Hellman’s Uncertainty Principle, Or: The Writer at 25

I’ve probably weathered more screaming matches with my mother over the past year than I have at any point since I was seventeen. It isn’t her fault. I’ve gradually become the itinerant twentysomething no well-intentioned parent would ever hope to have, the type of person who’d abandon the ambitious life she’d forged in the city to write fiction in a creaky Sears-Roebuck house in Eastern Iowa.

The setup seemed perfectly reasonable to me: I’d find a couple of roommates and take a job at a local bar or café. I’d eat lots of beans and lentils. I’d write.

But my parents weren’t taking the bait. To them, sensibility wore a white collar. It had definitive prospects. Health insurance. My anticipated move to Iowa City jarred them not because I intended to write here (they’ve always enabled my habit), but because it was an unexpected link in the chain between college and graduate school. To them, the Midwest seemed radical. To me, it seemed like a way out.

I spent most of May 2010 exhausted. Fresh from the two-year publishing job I’d begun three days after my college graduation, I wandered New York City in zonked-out ecstasy, reconnecting with life under the weekday sun. In less than a fortnight, I would begin my summer graduate course at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Save for a cousin’s wedding in Chicago, I’d never before set foot in the Midwest.

Cities have a way of distancing themselves from you when you’re about to leave them, like lovers who want to be the first to say it’s over. During my last weeks in New York, I walked through the aftermath of both a stabbing and a shooting, got locked out of a friend’s apartment on a day of record heat, experienced a 70-minute subway gridlock, and got sick. The idea of cornfields had never seemed more attractive.

When I got here, Iowa’s reality was a flat one, surreal and warm and nostalgic for a time and place I’d never lived. The residential arrangement I’d chosen here was, of my addled volition, retro: a fat concrete dormitory with bunk beds and a wealth of stinky blue carpet. It felt homey. Or, perhaps more accurately, it felt familiar. After two years of coping with the exigencies of adulthood—the adulthood of a dying industry, of a recession, of underpayment—I crawled enthusiastically back into academia’s womb, hoping to incubate a new story or two while I was there.

My roommates were all from Iowa and had no idea why I’d come here. The redhead in the bedroom across the kitchen took a liking to me and brought me to visit her boyfriend’s farm in Wayne County. I drove out to see the place where American Gothic had been painted. I took pictures of sunsets over soybean fields.

And after spending a month here, after my workshop had begun and I’d met the extraordinary group of writers who would become my summerlong friends, something concretized in me: I wanted to stay in this place. Perhaps I was just buzzed on nature, perhaps the Victorian houses and stately university buildings seduced me, but I became convinced that this was the setting I needed to continue my work.

Convincing my parents—and my friends in New York—that I hadn’t gone crazy involved momentous effort and no small amount of tears. Self-doubt crept in often, and even as I purged the last of my boxes from my old Brooklyn brownstone, I wondered whether I was doing the right thing.

But, since life (fortunately?) is not a Spike Lee Joint, I’ll never know just what that “right thing” was. I’ll never know where I would have gotten into school if I’d applied from Brooklyn, what my job situation would have been, where I would have traveled, or who I would have met.

All I have is what Iowa has given me. I have an autumn of hard work, of leaves and cider and starting new projects. I have a winter of sleepless application cycles, of worrying, of stepping out in the bone-cold night to get a carton of pasta salad from Iowa City’s closest equivalent to a bodega. I have a spring of anticipation, a spring of disappointment, a spring of falling in love and of reconnecting with this town’s literary heart.

And now, in my second summer here, I have leaving. I have moving to Bloomington in two months to start my MFA at Indiana University. I have excitement. I have nerves. I have longing.

Iowa City hasn’t shoved me peevishly away from itself as New York had done when I was about to go, but it may yet do so before August. It may turn against me, throw me hard into Bloomington’s arms just as I was tossed halfway across the country a year ago at this time. But more likely, the parting will be gentle, bittersweet. I’ll think of Iowa fondly and visit her often. I’ll look back on this year of transition as something difficult but good. And, as I settle into the nooks and crannies of my professional/academic life, I get the feeling that I’ll thank myself for being radical. This place has certainly done alright by me.

(I’ve been asked about the source of the photos in this post. I took the first two in Wayne County, Iowa. The third was taken in Eldon, Iowa, by my roommate, Kyle Natoli.)

3 Comments

Filed under Writing MFA

3 responses to “Hellman’s Uncertainty Principle, Or: The Writer at 25

  1. Grandpappy

    Well done! Well done, indeed!

    • Ashley,This is Crystal, Kailey’s friend. I’ve never EVER had falmiy portraits done. As a matter of fact, I was looking all over for a picture with all of us in it and couldn’t find it. How sad is that??? Well, I think we should get a chance for the free session because we’ve became such a great falmiy over the years and we deserve to have a nice falmiy portrait to show for it. I would love to have a canvas on my wall with all of us. I’m not sure why we’ve never had them done probably because we just haven’t had the time. I absolutely LOVE all of your pictures you take. You truly have a wonderful talent. Not everyone can make them look the way you do. Whether I win the free session or not KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK! Take care!!!Thanks,Crystal

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