My Love Letter to the Iowa Summer Writing Festival: My summer camp

I never went to sleep-away camp when I was a kid. I was good with Beverly Day Camp and my white T-shirt with green pictures on it, and quite satisfied to excel in archery (and only archery) while returning home to sleep in my own bed, thank you. I was a shy girl, and chicken.

But I make up for it now. Every summer I spend February checking my email and the mailbox and the email again to see if the catalog for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival is up yet. As soon as it is, I rifle through seven weeks of offerings – five day and two day classes in all genres. I search for the perfect combination of topic, teacher, and schedule of my dear friend who makes it twice as much fun to go.

I sign up immediately, and start daydreaming about being in Iowa City for a week or two. You have to understand Iowa City – they have brass plates in the sidewalks with literary phrases and accompanying artwork. And statues of literary figures. And an independent bookstore with almost nightly readings. And open mic nights. And a grilled cheese cart on the pedestrian mall. And weekly concerts on that mall. And the perfect coffee shop to scribble in. It is a cross between the Sixties and heaven.

Not that it isn’t sometimes 90 degrees and humid, or under construction – this year they are repairing damage from the 2008 flood.

You meet first with your class on a Sunday night, a collection of 12 people that never fail to amaze. Meet my class this year: an airline pilot working on a nonfiction account of a 1928 airplane crash of one of the first air mail pilots ever. An anthropologist who travels to Japan to document the lives of people who inhabit a small island taken over by Japan in midstream in their lives. An author who just published an account of the life of Jefferson Davis’s daughter, now working on another related book. A historian writing about intentional childlessness. A photo editor with an encyclopedic knowledge of the dark ages and China. A documentary filmmaker/anthropologist writing about a personal and physical journey across Central America. A history professor working from years of family letters that illuminate their era. An international trade expert writing travel pieces on trips to India and elsewhere.

Okay, I’ll stop there but the rest of them are just as compelling. One more highlight: our teacher is writing her second book on her 30-year relationship with people who live in the Ivory Coast of Africa, after writing one on the issue of Native American mascots for sports teams.

How else would I ever get to spend a week with this collection of folks if I didn’t go to this summer camp?

What have I received from this annual experience?

I used to go just to have one week of my year to keep the idea of writing alive, when I couldn’t fit it in around children and work.

Then I went to improve my writing, which involved figuring out what I was trying to say and how to say it quickly and simply without a lot of side trips.

Now I go to figure out how to take my writing beyond the prosaic to the artful.

Other pluses: Friends from past years, teachers from past years, rituals like nighttime walks around the town, and the new frozen yogurt shop.

And then there is the rhinoceros skin I’ve developed by exposing my writing to twelve sets of eyes for comment and critique. If you can’t take the feedback, you’ll never get better. I plan to keep going until I can’t anymore. Unlike kids’ summer camp, there is no aging out of this.

And that’s why I love summer camp.


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