Sunday, February 7, 2016

Dar Williams’s “Iowa”

I’ve never had a way with women, but the hills of Iowa make me wish that I could.

So begins “Iowa,” a track from Mortal City by Dar Williams, originally released in 1996, about five years before I heard of Dar Williams. Like so many of the artists I love, I came to Williams via my sister, who learned of her music at college and brought it home to me. I fell in love with “As Cool As I Am,” then “The Christians and the Pagans” and, after I had left for college myself, the first full album I heard from her, End of Summer.

As naïve as I was, I was oblivious to any lesbian bent in her lyrics and much of the more biting satire in Williams’s music, and tapped into the narrative arcs that pervaded her songs, not to mention the folksy melodies that spoke of my earlier musical sensibilities, growing up listening to Arlo Guthrie and Simon & Garfunkel and The Indigo Girls.

At college, I found access to an expansive catalog of music, available for illegal download via my college network. I pored over the Williams catalog. And I found “Iowa.”

I had never been to Iowa, and didn’t think much about how a female singer-songwriter speaking of a female love interest might register as a “lesbian anthem” (though I’d pieced it together much more years later, that particular phrasing came from a woman I sat next to at an a cappella show in Manhattan, in which that song was covered six or seven years after I first heard it). What I did focus on were the elements that I suspect Williams herself may have been more interested in--less about global connotations than a personal story that the listener might build her or his own stories and interpretations around. A love story and a commentary on small town America where everything is everyone else’s business and people keep things inside until they burn.

I listened to “Iowa” incessantly. My junior year of college, I roomed with a friend's boyfriend, with whom I was friendly, but never really became as tight with as I think either of us had hoped. Bless him for being patient with my obsession with this song--I listened to it when I got up and when I was getting ready to bed. When he was around and when he wasn’t. I can only imagine him--serious political scientist and practitioner of kung fu--walking back to his home and hearing those familiar chords--rolling his eyes and wondering if I’d ever listen to anything else.

Fast forward six years and I found myself in Ann Arbor, Michigan for a long weekend. I was there, first and foremost, to cover an a cappella competition, but also to visit with Ashley, a friend and fellow writer from undergrad who had recently matriculated to the University of Michigan to pursue an MFA in creative writing. I had never been especially close with her, but she was nonetheless generous enough to put me up for three nights and not only go to the a cappella show with me, but bring me along to a public reading by Yiyun Li, and bring me to her own reading in Detroit. To tolerate my presence as she edited, read, and wrote and I occupied space in her one bedroom apartment.

I came to cover an a cappella show, and I left, profoundly envious of my friend’s life.

The idea of getting up and writing each day. And reading. And editing. And going to workshops with talented writers from around the world was intoxicating.

I had applied to MFA programs, cursorily and clumsily, on my way out of undergrad--just three schools and the one I got into was the one I really didn’t want to attend, so I entered the work force instead, with vague notions I might go back someday. When I started working at Johns Hopkins, I became aware of a part time MA program in creative writing and enrolled in that. One course per semester, fully paid for, working alongside some really talented writers, and some for whom a graduate program in creative writing didn’t seem like a particularly good fit.

I decided that I would finish the MA and save every penny I could. And if I still wanted it, and the right program saw fit to admit me, I would start a new life in the fall of 2014.

Along the way, I grew enamored with the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. The world's first and arguably still the most prestigious graduate writing program. As I looked into it, I realized more and more of my favorite authors had emerged from that workshop. And I came to romanticize the idea of studying in an idyllic rural setting.

And there was the song.

Dar Williams’s “Iowa” re-entered my life, one of my favorite songs, now bearing the weight of destiny--an anthem for a mythic journey, for the writing experience I dreamed of. I saw myself running through the screen door of discretion to write every word I needed to write, read every word I needed to read, say every word I needed to say in a community of writers. At home.

Truth be told, I was offered admission to eleven MFA programs. Iowa said no.

I elected to attend Oregon State University, the most selective program to offer admission, home to several authors I admired, and with the offer of an assistantship that would cover my tuition and supplement my savings to make returning to life as a full-time student as financially viable as it could be. I finished out my last summer of work at Johns Hopkins, filled up a moving truck, and made the cross-country drive.

Along the way, I spent my birthday in Iowa.

I’m not entirely sure what I expected. A glimpse of a life I might have had? Relief at a bullet dodged? A holiday in a literary haven?

In truth, the day was a little of each. I listened to Dar Williams’s “Iowa” as I crossed the Iowa City limits. I walked through parts of campus, blocks of college bars and restaurants, the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk, Prairie Lights and The Haunted Bookshop. I bought a few short story collections and read the first fifty pages of one of them over dinner, pie, and coffee at a diner next door to my hotel.

And that life could have been mine. I could see myself getting lost in cornfields, attending readings there, and writing, writing, writing. And I can see myself visiting again for all of Iowa’s literary significance.

But just the same, Iowa City was not the be all end all I had once hoped, and later feared it might be. It was just a place, more welcoming than some, but not a place I was meant to call home. And that’s OK.

I went a-wandering out on the hills of Iowa, and it--this place, this “community of writers,” as the literature on the program purports, was not thinking of me. So I saw it all, and put that particular dream to bed.

And I drove on. Through the Midwest and on to Mount Rushmore, to Yellowstone, to Shoshone Falls, and all the way to a new home in Corvallis, Oregon. And while I can’t say with any certainty how long I’ll stay here, I don’t regret the trip. And while I look back on my visit to Iowa fondly, I don't idealize or romanticism it as much as I once did.

Sometimes a dream is just a dream, and a song is just a song.

Neither of these facts make the reality any less sweet.

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