Saturday, February 27, 2010

Iowa Summer Writing Festival

I got my catalog for the 24th Annual Iowa Summer Writing Festival the other day. For anyone not familiar with the program, it is run by the University of Iowa and offers week long and weekend workshops through June and July.

Thumbing through the catalog brought back memories of the four times I went there. I took magazine writing, two children’s writing classes and one on travel essays. With the exception of one of the children’s writing classes where almost everyone was experienced, most of the people taking the classes were testing their toes as writers.

When I think back on the classes, what sticks in my mind is how I got to know all the people through their writing. It was neat to start out the week as complete strangers and by the end, know their hopes and dreams and inner thoughts.

I loved going to Iowa City. I always stayed at the Iowa House which is the University of Iowa’s student union hotel. The rooms are spartan, but pleasant with their view of the Iowa River. It was literally right outside the building, which ended up a being a problem two years ago when the river flooded. I wasn’t there that year, but saw pictures.

In a weird way I enjoyed the certain melancholy aloneness I experienced outside of the workshops. Once we left class, everyone went their separate ways. I always ate alone at one of the restaurants in the downtown area that was walking distance away. Who would have thought Iowa City would be where I finally got to try Ethiopian food?

I have a lot of snapshot memories. Walking across a field of grass at twilight with a multitude of fireflies twinkling on and off. Watching the river melt into darkness as I worked on my assignment for the next day.

Eating dinner in a noodle house and looking out the window at the eerie yellow sky, not the slightest of breezes stirring, wondering if the tornado sirens would go off.

Then there was the time in the middle of class when the sirens did go off and we had to rush down to the basement as the power went off. Huddled together, we waited while the storm cell passed over.

Walking up a steep hill in the darkness on my way to the local ice cream parlor. The sweet smell inside of the freshly made waffle bowls. Waiting in the long line for my chance to pick a flavor. Then walking back in the darkness with the taste of strawberry cheesecake.

Taking a bus to the Coralville mall and walking in Target and knowing exactly where everything was because it was just like the one near me. Then losing myself in the familiarity and being surprised when I walked outside and realized I wasn’t home.

Before I went the first time, I kept looking at the University of Iowa website and the web cam view of a bridge over the river. Then when I got there and was walking on a bridge, realizing I was in the view I’d been looking at.

I brought what I hoped was a picture book manuscript to the first children’s writing class I took. It was called Monty, Monty, Monty and was about a Scottish terrier with an attitude - are there any other kind? I held my breath when I met with my teacher, a Caldecott award winning author, waiting for her pronouncement on my story. It turned out she and the class both loved it and urged me to send it out. I did, for awhile, and got some positive feedback, but then I got involved with the crochet mysteries and until I started writing this post, had forgotten all about it.

I think the biggest draw to the summer workshops was being in the midst of people for who writing was still such a dream. They were so infatuated with what their doing. Away from their regular life, often for the first time being taken seriously as a writer. My favorite was a woman who was taking home a jar of Iowa City air to put next to her computer as inspiration. I hope it worked.


Camille Minichino said...

What a wonderful experience, Betty. I love the air in a jar story!
Once I had a boss who went to DC often and would bring me back snow in a jar!

Did you start your crochet mysteries in Iowa?

Nice memories.

Betty Hechtman said...

I have to ask. Did the snow make to you or was it all melted?

The last time I went to Iowa City, I had just turned in my first crochet mystery and was waiting for my revision letter. The only fiction I ever worked on there was the Scottish terrier picture book.

Camille Minichino said...

It was a bottle of water by the time it got here but a nice reminder of a kindness.