IOWA CITY — Once upon a time, there was a house in a city that loved literature.
It was a quaint, two-story home in the heart of the historic district with brick stairs, pale yellow siding, a hipped red roof and a rich history: Its original owner was Emma J. Harvat, who in 1922 became the nation’s first female mayor for a city of more than 10,000.
Nearly a century later, in 2014, Andrea Wilson was working in advertising in Florida and pined for a more “altruistic purpose” for her life. So she planned a return to Iowa, where she grew up in Columbus Junction.
But this time Wilson would live in Iowa City, known for — among other things — pioneering academic creative writing pursuits at the University of Iowa’s famed Writers’ Workshop.
Wilson wanted to write and found the idea of the historic Harvat house so charming she bought it “sight unseen” from down in Miami, aiming to run it as a bed-and-breakfast. But when she arrived, Wilson discovered a need in her new community she aimed to fill. It had a surprising dearth of literary resources for those outside the university.
“There wasn’t any place for the public to take a class or meet other writers or really be part of a writing community where people could just express their humanity through words,” she said. “It became my passion project — to try to create that for this community. I thought if anywhere should have a place like that, it would be America’s only UNESCO City of Literature at the time.”
So in March 2015, Wilson debuted Iowa City’s first community-based literary center for writers — or those aspiring. She had hoped to open a communal writing space closer to downtown but didn’t have the funding. So she gave her home a third identity: the Iowa Writers’ House.
She continued to live there and maintain her bed-and-breakfast business, which funded the writing endeavor and kept its cozy corridors bustling with interesting characters.
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Famed visiting writers included Leslie Jamison, American novelist and essayist with works on the New York Times bestseller list; Hope Edelman, whose six non-fiction books have published in 17 countries and translated in 11 languages; Alison Bechdel, an American cartoonist and MacArthur fellow; and Piedad Bonnett Velez, Colombian poet, playwright and novelist of international acclaim.
And over the years, the Iowa Writers’ House connected, served and motivated thousands with its workshops, seminars, readings and summer camps. It offered editing services, founded a Bicultural Iowa Writers’ Fellowship, and — among other things — inspired a growing network of friends and creatives to value their own stories and the stories of others.
“I said yes to everything anyone ever asked of me,” Wilson said. “We gave tours. I received visiting scholars. We hosted dinners for visiting poets and writers for the university. And a lot of that was all volunteer. We never had a steady funding stream like most literary centers do.”
So when the coronavirus in March reached Iowa City, later shuttering storefronts, canceling events, curtailing travel plans and crippling the economy, the Iowa Writers’ House momentum stopped, too.
“Once COVID hit, because all of our programming is live and people come to the house, we had to cancel it,” Wilson said.
She dropped most of the organization’s spring season. She lost all her projected bed-and-breakfast business. And in a message posted to the Iowa Writers’ House website last month, Wilson announced her hard but unavoidable news.
“As the situation pushes on, and with no programming in the foreseeable future, we must make drastic changes,” she wrote. “Organizations must weather the storm or adapt, and in the case of this little organization with a big heart, evolution is the only option.”
And so after five years of intimate conversations, communal meals, singing, laughing, crying and lots and lots of writing and reading — all done in the shadow of Harvat — the organization is leaving the historic space and “taking a break to assess our mission and consider our best options for the future.”
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Wilson said she plans to focus on her own writing. And the Bicultural Iowa Writers’ Fellowship program will continue — allowing for the release later this year of a third volume of “We the Interwoven: An Anthology of Bicultural Iowa,” including six new authors with multilingual stories of living in Iowa.
News of the goodbye — at least for now — has been met with an outpouring of support and testimonials of the impact the Iowa Writers’ House has had,
“I grew up without a writing community, and it was a very lonely experience,” Erin Casey wrote to Wilson after learning of its pause.
Casey — on the Iowa Writers’ House team and director of The Writers’ Rooms, an offshoot of the house — said her involvement in the project shaped not only her career but her personal growth.
“You, and the Iowa Writers’ House, helped me become a stronger person who felt deserving of companionship, respect, and love,” she wrote. “Watching the house grow, the workshops fill, and the stories come in about how much the IWH touched people’s lives added to the joy. I finally found a place to call home.”
Casey said that while the future is unknown, its legacy is not.
“The IWH will live on in the hearts of the people you touched,” she wrote. “Writers have found friends, support, guidance …”
Although the project isn’t getting a fairy-tale ending, Wilson said the story isn’t over.
“The organization is leaving the space. I’m leaving the space. We’re going on an organizational break so we can determine what a sustainable future might be,” she said. “But it’s really the end of a chapter. And we don’t know what the next chapter will be.”
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