Writing Your Little Stories In the Shadow of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
I was planting my cornfield, hoping that the magic baseball team (a.k.a my writing group) would eventually show up. If you build it, they will come.
By the time we moved to Iowa City seven years ago, my husband and I had lived in three cities in five years, where I’d held three different jobs, earned one MFA, and miscarried twice before our first daughter was born.
Every new mom with a baby learns to read the room when a conversation turns to any ambition that’s not go-back-to-the-job-I-had-before or be-a-stay-at-home-mom-forever. So I did not say, out loud to other people, that in Iowa City I wanted to find smart cool people to exchange marked-up pages with, write a novel about the saddest thing that ever happened to me, and then email my dreams into the universe and find my project the perfect publisher-home.
If I was being totally honest with myself, Iowa City’s reputation as a writers’ town was way higher on my list of reasons for moving than I let on.
We’d lived here once before, when my husband was in med school. The summer we got married, I’d workshopped my first stories in an everyone-welcome Summer Writing Festival class. At twenty-three, I was in love with our new grown-up life together in an apartment above a store called Golfzilla. I was also falling fast for the occasional big magic of making made-up stories more real or sad or weird in my summers off from teaching high school. Eventually we’d left, learned to navigate the New York City subway and then the 405 freeway, but now we were back in the land of if you build it, they will come.
Even though Iowa City was a kind of unicorn town where you get the best of a bigger-city scene and an affordable mortgage, I knew it could be a confusing place for a non-Workshop-writer to find her people. It was easy to find cool non-writers to hang out with, though. I met Roman history experts who, for some reason, rode their bikes across the entire state every July. I met doctors and nurses who fought for harm-reduction policies and abortion rights, who grew gorgeous tomatoes in their spare time and gave zero F’s who wrote Freedom. I joined a book club full of ladies with humongous kitchen islands who loved novels but would have thought I was some kind of delusional weirdo if I said I was trying to freaking write one. I met a cool stay-at-home dad who mixed a strong old-fashioned and was always haggling for deals on mid-century modern furniture and a mom who painted birds every single day.
My non-writer friends supported me through family crises and my husband’s ER shifts and through the wild emotional swings of staying home with two kids under two. But I would feel a tug in my gut when the conversation shifted to whatever thing the other people in the room had in common that I did not. During their discourses on the medical charting system (come on, it’s Friday night), bicycle crashes (maybe if they drank fewer beers or didn’t bike at night?), and native Iowans’ favorite lakes (I mean, lakes, ew), I sighed and stared at their bookshelves. When I tried to confess my creative dreams, there was always a lost-in-translation factor. It was tricky even with the other art-inclined moms who were not writers. The on-ramp to semiprofessional photography or painting isn’t easy, but I can’t sell my short stories in an Etsy shop.
Somewhere in this town, I knew there were people who could join me in long conversations on unreliable narrators and fight me on whether the second person was ever okay. But I didn’t know how to find them. I wouldn’t know until years later how many writers were hiding in plain sight as I traveled around town with one kid strapped to me and another doing howling laps around us. Rachel Yoder, author of the critically and commercially successful novel Nightbitch, was shaking egg maracas across from me in baby music class for a year, but we never knew we were both writers until both our books were already finished. (Nightbitch is partially about a woman desperate to meet a very particular kind of art-mother friend in a very-obviously-Iowa-City town!) Another mom at preschool pickup wrote a viral essay and later opened a golden-light-suffused writing retreat center in town, but in those early years, I only ever talked to her about how cute her kid’s mud boots were.
Finding other writers isn’t like finding, for example, other tattoo enthusiasts, who might show visible evidence of their interest. It takes a lot more asking around. If you start doing that while you’re still hand-waving about a document you last opened three years ago, you might as well stick to talking about the awful Iowa weather. In those first years here, even if a magical group of writer pals had appeared in the middle of Hy-Vee, parked their carts in a circle, and invited me to a workshop right there in the beans-and-tuna aisle, I wouldn’t have had anything to share with them.
I had a lot of work to do, alone with my screen and notebook, before it mattered at all whether my town was America’s per-capita biggest producer of writers or raisins. In the City of Literature, my path from back-row readings lurker to literary community member was part serendipity, part rejection, and part stubborn belief that the difference between my unwieldy private document and someone else’s hyped novel might be only a matter of time.
My interactions with MFA folks were limited to eavesdropping before readings at Prairie Lights. Listening to them didn’t make me want to go and crash their workshops, but it did make me long for my own community in this ecosystem that existed because of them, for a writer friend to sit next to on the white plastic chairs. I recognized the beats of their conversations from my own late nights out with my MFA cohort, now scattered across the country—though the Iowa folks did often seem more confident in their own next creative rites of passage than we ever did.
I felt more protective of the Workshop students than jealous or excluded, knowing how hard it had been to readjust to real life in my own post-MFA years. The mom in me wanted to buy them all hot cocoa and ask about their hometowns, to make sure they had warm-enough coats for the Iowa winters, and yeah, maybe ask them to keep their voices down, like, a little bit—but then I am also a writer who loves gossip, so go on ahead.
The Workshop’s presence in Iowa City brought with it a vibe, a pressure, and a culture that lit a fire under me. On some psychic level, knowing how many other people in a five-mile radius were writing books helped me the same way the thousands of other people riding their fancy exercise bikes helps me get my own ass on there now. The urge to feel more like myself, by showing up to a blank document and making a mess, finally overtook all my insistent excuses.
The Workshop’s presence in Iowa City brought with it a vibe, a pressure, and a culture that lit a fire under me.
On New Year’s Day 2016, my babies were blessedly, temporarily napping and I was nursing a hangover. January 1 is a cliché day to resolve to be better or begin a new routine. But it also takes the question of “why today” off the table and gives you permission to fail. But my only goal was to show up, and I did. I was planting my freaking cornfield. Whether the magic and the ghost baseball team (a.k.a. a finished novel I was proud of and a writing community to share it with) ever showed up was not entirely within my control, but my routine was.
Almost every day, I wrote: a stream of consciousness about my IUD, a lyric essay about my neighbor, a bunch of podcast reviews I self-published on a WordPress blog. I let the diaper genie fill up and let the tiny laundry languish damp in the dryer. Some days, no one napped, and I only wrote the time and date in my Google doc: look, I was here, trying to find the rhythm and practice. Gradually, I resurrected the first chapter of my MFA thesis. I signed up for an online Catapult class, where I reimagined the thesis as a novel about a brain tumor and love and homesickness and coming of age and my Jersey Shore hometown.
My efforts to rediscover my writing practice coincided with teaching toddlers to be self-sufficient humans. There’s nothing like peeling a kid off the floor from a tantrum at Target, or hiss-promising them candy if they would please, please put on pants, to put you in the mindset of well, guess we’re doing this now. In both my writing and in my parenting lives, I was suddenly undaunted by small, weird, private failures, astonished when something actually worked.
The more I wrote alone, the braver I got. I asked a question at a reading and made Stephanie Danler laugh on her paperback tour. I had a plastic cup of wine at the public library fundraiser with Maureen Corrigan from NPR and asked her for a book recommendation, and I did not tell her about my final.docx. (Who knows what I would have done after a second plastic cup of wine, though.)
I finished a full revision of my novel. I wrote a query letter and sent it out. It wasn’t ready, but it almost was. Then the magic baseball team started to show up. An old MFA friend moved to town for love. She knew another woman who wrote the best stories about small-town secrets. Another mom I knew from a politics group turned out to be a writer who was also a few years post-MFA, published many times but also paused in her practice while she put her whole heart into a newly blended family. We didn’t find each other because of some law-of-attraction vision boards. We found each other because we had all finished enough work on our own that we couldn’t stand to stare at it alone anymore.
In the fall of 2019, we all met at a coffee shop, and then we kept meeting every month after that. I brought them my whole novel, one chapter at a time. We didn’t follow the rules we’d learned in our MFA workshops, and we liked it that way. This little team listened when I shared my so-close query rejections. They were down to talk about The Artist’s Way and word-count goals, to talk through the challenges of tearing a chapter down to the studs and said, “Yes!” like the Hawkeyes had just made a touchdown when I suggested changing a point of view. I left each of our monthly meetings feeling that private, full-of-ideas-and-insight feeling I’d needed for so long. In our first meeting that we’d switched to Zoom in early 2020, they told me my draft was done. By our next Zoom, I got to tell them I had an agent. Five Zooms and one outdoor-picnic-table meeting after that, a publisher.
In this town, when your title shifts from “lady with a Google doc” to “lady with a book deal,” it becomes much easier to recruit for your cornfield-writer-baseball team. Last week I had a salad with a novelist who was kind enough to write me a blurb and who has reached out to help me through some pre-pub anxieties, and I got invited to read a passage from my novel at a festival and met half a dozen other nice writers in one night, both things that wouldn’t have happened without that Publishers Marketplace screenshot. But the work and doubt and little private line-level victories are all the same as they ever, always were.
What would I say to a writer who arrived here in similar circumstances, who knew in her heart she couldn’t sustain the expense of city life but could never live in a place isolated from art? I would probably meet her at a party where a few people are on roller skates, because a lot of people also do that here. I would pour her a drink and introduce her to everyone at the party as a writer, because it’s not as obvious a passion as roller skating.
I would tell her the order in which I did things, from my earliest stories ripping off famous writers, my long phases spent away from the page, those lonely naptime nonsense pages, to the confidence and connections that came with their accumulation. I would not demand she do things in the same order. But I would tell her that if she feels isolated, or intimidated, or stuck, I would bet her a year of strong coffee that the other people wrestling their big ideas onto a little screen will show up for her after she types The End and is ready to start asking around.
For the non-Workshop writers, it’s DIY all the way in the City of Literature. It’s awkward and awful, occasionally, and you will feel lonely and left out a time or twenty, but if you keep showing up and keep going back to your own glowing screen full of nonsense, if you keep the faith and keep eavesdropping, keep asking people what lights them up and keep forgiving yourself for your own audacity, imagining you deserve to write your little stories here, too, it can, eventually, be a place that is almost too good to be true.