2001: A Space Odyssey

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A Day in the Life of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

We here at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop have been surprised to find ourselves – for lack of a better word – trending. From Eric Bennett’s allegations in “How Iowa Flattened Literature” to n+1’s book MFA vs NYC, we really didn’t think there was more to say about our institution…and then Hannah Horvath, in an odd twist of fictional life becoming reality, was accepted on Girls.

Of course we were excited by the buzz. But in this larger discussion, we found that something was lacking: namely, the view from Iowa City. Right here, right now.

So: here it is.

On a dismal midwinter Thursday, we – eighteen current students of the Writers’ Workshop, poets and fiction writers alike – set out to chronicle one ordinary 24-hour period in our lives. That February 13th, we took copious notes. We worked, whether on our novels or on our Twitter accounts. Some of us taught classes. Some of us went to a poetry reading and after-party. And some of us just ran around tossing Valentines into each other’s houses.

My colleagues’ responses may vary widely in form, ranging from poems to stories to lyric essays, but all of them are, like my colleagues, entertaining. And furthermore: excerpts from their responses, when laid out to roughly span those 24 hours, give a decent picture of what it’s actually like to be a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop right now – that is, to be one of many people all striving to do the same difficult thing, in the same moderately-sized city, at the same talked-about school.

Hannah Horvath: take note.

On waking:

(Van Choojitarom, second-year fiction)

Van is having trouble leaving his apartment. The problem today is getting dressed. It’s not that Van is particularly vain or fastidious. It’s that as he’s putting on his suit and necktie he invariably begins delivering a bad guy monologue to the bathroom mirror. Welcome to my island, Mr. Bond, the solid grey suit seems to say. Sometimes he can cut it down, but other times, some inner Hans Gruberian impulse cannot be checked and he ends up trying on all his different coats in front of the mirror, regardless of the actual weather, lapels folded over his throat, inveigling the ceiling, delivering solid broadly humanitarian, ultimately Marxist reasons for Bruce Willis to surrender.

This morning he’s fixated on a grey plaid double breasted jacket that puts in him in mind of Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter. It seems to be driving him to wider, patterned ties: “I don’t really think your story has POV problems, Will. I just wanted to see how you’d react…”

(Jessie Hennen, second-year fiction)

Every morning I wake up and Colin is still asleep. Usually I lie there for twenty minutes and try to ease myself out of the bed without him noticing, but inevitably he does. “Stay,” he says, not quite awake. Then I have to sound like an absolute bitch and say that I am done sleeping, that I have things to accomplish. Really it is that I am sick of looking at the light fixture, at the sky coming in bright against my peach-colored curtain, the ceiling shimmering like the northern lights. While I look at the ceiling I think too much about the future.

“I can’t sleep in any more. I have to finish (x),” I always say. Today (x) is a novel chapter about giant deep-sea fish who grow weary of being imprisoned in a tank and incite their angry brethren to make the oceans swim with rage.

“Oh, okay,” he says, but he doesn’t let go. Frida the cat sits in the middle of the bed, meowing. I suppose she is cozy. I tell him I had a very episodic dream. “I was surviving the Rapture with my family. Our house was under siege, people kept throwing rocks at our windows, everyone wanted in. Finally the call came from heaven, and our whole house floated up into the sky above the angry mobs. I almost got Left Behind because I was drinking a beer, but I tossed it out and we made it to heaven.

“Heaven, it turned out, looked a lot like Milwaukee. Very small houses, a very bright sky. The powers that be were keeping us in a strip mall until they could find proper heavenly places for us. It was packed – kind of a shantytown, really. It had a barter economy going. Some guy had a computer with Facebook, and I convinced him to check mine. Jen Percy had been posting these really great photos of Hell. As it turns out, Hell is a dusty Victorian with vintage drapes and canopy beds. I wasn’t sure whether she was there on assignment, or permanently.”

“Well, you have to include that,” he says, and we get up.

On teaching:

(David Kruger, second-year poet)

I walk through a parking lot, down a flight of outside stairs and into an old brick building where I teach what is essentially Basket Weaving 101, but instead of palm fronds and twigs, I talk as vaguely as possible about metaphors.

Today I say things like: student A, you need more flesh and muscle for that prostitute in your car, and Student B, the statue of David you encounter during your trip to Florence might be thought of as symbolic of the patriarchy and therefore of the trials you and your gal-pals endure. Student C’s story is about the big game, and so I simply point to Plot Mountain on the board and suggest that stakes, when raised, are like little plateaus for the reader to climb and consider.

Toward the end of all of this, I really have to pee.

(Mallory Hellman, second-year fiction)

4:07 pm – I’m late to pick everyone up, and I’m the one leading our lesson today. When I pull up to Dey House, all four of my fellow Youth Writing Project volunteers are assembled on a snowbank waiting for me. One holds a bag full of construction paper. Another shivers under a hat with long ear flaps. Troopers. They get in, and I gently disrespect the speed limit until we’ve reached Cedar Rapids.

4:45 pm – Our gang of ten is happy to see us, even though we didn’t come bearing snacks. We cluster three tables together in the classroom and hang up our laminated Writing Club sign.

5:15 pm – Teonie, who is eight, has written an ode to tacos and nachos. Most of it is a meditation on her two favorite foods’ similarities, concluding with a tenderly inflected, “Are you sisters?” This leads, naturally, to a heated debate about which foods are sisters, which are brothers, which might be cousins, and which aren’t related at all.

5:45 pm – Lasagna and calzones are parents to spaghetti. Pizza is a cousin, on the calzone side of course. Macaroni wants to be in the family but isn’t – it rolls with the hot dish instead. Peaches and plums go hand in hand, but mangoes and green peppers have never met. Avocados and pears hate it when they’re mistaken for sisters.

(Matthew Weiss, first-year fiction)

Taught Interpretation of Literature. Big old room. Clonking around in my shoes.

Talked about the etymology of the word symbol.

It originally meant two shards of a ceramic pot broken at the moment two parties made a deal. Later, you’d know things were legit if the two pot shards fit back together.
Hence Plato’s: man is a symbol of himself, looking for his other half.
Also, a symbol could mean: a chance meeting, a receipt, a watchword, or a Pythagorean cult password.
For example, the Pythagoreans would recognize a brother by muttering things like, “What is the sea?” and getting back, “The tear of Kronos!”

Lost track of time. Possibly I showed the kids a clip from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I claimed was “symbolic.”

They’d never heard of 2001: A Space Odyssey before.

(Patrick Connelly, first-year fiction)

There is a girl in the hall where I teach rhetoric. She looks like she is about eighteen, nineteen years old. I always see her. She is hunched in an electric wheelchair with her wrists and her neck bent and her chin down. She isn’t quadriplegic; I have seen her hands and fingers move. I think she has a neuromuscular disease. Her body is small. She is sitting against the wall, alongside the other kids, waiting for the classrooms to empty. To be honest, I try not to think about her beyond the end of the hall (outside, at Prairie Lights Café, at the gym, at home, and then at a party after a poetry reading), but I can’t help it. Today is different. When I pass her, she is playing Bejeweled on her iPad Mini, swapping the colors around the screen with her finger; she is bored.

In class, I ask for a show of hands. Who’s read To Kill a Mockingbird? I get up and talk about empathy. You can never really understand a person until you climb into her skin and walk around in it. You can’t understand a controversy or advocate for a proper solution until you’re able to consider things from other people’s point of view.

Is simply being aware of something or someone any good? Because I probably won’t ever talk to this girl in the hall. I will only write about her.

I should ask my students what they think.

(Misty Woodford, third-year poet)

On the way home from teaching, I’m thinking about trochees, and this happens: “GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum” – by now I’m stomping out the rhythm as I walk – and I don’t realize I’m also saying this out loud until I near my apartment building, and see a figure freeze up on the lawn. It’s the guy who lives in the basement and I’ve scared him this time. I start to walk normally, more pyrrhic, I guess, and say, “Hello!”

He says “Hi” and attends to his cigarette. Dinner is multiple cups of tea and the hope that chamomile and valerian work tonight.

On writing:

(Thomas Corcoran, second-year fiction)

After rereading the last day’s work, I begin the current day’s session, writing on a 1971 Olympia SM-9 typewriter with a 12-point font similar to Garamond. Typewriters are useful when the desire is more to make daily advances on a draft than to polish the prose. Before being written, sentences are usually imagined but not too precisely; and except for the occasional “xxxx” (over which I always feel a pang), corrections are simply too hard to make in great number. As with writing generally the challenge is to convert insights that might have limitless depth but no duration into sentences that are stretched out in length but constrained by their gathered energy, like ocean waves striking the shore. After a lot of practice the prose is reasonably good in this format anyway. The rhythm of the typing helps. What may still be needed are selection, precision, and courage.

(Dini Parayitam, second-year fiction)

…This place is about vulnerability. Every second of it is a lie you tell yourself. “I belong here. I am happy here. I am happiest here among people like me.” Really you are very hyper-conscious of the fact that you aren’t actually happy here. Being with so many people who do these things that you love better than you makes you question why you are worthy of doing it at all in the first place.

This is what Iowa Writers’ Workshop teaches you:

1. The wish to write a good story is fake.

2. The will to write a good story cannot be trusted.

3. The insecurity you feel when you are done is normal.

4. The insanity of the writer is a very real thing.

(Andy Axel, first-year poet)
“Observatory Log: 13 February 2014 Iowa City”
1 discreet tree relief

10 a whole class chanting what sounds like “TOGA” with increasing speed

11 dough-faced boy in american flag vest with cup not actually from starbucks

12 prime view of the capitol from the waiting room

1 the word “widowed” on a dropdown menu

2 when I see more than three robins in the same place I start to get suspicious

3 I check to see whether I’m wearing a sweater

5 child ode to cat:
“Feliz: you are not like a garbage can.

You are like a light when you surprise me.

Do you speak Spanish?”
6 when I enter the Dey House it smells like ink and xmas

7 my view field’s all baldspot

11 dogs express interest in the terrible smell of my boots

12 enough of weather

(Jake Andrews, first-year fiction)

After lunch, I sat down to write. The main character’s girlfriend had just walked into his room and told him some good news. He recollects: “Had I ever thought about sex as a way to celebrate academic achievement?” (I, the author, certainly have; Daniel was a bit more surprised.) The story had taken a turn I wasn’t expecting, and I was stuck. So I started cleaning up my desktop (the one on my computer, not the one on which the computer usually sits, though it wasn’t there on this day in any case; I was sitting in a chair in the living room because – to re-emphasize the solitude that prompts reflection – my wife was out).

I stumbled on a collection of photos that my step-mom had put together for my dad’s funeral back in December. I had downloaded them and forgotten about the folder.

Two photos in particular jumped out at me. In the first one, my dad has me on his shoulders. I can’t be two months old. (My mother remembers taking this picture and being horrified.) My head peeks out above his hair, and his hands hold me in place. My pudgy feet are almost to his chin. In spite of the 1970s glasses, he looks remarkably like my middle brother, mainly because he is skinnier than he was in later life. He’s smiling like a kid – he would’ve been 20 – and looking at the camera. I’m gazing off to the left, my hands gripping his hair, my face – wide cheeks and a small chin – looking remarkably like my own son’s the day we removed him from life support.

In the second photo, my dad isn’t looking at the camera, but he’s still smiling. He’s on all fours, and I’m crawling between his arms, probably just over six months old. My left hand is raised, reaching for a balloon. If you look close enough, you can see that he’s holding it for me. My straight blond hair has lost the red hue from the earlier photo; like my nephew, I’ve got pudgy cheeks and pudgy fingers. I’m in motion. There’s a blur to my hand.

I don’t really know how long I looked at the photos in the folder. I didn’t write for a while after finding them. I made myself a cup of tea.

On readings and parties:

(Sean Zhuraw, second-year poet)

A friend, SE S, sees the stich of my saccades trailing the runaway cambus down Clinton Street, sees I’ve missed the bus.

She gives me a ride to the doctor.

My eyes are fine.

Try this when looking at something, she says, after looking at it, look away.

Take sanitary breaks, she says.

Take mind off.

There are layers among the distances, magnifications.

Her assistant returns to dilate my pupils.

When the doctor leans into my eye, she says, don’t look at the light; keep focus past it.

I buy a few Valentines.

I live in a small town, so on the way home I stop by JM’s house, open her door, sneak into her kitchen, stuff a rabbit down the back of her shirt.

It says, Ears Hopping you’ll be mine.

I also make one Valentine from two.

They’re angels unless you mess with their halos – the TV’s ad.

Later, I catch myself eating a sandwich in a mirror. It is the only way I can see what my hands are on.

Ditto the poetry reading that night.

Language is an organ, he says, not just sensate but reciprocal too.

Q: Do the eyes rhyme with their host?

A: I don’t know. I keep checking to see if it’s changed.

(Laura Ferris, first-year poet)

Now that my schedule for the day has played out, I feel less certain of how I spent my time. Tomorrow I know I am going to the library to do more research for my historical-ish surrealist-adjacent poem, spending hours at a microfilm scanner. I consider going out because I’m supposed to be writing about my day, but ultimately decide I don’t care enough about making the day seem like anything.

I watch more episodes of Sailor Moon with Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, think about to what extent I care about Valentine’s Day. I want to say that I usually do more, write more, than this. Today, though, I’m spent, uninspired, and a little lonely – and unable to go out.

(Will Jameson, first-year poet)

Anthony and Elyse and Jordan and I are drinking gin and tonics. Elyse doesn’t have a lime but she has a lemon. We finished the pepperoni and mushroom pizza from Falbo’s we’d ordered which was a circle cut into squares. Jordan is playing Drake on his computer and Anthony is drawing a grid in his notebook that plots where our poetics stand in relation to each other. It looks like a sketch of Orion without the helpful lines drawn in between to illuminate the figure. Elyse reads aloud some Norman Dubie. Anthony reads aloud some James Tate. Then we keep talking about ourselves.

(D.R. Simonds, second-year poet)
“The Willow Tree on the West Bank, Iowa River”
For Emma Woodhouse

Near the “Train Only” bridge we footbridge, you burn

willow branches two at a time, saying

you know I know

how to respond

in a heartbreaking situation, (having broken

hearts before), spine-burn

running thru your hands, but the other

white-hot willows nearby

I am never showing you, my first impulse for our survival

I can’t never show you.
(Jerika Marchan, second-year poet)

I want to be original and smart. I want to not feel guilty about eating half a chocolate bar for breakfast. I don’t eat microwave dinners. I want to delude myself into health. I listen to this interview on Iowa Public Radio because I feel like I can participate and because the conversation is smart. People feel strongly about things and I can, too. I Can Too.

I go downstairs and make a bean burrito. The door to the house is usually left unlocked, and as I’m guiltily overstuffing my burrito, someone busts in to tuck in the tag hanging out of my dress and leave me a Valentine. I scream for a long time.

Jessie gets home and asks if I wanna go to Meredith’s for pad thai and sake. Yes get me out of this house, I’m full of burrito. (I will eat only bunny-amounts of pad thai is what I tell myself.) Pad thai happens in a sake-induced fog. (Meredith googles “what’s in sake bombs?”) Meredith and I successfully open a very-difficult-to-open jar of organic coconut oil. I bust my ass trying to sit on what I thought was a chair but really was a cookie sheet resting on a chair, and I fall to the ground. It’s kinda nice. (Is that weird?) I haven’t fallen on my ass in a while. It’s nice to know what it feels like from time to time.

Jessie and I tell Mere about my ongoing boob-angst, and she looks at me for a quick second before deciding that I’m at least a D-cup.

(Rachel Milligan, second-year poet)

I wake up at noon, spend the day reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets on the couch, lighting three candles, blowing them out, and then lighting them again. I have a glass of wine before the Richard Kenney and Carol Light reading. My night concludes with one of my best friends scream-singing at me, perched on top of the refrigerator.

(Cassidy McFadzean, first-year poet)

After dinner, we walk to Dey House for Richard Kenney’s reading. Nathan slips on the ice outside our apartment, but he doesn’t see the blood on his hand until he leaves a mark on the door of the workshop. He wipes it off. We sit with Will, with Connor in front of us. The three of us were in Rick’s workshop last semester, and I see the other seven students scattered around the room. Rick refuses the microphone and reads a mix of riddles, charms, and pun-filled haikus, occasionally stepping out from behind the podium to address us, bringing his words closer to our ears.

The after party’s at Will’s and I make him show me the group pictures he took of our class last semester. I feel nostalgic. I eat pita chips and hummus and talk with Connor and Nikki about the classes we’re teaching. I talk with Winter about the buttons on the sleeves of her dress. I talk with Clare about how amazing Hy-Vee is, though she does not share my sentiments. I talk with Chad about Canadian poets, and Petro about Trailer Park Boys.

Every party proceeds the same: the bass gets turned up, the lights get dimmed down. Someone plays Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” We talk about how every party ends this way. It’s around midnight, and some of us leave, and some of us stay.

Image Credit: J.Y. “Warmer is not warm.”

A Writer’s Role Model: Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was a movie man. All over the internet, he is being remembered for his love for movies, for the enthusiasm he brought to film, and for elevating it to its rightful place as art.

All well-deserved. But as much as he “belongs” to film, so too does he belong to us writers. We ought to consider him one of our own, rather than thinking of him as a pop icon, denizen of another, separate world.

While movies were his subject, the written word was, for most of his life, his chosen medium. “When I write,” he said, “I fall into the zone many writers, painters, musicians, athletes, and craftsmen of all sorts seem to share . . . deliberate thoughts fall aside and it is all just there. I think of the next word no more than the composer thinks of the next note.”

Then later, after his illness had taken his jaw: “When I am writing my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was.”

Ebert elevated film to the level of literature, but at no loss to literature: an exceptionally well-read working writer, he would quote Wordsworth while trashing Baby Geniuses, or e.e. cummings while praising 2001: Space Odyssey. Ebert’s love of books manifested in a home library of 3,000 to 4,000 titles, and a book lover’s clingy expectation that he might at any point “need” one or another of them. The temptations aroused by walking past a bookstore were, he wrote, as bad as those faced by an alcoholic passing by a neighborhood bar — strong words considering his own self-documented struggles with alcoholism. He fantasized about moving to a smaller place and bringing only, say, 200 or so of his most essential books, but couldn’t really dream of giving any of them up because, in his words, “well, they’re books, and you can’t throw away a book, can you?”

The outpouring of affection shows how beloved he was by writers. The cause is obvious: Ebert cared intensely about writing, and more than many of us, he brought his best self to it. He was “reluctant to write in a hurtful way” — unless it was to trash a movie that he felt was cruel in spirit, or that insulted its audience. He helped other writers, too, extending his hand to young upstarts and secretly sponsoring other Chicago journalists who joined AA.

Say what you will about his taste in movies or his willingness to embrace “trash” (even in a “silly” film, he wrote, “you will find something profound” about “what people desire and fear”). No writer can help but find it humbling and awe-inspiring to know that a man who lost the ability to eat, to drink, and to speak somehow managed to keep writing. I doubt many people could do that. I’m barely able to muster the heart to write after I’ve eaten a burrito. Just holding on to the will to live in Ebert’s state would be too great a challenge for most, but he wrote and wrote: about movies, politics, atheism and faith, alcoholism, everything else in life, and death.

He wrote through a debilitating illness, through surgeries and years of hospital care. That is bravery, in my book. Doing something for love — of movies, of writing, of his fans — in the face of death is bravery.

We writers ought to embrace him for it. The rest of us can only hope that, if we are held on the precipice as long as he was, we are visited by some portion of his courage.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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