This is a guest post from Tracy Shapley. Tracy is a freelance copywriter, all around ne’er do well, and occasional waterer of plants. Her hobbies include writing fiction, mixing together various flavors of soup, and trying to convince her friends that she’s not a hipster. Character development is more important to her than plot and she has read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. She has a lot of thoughts on them. Tracy lives in an old farmhouse in Iowa City with her partner Sean, their two cats Dry Bones and Gristle, and the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut.
I’m lucky enough to be an (old!) undergraduate student studying fiction writing at the University of Iowa, located in one of the most literary of literary towns: Iowa City, Iowa. This is where Flannery O’Conner studied writing, where Vonnegut began work on Slaughterhouse-Five, and where Marilynne Robinson lives, teaches, writes, and pastors.
It’s easy to get caught up in the canonical history here but I must also remember that it’s the place Sandra Cisneros very openly hated studying. And for good reason! The long list of “impressive” fiction professors at my university have included Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Irving, Philip Roth, T.C. Boyle, Jonathan Ames, and Richard Yates. What do these folks all have in common? I’ll give you two hints:
It’s true that these days it’s somewhat more diverse. The director of the Writers’ Workshop is Lan Samantha Chang, who is decidedly neither white nor a dude, and current faculty include James Alan McPherson and Thomas Sayers Ellis.
Still, after reading We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and discovering what a wonderful experience studying or teacher here was for most white men and what a frustrating experience it was for many women and people of color, I decided to stop throwing my hands up in the air and clutching my pearls and start doing something about it. Well, half of that is true – I’m sticking with the pearl clutching / arm throwing because there’s still plenty of stuff to clutch and throw about. But last year I made it my goal to support today’s crop of diverse writers in Iowa City and I learned a few things along the way.
Buying books was the easy part
The only requirement for admission to the graduate program here, the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is a GPA of at least 3.0 (though this is a soft requirement – students with lower GPAs are sometimes considered). Technically, it’s possible for someone to get into the Workshop if they’ve never published, but it’s uncommon. Earned reputation or not, it’s considered the top program in the country and the cream of the crop tend to flock here so most of the folks here have published.
Buying their books was easy – I just headed to our local bookstore, Prairie Lights, which often makes it on lists of the top bookstores in the country, and browsed the “Local Authors” shelves. On the surface Prairie Lights may not seem like a particularly interesting bookstore, but a stop at the delicious coffee shop / wine bar and a chat with bookseller Paul Ingram (recipient of one of James Patterson’s holiday bonuses) is enough for anyone to understand that the hype is (mostly) deserved.
I bought one new book every month. I didn’t do much planning – just walked into the bookstore and bought a book that looked interesting by someone local I’d never heard of. For the most part I stuck to my preferred genre of literary fiction but I made a point to pick up one book of poetry and one book of essays as well.
Getting to readings was relatively easy
There are literary readings most nights of the week and often at multiple venues. For a city with just over 70,000 people, that’s a pretty impressive feat. I mean, just think about this for a minute: Back in 2013, not long after I’d moved here, I went to the Englert Theatre to see Margaret Atwood. It was a free reading so I knew I needed to get there early and assumed an hour early would be fine – the theatre holds 725 people for heck’s sake – but, not for the first time in my life, I was wrong. The theatre was filled beyond capacity over an hour before the reading started. Good showing, Iowa City!
My goal was to make it to a reading a week. I went to a huge variety of readings, from open mic poetry nights in dark bars to the Live from Prairie Lights series, which is a weekly reading from students in the International Writing Program (IWP). As with any type of art, these readings were hit and miss. Every time I decided readings weren’t for me, when I’d sat through several weeks of nervous, monotone authors reading work that wasn’t in my wheelhouse, I’d come across someone doing a reading with puppets or a collaboration with an author and her actor friends, and I’d remember that writing is more than just words on a page, or words streaming out of someone’s mouth – it is art. It can be expressed in many different ways.
Reviewing every book was a challenge
All right, so I invested my hard earned money in lots of books – go me! And I went to a bunch of readings. Great job, self! What next? Reviewing them, obviously. If the purpose is to support authors on a smaller scale then getting them the miniscule amount of exposure I’m capable of getting them seemed that it should be one of my duties.
I used the typical routes – Goodreads, Amazon, LibraryThing, my blog etc. I also reached out to the authors when possible. I didn’t do any creepy stalking but with smaller presses and lesser known authors there’s usually a website that includes contact information. I’d just jot a quick note and let them know I’d reviewed their work. I was surprised by how excited several of them were – and by how excited I was when one added my quote to her online blurb section. That’s one step away from a Pulitzer, right? Okay, maybe two steps.
What did I learn in my year of supporting local authors?
So, I identified an issue I have with the publishing world: so much attention is given to big-name authors, many of whom are white and / or male, and not enough attention is given to authors with local followings, to those hawking their books online and suffering through the humiliating experience of reading their most private thoughts on a stage to people who are often just staring numbly at their phones, uninterested in or unaware of the vulnerability in front of them. What did I learn?
First of all, none of the “local” authors I read were actually local. I hadn’t considered that before I started but the vast majority of what the locals here refer to as “local” authors are in fact former students / professors at the Workshop and almost none of them come from anywhere near here. Like me, they were transplants to a city that most of the world imagines is nestled in the middle of one big old corn field of a state.
I also learned how grateful writers can be to just have someone giving the work a listen or a close read. It humanized the writing process for me. I don’t know why but those people, the ones who write books and have their pictures on dust jackets, I’d always felt that they’d done the work already. They’ve been published, they’re out there in the world. Now they’re authors. But in reality it’s a constant struggle. They are never done. They are always working and looking for a new audience. I can’t say that I do any less pearl clutching, but I am grateful to have spent a year of my life as a member of that audience.