The City of Literature

Iowa City’s Creative Writing Culture

Photo Credit: Me, taken at The Haunted Bookshop Iowa City, Iowa
“They were here who made the sentence behave and misbehave, who added chapter and verse, and recast the myths”- Marvin Bell

Iowa City, Iowa was built as the state capital in 1846. The capital was relocated to Des Moines in 1857. The city had been built around the capitol only to be abandoned and left to create a life and purpose of it’s own, and it did. For the past eighty years it’s been referred to as the City of Literature. In 2008 UNESCO officially designated Iowa City as the world’s third City of Literature and was added to their creative cities network.

When I first moved to Iowa I had this impression in my head of cornfields and farms. I think it’s because I’ve always been a city girl and the idea of moving to the Midwest hit me with culture shock before I’d finished unpacking my belongings. I’ll be honest, I live in a tiny town thirty miles east of Iowa City and the town is surrounded by cornfields. I live thirty seven miles from the closest coffee shop.

The scenery is amazing, the town folks are super cool and being a resourceful city girl I knew there had to be more to Iowa than just farming. I just had to find it.

So my research began. I started with a subscription to the Iowan Magazine which led me to the 2016 Iowa City Book Festival. This is where I first learned about the City of Literature and all it has to offer.

The festival offered various writing workshops, author speakings, independent book sales, signings and I went home with a sack stuffed with free books. I love free books. I love all books, free or not.

Photo Credit: Me 2016

I was provided information on all the UNESCO creative writing culture Iowa City has open to the public and since then I’ve participated in every opportunity I can.

I had heard of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop but I never knew all the amazing events, independent publishing and writing groups available to the community.

I was able to take an on campus writing course during their summer program at a cost but I’ve also taken free writing courses online through their MOOC program.

The quarterly Iowa Review is facilitated by university staff and is open to submissions and publishing from writers all across the world. At $20 for an annual subscription my eyes light up each time an issue appears in my mailbox. You can also view the publication online.

There’s the Iowa Writers’ House. I became a member before leaving the festival that day. They host workshops and events, residencies and fellowships, writing groups and office hours. They’re home to the Fail Safe podcast series on writing and failing.

The Iowa City Public Library (ICPL) may be the most fantastic library I’ve ever stepped foot in. Not only does it thrive from history and tradition dating back to 1896 but if also offers selections from local writers, artist and musicians. Don’t get me wrong. I love my local library, but I’m in love with ICPL. You can register for a library card online and digitally check out items from your computer anywhere.

ICPL is the home of my National Novel Writing Month region with several Come Write In locations spread throughout the city. While there are quite a few times per week set to meet up at ICPL I’m also able to join in through Slack if I’m unable to make it into the city.

Let’s talk bookstores. I’m a huge fan of independent bookstores.

The oldest independent bookstore in Iowa City is The Haunted Bookshop. I strongly recommend checking them out online if you’re not local. They have a book selection I’ve only dreamed about. They’re a second hand mom and pop shop and man o’ man what a beautiful collection. They’ve got books both past and present day at ridiculously- stupid cheap prices.

There’s Prairie Lights Bookstore. While they have many independently and local published book sales they come nowhere near the intense and rare selection The Haunted Bookshop has, but they do have something they don’t. Author reading and signings, workshops and events, a monthly book club and a cafe.

Last year when I got home for the Iowa City Book Festival I hadn’t quite adjusted to Iowa’s chilly fall weather yet. I brewed a pot of coffee and curled up on the couch in front of the fireplace. I pulled a book out of my sack and began reading We Wanted to be Writers and that’s when I genuinely felt connected to the City of Literature for the first time.

As the 2017 Iowa City Book Festival approaches next month I remind myself that what originally felt like a culture shock when I first moved to Iowa is now the culture I feel I was always meant to be a part of. I look forward to attending again this year, this time from the perspective of a writer from the City of Literature’s inspiring creative community.

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