Spotlight: Finding the joy in writing

BY IAN MARTIN | APRIL 06, 2011 7:20 AM

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Almost two hours into this particular writing workshop, Mark Mayer has not taken the pen out of his right hand. Sometimes he shakes it, other times it rattles between his fingers, but it remains the only motion on an otherwise still person.

As with the three pieces before it, the Boulder, Colo., native intently takes in this particular story — the beginning of a longer piece about an identical twin who can read minds — and asks the same open-ended question he has asked for every story.

“What worked well with this?” the 26-year-old says, handing the conversational responsibility to the four students sitting in Stanley Hall’s Ecklund Lounge.

Mayer, who is in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — a program whose alumni have won 17 Pulitzer prizes — is writing a collection of short fiction, and he is in charge of the four to five undergraduate workshops per semester along with Writers’ Workshop member Adrienne Raphel.

The two took over the program in October after the previous head was relieved of her duties.
Immediately, the effect was notable.

“They know how to give constructive criticism,” freshman Jenna Raef said. “They’ll ask a lot of questions that lead you into ‘Oh, I didn’t think about this before.’ ”

Mayer didn’t immediately go to the Writers’ Workshop after graduating from Brown, instead trying to make it as a writer on his own. Eventually, though, he realized he said that he wanted to be paid to write, and applied to Iowa, even though he thought he would never get in.

Now back in a college setting, the benefit has been huge, he said.

Working with undergraduates in p`articular is exciting, he says, because of how happy the younger students are to write.

“It’s just good to be around people that are enthused about [writing],” he said. “You can read in their writing how much they love to read.”

Raphel agreed, saying that there’s an obvious joy surrounding the program that she and Mark have made prominent again.

“They’re really writing for themselves,” she said. “They’re here on a Sunday evening when they could be doing whatever.”

Mayer and Raphel’s collective efforts have also spread outside of just the workshops when comes to activities for people on the floor.

When given the task of repairing a program that Raef said kids were “uninterested” in, the pair tried to think of something unique that could make students interested in going out to local readings.

Bringing some humor to the usually stiff readings, Mayer described a bingo board that was made and given to the students that had things he described as “typical” of an author doing at poetry or fiction reading, such as talking about the airline flight or referring to a famous author by her or his first name.

All of this — the workshops, the local readings, and the general culture of writing in the living learning community and the university — is what makes Mayer excited to be at Iowa. It’s unlike any other graduate school experience, and he said that’s making him and everyone a better writer.

“It’s the community of the place,” he said. “It’s because everybody wants to be here that all these great people are here and they’re really excited to be here.”

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