I spent day four in Iowa at a doctor’s office, being prescribed antibiotics, probiotics, a nondescript orange pill the size of a suppository and an inhaler. Soon after, ZZ sought volunteers for the first round of feedback for the Writers’ Workshop. I coughed twice, long, hacking, cataclysmic coughs, and then put my hand up. When she asked my name, I croaked ‘Laurie’. She wrote ‘L’ on her piece of paper and then changed the subject.
When ZZ later isolated the one paragraph of my story not fully unpacked to be workshopped as a class exercise, I felt what I could only describe as my stomach sinking. As they dissected, analysed and (in ZZ’s case) rewrote the paragraph, I wondered why I’d dreamt so long of coming here.
I had good reason to wonder. This was anything but a holiday: each four-hour workshop consisted of ninety minutes in exploration of key craftsmen and women in literary fiction, requiring fierce and frantic note taking. Two hours of workshopping followed this, with three writers workshopped, twice a week. For those of you unfamiliar with the process, it is like being called to the stage and then having your pants pulled down in front of the audience.
Dreams were shattered, tales torn apart, and writers driven to drink. No one’s work, it seemed, was too good for assassination, no stories too strong, too brave or too visionary that they couldn’t be improved by more clarity, more courage, and a commitment to unpacking sentences that would have made Nabokov proud.
As we progressed, we picked at plot, dissected dialogue, consolidated characters and rebuilt now fragile egos with burgers, beers and pie shakes. We hung out in libraries and cafes, sharing stories, soothing the homesick and heartbroken among us, and attending talks and literary launches.
Throughout the three weeks we were stretched, both as writers and as people. During that time, I shared major life events with at least five of the eleven class members, and by month’s end, felt as if I’d made friends with them all.
On the plane back from Iowa, I regained my cough, the rings around my eyes now a shade of dark grey. Two days and four flights later, I arrived home, ready not to write, but to rest for as long as was necessary.
When remembering the trip, I think not of Iowa, but of a group of passionate writers all committed to excelling at their chosen craft; of a workshop salon on the last Friday night, where we each read pieces still destined for publication; of shared pizza and late night chats, taking taxis home down the empty streets, past one on a Wednesday night; of Prairie Lights Cafe, and dirty coins spread across the counter in exchange for mud-coloured coffees and cling-wrapped banana bread.
Of trying to grasp moments, even as they were passing.
This article is about Iowa, and the people who choose to call it home, if only for a short while.
Laurie Steed is a writer, editor and Killings columnist. He is currently completing his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia.