I first drove to Iowa City a number of years ago, to attend a week-long fiction workshop at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival. As I write this, I can nearly capture the “me” of that first visit: excited, nervous, tortured by how little I’d accomplished, and terrified my scant output labeled me nothing more than a dilettante. Still, the thrill of hearing well-known authors at evening lectures, the charm of “elevenses” (mid-day discussions and presentations), and the luxury of lingering over my new journal in a coffee house had me in thrall. That trip also meant visits with my friend Mike, a tremendously talented poet and fiction writer who was enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
The Workshop is the oldest writing program in the country. It’s the stuff of legend—as noted for its accomplished faculty as for its graduates. Mike had moved to Iowa with his wife and children when he was accepted into the program. I hadn’t seen him for months…and I could hardly wait to hear about what he was learning and writing.
One of the first places he took me was the U of I library. Flannery O’Connor was a graduate of the program and Mike wanted to show me her Master’s thesis. I remember my near-disbelief when he handed it to me. My pulse pounded in my ears as we opened it and began reading the first lines of her short story, The Geranium. I was so overwhelmed that
I could hardly concentrate.
It’s nearly unbearable to linger on that scene. Innocence can kill you, I’m sure of it.
Yet, I would not trade that day, the breathless reading of O’Connor’s story, and my own belief in the great work that lay ahead for Mike—and for me.
I was reading about stars earlier this week in the American Heritage Dictionary of Science. I learned that stars vary in size from those slightly larger than the earth to those several million times as large as the sun. Our sun is considered a star. The majority of stars, including the sun, are divided into five major types: supergiants, giants, dwarfs, white dwarfs and neutron stars. These are all found in galaxies, of which our Milky Way is one. A galaxy typically contains billions of stars. There are billions of galaxies in the universe.
I cannot grasp those numbers and categories. Still, I can “feel” the meaning of a star in one of my favorite poems of all time, “Two Headed Calf” by Laura Gilpin:Tomorrow when the farm boys find this freak of nature, they will wrap his body in newspaper and carry him to the museum. But tonight he is alive and in the north field with his mother. It is a perfect summer evening: the moon rising over the orchard, the wind in the grass. And as he stares into the sky, there are twice as many stars as usual. .
I’ll be driving to Iowa again at the end of this week. I’ve been invited to participate in the Iowa City Festival of Books. I am not one of the “names” being touted in the Festival literature; not among the writers strategically placed at tables for the fundraising dinner. There are hierarchies of stars after all.
But, on Saturday, July 16th, I will read from my debut novel, Dancing With Gravity, in the library at the University of Iowa. My friend, Mike, who took me there so many years ago, has promised to be in the audience.