Iowa ~


Author's note from Mo: Below is an essay about my experiences at the 2010 Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I also attended in 2011. (Contact info below.) Workshops continue weekly and on weekends through the summer. Here is an example of one week's menu of workshops. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

One Week Workshops June 12-17, 2011

This Duck Walks into a Bar: Writing Humor ~ Kate Aspengren

Advanced Novel: Stretching the Scene ~ Kyle Beachy

Newspaper Columns and Op-Eds: Spinning the Personal Essay ~ Linda Bendorf

Playwriting 101: For the Beginner ~ Maggie Conroy

Writing Literate Mystery Novels ~ Michelle Falkoff

Shaping Strategies: How To Create Your Essay ~ Patricia Foster

Poetry: Raising and Lowering Your Standards ~ Douglas Goetsch

Short Fiction Workshop ~ Rick Hillis

Cross Genre Workshop for Poets & Writers ~ Richard Jackson

All Purpose, Hard-Drivin’ Fiction Toolbox: A Generative Workshop for Writers ~ Wayne Johnson

Get Lost! Fiction without Formula ~ BK Loren

The First Novel Primer ~ Sandra Scofield

Who Do You Think You Are? Enlarging the Scope of the Memoir ~ Peter Trachtenberg


A week on the Great Plains writing with writers

Essay and Art
By Mo Conlan

As I drive with a writer friend the 500 miles to Iowa City, the Great Plains has never looked more beautiful. Fields of corn, tassels shining gold; acres of soybean, plants a rich green. Fields dotted with rolled hay. Farmhouses and barns bright white, the sky so blue.

I thought of friends whose summer vacations take them to see the Wailing Wall, the Great Wall, the real “David” and Monet’s haystacks.

I am on my way to Writing Camp, and I do not feel deprived. This is the 24th annual Iowa Summer Writing Festival, my first. My travel companion Dottie has been several times and gives rave reviews.

The festival is held during June and July on the campus of the University of Iowa. It offers (noncredit) weekend and week-long workshops. These are led by writers and teachers with credentials.

There’s a staggering number and variety of topics. Some examples:

* Advanced Short Fiction: What We Are in the Dark, led by Lee K. Abbott.

* The Messy Self: Advanced Memoir, led by Marilyn Abildskov.

* Encounters with Ourselves: Writing a Spiritual Autobiography, led by Mary Allen.

* Plotting the Plot in the Novel Weekend, led by Kelly Dwyer.

* Transforming Memories into Children’s Stories: Beginning Writers at Play, led by Cheryl Fusco Johnson.

Leafing through the catalog I’d felt like a Writer in Wonderland. Finally I chose a week-long workshop called Fearless Fiction: Techniques for Ongoing Creativity, led by novelist and teacher Leslie Schwartz.

I didn't know Leslie's writing, but she looked fun and sparky in her catalog photo, and I liked what she wrote: “This class is designed to give you the tools to uncover the courage and fearlessness you already have so that you may boldly write your truth… and never give up.”

I needed a little “fearlessness” and I needed to dust off a novel I’d put in the drawer.

We arrived on Sunday night. On Monday morning, we attended a lecture, one of a series called “Elevenses.” Each day a different speaker. This day, Leslie Schwartz, my teacher, spoke -- and she spoke to my writer’s soul.

Leslie talked about her writing class for hardcore gang members in Los Angeles, through a program called Homeboy Industries -- jobs instead of guns.

This is what I’d been waiting to hear and not knowing it – I want my writing to make some mark for the good on the world.

I want my fiction to be not only well written and entertaining, but to say something about what it is to be human right now.

Each afternoon, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., our class met. Leslie led in-class writing and critiquing.

The quality of writing in the class was publishable or on its way. I was thoroughly riveted to the class readings.

Leslie shared techniques to help us slog through the jungle that can be a novel or short story.

Here’s what helped me most and got me unstuck with my novel:

* You don’t need to know the entire plot now. Plot evolves from characters and their thwarted desires (conflict).

* You do need to decide on point of view(s) – which character(s) is telling the story.

* You won’t worry about plot so much if you decide on a structure. For example, does the story take place over a short or long period of time; does it go back and forth in time; is it based on a single event, such as a wedding.

* Try anything. Break the rules. Change mid-stream if it’s where your character takes you. Don’t believe all those don’ts. Be fearless.

There is nothing quite like a week with writers. It’s a a great, shining wall of wonderful.

Some nuts-and-bolts information:

Weekend sessions cost $280; week-long, $560.(These are 2010 prices.) Cost does not include housing; there are several hotels nearby and many have special lower rates for festival participants.

Iowa City is a lovely college town on the Iowa River. There’s plenty else to do – opportunities to mingle – when you are not writing.

* For further information: 319-335-4160;

*For more information about the Homeboys Industries writing program or to request a copy of its recent publication of poems and stories, Homeboy Review:

Conduct your own writing reatreat.

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