Whenever people ask me how I liked the Iowa Writers' Workshop, I'm not sure how to answer. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," wouldn't be inaccurate, although unfortunately that line has been taken. Before I went there, an undergraduate writing instructor, Michael Cunningham, told me that it was a place where, in any given writing class, people might literally throw a story onto the ground with disgust, or run from the building crying, but that at least they cared that much about good writing--where else in the world was that true? I thought he might be exaggerating, but no. He was right on both counts.
I once saw an instructor drop a student's work to the floor, and then leave the room five minutes into a two-hour class, after announcing that the piece didn't merit further discussion. And I've never seen so many people openly crying outside of my son's nursery school, during those first two weeks when the two year-olds were adjusting to being left by their parents. So was the workshop a nurturing environment? Even this question is surprisingly hard to answer, because in spite of the drama and the unalloyed criticism, most people I was in school with improved a lot as writers over their two years in the workshop, and kept writing after graduating.
One thing I can say for sure is that Iowa City (and the workshop as a microcosm of it) is a claustrophobic place. I love many things about it, from pie shakes at the Hamburg Inn to Prairie Lights bookstore, but everyone is connected to everyone else by two rather than six degrees of separation, and nothing you do goes unnoticed. I started writing the story that turned into my novel here, in the late spring of my first year in the workshop, inspired (or plagued?) by that feeling of being constantly monitored and judged. I had felt similarly watched in small town Japan, where I'd been living for the two years up until I started graduate school, but I'd been insulated from a lot of the gossip by the language barrier, and from the fact that Japanese people tend to be discreet. They do their shit talking in private, or they disguise what they're saying so cleverly that you can barely catch the innuendo. Not so here in Iowa, although there are midwestern codes as well.
"Harlan has been going through some changes," a customer recently told my friend Mark, who runs an antique and art store here in Iowa City, about a mutual friend in his eighties whose boyfriend was recently arrested, twice, for shoplifting at the High-Vee, and for drunk driving. At this point, you might be wondering whether I'm exaggerating. I sure know a lot of specifics about this old man and his boyfriend's recent crime spree. I have heard about poor Harlan and his boyfriend from three separate people over the past twenty-four hours that I've been in town. I know that Harlan's boyfriend is in his sixties, a good twenty years younger than Harlan. He could be suffering early-onset dementia, but it's unlikely. More folks suspect that he's been shoplifting and driving drunk for a while now, and this is simply the first time he got caught. I know that he is the truffle maker for the New Pioneer Coop, where the rum balls have been tasting extra rummy lately... You could accuse me of spreading the gossip by writing about Harlan's boyfriend here, but the Iowa Press Citizen already ran accounts of both of his arrests in the police crime blotter. This morning, over breakfast muffins, when I mentioned to another guest and the innkeeper at this bed and breakfast that it seemed like a violation of the man's civil rights to print his arrests in the paper, they both laughed uproariously and said, "No it's not." I guess when you break the law you forfeit your right to privacy. Still, I'm starting to feel badly for the truffle maker. "Iowa City may seem like a really big city," said the other guest (who hails from someplace in Nebraska, so I couldn't bear to tell her that, um, it really doesn't) "but it's actually a small town."
The picture at the top of this post is of the house in which I lived during my first year at the workshop. See how it's split vertically so that one half is painted white and the other is bare brick? I always assumed that this was a sign of my landlords' laziness or poverty. They lived in the white side, and didn't seem to do anything for a living, since both of them were always home. I occupied the first floor of the bare brick side, under the overhang of the porch that obscured almost all daylight. It was a shotgun apartment, and the floor dipped at an angle so that I could roll a tennis ball from the front door through all four rooms to the back, which let out onto a fetid creek. My landlords paid the gas and electricity for the whole building, and if I left a light on (say when I dashed out to the New Pioneer Coop, just two blocks away, for a forgotten recipe ingredient) I'd inevitably come home and find a note reminding me that money didn't grow on trees and asking me to please turn my light off in the future. The notes got increasingly passive aggressive (actually, they left passive behind after a while) to the point that I would run from car to apartment and slam the door behind me with my heart racing, terrified of running into them, in spite of the fact that they never said more than "hello" to me in person. All the criticism was on paper--as was true, for the most part, in the workshop.
In Iowa City, other people's opinions crowded me like those brick walls. And I was by no means innocent. I like to gossip as much as (maybe more than) the next person. And "the next person," in Iowa City, is probably a writer, with finely tuned antennae and habit of repeating good stories. Eight years after leaving the place, I still know way-too-intimate details about some of the people I keep running into, people who probably know way too much about me, too, although we've never spoken face to face.
About a year after I left, a tornado hit town. The New York Times ran a photo of the very house in which I'd lived, its roof and two-tone brick facade ripped clean off. Looking at that photo, I wondered what happened to my mean old landlords. Assuming they'd found shelter somewhere (the article mentioned no deaths) I felt glad that they had lost their hideous house, and could no longer rent that dark and dank unit and torment graduate students. So I was very surprised, on a walk yesterday, to see that the house had not only been repaired but also restored to its former shabbiness. They fixed the place and repainted it so that one half is white and the other brick, a detail that my knowledgeable friend Mark assures me is not historical. No, they just want a literal line drawn between themselves and their tenants, to make sure it's clear who's leaving the notes.