Iowa writing Prof. Hemley to read from book on do-overs

BY KERY LAWSON | JUNE 11, 2009 7:26 AM

Do you wish you could redo, revamp, or rework key moments of your past? Our lives are peppered with heartbreaking, horrifying, and humbling experiences, and if we had the chance, many of us would choose to travel back in time, Band-Aids in hand.

UI Nonfiction Writing Program Director Robin Hemley set out to do just that. In July 2006, he began a year-long journey to revisit key moments of his past including an embarrassing elementary school play, a missed high-school prom, and a college fraternity excommunication.

Today at 7 p.m., he will read from the resulting novel Do-Over! at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

“The book started off as a lark,” he said. “It became a more serious project as it went along. The book I started is not the one I ended with.”

In its zygote phase, Do-Over! was an article for New York Magazine. Titled “Big Man on Camp,” Hemley documents his return to Warrensburg, New York’s Camp Echo for a week as a camper, though he had served as a counselor there 30 years earlier.

“As a kid, I was a failed camper, an unimpressive physical specimen, an almost sissy who had to use his brains to deflect the bully’s animus and divert his attention,” he wrote in the piece.

The article, however, was only a starting point. He began to think about other parts of his life that deserved some reworking.

“I realized I could make a book out of it,” he said. “It took five minutes to make a list of things [I wanted to do over].”

The book recounts and reflects on his experience of returning to the sites of his childhood traumas as an adult and father, from an agonizing kindergarten episode to sixth-grade bullying to the dreaded ACTs. Being a 48-year-old in a kindergarten classroom proved more than just amusing it was enlightening, he said.

“[My new classmates] actually did treat me like a big kindergartner,” Hemley said. “They seemed to get the idea of a do-over … One kid said to me, ‘So who’s picking you up after school?’ [I told him] ‘My wife,’ [and he said], ‘I thought you were going to say your dad.’ ”

His journey through his past essentially took a year, from July 2006 to August 2007. Though many of his “relivings” only required a week, he came upon a few “surprises along the way.” One notable realization was that the stage fright he originally felt during his first-grade play, “The Littlest Angel,” meant far more than just missing a line. As he reprised his role as an “honorary angel” in a Georgia church, he remembered that the performance from his Ohio childhood was the only play in which his father saw him. At the time of his adult reprisal, his father had passed away five months earlier.

Since his first official childhood, he has written 11 books and served on the faculty of numerous universities. He received an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1982 and returned to serve as the head of the Nonfiction Writing Program in 2004.

“It’s great to have one of Iowa City’s own reading his work,” said Prairie Lights buyer Paul Ingram. “[Robin is] a wonderful guy.”

Although each individual event in Do-Over! serves as a learning experience, Hemley said, the journey as a whole brings forth a revelation in itself.

“Throughout [the experience], I learned a lot about regrets and retrieving things from the past,” he said. “I’m hoping [readers will] identify with this impulse to go back and fix the past, [but you can only] change your relationship to it. Defeats or failures are not necessarily bad. They strengthen you for your triumphs as well.”

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