When I moved to Iowa in 1973, I didn’t like it much. It seemed like a humorless, austere, and somewhat snobby version of Missouri. Maybe the fact that I was coming to the creative writing Mecca of the Midwest had something to do with it. The Columbia, Missouri, I had come from had been full of hard-drinking, often good-natured bumpkins. The Iowa City I found was full of hard-drinking, often tortured writers.
These recent big snows have served to remind me of the Iowa winter of 1973, which departed with a bang. A freak April snowstorm deposited several feet of unwelcome white stuff at a time when Missouri was all tulips and jonquils.
Vance Bourjaily was the head of the Writer’s Workshop then, and he was an awfully nice guy. He owned a farm out on Black Diamond Road that was the site of a party held to welcome new students. There, I met graduate students and faculty, and, by their very auras, some of the gray beards seemed important. I imagine they were, though I really only wanted to meet Kurt Vonnegut, who had just departed.
Now that I’m much older, and a bit more self-confident, I’m sure if I could trade places with myself in time, I could have handled myself more graciously at that and all other Famous Writers Workshop affairs. Now, when I meet people in their early 20s, I’m inclined to cut them some slack, as they are often as tortured by their insecurities as I was by mine. The programs in Fiction, Poetry, and Playwriting last two years, resulting in a lofty-sounding but largely useless Master of Fine Arts, or M.F.A. In Missouri, those letters stood for the Missouri Farmers Association. And the idea that you have only two years to prove yourself would give anyone pause.
I used to smoke a corn-cob pipe back then and wore overalls a lot. My favorite band was The Band. Now I’ve started smoking again, and I hope by the time this article is printed, I will have stopped. Recently, at an antique store in Albia, I bought a pipe, hoping that smoking it will ensure a sort of moderation that will wean me off cigars and their insidious cousins, cigarettes.
I still fancy myself a writer, though one of little import since I have yet to produce anything “important.” The same old fears haunt me, though they’re buried under 40 years of experience, memory, and the stuff, good and bad, that life hands us.
It seems presumptive to assume that my life experience is any more meaningful than anyone else’s. I can only hope that my ability or willingness to sit in front of a computer long enough to focus on a few ideas or images will somehow be of value to others.
You can’t really teach creative writing. In fact, it’s impossible to teach any kind of creative art. You can encourage and offer feedback, but that’s about it. People either are or aren’t willing to face the job of filling a blank page or canvas. Flannery O’Connor was driven to produce some of the best short stories ever written, and the best of them are profound. She must have known early on that she was living on borrowed time, so she threw herself into it with a passion. Both she and Chopin wrote an awful lot of what we remember them for before they were 30. Both Frederic and Flannery died at the age of 39.
So where does that leave the rest of us? Even though many of us have passed the age of 40, we’re all still living on borrowed time. Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of good movies that deal with mortality. Venus, starring that dashing senior citizen Peter O’Toole, and King of California, with a grizzled Michael Douglas, point to the fact that life can still be an adventure no matter what your position, as long as you’re willing to forget your preconceptions of what you think or thought adventure should be, and deal with what actually is.
I’ve just finished reading Eric Clapton’s autobiography. I imagine it can be found in virtually every Iowa library. Whatever envy I once felt for the guy disappeared after reading of his many problems (mostly self-induced), his jealousies, rivalries, and unconscious self-centeredness. The more biographies I read, and this one is exceedingly well-written, the more I realize that those who believe we are put on this earth to work through our karma are probably right.
So, as yet another snowstorm blankets Iowa, it’s foolish for me to wish it were April, the month this article will appear in the Source. What’s happening right now is sufficient for my happiness. I just have to re-discover the passion I once felt, even though it’s slumbering beneath the snows of accumulated experience.