Unintended lessons from the acclaimed American writing program.
Image of the author’s home in Iowa, courtesy Dao Strom.
In the late summer of 1995 I arrived in Iowa City via Greyhound bus, toting one backpack and a guitar I could barely play, and I quickly found a room to rent in a house on the outskirts of town. A big white farmhouse set at the edge of cornfields and soybean fields, as I was told by the farmer and his wife who owned it, had been moved from another location just a few miles away. Moving even that short distance had been a gargantuan effort, the house taken off its original moorings, maneuvered and secured precariously into place on the trailer bed of some long truck, then driven painstakingly slowly down the highway. There was videotape of the house-moving event and (if I remember right) they even showed it to me that afternoon when I came to be interviewed for the available room. In my mind there exists an image of the house hanging over the sides of a semi-truck bed, extending across both lanes of a two-lane highway—a house in a position no house should have to be in. There also may have been another part to the story, about how the house had to be divided into two halves in order to be moved, or maybe this is just something I associate from seeing pieces of houses in transit along other highways I’ve traveled—the interior of a manufactured home gaping open, indecorous and exposed, its innards private, yet also so mundane. Sometimes a layer of plastic wrap shields the severed opening and its edges flap in the wind. I’ve seen that too.
I took the room in the farmhouse that late summer and it felt very much, even at the time, as if I were entering a grace period of my life. Previously I had been living in cities—Manhattan most recently, San Francisco before that—where I defined myself by a certain amount of striving and self-aggrandizement. But I could not keep up the game as it seemed my friends in those places could; I consistently suffered setbacks and overreactions—mostly emotional—to things others did not. Leaving New York City for Iowa, I told myself I was entering a kind of life that would be more “real.” By this I meant more ordinary, closer to the American mien, as I saw it at least. I would live by my heart, not my intellect or ambitions. Here was a place where I could work slowly, be quiet, be sincere, maybe, at last, for once. My thinking was naïve, but it was mine.
The kindness that met me upon my arrival in Iowa was notable and assured me I was on the right track. On my first visit to the department office for the graduate creative writing program I had come to study in, I was quickly befriended by a senior-year student who wrote down her number, impressing on me to call her if I needed anything. I remember looking at her in her summer dress, with her ready smile and invitation to friendship even before we knew anything about each other, and how I felt unsure of whether to trust her or not. I was not accustomed to communities where people started out by welcoming you even before you had proved—or disproved—anything of yourself.
Complicity, I understand now, starts with degrees of desire and belonging.
In the coming months, however, I would learn that the welcome on the surface did not come without its underpinnings, and that this was to be a largely silent game. Its strategy was one of omission, of nuanced and civil exclusions that you could easily fail to perceive (especially from the position of tenuous inclusion)—that I would almost fail to perceive. Complicity, I understand now, starts with degrees of desire and belonging. I had entered believing the writing life would be a classless, raceless realm; but, ultimately, it is not. It would take me years to uncoil the knots of hope, self-delusion—of privilege—in order to see clearly enough to write about it.
The room I rented was blissfully cheap—two hundred dollars—and the house was more classic, more beautiful, and also older than any I’d lived in before. A full attic and basement, hardwood pine floors, six bedrooms, four porches. I loved everything about it. The soundless passage of trains on the distant horizon; the way lightning storms crackled above the fields and caused the whole cloud-bruised sky to flash purple for just seconds at a time; the pragmatic mom-and-pop feel of bars and diners and corner stores. In winter I would sit by the parlor window staring for hours at grass blades poking up through the white-powder snowdrifts outside. The director of the program would state in his very first address to our new class that never again in our lives would we be in a community like the one we were entering right now, never again would we be part of such a concentration and number of like-minded, creative colleagues.
It was the first time I’d heard an adult tout the merits of contemplation. Soon other faculty expressed similar sentiments. In the words of one professor in particular: one of the chief deficiencies of our modern era was that people did not spend enough time allowing themselves to “do nothing” and “to think.” This professor—M.—was one of my favorites, and this message—on the deficit of self-reflection in modern life—appeared to be one of the primary lessons she was determined to impart as a writer and teacher. She cut a commanding figure, with her head of coarse, long gray hair and her somber Athena-like eyes, set in a face that grew very jovial and round whenever she laughed, which was sometimes quite often, even as she spoke about the profound detriments of the present “collective consciousness.”
Although (I confess) I never finished any of the assigned readings in M.’s literature classes, I still loved her lectures. I would drive home after her classes seeing the fields of fallowed earth in suddenly deeper hues, the sky’s blue stark and saturated with meaning I had before somehow missed.
The farmhouse always had a total of four roommates, and in my two years at least eight different residents cycled through. They changed with the seasons and semesters, until at last I was the one who had lived there the longest. When I first moved in, all of the roommates were six or more years older than I was, and had been through the program already or were otherwise done with their studies. Looking back on it now, I realize there were three people whose presences impressed upon me in sympathetic ways. I remember, first of all, Bruce, who worked in the local bookstore and was in his early thirties, who was skeptical of the other writers in town but always ready to converse about whatever metaphysical or mythological topic I would broach. He wasn’t reading fiction anymore, he said, only nonfiction, because he couldn’t deal with the way reading other fiction voices swayed his own voice. (This was a problem for my writing too, though I was not quite aware of it, then.) One of the things I liked about Bruce was that if he was working in the bookstore when touring authors came through, I could go up to him after or before a reading and ask, candidly, what he thought of the visiting author, and he would tell me. His validation of authors seemed based on their kindness or on the under-recognized veracity and merit of their work, and I trusted his instinct, his desire that truly good things be valued. On one of my first nights in the house I was in the kitchen boiling broccoli for my dinner, and when Bruce saw this he could not let it alone. He took over the stove, poured olive oil in a pan, added garlic, then sautéed the broccoli and spritzed it with lemon juice. That I had never before seen this done to a vegetable, that I did not by age twenty-two know how to do much more than boil my food, says as much as I can about where I had thus far come from.
I can still see, in my periphery, the boyfriend backing away from the bed with his arms raised, as if to emphasize his innocence.
Just before I moved in, I was told, the kitchen had been renovated because of a fire. I don’t remember exactly how they said the fire started, but Bruce was the one napping in the house when it did. He was the one who ran desperately up the road to the nearest neighbor to call the fire department. The other roommate, Hillary, when I first met her, thought maybe the kitchen had caught on fire because it wanted to be rejuvenated. She had a way of saying things like that, which, as I listened, drew me into her sense of being on the edge of revelation. Although she was twenty-eight, she had a childlike aspect to her, a certain mirth and wisdom combined, and a touch of melancholy as well. I remember she had written lines of poetry, in spirals, all over her red umbrella, and rumors circulating in the department about a disastrous relationship she’d been in the year before. It was Hillary who ran into my bedroom one night and hugged me—I was screaming at my boyfriend, not words, just screaming, and my screaming had woken my roommates. I can still see, in my periphery, the boyfriend backing away from the bed with his arms raised, as if to emphasize his innocence, as Hillary burst into the room. There are only a few times in my life I can remember being pushed to such points of wildness, where screaming became not so much a loss of control as the only way I could see, in the moment, to raise a barrier, to attempt to reestablish control, and to re-isolate myself. It may be safe to say my housemates and I got to know each other sometimes more closely than was comfortable.
There were days when all the residents would be working simultaneously, each of us off in our corners, hovering over notebooks or computers, toiling away at our words. I would sit at my computer to write and end up singing along to music instead. The others probably heard the muffled sound coming from my room. I learned at least the beginning broad strokes of how to play guitar and sing in Iowa. And the house knew our parties and celebrations, too. I remember: instances of stringing up piñatas, and bucket-stilt races, and fireworks, and a ubiquitous pair of papier-mâché heads making the rounds at a couple gatherings. Some of us at those parties would, in the years ahead, go on being the drunks and layabouts we were then, and some would become veritable adults, who married spouses that made sense, and whose names I would read in esteemed book reviews, the ones we all read. But the great many of us, who perhaps had enough promise back then, would become that other kind of writer, the one you never or hardly ever heard of. At the time, though, all of us were young and unknown.
The third roommate was the one I was perhaps closest to of all. He was one of the few other Asians in the program and, like me, also a fiction writer. K.’s family had emigrated from South Korea, first briefly to somewhere in South America, if I remember right, before settling in New York City, where K. grew up. One of the first conversations I remember having with K. happened when I ran into him in the bookstore, and he told me about one of the writing exercises he had assigned himself, which was to re-type stories by famous authors, moving through his bookshelf in alphabetical order. Somewhere around Chekhov, he said, he’d run out of steam and given up the experiment. I remembered this exchange because I thought it clever of him, and also that it showed his dedication to craft as much more diligent than my own. I was highly undisciplined and verbose; I wrote beautifully, I was often told, but without direction or much control. K. erred on the side of reticence and brevity.
K. would sometimes slide down the banister instead of taking the stairs, on his way out of the English building. He had thick-framed black eyeglasses and a nice shock of black hair that swung loosely across his forehead. He smoked cigarettes and walked quickly. I remember passing him one afternoon after one of M.’s lectures on the nature of reality, that I had taken to be rather profound in its articulation of paradox, and K. making a remark to the effect that what she was talking about was essentially nothing new—“It’s just the same as Buddhism.” And after he had said it I realized that I knew it too: people like us, though we did not acknowledge or talk about it, knew well the tenuousness of reality, the tensions of a dual living. It was inside us already.
K. moved into the farmhouse at the start of our second year in the program. This was after his quiet disappearance from M.’s workshop at the end of our first year—a situation I had heard about but did not learn the full details of until we lived together. Sometime toward the end of that first year, a story began to float around that K. had stopped coming to M.’s classes as a form of boycott. He was still appearing in other professors’ classes and around campus, it was noted. I remember wondering about it and an occasion or two when someone asked me, pointedly, if K. was all right or not. As if (by dint—really?—of me being also Asian) I should know. All I knew was that something had happened to potentially hurt or offend him and that his refusal to come to M.’s class was a statement, albeit a silent one. Though it was talked about among the students, I do not recall M. ever inquiring or even addressing the situation.
K. eventually told me that he was sitting in class, having some casual conversation, when a Gestaltian exercise of a sort arose, with M. citing what period of classical art such-and-such student would represent. This had something to do with physical appearance, but also with a student’s style, his or her aura. Perhaps M. was assigning specific painters to a student, or whole periods of art; I don’t know which exactly. At any rate, at one point someone called out, “Who would K. be?” (and I see him in that moment sitting erect and impassive in his seat, gazing toward her through his glasses, maybe wary, but maybe also at first pleasantly anticipating what her insights might say about him). To which M.’s reply was that she was not familiar enough with Asian art or artists to be able to fairly assess him.
I simply wanted too much to admire her, to see in her the mentor I thought I needed.
In short: the reason he had decided not to attend any more of her classes was because she had demonstrated herself unable to place him, due to her perception of the color of his skin, anywhere in the context of Western art.
When I later spoke to K. about this incident, when I heard his side of it, he remarked that in another conversation, at one party or another, somebody had told him he looked like Jean-Paul Sartre—evidence that the culture of one’s person could contradict, even entirely bypass, the barrier of one’s skin. I was sympathetic to K.’s refusal and respected his integrity, but I also knew—if it had happened to me—that I might not have reacted in quite the same way. I don’t think I would’ve gotten angry. And I most certainly would not have been able to keep myself away from M.’s class, even if I didn’t agree with her, for I simply wanted too much to admire her, to see in her the mentor I thought I needed—the wise woman, the contemplative whose mind was higher than the rest of ours. I also could not have resisted the desire I had for exposure and assessment of my own work by her and by my peers, for the ritual we indulged in by attending those workshop courses. These were things I hungered after at the time, oblivious to what it was I really sought.
Of the three graduate programs I had applied to, Iowa was the only one that had accepted me, offering me a full fellowship to attend. In a stroke of seemingly similar fate, that same summer (just before boarding the bus) I had received news that I would be awarded my very first publication and prize, more money than I’d ever received for anything in my life. I bought a Toyota four-wheel-drive pickup—a vehicle fit to carry me through a heartland winter, I thought.
As I saw it at the time and still see it now, the fact that the story I entered in that contest actually won and was published was something of a fluke. It was a short story for an undergraduate creative writing class several years earlier, when I was nineteen, and I had written it fairly hastily and spontaneously, immersed simply in the first-person voice, finishing the last five pages the night before it was due, and never revising it. The voice, the setting, the atmosphere were all heavily influenced by the few pieces of art that I loved at the time—the voice-over narration of Sissy Spacek’s character in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, the gothic and slightly caricatured Americana of both Flannery O’Connor and Sam Shepard, and and John Steinbeck’s early California pastoralia. By the time I arrived in Iowa I was still enamored of these, but had begun to veer also toward the heartbreak of Raymond Carver stories, and my recent discovery of country music—the old, good stuff.
When I first turned it in, my writing teacher had said, “I think perhaps you don’t realize quite how accomplished this story is.” In my naivety and arrogance both, I thought I did know: in my mind the story was just about what it was on its surface, a twelve-year-old girl on a farm in a rural area who has a wistful interaction with a drifter whom her father disapproves of. I had drawn from my own childhood only remotely. There were chickens and dogs, there was a scene in the beginning with the father and brother wrestling porcupine quills from the snout of the family dog (an incident I had witnessed several times), and there were the northern California country foothills of my memory in the story’s backdrop, with their dirt and pines and distant-blue ridges and landmark stumps. But there was nothing of reality about my own family in this story, nothing of culture: nothing of our actual, very particular, inimitably accidental, mixed-cultural landing. The success of the story lay simply in my ability to mimic styles and the voices of other things I had read, other portraits of America I had wished to project myself into. And the aspect that struck my teacher but that I did not then even glimpse, I see now, was the oppressiveness I subconsciously had attributed to the father figure in the story. It was there even in the opening line of the story (“My father is a big man”) and in the implication at its close, that the father may or may not have killed the drifter.
I drove my truck to Chicago to receive this short story award in October, my first semester at Iowa. Photos with other contestants and the coordinators of the prize show the anomaly of my presence, in terms of skin color and age. But I did not think about that, nor about how I may have entered a world I had no real place in.
In that second year, K. and I became much closer friends. Once, I was talking to my boyfriend on the phone in my bedroom, asking questions, demanding answers, and in this conversation it was at last revealed to me that there had been more than just the one other woman I already knew about (he had admitted to me only the lesser infidelity) and that with the second woman things had gone even further. At the beginning of this conversation, he had denied everything, trying to press onto me the crazy card, until finally I managed to draw the truth out of him. When I hung up the phone, I was crying. K. came into my room and sat beside me on the floor and talked me back to a calmer state. He didn’t have to explain to me that he had been listening or that he wasn’t surprised—I knew he didn’t like my boyfriend.
My Iowa bubble had burst, you could say, and it had cast me back out to a place that felt more like where I actually belonged.
For several years after leaving Iowa, K. and I would keep in touch; he in New York, me back in California. K. ended up, almost effortlessly, it seemed, working for a literary agent and then as an agent himself. He would be instrumental—the agent, literally and figuratively—in the shepherding of my first novel to publication. He was the one who pushed me to write the most ambitious and unusual aspects of that book, and to find its voice. And the book would never have sold, almost did not, without his particular handle on pitching it. He sold the first books of several of our Iowa peers as well, and then at some point announced he would not be agenting anymore, and fell somewhat off the radar. I never learned exactly why.
My book sold only very modestly, not at all at the level the publishing house had hoped, and they dropped me midway through the writing of my next one. I was asked to pay back the part of the advance that had been given to me for the second book of my two-book contract. My Iowa bubble had burst, you could say, and it had cast me back out to a place that felt more like where I actually belonged.
There is a last image I hold in my mind of K. and the house in Iowa, from the day I left Iowa for good. I had packed up my truck, my cat, my guitar, my few other belongings. I had cleared everything out of my room except for a handful of change I had been collecting on the windowsill, a couple dollars’ worth that I expected might buy me a gallon of gas on my drive back west. I was already on the road by the time I realized I’d forgotten it, and it was a small thing to go back for, but I turned around. As I pulled up the driveway and got out of my truck, K. came out to meet me. He must’ve been watching out the window, because he was carrying my pile of coins in his hands. I still see him walking across the lawn toward me with the big white farmhouse in the background, holding calmly what he already knew I had forgotten.
Dao Strom is the author of Grass Roof, Tin Roof and The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. She is also a writer of songs. She has been the recipient of a NEA Literature Fellowship, the Nelson Algren Award, an Oregon Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellowship, and a 2014 RACC (Regional Arts & Culture Council) Project Grant. She lives in Portland, OR. Her hybrid book/music project, We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People, will be published summer 2015 by Jaded Ibis Productions.
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