I spent two weeks this summer in a dorm at the University of Iowa that overlooked Iowa Avenue in scenic Iowa City, Iowa. In other words: this was the middle of nowhere, with miles and miles of cornfields between me and the nearest mall or airport. And I was in my element. Iowa City offered everything a writer could want, from bookstores selling paperbacks for $2.50 and hosting poetry readings every night to cafés and graveyards within walking distance to provide creative inspiration. Even the weather was perfectly suited to a bout of focused writing; with the forecast showing 105-degree days for one half of my stay and thunderstorms for the other, there wasn’t much left to do but write.
The prospect of holing up in Iowa City for two weeks was thrilling. But the idea of sharing the town with sixty other high-school-age writers from across the country filled me with dread.
Sharing work with more experienced writers can be frightening, and by the time I boarded the flight to Iowa my classmates had taken up mythic proportions in my mind: I imagined myself presenting a story to a room full of future Nobel Prize laureates and broke into a cold sweat. Was I even qualified to attend this workshop, with my pitiful collection of stories about old men living in the woods?
Across the aisle on the plane to Cedar Rapids was a high-school-age student with a thick paperback on his lap. We shot furtive glances at each other during the entire flight; once our eyes met and we both turned quickly back to our books, mortified. Finally, as the attendants readied their passengers for takeoff, he leaned over to me: “Are you here for the writers’ workshop?”
“Why else would I want to spend my summer vacation in Iowa City?” I responded, and he smiled.
We swapped books so I could see what he was reading; then we swapped writing, one of my short stories traded for one of his poems. Before long, we were sharing anxieties, confiding in each other our fears of embarrassment and of inadequacy. I found the idea that such a talented poet could be so anxious almost laughable; he told me that, having read my story, he didn’t think I had anything to worry about.
As it turned out, among the poets and dramatists and essayists and short-story writers I encountered in Iowa, there may well have been a future Nobel Prize laurate or two after all. In spite of their skill, though, these writers never looked down on us, never acted superior—they shared their talents with the rest of us, encouraged us as we encouraged them, and, incredibly, harbored certain natural writing anxieties themselves.
Sharing work with other writers, I discovered during my stay in Iowa, is never as scary as it seems. Our fellow writers are our allies, the ones who are the most qualified to critique us and the most willing to encourage us. I’m still nervous to submit my work to a group of more experienced writers, but now I know that there’s no better way to grow.