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Iowa for Writers: A Lit Lovers Guide to the Hawkeye State
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Iowa for Writers: A Lit Lovers Guide to the Hawkeye State

From Iowa City to Decorah to Des Moines, there’s no shortage of inspiration for writers and literary enthusiasts who are rolling through the plains and cornfields of the Hawkeye State.

Iowa is a mecca for writers. And for good reason. It’s the home of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. 

There’s a lot to see and do in Iowa for aspiring writers, seasoned authors, and literary tourists alike. Here are a few resources to get your creative juices flowing.

Iowa Writers’ Workshop

To put things in perspective: Harvard is to undergrads what Iowa Writers’ Workshop is to graduate students in creative writing. From 2013-2017, the Workshop received 5,061 applications and 135 were accepted — only a 2.7 percent admission rate. To compare, Harvard admitted just over 5 percent of its applicants for the class of 2021.

For those talented enough to get in, graduates earn a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Iowa Writers Workshop is the oldest creative writing program in the country.

The proof lies in the fact that alumni of the school have won 17 Pulitzer Prizes, six have been Poet Laureates, and dozens more have won other prestigious awards. Past faculty members have included literary greats John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth.

Here is more information on how to apply to Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But if you aren’t accepted into the graduate program, fear not. There are plenty of other Iowa literary opportunities on the docket!

Prairie Lights

Not only is Iowa City home to Writers’ Workshop, it’s only one of two U.S. cities to be designated as a UNESCO City of Literature. The criteria, according to, includes being a “center of literary tradition, having libraries and bookstores that play a role in the city’s culture, and having programming that promotes literary life and understanding, among other things.”

The bookstore scene is what it is in Iowa City, in part because of Prairie Lights. It’s a bookstore lover’s bookstore. Established in 1978, Prairie Lights started out as a small shop in an intimate setting, offering titles by both newer writers such as Alice Munro and by well-established authors like George Orwell.

Over the years, Prairie Lights has grown into three and a half floors in its South Dubuque street location downtown along the Pedestrian Mall. It’s jam-packed with the most popular newest releases as well as smaller, more difficult-to-find titles. It offers a multitude of author readings and events, plus a 1,100-square foot coffee house. 

Literary Walk

While in Iowa City, take a stroll along the Literary Walk, which celebrates the works of 49 writers with Iowa ties. The bronze panels are located on both sides of Iowa Avenue and from Gilbert to Clinton streets.

Each author section along the walk includes quotes and a brief bio for each writer. Some of the writers were born in the state, such as Josephine Herbst and William Shirer, while others were involved with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, such as Flannery O’Connor. It’s sure to be an inspiring experience. 

Amana Colonies

Take a 17-mile drive northwest of Iowa City to the arts and cultural attractions at the Amana Colonies, which are comprised of seven villages on 26,000 acres. The villages were built and settled by German Pietists who were persecuted in their homeland. They first settled in New York near Buffalo but eventually moved west in search of rich soil. They lived a communal life until the mid 1930s.

“The Amanians were able to achieve this independence and lifestyle by adhering to the specialized crafting and farming occupations that they had brought with them from Europe,” according to the Amana Colonies website. “Craftsmen passed their skills and techniques on from one generation to the next. They used hand, horse, wind, and water power, and made their own furniture, clothes, and other goods. Today, the Seven Villages of Amana are a tourist attraction known for its restaurants and craft shops. The colony was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1965.”

To learn more bout the Amana Colonies, click here.

Des Moines Writers’ Workshop

Head west on I-80 to Des Moines, about 113 miles from Iowa City. The Des Moines Writers Workshop is a writing critique group for writers of all levels and abilities with a focus on fiction of all genres as well as narrative nonfiction. The Workshop offers several levels of critique groups ranging from “how to start your novel” to an “intensive workshop experience.” To see if this group is a good fit for you, visit the Des Moines Writers Workshop website.

Iowa Poetry Association Workshop

Also in Des Moines, the Iowa Poetry Association is hosting a workshop in April that you may want to put on your calendar. It’s for both members and non-members who want to submit a single poem of up to 20 lines. One of two qualified critics reviews your poem in advance and writes comments, some of which will be discussed at the workshop.

If you really want to benefit from the workshop, it is suggested you send a poem that you are struggling with instead of a finished piece of work. Also, come prepared to learn from comments about others’ poems, too. You can apply changes by either critics or other workshoppers, but the choice is yours.

ArtHaus Poetry Slam

The ArtHaus Poetry Slam is the not-to-be-missed Decorah event that happens several times a year. The next event is in April. Anyone is welcome to participate in either or both of these categories: non-competitive “Original Voices” (consisting of 3 minutes or less of your own poetry) and the “Slam,” a good old-fashioned competition that will be judged by the Applause-o-Meter. For more information, visit the ArtHaus Poetry Slam.

Whether you live in Iowa or are checking it off your travel bucket list, there’s plenty to capture the imagination of every wordsmith and bibliophile out there.


Image: Flickr

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