Faith Adiele’s memoir about becoming the first black Buddhist nun of Thailand, Meeting Faith, received the PEN Beyond Margins Award for Best Memoir. She’s the author of several other books for which she’s also received numerous honors, including the Millennium Award from Creative Nonfiction, a UNESCO International Artists Bursary, and a fellowship to the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada. She now teaches creative writing at the California College of the Arts.
“My first book, Meeting Faith, found its home in the Nonfiction Writing Program. The program taught me to be innovative and fearless about structure, and to work tirelessly to determine what form my story wanted to take. I also found my home in the program; my Nonfiction Writing Program classmates and I formed a travel writers' group that shared work, ran retreats and presented together for a decade after we graduated. I also learned the business of writing from the faculty, including how to talk about my work, write a book proposal, apply for job, design a graduate course, and teach.”
Before joining The Nonfiction Writing Program, Jon Anderson was a longtime staff member of the Chicago Tribune, for which he wrote the now-legendary bi-weekly "City Watch" column. Jon also worked for Time magazine, the Chicago Daily News and the Sun-Times before joining the Tribune, where he won numerous awards, including the Studs Terkel Humanities Award, whose namesake once noted that "Jon Anderson's manner is deceptively simple, and in that simplicity is something that reaches out and touches you. All of his stories have the understanding of what makes a human being tick." The founder of the famous The Chicagoan magazine, Anderson was working on a long-awaited new book, Marcel Proust & My Cancer & Me: How to Live a Richer, Fuller Life While Battling a Loathsome Disease, before passing away 2014. The Jon Anderson Alumni Reading Room at The Nonfiction Writing Program is named in Jon’s honor.
“Going to Iowa and taking part in The Nonfiction Writing Program turned my life around. In fact, my time there had a certain magical ‘Brigadoon’ quality to it, including the way that my first book came to pass. I was in downtown Iowa City on a Sunday morning outside Prairie LIghts bookstore when I ran into Carl Klaus, who more or less ordered me to pull together a collection of my Chicago Tribune columns and dispatch them to him. I said I would. Barely 20 minutes later, I ran into him again at the New Pioneer Food Co-Op. He repeated the order. I again said I would. And the rest is in City Watch, my first book. The dream of almost every journalist is to go deeper into their writing, and The Nonfiction Writing Program helped me make that turn.”
Julene Bair is the author of two works of nonfiction, The Ogallala Road and One Degree West, which The Chicago Tribune described as “an achingly beautiful elegy.” Julene has received the Women Writing the West Award, a Bakeless Prize, the Glasgow Award, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“I returned to school during the latter half of my third decade. At that age, I no longer took learning for granted. Just approaching the nondescript English Philosophy Building each day filled me with gratitude and awe. Imagine, an entire building dedicated to words and ideas. Then to think that, within that building, some of the most distinguished essayists and scholars of the essay took my words and ideas seriously? My self-respect grew out of my teachers’ respect for me. So did my awareness of my own potential and my willingness to work tirelessly fulfilling it.”
Jo Ann Beard
The author of the seminal collection, Boys of My Youth as well as In Zaneville, Jo Ann Beard has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Whiting Writers’ Foundation, and has twice been included in The Best American Essay series. She teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence.
“When I was a student at the U of I, an undergraduate studying painting, I took a writing class from Bob Shacochis, a writer both venerable and irascible who smoked in the classroom. This was back in the day when all the campus corridors had built-in ashtrays, but still. Bob Shacochis read my first story, two and a half pages long, in which a woman possibly cuts her own throat after her son chokes to death in his high chair while she's switching the laundry. It was strange and elliptical and ended with an oxymoron that I still recall (“Jude felt the fullness of such a reduction”) and Bob, a tanned and crabby Floridian, first explained what an oxymoron was to us (morons) and then said to me: “I'm not worried about you.” Such praise was an immense boost to a small spirit and I became a writer on the way home that afternoon, sitting on the bus, reading and rereading his margin notes. Bob's refusal to worry about me is what got my first novel 95% written and then abandoned, and it's what got me to eventually apply to the graduate Nonfiction Writing Program, where they accepted me, and where I would walk a few days a week, down the hill from my physics office, to meet up with my colleagues and my beloved teachers who were smarter than me (I) and taught me to understand the essay as an art form, and to love it. The powers of progress pried the ashtrays off the campus walls at some point but you can walk right up the hill to the Mill or George's or the Foxhead, where it's always twenty years ago. Also, the strange tall corn, the prairie sky and Prairie Lights, Hickory Hill Park, and the Iowa River. The best thing about Iowa will always be Iowa. I would go there again if I could.”
Eula Biss is the author of two nonfiction collections, including the highly acclaimed Notes from No Man’s Land, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rona Jaffe Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, she now teaches creative writing at Northwestern University.
“Biss moves through language like a spider spinning a web,” Elizabeth Taylor wrote in The Chicago Tribune about Eula’s book, Notes from No Man’s Land, “delicately linking telephone poles and lynch mobs, Laura Ingalls Wilder's ‘Little House’ books and Biss’s own Rogers Park neighborhood. Biss writes like a poet, evoking images with a cool passion, and she plays with ideas on the page and challenges readers to work out their own rhythms.”
Amy Butcher is the author of Visiting Hours, a 2015 memoir that earned starred reviews and praise from The New York Times Sunday Review of Books, NPR, The Star Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, Glamour, Cosmopolitian, and others. Most recently, her work was awarded the grand prize in the Solas Awards' "Best of Travel Writing" series, selected for inclusion in Best Travel Writing 2016 and Best American Essays 2015, and was awarded the grand prize in the 2014 Iowa Review Award in nonfiction. Her recent op-ed, "Emoji Feminism," published in the New York Times Sunday Review, inspired Google to create thirteen new female-empowered emojis, due out later this year. Additional work has appeared in The New York Times, The Iowa Review, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, The Paris Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. She is a recent recipient of Colgate University's Olive B. O'Connor Creative Writing fellowship as well as grants and awards from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, Word Riot Inc., and the Stanley Foundation for International Research. She currently teaches creative writing at Ohio Wesleyan University and annually at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp in Sitka, Alaska.
“To Iowa I owe the best and most engaging three years of my life. What else to say of a place where one can spend three sunlit hours at a table beside Meghan Daum, listen to Donovan Hohn consider the editorial merits of your magazine pitch, and decorate cupcakes in a contest in a contest judged by Wayne Koestenbaum? Once, in the dead of a particularly excessive Iowa winter, I trudged two miles through the snow uphill—this is not in any way hyperbolic—following an email invitation for roasted lamb shank, red wine and a reading of Didion by candlelight. The electricity had gone out, the invitation asserted; what else could one do?
“This is what it is to be enrolled in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa: far beyond the classes and the time and the mentors, all of which are exceptional, to be a student in this program is to be a singular unit in a collection of people who love nothing more than to celebrate and converse the origins, merits, and theoretical implications of the literary essay. I arrived knowing only that I loved David Sedaris and with the draft of a ‘true story’ I’d written on my summer job folding jeans at the local mall; I left with a foundational understanding of a genre richly steeped in history and literary tradition and an approach to writing and revising work that I now share with my own nonfiction students. And the town this program is in? I feared isolation and social remove; years later, I now return every summer, for no place that I’ve yet seen is as intimate and amenable than Iowa City. There are sleepy alleys ideal for rumination and nature preserves that glow under summer’s orange dusk. There are readings staged on a platform set against the woods. There are barbecues and croquet and yes, even football. In truth, there is no better choice I have ever made for myself than to spend those three years, and to it I owe the best years of my life and everything good that has happened since.”
The author of several books, including About a Mountain and The Next American Essay, D’Agata has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Howard Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He now teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa, where he directs the Nonfiction Writing Program.
“What I learned while studying in the Nonfiction Writing Program was how to see—how to sit and observe and really be present for something. I remember a field trip one of our workshops made to a biology lab somewhere on the University of Iowa campus. Our professor had arranged for us each to dissect a cow’s eyeball. It was stupidly disgusting—I mean over-the-top, hilariously gross—but after we all stopped whining and declaring our vegetarianism, we settled into the job of unwrapping the many layers of eyeball between us and what would be a fascinating discovering. Suddenly, underneath a bunch of jelly and nerves, there popped out of each of these things a perfectly clear agate lens. One of the tougher guys in class picked up his agate and held it against his own eye. Someone said Gross or Eww. But then we all picked up our lenses, and that’s when I realized how powerful and how absolutely gorgeous perception really is. We could see through our cows’ eyes—which was amazing. But at the same time what I think we all also realized was that the view we had before us was terribly flawed. Or, rather, they weren’t so much ‘flawed’ as they were different, fundamentally different. What we were seeing was something that we’d never really be able to understand, but would nevertheless continue to try to capture, in one way or another, for the rest of our lives as writers. That’s the first time I really felt like a writer, and felt exhilarated by the challenges of the craft.”
Timothy Denevi is the author of Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD, which has been hailed as
“a memoir about emotional vulnerability and recovery in the literary tradition of Styron and Susanna Kaysen” and as “a lasting story about mind, heart, and soul.” Tim’s been awarded fellowships by The MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. A regular contributor to magazines such as Gulf Coast, Arts & Letters, Hobart, Make, and Instant City, he lives near Washington, DC and is the Nonfiction Visiting Writer in the MFA program at George Mason University.
“Before I started my MFA at Iowa, I didn't have very much experience with nonfiction as a genre. Suddenly I was taking classes on the historical origins of the essay and reading works of a more hybridized style; I was exposed to new forms that, in their diversity, articulated the enormous range of possibility that nonfiction offers. I like to think that I left Iowa with a much clearer understanding of what fully-realized, artistic work can look like, a perspective that's helped me better perceive the shortcomings in my own writing. During my time in the program I also met so many fantastically talented essayists, some of whom have become lifelong friends, and even after we left Iowa we've remained in touch, a community that continues to provide support and insight into the craft of writing.”
Hope is the author of six nonfiction books, including the international best-seller Motherless Daughters, which has been translated into eleven languages, as well as her newest book The Possibility of Everything. She regularly publishes essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere, and has been the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year distinction, and inclusion in the Medill Hall of Achievement. She now teaches creative writing at Antioch College.
“I arrived in Iowa City as a disillusioned journalist; I left as a writer and teacher of literary nonfiction. My three years in the Nonfiction Writing Program were the three most influential years of my professional training. Two decades later, it remains a training ground for some of the most talented nonfiction writers in the country.”
Tom Montgomery Fate
Tom Montgomery Fate is the author of five books of nonfiction, including Steady and Trembling, Rice and Beans and Hope: Anecdotes and Analysis from Nicaragua, and Cabin Fever, his most recent book, which has been as a collection of “beautifully written reflections on nature and the mindful life.” His essays regularly appear in The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, Orion, and Fourth Genre, and have often aired on National Public Radio. He teaches creative writing at the College of DuPage in suburban Chicago.
“The Nonfiction Writing Program was transformative for me. However, as a 20-something small-town Iowa kid, it took me awhile to understand that writing and teaching are both an art, and that revision is not just about sentences but about how you live—how you perceive and receive and attend to the world. Revision. Look again. Look until you can see. I wrote and published my first book while in the program, but what I most remember is the remarkable faculty modeling the act of revision—with passion and patience—in and outside of the classroom.”
Hali Felt is the author of the acclaimed biography Soundings, which tells the story, as its subtitle suggests of “the remarkable woman who mapped the ocean floor.” Hailed by Scientific American, Bookforum, Nature, and The New York Times, the book’s been credited with not only detailing “its subject’s monumental work and entanglements with gender bias but also [exerting] thoughtful pressure on the boundaries and biases of this literary genre.” Hali teaches creative writing in the MFA program at the University of Alabama.
“Three things: time, eyes, and focus. The best thing that grad school can do is give you luxurious amounts of time to devote yourself to the work of writing and research. While at The Nonfiction Writing Program, I had the time to let a project evolve—from a children’s book to an essay and, eventually, a several hundred-page biography. My peers put their eyes on my pages, and my thesis advisor taught me to how to use reader feedback to focus intensely on revision and structure. I still use her advice in the classroom today, asking my students to think about why each word, sentence, and paragraph is present in their work. By the time I graduated, I’d learned the art of revision and how to teach writing, my agent had sold my book, and my schedule was filled with visits to artists’ residencies. “
Tee Fleischmann’s recent first book, Syzygy, Beauty, was hailed by The Los Angeles Times for “reimagining the essay . . . a powerful little book that reads like a collection of poems.” Tee’s work has appeared in Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. The recipient of an Independent Publishers Award, Tee is now the nonfiction editor for DIAGRAM.
“The Nonfiction Writing Program is where I first learned to take the essay seriously as a form and myself seriously as an essayist. While I had already read widely as an undergraduate, it was at Iowa that I first encountered the actual breadth and depth of the essay’s tradition. It’s where I began to develop the voice and explore the interests that continue to drive my writing today. And even now, some years out of the program, I still exchange work with the peers I met while at Iowa, diving more deeply into the questions that we first asked while in class together. For me, it’s a community that is still very much a part of my life.”
Stephanie Elizondo Griest
The author of five books, including the award-winning memoirs Mexican Enough and Around the Bloc, Stephanie has won a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, a Viebranz Professorship at St. Lawrence University, the Margolis Award for Social Justice Reporting, and a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Gold Prize. She now teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
“I know what you’re thinking.
Do I really want to do this? Spend the next three years of my life in a cornfield that’s smothered in snow half the year? On a $17,000 salary? To study a form that most people confuse with the 5-paragraph monstrosities they were forced to write in junior high? I’ll have to quit my job, the one with health and dental insurance. I’ll have to leave behind my partner, the one I could conceivably marry or at least cohabitate with long into the foreseeable future. I’ll be the youngest/oldest person in the program, the only one who is gay/Black/unpublished/a single parent/secretly a poet. And my writing: it’s going to get crucified!
This is what we all were thinking when we applied to Iowa. We came anyway, and here’s what happened. Not only did we read the major players of our genre—John McPhee, Pico Iyer, Maggie Nelson, Margo Jefferson, Gretel Ehrlich, Nick Flynn—we also took seminars with them and got drinks together afterward. We flew to Greece and the Philippines for summer writing workshops, to France and Venezuela for research, and to Australia and Singapore for conferences. We studied Chekhov with Allan Gurganus, the Old Testament with Marilynne Robinson, the history of the essay with John D’Agata, memoir with Patricia Foster and Honor Moore, and the radio essay with Jeff Porter. We learned teaching techniques from Bonnie Sunstein and employed them immediately afterward in our own classes. We caught readings nearly every night of the week, plus gave a few ourselves. And we wrote and we wrote and we wrote and we wrote—about the drug war and trees, about nuclear test sites and Liberace, about sex work and birds, about electroshock therapy and baseball. About mothers and uncles and selves. Three years later, our class had four book contracts in hand. Within a year of graduation, we added two tenure-track professorships, five university teaching positions, a year-long writing fellowship, and a job at a top publishing house.
Do I really want to do this?
You do. For art, for meaning, for growth, for pleasure. You do.”
Riley Hanick’s first book, Three Kinds of Motion: Kerouac, Pollock, and the Making of American Highways, weaves three distinct stories into one improbable narrative about American history and identity. Hailed by Literary Hub as “monumental,” the book has received awards from the Jentel and McKnight foundations and has been excerpted in a variety of publications, including The Sonora Review, Seneca Review, No Depression, eyeshot, and Labor World. Hanick served as the Watkins Chair in Creative Writing Murray State University and is the nonfiction editor for New Madrid.
“As we were standing up from our last one-on-one conference of the semester I told my first teacher in the NWP that his course had been amazing. And — I wasn’t sure what it would mean to say so aloud — “life-changing.” Probably I embarrassed us both and that was why he brushed it aside as soon as I said it that afternoon. But I stand by the sentiment: this place, these teachers, the time and energy and arguments that envelop your head while you're in the midst of it and for years afterwards are a swirling, variegated thing that risks reconfiguring you.”
Kerry Howley’s first book, Thrown, has been hailed as “a masterful debut” and “a great American story.” A long-time contributor to Bookforum and Reason, Kerry’s work has appeared in Harper’s, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Slate, The New York Times Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal, and she can often be found on television talk shows battling with Republican talking heads. She is also an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga.
“I came to The Nonfiction Writing Program seeking one thing. As a magazine journalist, I could not afford to spend an hour pouring over a paragraph I admired. As a graduate student, I might devote an entire afternoon to unraveling a Nabokovian sentence, then discuss the same with a dozen fellow writers. The NWP gave me time, time gave me the ability to notice, and noticing produced the first work in which I could truly take pride.
Time was the gift I expected. I did not realize until my second year in the program how thoroughly the faculty were rooting me in a tradition of essayists as far back as Seneca and contemporary as Didion. The community the NWP offers is live and breathing and includes warm-blooded humans donning essay-friendly temporary tattoos while baking essay-themed cupcakes (or did once), but in a larger sense that community stretches backward toward the genre's earliest practitioners. I came with a dilettantish interest in ‘nonfiction’ and left part of a lineage, grounded in a history I would go on to teach my own students.
It took me even longer to see that Iowa’s faculty had helped me form a theoretical perspective from which to evaluate the genre, and which editors would value in my critical work for Bookforum and elsewhere. And when I left? That’s when I knew what it truly felt like to miss a place, the erudite, frigid little city where I could begin the day with a solitary walk in the woods of Hickory Hill and spend the evening among friends in a packed booth at the Foxhead.”
Jeremy Jones is the author of Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland, about which Brett Lott has written “the remarkable thing about Bearwallow is its seamless weaving of time, place, and blood. Jeremy Jones's craftsmanship in telling this story of generations and geography and his reverence for both are a beauty to behold. A fine debut of a fine writer--this is a wonderful book." Jeremy’s essays have appeared in numerous journals, and have twice been cited in The Best American Essays. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he is now a professor of creative writing at Western Carolina University.
“Those inquisitive and careful voices from the students and faculty of The Nonfiction Writing Program follow me around even now, years after completing my MFA. They make me a braver writer, a sharper editor of my own work, and a shrewder professional in both the academic and writing worlds. Surrendering myself to workshops and involved reading lists and conversations about Montaigne in someone's attic apartment on Halloween made me much more self-reliant in the end. I borrowed skills and observations from those around me so that I could make a go at a writing life back in the post-MFA ‘real world.’ What I also learned quickly at Iowa is that this genre is boundless. During those three years, the form (the world?) was opened up to me and I was made to build up and invent and mimic abilities to take a stab at it.”
Aviya Kushner’s book The Grammar of God is about the intense experience of reading the Bible in English after an entire life of reading it in Hebrew. It’s been hailed by the Chicago Tribune as “brilliant,” and by Poet Laureate of the United States Robert Pinsky as “a passionate, personal, and illuminating essay about nothing less than meaning itself.” Her writing has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Partisan Review, Poets & Writers, A Public Space, The Wilson Quarterly, and Zoetrope: All-Story, and she has also worked as a travel columnist for The International Jerusalem Post and as a poetry columnist for BarnesandNoble.com. She teaches creative writing at Columbia College Chicago, and serves as a contributing editor at A Public Space and a mentor for The National Yiddish Book Center.
“When I was leaving Iowa, a classmate said softly: “It’s time to leave the magic for someone else.” I still borrow that line whenever anyone asks me about Iowa; I say—“it was magic.” I don’t know how else to explain Iowa to anyone who has not lived and written there. In Iowa, writing is central, not peripheral. The essay as an art form is celebrated at the NWP, but more deeply, good writing of all kinds is loved, great writing is worshipped. And it’s not just the classes and the faculty, but the community. It’s Paul Ingram at Prairie Lights Books, who always knows the perfect book to recommend. It’s that great Moby Dick course held in a peach-colored living room. It’s the incredible International Writing Program, which brings writers from all over the world to Iowa each fall, where I once smiled across the table at a giant of Mongolian fiction as I read his work in translation. It’s the Farmer’s Market, where the bearded fresh-egg farmer from Kalona always asks how the writing is going. It’s the corn, the affordability, the quiet. For a few years you can just be.
“Whenever I think I have gotten all I can out of Iowa, that the magic has been permanently handed to someone else, a writer younger and more innocent, a writer less banged-up by the world—someone I knew back then shows up, in the cold, the rain, the crises of confidence. Someone reminds me how much writing matters, and how much it matters to me. Iowa extends past geographical borders of time and space; it is a community in the lonely struggle to get it right and make it beautiful, however long it takes.”
Amy Leach recently published her first book, Things That Are, with Milkweed Editions. Hailed by one critic “for the sheer audacity of her invention, for the constant bridge too far she manages to cross,” Leach has subsequently received a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Writers Award, and a fellowship from the Rona Jaffe Foundation. She now teaches creative writing at the University of St. Francis.
“Mad, mystical and acutely perceptive about nature, these are essays to bring us back to Earth,” The Guardian wrote about Amy’s book “—a mysticism of a peculiarly American sort, the same pantheistic ecstasy of Whitman and Thoreau. . . Nature writing is a boom industry in Britain, but it's nature writing of a particular flavour: astringent, controlled, in impeccably good taste. I can't think of anyone in these islands who writes like the American essayist Amy Leach, with such mad, magical exuberance and whimsy. This is a collection in the school of Annie Dillard, whose 1974 non-fiction masterpiece, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, has remained influential over the muddier sort of American letters.”
Yiyun is the author of three books, including the internationally acclaimed A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, which received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and a California Book Award. In 2010, Yiyun was named a MacArthur Fellow, and now teaches creative writing at the University of California at Davis.
“Like Ha Jin, this child of Communist China writes in English, initially for a Western audience; like Jin, too, she brings into our midst and language a sensibility and aesthetic that are plain, unblinking and at once haunted and supported by the ghosts of ancient stories,” The New York Times wrote about Yiyun’s latest book. “There is no doubting that she is bringing her unimaginably alien experience into ours, if only to remind us that there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”
Lucas Mann recently published his first book, Class-A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, with Random House. It’s been hailed by NPR, The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Boston Globe as “raucous, scruffy, heartfelt, and true.” He now teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.
“I think the biggest thing that I got out of my time in the Nonfiction Writing Program was a feeling of validation. I don't mean easy, ego-stroking validation, but rather the belief that the kind of writing I love and aspire to is not just worthwhile but important. I learned to take essay writing seriously because I was a part of a community of super talented, forward thinking people who cared deeply about their own work and the future of their chosen genre. I needed that.”
Angela Morales is the author of The Girls in My Town, which has been critically hailed for being “as thematically ambitious as it is deeply personal.” The book won the annual River Teeth Book Prize, and was selected by best-selling author Cheryl Strayed for its handling of “humor, sorrow, and disappointment with humanity and intelligence. I never wanted to stop reading.” Morales has published work in The Pinch, The Southern Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Harvard Review, and Best American Essays. She has served as the Writer-in-Residence at Denali National Park in Alaska, and now teaches creative writing at Glendale College in California.
“When I joined the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, I knew I was writing some mutant variety of nonfiction, but I didn’t know that I was actually writing essays. In the program’s ‘Forms of the Essay’ class, however, I began to understand more about that shape-shifting, slippery creature—the essay—and I began to recognize the varied and wonderful forms of ‘voice’ in both published writers and in my fellow classmates. What I learned, above all, during my time in the program was to embrace the distinctiveness of my own voice; I learned to appreciate the quirkiness of my style, and to trust the odd shape of my own writing.”
Dylan Nice recently published his first book, Other Kinds, which was praised by Publishers Weekly as “alive with the smell of rain and the pulse of silence.” A MacDowell Colony Fellow, he now teaches with Chatham University’s Low-Residency MFA program and in creative writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg.
“My time at the NWP began by chance. I desperately wanted to leave Pennsylvania, where I had always lived, and be someone else. Because I had written a few things I liked, I thought I might be a writer and that it might be a good way out. I was possessed by unearned confidence and young to a fault. An English professor at my undergraduate campus told me about MFA programs and gave me a list of sixteen programs to consider, a list I narrowed down to eight using a sloppy kind of emotional math. How much was the application fee? Could I imagine myself there? I knew almost nothing about Iowa, and that it stayed on my list might be attributed to the modest length of the state’s name or the familiar black and gold of its football uniforms.
Here is an instance in which my gut has done the best thinking of my life. It isn’t difficult to catalog how profoundly the NWP changes the trajectory of a literary career: the quality of instruction; the dedication of its brilliant faculty; the opportunities and connections the program offers; and the validation implicit in being one of its students. These are reason enough to pack up your life and head toward the cornfields. But what arrives to my memory more vividly than anything else is the life I lived there. For the years I was in Iowa City, I had talented friends who read my work and who let me read theirs. There were readings in bars of literary fame and on make-shift stages in floodlit backyards. With the right set of eyes, even the often-complained about winters flash into other-worldly beauty: bare oak branches, the dim blue light at dusk. Brick streets led past landmarks from the work of other writers who have gone there: the Mercy Hospital awning that reads EMERGENCY in electric red light. I always stopped and stared. My life never felt so significant or the work I was doing so worthwhile. I didn’t keep the list with the name Iowa scrawled in blue ink somewhere in the middle, but I owe it the best things I’ve done.”
Elena Passarello recently published her first book, Let Me Clear My Throat, with Sarabande Books. Described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “a dinner party at which David Sedaris, Mary Roach, and Marlon Brando are trying to out-monologue one another,” it’s received critical acclaim from nearly every major magazine in America. She now teaches creative writing at Oregon State University.
“The three years I spent at the Nonfiction Writing Program were beyond crucial to my development as a writer, thinker, and teacher. I think what the program does best is introduce student writers to a breadth of prose. In my time at Iowa, I took courses in Montaigne, radio essays, and nonfiction narrative theory. I worked closely with six generous faculty and visiting instructors, each with his or her own aesthetic, reading list, and workshop philosophy. My fellow MFA students brought varied nonfiction projects-- literary journalism, graphic essay, memoir, experimental work-- to our workshop tables. This broad treatment of essaying and scholarship helped me develop a blended toolbox that I've used in every writing project since. Thanks to the Nonfiction Writing Program, I see the contemporary nonfiction world not as list discrete factions, but as border-less, millennium-old map of opportunities for inspiration, collaboration, and global thought.”
Angela Pelster’s first essay collection, Limber, has been described as “a collision of 'The Wizard of Oz' and the Book of Revelation” by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Her work has appeared in Hotel Amerika, Granta, Seneca Review, Fourth Genre, The Gettysburg Review and many other places. Her children’s book, The Curious Adventures of India Sophie, was published by Riverhead Books and won the Alberta Golden Eagle Children’s Choice Award. A native of Canada, Angela now teaches creative writing at Towson University in Baltimore.
“Back when I was debating over the decision about whether or not to attend The Nonfiction Writing Program, I discussed the pros and cons of it with my best friend – I was a single mom at the time, living in a basement and trying to cover my bills with part time jobs so I could have time to write. It was a scary decision to make, but my friend said, ‘Angela, you want to be a writer, and that isn’t an easy thing. If you’re going to do that, you need the best possible springboard to launch from, and Iowa is it.’ And she was right. My time in the NWP was an incredible gift – there are few opportunities in life when all available resources are poured into your creative development – but for three years, I got to pursue every idea, form, voice, subject and style of writing that I was interested in and then receive feedback from a community that passionately cared about the art of the essay. It was a remarkable time that changed the direction of my writing and so, also, changed the direction of my life.”
Jen recently published her first book, Demon Camp, parts of which appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, AGNI, Creative Nonfiction, and on national Public Radio. She’s the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes as well as a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She now teaches creative writing at New York University.
“The Nonfiction Writing Program is a gem of an intellectual and artistic community. I arrived with a stagnant idea of nonfiction and left understanding the rich possibilities of the genre. The program helped me recognize the potential in my own work, and in the work of my peers, making me a better and more empathetic writer, reader and thinker.”
The author of several nonfiction books, including Daddy Long Legs, Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships, and Not Just Any Land, John Price received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the Orion Readers’ Choice Award for Best Book of Nonfiction. He teaches at the University of Nebraska where is the Director of the Creative Writing program.
“I’ve always admired authors who claim they’ve wanted to be a writer since, well, the moment they were born. I’m not one of them. I didn’t want to become a writer until I took my first nonfiction class at the University of Iowa, and it changed everything. By the time I graduated with an MFA, I had not only studied the craft with some of the finest writing teachers and students on the planet, but I had been taught a love for the beauty and power of the written word that has never left me. Every sentence I’ve written is the gift of the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program. Period.”
Rebecca Sheir's radio stories have won numerous awards, including the Third Coast International Audio Festival Directors' Choice Award. They are frequently broadcast on public radio programs around the country, including All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The Splendid Table, Latino USA, Here & Now, and Only a Game. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she hosts Metro Connection on WAMU 88.5 (the National Capital Region's NPR station) and occasionally serves as a guest host on NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered.
“Sylvia Plath once remarked that “everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.” While I'm a big believer in guts and imagination, to Plath's list I might add “the mentors to inspire.” During my time in the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, I encountered no shortage of brilliant mentors -- both professors and fellow students -- who not only lit my spark for penning nonfiction, but kept it burning bright. And once I began moonlighting at Iowa City's local NPR station, the Nonfiction Writing Program offered me freedom to pursue what faculty member Jeff Porter would call my “speakerly” writing—both in courses I took, and courses I taught (such as my undergraduate radio essay/commentary course, “Radio Voices”). Seven years and countless radio interviews/stories/essays later, I can firmly attest that my guts are even more outgoing, my improvisation is even more imaginative, and my inspiration from the Nonfiction Writing Program stays with me to this day, both on and off the air.”
Ryan Van Meter
Ryan recently published his first book, If You Knew Then What I Know Now, which was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and hailed by New York magazine as “one of the year’s best.” He now teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco.
“I've never been as productive or inspired as I was during my time at the Nonfiction Writing Program. I was challenged to do my best work by the faculty and my fellow classmates, and though I arrived with a project underway, writing in that rigorous yet supportive community took my essays into surprising places—in subject and form. All of us were free to explore nonfiction as we wanted, and yet we were also encouraged to examine the history of the genre as well as its possibilities. My writing was similarly enriched by the great opportunities available—to teach, to work with guest faculty, to volunteer and to serve the program.”