I arrived on campus and was immediately struck
I unpacked my maternity clothes and groceries in my dingy room and headed for the welcome banquet brimming with expectation. I selected my complimentary T-shirt (small!) and found my name tag: Green Girl in
Amy, the workshop’s director, gave her welcome speech and introduced the faculty—I had every impression of professionalism. We were released to find our classrooms and meet our colleagues for the week ahead and I fell in line with the crowd, my bulging form soliciting discreet glances and full-force stares.
Maudy stood with a small gathering of women and one man in the foyer of the classroom building. There were a few nervous jokes about my condition and I realized D. was right. I’d stick out all week because of my pregnancy. My future writing partner Marni assured me that night in her New York accent (belying her name tag claiming North Carolina as her home state), “Don’t worry, I was a registered nurse for years. If you go into labor I’ll know what to do.”
After Maudy counted twelve heads she led us to our classroom with a dancer’s posture and slim grace. Wedging my belly into a desk, I peeked at my fellow writers around the room and took notes as each one described their work and writing experience—the novels and topics sounded fascinating. Women’s historical fiction, a family saga, murder mystery in the southwest, a British cozy. Feeling intimidated and foolish (and sweaty and huge), I told the group my book was “Chick Lit,” a romance novel about a girl selling kitchen products at home parties, but my working title, The Coddled Cuisine, got chuckles and I figured I had nothing to lose since I was already here.
We left with our first assignment: read the excerpts by Nina, Bill and Dwight and look at Point of View in Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Good-night, sleep tight, and I read the first book before falling asleep—frankly astounded by the quality of the pages proffered by Nina Romano.
Early morning I finished more reading before heading to the
What fun to critique other people’s work—ask questions, suggest a different word or phrasing, point out running motifs in the text. I poured myself into writing eleven critiques throughout the week, praising what worked and flowed, gently correcting what needed help. My book wasn’t up until Friday (I know, make the pregnant woman go last! What was I thinking?) and I prayed I’d receive the same forthright and honest feedback I delivered my peers.
Throughout the week I adopted a style I’d used in grad school—to best network, sit by someone different every day. Mornings I spent in the Union with
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Monday afternoon we met for the first round of critiques and we adopted a system of the author simply listening as the rest provided their individual comments, then opened it up to full discussion by the group—I believe each book got an hour and a half of discussion.
We began with Nina’s—and she intimidated the hell out of me. Her book, The Wayfarer, was about the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, enveloped three narratives and blew me away with its eloquent use of metaphor and description. But I vowed to make my critique as honest and sharp as I wished my own to be, so I offered up the first actual criticism of the entire group. I watched, breathless, and Nina’s posture shifted. Was she mad? I prayed not, I hoped she was like me—wanting to hear the all of it: good, bad and ugly.
Later she shared with me her gratitude for such a harsh and exacting critique. We were peas in a pod, writing teachers at heart with a tendency to read with such attention to detail it probably irritated a lot of the others in our group.
With that first day under my enormous belly, I propped myself up on pillows that night to read Lauren’s Choke Creek and the 2 other manuscripts due the next day, including Marni’s book, The Blue Virgin (available next year!)—a British mystery, a cozy really, one of my favorite types of book to read. Marni overwhelmed me with her hospitality, inviting me to her far nicer room at the Union Hotel for a quick pee and freshen up before supper. Her affection and honest manner charmed me as much as her book. She agreed that her ending needed tweaking, still, she had an agent! Who was I to tell her what to do? I still marvel at her eagerness to perfect her craft.
Wednesday we entered the
On Friday my colleagues returned my critique in the same honest and helpful fashion—for the most part. I had to avoid stereotyping my heroine and Nina hated her name (I did change it from “Sadie Blair” to “Sadie Davis” to soothe her!). My book came off as funny, honest, and relevant even to the male readers in the room. I was told to avoid adverbs, let Sadie be racier and spunkier, speed the pace of my narrative and add more description of setting. Everyone had a suggestion for what could happen next—and I left the room relieved and proud. They liked it! Sure, it needed some fixing, some revision, but people enjoyed reading my book—and even found it funny. What an amazing thing!
The Iowa Summer Writing Festival is truly the equivalent of summer camp for geeky grown ups--we even got a certificate for participating at the end of the week! All of it--sleeping in the grody dorms, the funny inside jokes, the cafeteria food, the camaraderie and the celebration of writing and books was an awesome experience--one I hope to repeat again someday.
And still...that's not the end of the story!