Iowa City writing festival draws international crowd

BY ELLE WIGNALL | JUNE 28, 2012 6:30 AM

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Lawyer by day, 46-year-old Paige Nichols of Lawrence, Kan., has channeled her creative side in the heart of Iowa City for the past three years with the support of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

"There is a combination of inspiration, practical instruction, and camaraderie," she said while sitting with a new friend from Atlanta. "Other people are living these double lives — having a profession and something else they care about."

Nichols is one of the 1,100 to 1,300 creative people who will make their way through Iowa City's 26th-annual Summer Writing Festival with the hope of improving everything from the word choices in their poetry to the plots of their novels.

In 1987, the festival's first year, participants had nine workshops to choose from. This year, there are 140 weeklong and weekend workshops taught by 75 instructors spanning across various genres. After 26 years, word of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival has spread across all 50 states and every continent.

"We have a woman here who is spending most of the summer with us from Singapore, two ladies from Argentina, a friend of theirs from Chile, folks coming from India, and every state," said festival director Amy Margolis. "We try to make ourselves visible."

The central link among the amateur, aspiring, and successful writers from every corner of the globe is a desire to write and a strong sense of community.

"One thinks of writing as a solitary activity," Margolis said. "And to be able to look up from the page or from the screen at the end of your writing day, or even at the beginning, and have another soul with whom you're simpatico, that's a gift."

The participants of the festival over the years have ranged in ages from 17 to 97, she said. Though the workshops are limited to 21 and older, exceptions have been made for particularly driven writers.

Festival secretary Jeanne Stoakes said that while young writers working on getting into graduate programs participate in workshops, the average age of participants is in the mid-40s.

Margolis believes the festival caters toward the mid-40 demographic because it is an age that doesn't get to focus deeply on a hobby for an entire week on a regular basis.

"[A week or weekend is] nothing if you're an undergrad and your only job is to learn," she said. "It seems like an eternity if you're a working person who doesn't get an hour to yourself to do your writing during your week."

Writers who come to the festival expect an intense week or weekend focused on writing and writing activities, such as readings and discussions. John Shannon of Haymarket, Va., 48, had a helpful experience in the first of his two workshops, Five-Finger Exercise for Novels and Short Stories, with instructor Sharelle Byars Moranville.

"I'm working on a novel," Shannon said. "I wanted to make sure I was structuring it properly."

Like many, this is his first visit to Iowa City, and he said he liked the atmosphere.

"What struck me was how the city really is geared toward all the writers," he said. "It is incredibly supportive."

Not only does the festival support the writers who come to let their creative juices flow, it provides a good opportunity for Iowa City businesses.

"It's always a really good thing for Prairie Lights," said Jan Weissmiller, a co-owner of Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St. "We see an increase in book sales, we see an increase in coffee-shop sales, and we get good attendance in readings.

"It is really fun to meet people from all over the world who are excited about writing and listening to readings in Iowa City."

Iowa's strong tradition with writing that expands beyond the Summer Writing Festival to undergraduate work, the Writer's Workshop, the International Writing Program, and other segments of the Writing University makes Iowa City a perfect fit for many, Margolis said.

"We depend on our neighbor programs to help direct everyone to the one that makes the most sense to them," Margolis said. "You just sort of shoot your arrow in the direction of Iowa, and we are going to have something for you."

Tuition for a week-long session is $560 and $280 for a weekend session, which covers tuiton and some meals, but not housing.

Check back on page 2 of 80 Hours every week for coverage of summer writing events in Iowa City.

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