Meet the Artist: Rachel Yoder
“Meet the Artist” is a series of interviews with the Iowa Arts Council Artist Fellows.
Seven years ago, Rachel Yoder founded draft: The Journal of Process, a literary journal that features first and final drafts of stories, poems and essays along with interviews about the creative process.
More recently, the award-winning author has been creating a draft of her own, a novel manuscript that is loosely based on her life. The work follows her difficult journey from a Mennonite community in Ohio’s Appalachian foothills to Georgetown University, the University of Arizona and the University of Iowa.
Today, she is ensconced in Iowa City’s literary community and is one of five new additions to the Iowa Arts Council’s Artist Fellowship Program. Each fellow receives a $10,000 grant to support new work plus professional development opportunities, like the weekend workshop last month where Rachel and others shared 3-minute presentations about their work.
During the next year, Rachel will join other fellows to display and discuss their work in communities across the state. We’ve asked each of them to share a bit about their background, work and thoughts about the arts in Iowa. So far, we’ve posted interviews with Grinnell artist Lee Emma Running, Ames artist Jennifer Drinkwater and Dubuque musician River Breitbach.
So let’s continue with Rachel, who is a board member for the UNESCO City of Literature in Iowa City and hosts “The Fail Safe,” an interview podcast that examines the challenges and pitfalls of literary life.
Where do you do your work?
My writing mostly takes place at the kitchen table or the desk in our guest room. And I record intros and outros to the podcast in my closet (yes, my closet) or else under a big blanket at my desk. Both approaches warm and soften the sound. When I need some psychic space, I head out to a coffee shop. A good deal of my work also happens at Prairie Lights Bookstore in downtown Iowa City. I sometimes write in their café, and we’ve recorded about half of “The Fail Safe” podcast episodes there. It’s a center of creativity for me, a sort of second home.
What is your artistic medium of choice?
In order to answer this, I need to tell you a story. When I was 21, my life exploded. I found myself in a destructive relationship, I dropped out of my last semester of college, and I went to Arizona and checked myself into rehab for, I guess, life. It should also be noted I was a poor kid from rural Ohio, and Mennonite, and on a near-full scholarship to Georgetown, so dropping out that last semester meant I was feasibly destroying a future that I otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
I’d always secretly wanted to be a writer, so once I re-grouped and finished up that last semester of school in Arizona, I started writing. It was a really desperate time for me. My relationships with my family and friends I’d known before Arizona were rocky and troubled. I felt completely alone, completely lost, as though I’d died and returned to a new life. I took a few creative writing classes at the college where I was working an administrative job, and I started writing short stories.
When I think back on that time, I remember this writing as physical labor, like raising a barn. I could feel it coming out of my body. It was arduous and left me exhausted. I had to sit down every day and write myself into being, because otherwise, I was afraid I might actually disappear, might die — of loneliness, of a broken heart, of fear.
And so the book I’m just now finishing began, though I had no concept of it as a book then. It was more a survival tactic.
As I kept writing, as the stories started to speak to one another, as I grew up, my inspiration became more about telling this story of a wayward Mennonite girl who was strong and weak and brave and horrible and beautiful and had left everything behind, because I had never — not one single time — read that story. I had no template for what I was trying to do with my life. And it feels important for me to write that now. This is how you get out. This is how you become the person you want to be. This is how you exist.
What other themes does your work explore?
In my most recent writing projects, my goal has been to write toward forms that are hybrid and lithe. I’m trying to resist categorization and instead concern myself with accurately capturing the heat of experience and skip-hop of thought. To this end, I’ve been experimenting with blowing apart form and genre. Can stories and essays be artful neighbors, side-by-side in the same book? Might the brain of an essay be able to expand the world of a story and vice versa? Can both modes of writing work together in a single piece of writing to create something truly singular?
More topically speaking, my writing deals with themes of utopia and its failings. Think: the garden, the fall, the exodus. I’m interested in how we search for utopia in romantic love, in religion, in motherhood even, and how these locations fail us and force us to demolish the ideals and rebuild imperfect homes in their place.
What are you currently working on?
I’m finishing up a novel, which is loosely autobiographical. Until recently, I viewed this book as a jumble of unrelated stories and essays. It wasn’t until I put it in chronological order that I saw I’ve been writing pieces — stories, essays, lyric meditations — that are all part of the same narrative.
What do you enjoy about being an artist in Iowa?
Iowa City is such a haven for writers. There might not be another place in the world where I can go to grab coffee, run into a friend, have them ask me about how my book is going, and then get into an incidental — and helpful — conversation about craft.
Also, living in a town that values and showcases writers feels like a miracle. It would be difficult to ever leave such a vibrant and welcoming community.
I also love Iowa as a geographical locale. I’m right in between where I grew up and where I remade myself, in this fecund and seemingly endless expanse of land. Maybe I’m being overly romantic about it, but I view farming as a creative act — taking a raw environment, shaping it, turning it into something productive and even beautiful. I like writing alongside that. Writing — about which people are also overly romantic — is mostly horrible toil, not unlike farming, but the end product disguises the labor that went into it.
What is one thing you would change about the artistic field in Iowa?
It would be wonderful to see some sort of an exchange between cultural Iowan hubs and more rural areas that don’t have the same access to the arts. I know that Arts Share at the University of Iowa is already working to spread artistic opportunity throughout the state, and it would be wonderful to see this effort expanded on a larger level.
What’s coming up?
Sept. 30: A reading at the All Senses Festival in Rock Island, Ill.
Oct. 13: A reading at the Fall for the Book Festival in northern Virginia.
This fall: New episodes of “The Fail Safe” podcast, featuring Iowa City poet Lauren Haldeman and Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad Carmen Machado.