For Iowa City Artist, Writing is a Solo and Collaborative Process

Iowa Culture
Iowa Arts Council
Published in
4 min readDec 8, 2022

It’s worth noting that when the Iowa City writer Jennifer Colville was asked for an interview, she suggested conducting it via email instead.

“I’m more articulate on paper,” she wrote in a quick note, “but either way is OK.”

That’s a humble understatement. During the recent interview, over the phone, the Iowa Artist Fellow spoke eloquently about the power of words and the value of workshops where writers talk about the writing process. Since she landed in Iowa City a decade ago, she has helped build a community of local writers outside the storied halls of the University of Iowa and its famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

For starters, she founded PromptPress, a book-arts journal for writers and visual artists. For each issue, contributors create words or images that respond to a particular prompt. The results offer multiple perspectives in multiple media — photos, drawings, even music — that stretch beyond traditional narrative forms.

Jennifer Colville, right, staffs a booth for PromptPress, whose seventh issue included a stereoscopic photo.

“I started PromptPress to feed my passion with interdisciplinary work,” says Colville, who has a background in painting and photography, “but also to meet people — writers in community — because I knew they were there. I knew if I had a forum, they would come.”

And they have. The response to the journal was so successful that Colville now also directs PorchLight, a literary salon where local writers from all walks of life can share their work and swap feedback.

The workshops are “kind of astounding,” she says. “Poets, in particular, come out of the woodwork. People who have never been interested in getting an M.F.A., who just write on the side, who have different careers — they’re so gifted.”

Jennifer Colville leads a PorchLight workshop in Iowa City.

Colville herself started writing at an early age, as a way to sort out her emotions during her childhood and teen years in Tucson, Arizona. She attended a high school for the arts and performing arts before heading off to college with a photography scholarship. Next came an M.F.A. from Syracuse University and a Ph.D. in English and creative writing from the University of Utah.

When she and her husband, a scientist, were job-hunting a dozen years ago, they decided to move from San Francisco to Iowa City for the benefit of both of their careers. She started teaching literature at the university but stepped away after their second child arrived, to focus more time on her own writing career.

In 2017 she published “Elegies for Uncanny Girls,” a collection of short stories that blurs the boundaries of reality. In one tale, a young woman who alternately grows and shrinks moves to Hollywood to make a movie about merpeople; in another, a new mom meets a woman with detachable hands. Colville is also working on a novel told from two perspectives from the same woman, first when she finds herself in a Lolita-like relationship with a creative mentor, and then years later, when she tries to understand what happened.

In a 2019 essay for the Iowa Review, Colville examines the systemic sexism she witnessed in academic writing programs in the 1990s and early 2000s — attitudes that valued Hemingway, for example, more than his female contemporaries. Now she is writing a follow-up essay about experimental multimedia work by the Indigenous-Latina writer Gloria Anzaldua, the Korean-American writer-artist-filmmaker Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and the English writer Virginia Woolf, whose work, Colville says, “is full of this decorative detail that was seen as sort of fluff but was really revolutionary.”

In the spring, she plans to lead a workshop about the same three women. She’d also like to start a “mom’s salon” through PorchLight, where mothers who create artwork in any medium can present their work and discuss how they balance — or don’t balance — their lives and careers.

She also leads writing workshops through Shelter House, an Iowa City nonprofit that helps people overcome homelessness. The sessions encourage participants to articulate their frustrations and dreams.

And this is where Colville really shifts into high gear. Here’s what she said over the phone, off the cuff, on a hectic morning between dropping off her kids at school and digging into her workday routine:

“I’m interested in the way writing can serve people — just the act itself. Because I came up through academic creative writing programs, I often feel pressure to publish and get an agent. That’s a mindset that can suck you in and get in your head.

“But it’s important to look at the different ways that writing can serve people. It can help you order your thoughts at the beginning of the day. It can help you figure out what to do — or not to do. It can help you find out what you’re really feeling and thinking about things, and in that way, it can be empowering.”

Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs



Iowa Culture
Iowa Arts Council

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources.