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 in 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 essay collections, Festival Days and Boys of My Youth, as well as the novel In Zaneville, Jo Ann Beard has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation 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 several books of nonfiction, including the recent Having and Being Had and the highly acclaimed New York Times bestseller On Immunity: An Innoculation and Notes from No Man’s Land, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Her essays have appeared in publications including the New York Times Magazine, the Believer, Gulf Coast, Denver Quarterly, and Harper's. The recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Howard Foundation, the Rona Jaffe Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, she now teaches creative writing at Northwestern University.
“Subtle, spellbinding," Parul Sehgal wrote in the New York Times Book Review about Eula's book, On Immunity, "Sontag said she wrote Illness as Metaphor to 'calm the imagination, not to incite it,' and On Immunity also seeks to cool and console. But where Sontag was imperious, Biss is stealthy. She advances from all sides, like a chess player, drawing on science, myth, literature to herd us to the only logical end, to vaccinate.”
Amy Butcher is the author of the forthcoming Mothertrucker and 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.”
Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas
Lina Ferreira’s latest book is Don’t Come Back, which has been hailed by Philip Lopate for “perfectly fusing the carnal and the spectral, tenderness and unflinching grit, wry humor and recovered sorrow. . . an extraordinary, shockingly good collection.” Lina is also the author of Drown Sever Sing, published by Anomalous Press, and regularly contributes essays to magazines such as Medium, Guernica, Eleven Eleven, Arts and Letters, Drunken Boat, Brevity, and elsewhere. The recipient of the Best of the Net Award and the Iron Horse Review’s Discover New Voices Award, Lina has also received the prestigious Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award. She currently teaches creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“It is hard to say exactly what the NWP means to me. Partly because of a fear that I will cross into the overly grateful tone that comes with the immigrant experience, but mostly because there is nothing but sincerity in my gratitude to this program. I can’t imagine my writing or my life today without my professors, friends, and peers from the NWP. There I found people of completely varying aesthetics, styles, and backgrounds unified singularly by their unyielding focus to write beyond their perceived limitations and others’ expectations. There I found people willing to indulge the madness of multi-media essays, multi-genre essays, lyrical ballads, violent philosophies, odes to trees and other kinds of projects that most other programs might have deemed unmarketable, even though they continue to find their way into the market, and which we all continue to read in great awe. I wouldn’t trade my experience in the NWP for the world, and I am unapologetically grateful to those brilliant, generous, and exigent professors to whom I still look for guidance, and for my extraordinary peers who challenge and encourage me, and with whom I continue to meet regularly so I can find my next impossible project.”
Jenny Cheng’s first book, Invocation, was published by New Michigan Press, and was described by Mary Ruefle as “a voicing of the voiceless that is stunningly magical.” Her latest book, House A, won the Omnidawn Book Prize, judged by Claudia Rankine, who noted in selecting the book that “not since . . . Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities have I encountered such attention to the construction of love and love’s capacity to transform unimagined locations.” Jenny’s work can be found regularly in journals such as Conjunctions, Ninth Letter, Tin House, the Normal School, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Fulbright Foundation Fellowship, as well as the Harold Taylor Award, the Ann Fields Award, and the Mid-American Fineline Prize, Jenny is a founding editor of Drop Leaf Press.
“My time in the Nonfiction Writing Program introduced me to the world of the essay, which is to say that it introduced me to books that changed me and have stayed with me. At Iowa I recognized that bad writing can and will come from a good essay, but also that ‘bad' and ‘good' are somewhat malleable and that this is where revision and confidence must balance each other.”
John D'Agata is author of the critically acclaimed Halls of Fame, About a Mountain, and The Lifespan of a Fact, and editor of the groundbreaking trilogy A New History of the Essay. John 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 is he is the M.F. Carpenter Professor in English and 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 more than 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, Washington Post, 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.”
Laurel Fantauzzo is the author of the nonfiction book The First Impulse and co-editor of the anthology Press: 100 Love Letters. A 2016 finalist for the PEN/FUSION Award, she has taught at the Writers’ Centre at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. In fall 2018, she will join the University of Hawai’i as an Assistant Professor of English.
“The NWP provided me invaluable time and resources to travel, research, read, think, and write. With the Iowa Arts Fellowship, I was able to do the patient, slow work of processing and internalizing a mystery of the Philippines before I committed it to the page. My thesis became my book, The First Impulse. At Iowa, I also had the opportunity to develop my companion vocation, teaching. I developed lifelong skills, and lifelong friends. My colleagues’ passionate reading, writing, and teaching keep me inspired long past my time in the program.”
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 hailed by Kirkus 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.“
T Fleischmann is the author of Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through and Syzygy, Beauty, which was hailed by the Los Angeles Times for “reimagining the essay . . . a powerful little book that reads like a collection of poems.” T’s work has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Rumpus, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. The recipient of an Independent Publishers Award, T is now the nonfiction editor for DIAGRAM. They teach creative writing at Columbia College.
“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.”
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 at 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 taught as an Assistant Professor in the Nonfiction Writing Program.
“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 is the 2016-2017 Howard Foundation Fellow in Creative Nonfiction. Her 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 numerous books, including the essay collection Dear Friend: from My Life I Write to You in Your Life and 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 Princeton University.
“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 work. “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 is most recently the author of Lord Fear, a memoir celebrated by the Los Angeles Times Book Review as "a stunning, and chilling, portrait of the brother he hardly knew," and by the Chicago Tribune as "a masterpiece." Lucas's first book, Class-A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, has been hailed by NPR, The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Boston Globe as “raucous, scruffy, heartfelt, and true.” He has received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and a United States Artists Fellowship. 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 critically acclaimed book, The Girls in My Town, for which she received PEN America's 2017 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. The book also 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.”
Praised by Richard Rodriguez as an “exuberant literary outlaw,” José Orduña published his first book, The Weight of Shadows, to great acclaim, with one reviewer calling it a “sharp-eyed probe into the underside of the American dream while offering a fierce vision of the way race and class continue to shape government policy in a country that still bills itself as the land of opportunity.” A regular contributor to publications such as Buzzfeed, Guernica, and TriQuarterly, José now holds the Russo Chair in Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico.
“When I went to the Nonfiction Writing Program, my desire to write—to be a writer—was flimsy at best. I knew I loved writing, but I couldn’t conceive of making a life in which writing was an engine rather than something closer to a hobby. Being surrounded by so many people, both faculty and students, who not only took writing seriously, but imagined a life that bled into writing and writing that bled into life, was transformative. Through my formal course of study, hours of discussions that took place after class, the level of dedication I observed in my peers, and the confidence and seriousness with which the faculty treated our writing, I left the NWP with the ability to make writing a practice that has become central to my life.”
Elena Passarello is the winner of the 2015 Whiting Award for nonfiction and the author of Animals Strike Curious Poses, for which she was called by the New York Times Book Review "a master of the essay form." Elena's first book, Let Me Clear My Throat, won the gold medal for nonfiction at the 2013 Independent Publisher Awards. 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 Hamline University in Minneapolis.
“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 Percy is a contributing editor at the New Republic and author of Demon Camp, which was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014 and Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick. She’s the winner of the 2017 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing, as well as the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her essays have appeared in the the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Harper's, BookForum, the New Republic, Esquire, and elsewhere. She now teaches creative writing at Columbia 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.”
Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of the book Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology, which Elena Passarello described as “a compelling bestiary of overlooked and misunderstood individuals.” His essays and fiction have appeared in numerous journals, including Orion, Southern Review, Texas Monthly, Catapult, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and Fourth Genre. Currently the Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Berry College, Clinton followed up his MFA in Nonfiction with a PhD from the University of North Texas.
“To attempt. essai. This is what I did at Iowa, and I didn’t often succeed. I literally threw everything away from my first workshop, and I didn’t publish anything until a little ditty in my final year. My book, Pandora’s Garden, grew out of my thesis, but it took me seven years from its inception to finish. I thought about quitting. I thought I would never learn to essay. I wrote absolute crap. But I also gardened. I planted eggplants, broccoli, jalapeños, sweet potatoes, dozens of spices, and too many tomatoes. And with all that crap I fertilized a book.
Nothing could be more important than the fodder I got from the NWP, particularly the History of the Essay course. I took the class twice. If you are an aspiring essayist and can take it with John D’Agata, move heaven and earth and more to do so. Seeing myself in the lineage of nonfiction, and subsequently, literature, helped me figure out the perennials: what do I have to say? Why write? Where do I fit in within this wide and jumbled world? I kept at these questions with a PhD in English, but the seed, a vibrant, nourished seed, was planted in the NWP.”
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.”
Kristen Radtke is the author of two books including, most recently, the graphic memoir Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness. Her first memoir, Imagine Wanting Only This, has been hailed by the Atlantic as “a breathtaking mix of prose and illustration” and was named a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, as well as a Most Anticipated Book by Buzzfeed, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Millions, the Huffington Post, Martha Stewart Living, and many others. Both her essays and art can regularly be found in the New Yorker, Buzzfeed Books, Oxford American, Guernica, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She currently serves as the New York editor for The Believer.
“I can, in total confidence, say that attending the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program was the best decision I ever made. I say that not only because I learned so much while I was there, had such enriching experiences, and grew tremendously, but most of all because of what my life has become in the years since graduating—filled with extraordinarily fierce friendships, a sure professional footing, and a network of wildly talented writers, editors, and teachers. Whenever I talk to a lucky acquaintance in New York who has gotten in to the program and is hesitant about moving to Iowa, I just tell them: You’re an idiot—you’ve gotta go. And they do.”
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.”
Jessie van Eerden is the author of a collection of portrait essays, The Long Weeping, and three novels, Call It Horses (winner of the 2019 Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction), My Radio Radio and Glorybound. Her prose has appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing, The Oxford American, River Teeth, and Ruminate, among other publications. She directs the low-residency MFA writing program of West Virginia Wesleyan College.
“When I was thinking about grad school, I was deciding between an MFA and a Masters in Social Work and Peace Studies. It was a tough choice; I was trying to figure out what would lead to the most meaningful work. An MFA at first glance seemed a self-indulgence, and an MSW seemed to be a path to Serious Work in the World. But when it came down to making the decision, I tried to follow a deeper current in me that trusted that somehow my relationship to expression and artistic endeavor was going to be my work, however serious that work would turn out to be. I was writing pyrotechnic lyric essays at the time and wanted to learn, most basically, how to craft narrative and how to make my work with language sustainable, more accessible to others, and somehow more substantial. That’s why I went to the NWP, to shape story and to learn to connect my personal story to the larger human story. Lucky for me, I found in Susan Lohafer (a short story theorist) a mentor in storying. She taught me narrative pressure and arc, for essay and also for the two novels I would write after graduating. She, the other faculty, and my gifted peers all gave me a foundation for making writing and teaching my life work, and I’ve never looked back. In my position as a professor and low-residency MFA director now, I use what I learned at Iowa daily.”
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.”
Sarah Viren is the author of the essay collection MINE, which won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Prize, and translator of Cordoba Skies, a novella by Argentine writer Federico Falco. With Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas, Sarah is editor of the forthcoming anthology Essaying the Americas. She is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at Arizona State University.
“It’s hard to imagine my life without Iowa. I moved there after six years as a newspaper reporter in the South, at a time when I pretty much felt stuck. And then suddenly I was living in a house with a musician, a sculptor, a playwright, two cats, and a dog. I was sleeping on a bed I made myself out of foam core doors and relearning to climb trees. I was reading Montaigne and Jenny Boully and Maggie Nelson and talking to new friends about Montaigne and Boully and Nelson and what an essay is, or could be. I was also learning to speak a new language, beginning to edit and teach, translating literature, falling in love, getting married (in one of the only states at the time that allowed same-sex marriage), and—eventually—having a kid. Not that the NWP offers you ALL of that, but it does exist in a mini-universe where creative nonfiction writers feel what it would be like if the world were filled with people who love the essay as much as they do. And for me that made all the difference.”
Joshua Wheeler, author of the essay collection Acid West—which Claire Vaye Watkins called “a freaky, stylish, heart-cracking-open book”—is from Alamogordo, New Mexico. His essays have appeared in many journals including The Missouri Review, PANK, Sonora Review, and The Iowa Review. Coeditor of the anthology We Might as Well Call It the Lyric Essay, he has written feature stories for BuzzFeed and Harper’s Magazine online. He teaches creative writing at Louisiana State University.
“If you have the chance to study essays with the great faculty and students at Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, you do it. There’s no two ways about it. You will come out of the program a more generous reader, a more equipped teacher, a more dedicated researcher, a more passionate journalist, and a more lyrical writer. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll become part of a community of writers who are consistently producing some of the best, most important art around.”
Cutter Wood is the author of the book Love and Death in the Sunshine State, which Leslie Jamison called a “gripping exploration of an island murder and a heartland love.” The recipient of a 2018 Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a former Visiting Scholar at the University of Louisville, Cutter has published essays in Harper’s and other magazines. He currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.
“The NWP taught me about the history of the essay, it offered me time to work, and it gave me the opportunity to teach writing courses of my own. Each of those experiences was fundamentally important to my development as a writer. Much harder to describe, though, is the effect of living and teaching and studying and working in the middle of a vast and largely empty plain with a few dozen other writers. In that small city, separated from our previous lives by miles of corn and by our decision to try to take writing seriously, we were extravagant with our time and thoughts, and when I think back on those years they seem to melt into a single unending conversation, drifting fluidly from one topic to the next—cheeseburgers, Natalia Ginzburg, roller skates, brands of pens and typewriters, Orwell in the Hebrides, the work of a metaphor, how to hold a croquet mallet, kinds of snow, karaoke, undergraduate writing assignments, the ineffable, the Middle Ages, the correct spelling of cantaloupe—a conversation like a party, some people arriving, others leaving, some falling asleep, others waking, a few stepping out into the backyard to smoke or look at the moon or plan a class on Hazlitt, but always the thread of talk went on and on, through the night, through the day, straight through for three years, a ridiculous conversation, equal parts silly and profound, and full of younger fools, whom I miss often.”
Described by one reviewer as a book that “takes us to places in the self where words do not exist, where thoughts glimmer and perish before they can threaten us with their fangs and claws,” Larry Ypil’s first book, The Highest Hiding Place, won nearly every award in his native Philippines, including the Madrigal Gonzales First Book Prize, the Philippines Free Press Award, and the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award. Widely published in both the U.S. and abroad, Larry is a regular columnist for the Sun Star Weekend, and now serves as the Writer-in-Residence at Yale University’s campus in Singapore.
“For anyone who has fallen in love with the Essay, I don’t think there’s any other place one would rather be than the Nonfiction Writing Program. When I first moved to Iowa for the program, I was beginning to work on a book about the Philippine Exposition at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, so when I discovered that objects from that very fair happened to be housed at the Natural History Museum at the University of Iowa, just a few blocks from where I had just moved, I took it as serendipity. . . Much is said about the discipline that’s necessary for writing, about the hours logged in at one’s desk, and the painstaking task of revision. And the NWP taught me all that. But what it also permitted was the wonderful confluence of a city whose spirit allows one to discover one’s own voice, professors who understand what it takes to radically challenge one’s own work, and most importantly the companionship of peers who may very well be the best writers of their generation: each one talented in their own right, and all of them generous. I came to the NWP wanting to write the essay better; I came out of it knowing how to sing it.”