‘Unfamiliar eyes’ and the wonders of home

Illustration by Angela Zirbes

Since his days as an urban and regional planning professor at the University of Iowa, Iowa City mayor Jim Throgmorton has encouraged us to see our community through “unfamiliar eyes” in order to understand it better. I am fortunate that I do so every summer.

For a good number of years, I have been privileged to teach a couple of workshops in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. The ISWF is the community’s major source of literary activity in our City of Literature in June and July. For six weeks, dozens of talented writers and teachers gather in Iowa City to work with hundreds of accomplished and neophyte writers aged 18 to 80 (and often much beyond) from all over the world. Our city hub is alive with daily lectures on the writing craft by ISWF faculty (note, “The Eleventh Hour” presentations are open to the public), a weekly open mic reading by festival students and a weekly faculty reading where you can sample the work of 10 to 12 talented writers — many quite prominent — within an hour. Many summertime Prairie Lights readings feature ISWF faculty. The ISWF produces perhaps the greatest concentration of writing activity in town all year.

Amidst this hubbub of writing in this writing town, I’m always energized working with committed people from all walks of life and across the age spectrum who really want to improve — or start — their writing. Thanks to their inspiration, I’ve come out of my own workshops with pieces of writing (I participate in the in-class exercises) that I have developed more fully later. And I’ve kept in touch with a number of remarkable former students who have enriched my writing life.

Yet one of the most joyous benefits of teaching in the ISWF for me is seeing Iowa City through “unfamiliar eyes,” receiving a refreshing dose of appreciation for this incredible city we live in. I was not exaggerating when I said ISWF participants come from all over the world. Out of the 16 workshoppers with whom I enjoyed time this year, only four were from Iowa City or Cedar Rapids. Most covered the U.S. geographic spectrum from California to Florida. Other countries represented (either by birth or residence, current or former) were Israel (three students!), the United Arab Emirates, Iran, France, England, Venezuela and Canada. Amidst this diverse set of “unfamiliar eyes,” I not only gained new perspectives on writing but also enjoyed my annual vicarious glimpse into our fair community, reinscribing Iowa City’s vibrancy for me once again.

Workshop members often begin our afternoon sessions recounting their latest culinary discovery among downtown restaurants, reminding me of the city center’s gastronomic cornucopia. Aside from the wealth of literary activities at our visitors’ disposal, I often hope I haven’t left out something exciting in my recitation of other things to do, from a performance at the Englert to a Saturday morning Families Belong Together protest. One student asked if Iowa City is always putting up white tents for concerts, having witnessed preparations for the Friday Night Concert Series the week before on Iowa Avenue and that day’s assembly of the Iowa City Jazz Festival venues. (My answer was “yes.”) During the weekend workshop I taught, as we broke for lunch, I said, “Oh, and if you’d like, enjoy the Iowa City Pride Parade today at noon!”

Readers of this column know the natural world is central to my connection to place. Usually I’m venturing out to nearby prairies or woods to commune with nature. But ISWF participants often reopen my eyes to the rich natural as well as cultural life around us every day. Over the years I have had students hailing from San Francisco to Ireland to Florida marvel at the proliferation of local “wildlife.” I’m not talking about bison and elk, but the seeming throngs of squirrels and rabbits everywhere, which they don’t see at home. Now and then a student is dumbfounded to see a deer wandering a neighborhood, and others are awestruck at the richness of birdsong in the morning.

This year, our group had an ongoing dialogue about the mysteries and wonders of fireflies (or are they lightning bugs?). One student shared with me her humorous writing from a previous year’s workshop about the urgent necessity for the Royal Spanish Academy to rectify its failure to include a word for “chipmunk” in the Spanish language, inspired by the close relationship she had developed with one of these exotic — and cute — creatures in our fair city. During an individual conference, another student simply shared her astonishment at just how magnificently lush and green everything is in Iowa.

In the everyday life of responsibilities and deadlines, it’s easy to take the vitality of our community for granted. My ISWF students rekindle my awareness of how fortunate we are to live in this amazing place. Once the busyness of fall occupies my hours and the winds turn to winter, distracting me from how fantastic this place really is, I will strive to return my thoughts to this past June and my smart, lively cohort of fellow writers, and then ahead to next year’s Iowa Summer Writing Festival, when a fresh gathering of “unfamiliar eyes” will help me see anew the wonders of Iowa City.

Thomas Dean thinks he should sign up for an Iowa Summer Writing Festival workshop himself one of these years. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 247.

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