Iowa youth, UI writers find common ground through statewide writing workshops

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

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I stood with my back against the yellow wall of a classroom, not sure what to do. In front of me, the students sitting at a crowded table in Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa had begun to write about their names, the first activity in a series of writing exercises related to identity. Pencils started slowing down, and I could almost hear side-long glances being exchanged. The students didn’t know what to say.

portrait of Emily Seiple
Emily Seiple

Other volunteers stepped in to help them brainstorm ideas, but I was as intimidated as they were. Until a girl walked in late, wearing a beautiful hijab with a brown rose at one side. She reminded me of the oldest daughter in a family I knew well in Iowa City.

I could tell she was nervous, my nerves finally disappearing. I knelt beside her, she told me her name, and we wrote a few phrases before it was time for the class to share their work. We worked together the rest of the day, and by the end, she had written a full story about a powerful bird, in part inspired by the way she sees people in her neighborhood support each other.

This was the beginning of a project called Face to Face. I was one member on a team of Iowa Youth Writing Project staff and volunteers, writers from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and International Writing Program (IWP) participants representing eight countries, who traveled around the state to host writing workshops for students ages 12-18.

Over four weekends in September and October, we spent 20 hours with 70 Iowa teens in Des Moines, Spirit Lake, Fayette, and Ottumwa. Face to Face became a mix of meeting and movement: it sent Iowa City’s writing community and resources into other diverse communities to bring the excitement of literature and writing to youth around the state.

Final Workshop

Youth writers will travel to Iowa City from Des Moines, Spirit Lake, Fayette, and Ottumwa on Saturday, Oct. 27 for one final workshop in the Face to Face series. In addition to the writing sessions, students will tour the UI campus, visit the UI Center for the Book, and participate in International Programs WorldCanvass radio program broadcast from the Frank Conroy Reading Room at the UI Writers’ Workshop. The public is invited to the broadcast, which starts at 3 p.m. The Face to Face initiative was funded by a UI Public Engagement Grant.

For IWP participants in particular, it was a chance to experience cultures unfamiliar to them through a medium they know well. They often helped students revise their work, a process that allowed writers of all levels, ages, and backgrounds to connect through new texts.

At one workshop, Alina Dadaeva, a poet and fiction writer from Uzbekistan helped revise an original piece by a seventh grader and found a personal belief reflected in a story she hadn’t written—the belief that youth should listen to voices beyond popular culture and mass media. In the story, animals learn many lessons with books as their teachers. The IWP writer’s enthusiasm over the story’s message gave its author the confidence to read her work in front of the entire workshop, something she’d been afraid to try earlier in the day.

For Barlen Puamootoo a fiction writer from Mauritius, talking with students individually, and really listening to what they cared about, formed the heart of his approach to helping them write. Young writers were amazed that published novelists and poets had traveled thousands of miles to work with them, in their own towns, at this one-to-one level.

Other students loved having a larger audience. A few arrived bursting with ideas, writing raps about high school, inventing new worlds of hybrid animals, crafting graphic novels to show how labels confuse rather than clarify. One student gave everyone a lesson in performance: with her nametag stuck to her forehead, she read an original story as fast as possible, pronouncing each letter one at a time.

Moments like these stay with me when I see the names of our students next to their writing, filling in the faces and incredible energy that made each one an integral part of Face to Face. I’ll remember kneeling next to them, hearing either a flood of ideas or a request for help, knowing that if I couldn’t find what they needed for inspiration, another writer from Iowa City, or from halfway around the world, certainly would.

Emily Seiple is a UI senior studying English and creative writing. She works for the IWP during its Fall Residency and Between the Lines summer program. She is from Mahomet, IL.