Tuesday, December 22, 2009

green girl & the iowa summer writing festival (part II)

I arrived on campus and was immediately struck by Iowa City’s similarity to Madison (my Alma mater). I felt right at home waddling up to the front desk of the dormitory I’d booked a room in. All right, everyone gave me speculative looks as I hauled my luggage through the lobby, but this was my third baby, I felt healthy and hale and ready for a final fling before becoming tied down with months of diapers and breastfeeding and midnight colic all over again.

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 Wisconsin. I chose a spot at a round table across the grand hall and sat across from two friendly-looking middle-aged women. Peering at their nametags I breathed a prayer of gratitude. They hailed from New Hampshire. The tables filled and I studied the participants over my iced tea and small talk. No one from Iowa, only a couple other women from Wisconsin—this looked like a great start to branching out with other writers. A screenwriter from the Twin Cities sat beside me and asked which section I’d chosen. “Revising the Novel,” I announced. “Mary here from Florida’s in it too. But I haven’t met anyone else taking it yet.”

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 Union and the coffee room (my sole addiction—okay, besides books and chocolate and public radio). There I met up with people from the night before and enjoyed a literary chat (ah! How I miss the intellectual adult conversation I abandoned when joining the Mommy Brigade).

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 Chad and Virginia and sometimes Dwight (we joked and goofed around more than high school Sophomores with library passes). I’d stroll to the Elevenses, the daily lecture offered by faculty, and sit by Libby, perhaps Marni or Mariana. In the classroom I’d position myself by Libby one day, Pat the next, Nina and Lauren another day. Every night there were readings to attend, lectures to listen to or other fun to be had. My ice cream break, supper, evening chit-chat had streamlined to a few constants by the end of the week, however: Mariana Damon, Marni Graff, Nina Romano, and Lauren Small.

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 Arizona desert—Mariana Damon’s pages were descriptive and pleasantly gory. She’d drawn a world of intrigue for me: a Native American tribe, art historians, a Catholic mission placed on a reservation. Blood in the Desert was a clean read, and why not? She taught middle school English, her concern was not for grammar or spelling—it was style and setting. Lively debate ensued when Lauren questioned her depiction of an Indian tribe—the room buzzed with opinion on how to handle such sensitive topics. Mariana defended her position and asked such probing questions of the group—she had a scholar’s mind despite her flowing hippie skirts.

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!


  1. I am loving this story, especially the parts about how you met Marni and some other names I know.

  2. ..and then i gave birth...
    no, wait.

    that festival is terrific. and you're bringing back memories for me.

  3. Oh what fun! I'm off to follow some links...

  4. It really sounds like a great time. And you're much braver than me. ;-)

  5. Sounds like so much fun! Can't wait to read part iii. :)

  6. I love how you are a grownup, but you do so much for yourself--the writing, the karate--you inspire me to want to do more with my talents.

  7. I love writing conferences, writer's retreats, book readings, festivals. As Templeton might say "It's a virtual smorgasbord" of goodness.

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  9. What a great way to get in a little Mama time before that sort of thing is on the back burner for a few months.

  10. Sounds like a wonderful experience. I can't wait to read your book. Maybe you can help me with my next one-I should have and desperately need a course like this! xoxo


  11. Green Girl - Thank you so much for sharing this experience with me! It sounds like fun ... and maybe I can share my own experience with you. =)

    I hope you had a great Christmas with your men! Happy New Year!


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