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  • Writer's pictureChelsea Utecht

Iowa's Writer's Workshop Summer - What To Expect

I was over the moon to discover I had gotten into the Iowa Writer's Workshop for the 2022 Summer Session. I hadn't allowed myself to even imagine I would get in; the thought crossed my mind that I wished my rejection would show up so I could plan my summer already. But a rejection didn't show up. Instead I was suddenly buying tickets for my baby and I to head to the United States 6 weeks ahead of my husband -- but trying to get through such a program with a baby is a topic worth a whole other blog post.

I scoured the internet trying to find what to expect, but I came up with nothing, and to fill that void I looked up my teacher, interviews with her, and her work (all of this I still recommend doing). But I wish there had been more. So here is what I was hoping to have found.

1. It will make you feel so vulnerable.

If you've ever workshopped before, I'm sure you know this is true. From the moment you submit your work, through the time you know people are reading it -- probably covering it in red ink! -- until days after your workshop is finished, you feel laid bare. Your writing is a piece of you and you have just given a group of people free reign to tear it to shreds. I knew this. But the Iowa Writer's Workshop is different than a community college class. It is different from a get together of writer's at a cafe. It is different even from other big name workshops! This is the workshop, and knowing that some of the most talented writer's I've met would be looking at my work with discerning eyes was the most vulnerable I'd ever felt. Keep in mind that I just had a baby in a country where it is normal for the whole hospital to just kind of hang out in your room. Some nurse, not a delivery nurse mind you, brought her tea in to check things out. This was more than that.

2. You're not the only one who feels they don't belong.

Some of us from the speculative group -- there were three groups: general fiction, speculative fiction, and poetry -- got together before the first day of classes. After some niceties, we fell into a brief, tentative sort of silence. Finally, someone broke it. "Anyone else a little shocked to be here?" The rest of us erupted into emphatic "yes"s. While I thought the whole group would be accomplished and confident writers, most of us were still unpublished and shocked to have made the cut. This early humanizing of one another really opened us up from the start.

3. You won't have as much time to write as you thought.

Oh, my big dreams. I was only going to workshop new writing, and man would there be a lot of it. I had a list of ten short story ideas. Maybe I wouldn't write all of them. But eight or nine at the very least. Probably some new chapters too.


I wrote one short story during the duration, and it wasn't one that I had conceived ahead of time. I workshopped early chapters of my novel, ones that had been written for months. And, you know what? All the better. They should see my most polished work. They should look at something where I say, "This is just about as good as I can do on my own," and then show me how to take it further.

The time in class not spent workshopping was spent with experimental writing. This writing will never appear in any of my work -- as far as I can tell. But it let me play with emotions, tense, point of view, style, and more. You'll get a lot out of it, but it probably won't be new words on the page.

4. You'll read a lot more than you thought.

On the same but also opposite vein: the reading. I read four pieces from my classmates each week for the official workshop. We had a bonus workshop on the side where I read more. The teacher assigned mentor texts and pieces on theory that would inform our experimental writing and the questions we brought up in discussion. Not a single word I read was wasted; we learned about opening chapters, reincorporation, pacing, world-building, dialogue, and on and on. In addition, I was given more recommended readings after my own workshop for inspiration on achieving my goal of a voice-y and close first person narrator. While it isn't at all what I expected, it certainly is what I needed.

5. Other writers are also looking to continue working together.

"If I get nothing else out of this, I need to leave with one critique partner." This is what I told myself as I rode the bus in that first day. I felt like I was dating again. "Don't look to desperate. Take it slow. Drop some hints. Bat your eyelashes." Okay. The last one probably wasn't necessary, but it was worth a shot.

I felt the time ticking by as no one seemed interested to continue. But as we neared the last class, we put together a group that now meets monthly. Not everyone makes it each month, but there is a space to continue our work together. I also have someone who will swap complete manuscripts with me...if I can ever get my manuscript complete. (There is just something about that 40k mark that kills!)

If you've made it to this workshop, or probably any such workshop, you have the goal of not just writing, but of being a writer. You're all in the same boat. You will find the people that you will vibe with and there will be a chance to continue. This won't be everyone. But you don't need everyone. You need a couple people who you can cheer on and who can support you in return.

6. You teacher isn't as intimidating as you think

They're accomplished. Don't get me wrong. There is no way around that. These are teachers with advanced degrees and books on the bookshelves. However, they are there because they were in our position once and they want to help us. And they really will go above and beyond.

My teacher set up one-on-ones with us, which she really didn't have to and was a huge ask. She encouraged me to be applying for more residencies. I hesitated. "I would love to. But this is my money for workshops for, I don't know, years, I guess." I was sheepish about it. Should my answer be that I would do anything and fight harder for it? I felt I needed to justify myself. "I have a baby too. If I didn't have family in the area..."

I guess I expected a sympathetic nod at best. But what I got was so much more. Suddenly she was sending me residencies for parents, grants for parents, telling me about her own experience. Suddenly I had a new perspective and things felt possible, even if not imminent.

This may not apply to you. But whatever your own situation is, just be upfront with your teacher. You never know what sort of wisdom is waiting to be shared -- and they want to share what they have.

7. Each teacher will do things differently.

Should this have been earlier? Is this really what most people are wondering?

My group met twice a week for three hour stretches. Tuesday was for writing experiments and discussing our readings, while Thursdays were the more traditional workshop where we would go over four pieces. While I was used to a workshop in which the author just sat and took notes -- actually, this is where I am most comfortable. I am not ready to defend my choices! I don't want to have to swallow down the lump in my throat when something stung more than I care to admit! -- but my teacher did things differently. Each workshop was a discussion with the author in which we had to participate. We additionally wrote edit letter to each that had the following components:

  • Synopsis of the piece as we understood it

  • What worked

  • What needs work

  • Questions the piece brought up

I felt like I was bringing report cards home when it was my turn to accept these. But more on that in my next point.

This is not the format for all of them. The poetry group workshopped every class, and each person was workshopped for a much longer time. Hearing this, I was relieved to have had the teacher I did, but other classmates wished that they'd been workshopped more. I say, no matter which you get, go in with an open mind. If I hadn't done an activity I thought was so stupid (list nouns? I know what a noun is!) then I wouldn't have gotten the inspiration for the short story I ended up writing.

8. Some of it won't resonate with you.

This was the hardest part for me. I am not talking about the writing exercise. For these I say, go in with abandon! Dive in head first. You'll get something regardless. But the same can't be said for feedback. My own feedback gave me whiplash! The pacing is too slow, then too fast. What realistic dialogue! Really? I was just about to say how contrived and info-dumpy it felt. Have you tried this in third person? In present tense? I don't like mold. You should take that out. You should tell us more about the mold and really lean into this symbol. All of this is real feedback I got, and it would never be possible to take all of it.

So what then?

What I eventually realized was I should take it all to heart. I should sit with it all. Because surely there is some truth in all of it. But what then to actually execute? My decision was to listen to those that were along for the ride. Who saw and appreciated what I wanted to do but also saw that it wasn't ready yet and needed a push in one direction or another. Those that didn't like my plot or style, while they still had thoughtful feedback, were really never going to like it. I would have to be a different writer to get them on board. So find those people who want to read the best version of your story, not some other story you'll never write.

9. Three weeks or eight weeks, it will go by too quickly.

I was in the three week section. I spoke to others in the general fiction and poetry sections as well (3 weeks) as well was the 8 week fiction workshop. It didn't really matter which we were in. It went too fast and was over before we knew it. I suppose I don't know what the advice is here. Enjoy it? Take it all in? It sounds cliché and unhelpful. I guess to simply be prepared for it be over in flash.

10. It will make your work better.

This probably should go without saying. But I wondered it nonetheless. If you put yourself out there, allow yourself to be vulnerable and to try everything and to put in the extra reading, you'll come out the other side a better writer.

If you're on the fence about going for this or some other workshop, do it. I applied and then patiently awaited my rejection letter. "'Congratulations on your admission' is a strange way to begin a rejection." And even if it is a no this time, us writers know that each 'no' is getting us closer to a 'yes'.

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