I grew up in California, but I’ve spent all but a couple weeks of my 20s living in various cities in Iowa. When I tell Iowans – especially native Iowans – where I’m from, they look at me in disbelief, almost disapprovingly. They ask me how I ended up in Iowa (though it’s usually more of a “Why?”, though they never use “Why?”).
I usually tell them there’s a short version – that I transferred to the University of Iowa, settled in, and never left – and a long version – a rambling mess that includes three key parts: why I considered Iowa at all (#1 on this list), what sold me on the UI (#2 on this list), and why I stuck around (the husband).
People never want the long version. So I’ve finally compromised between the two, and I now present to you a list version that contains all the people who played some part in getting me here, where I’ve since earned two degrees, gotten married, and now enjoy something resembling a life here. (Now I can just send inquiring Iowans this link!)
Ms. Manchester: My junior year AP English teacher, and the obvious #1. She did her master’s program at the University of Iowa, and when she heard I was going to be driving through the state, she urged me to make a pit stop in Iowa City. I did. I fell in love immediately and applied to the school as soon as I got home. (She was also the first to introduce me to Hamburg Inn, for which I can never truly thank her enough).
Ariel: My good high school friend. She was working for one of our high school teachers, who asked her to deliver his van from Sonoma to Chicago the summer after our freshman year of college. She then asked me to join her, and we ended up making that pit stop in Iowa City a few hours before we arrived in Chicago.
Mr. Donnelley: My – and Ariel’s – high school economics teacher. He was flush with cash from growing some algae before he started teaching in the area and thus felt it necessary to dip into a pool of loyal former students to find a personal assistant. He chose Ariel, and one summer he asked her to deliver one of his cars from Sonoma to Chicago.
Sonoma Valley Unified School District/the city of Sonoma: There’s only one high school in Sonoma. But there are two middle schools, one of which opened the year I started sixth grade. Thanks to a diversity-motivated move from the district, my elementary school and another elementary school across town were the ones chosen to populate the new middle school. Ariel didn’t go to that other elementary school, but she lived in its district, so she ended up in middle school with me.
Old Adobe School: The preschool where Ariel and I first met. We wouldn’t have reconnected in middle school if not for this chance friendship.
My parents: We moved to Sonoma when I was 4 years old. “We” included my parents, who chose to move there. This was pretty straightforward.
My dad’s firm: I think it was their choice to move the company from the San Francisco metro, where we lived at the time, to Sonoma.
Maybe going back any further would be pointless, but I could have gone back quite a bit, until it devolved into a series of “what if” questions: What if my dad hadn’t hated his first college so much he quit during his first semester, thereby graduating from his second college a year later than if he’d finished on time? What if he’d finished on time and hadn’t ended up in the Washington, D.C. area, where he was introduced to my mom? What if my mom hadn’t left Haiti, where she was born, and made it to New York City, where she grew up?
Myself: For the existential crisis that was the process of making this list.
You: Well, either you’re here in Iowa with me and have made this journey worthwhile, you’re someone I knew before Iowa and didn’t virulently object to my decision to move here, or you’re neither, you’re still reading this, and you made it to #10. Thank you.
Casey Baumberger writes this intriguing question in the corner of a classroom chalkboard at Iowa State University, straining to make the words visible upon layers of chalk dust that have collected over the years.
Underneath it she writes: “Breaking the Pocket: available December 31.”
Writing a book is often one of those idealistic dreams that few ever really expect to accomplish. It takes too much time, or they don’t have the drive, or the ideas, or the writing ability. The excuses given to no one in particular for never reaching that goal are abundant – unless you’ve actually done it.
For Baumberger, the dream of writing a book is becoming a reality in a big way as her début novel, Breaking the Pocket, hits stores on New Year’s Eve. Many take the path she did to complete her first novel, but few take their first manuscripts all the way to publication within just one year.
And anyway, how many people can say they published their first book by 21 years old?
• • •
National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is an annual event that challenges writers to write 50,000 words – a novel-length work – from 12:00 a.m. on November 1 to 11:59 p.m. on November 30.
While the inaugural 1999 event took place in the month of July, creator Chris Baty moved the 2000 writing fest to November “to more fully take advantage of the miserable weather.”
This depiction is probably more descriptive of Iowa’s harsh late autumn temperatures than the temperate climate of Northern California’s Bay Area, where the original NaNoWriMo writers were based, but the sentiment is the same: it’s crappy outside, so as long as you’re staying inside, why not do something life-changingly productive?
To that end, nearly 400 novels crafted during NaNoWriMo have been traditionally published, including Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. Both have spent time on the New York Times Best Seller list.
Not bad for a month spent on their computers.
As the internet grows, allowing for more creativity and self-sufficiency than ever before, even more novels coming out of this month end up being self-published by their authors. More still never see the light of day, serving only as proof of one’s success – or, in some cases, multiple successes. The personal triumph that come with writing multiple novel-length works cannot be overstated.
In 2015, more than 400,000 people participated in NaNoWriMo, of which around 10 percent reached 50,000 words – or “won.”
Despite it being her first try, Baumberger ended up becoming part of that 10 percent.
• • •
One day, Baumberger, an Iowa State English major, was searching for writing prompts on Pinterest when she discovered a post referencing something she didn’t recognize.
“I saw a pin that said, ‘15 Tips for Actually Finishing your NaNoWriMo Novel,’” Baumberger explains. “And I had no idea what that was, so I read the article and thought it was a great idea.”
Some writers are “pantsers,” the unofficial term for writers who begin NaNoWriMo with nothing but a spark of an idea that they hope they can extend to 50,000 words. Others, like Baumberger, are “planners” – the more second-nature term for writers who do extensive planning in the preceding weeks.
“I took all of October to outline my novel and get to know my characters, which made the writing process much easier,” she says.
In spite of never having completed a novel-length work before – though most who participate in NaNoWriMo haven’t – Baumberger saw this new experience as an opportunity to stimulate herself to reach that goal.
While one of the informal, honor-system “rules” of NaNoWriMo is not to start early, nothing prevents writers from preparing ahead of the start date, as long as they don’t do any actual writing. Several participants come up with their ideas well before November, lying in wait for that motivation to come all at once as soon as the proper stroke of midnight gives them the green light to begin furiously writing.
For Baumberger, an unassuming day at the cusp of a completely different life change ended up sparking the idea that would turn this New Year’s Eve into a celebration of more than just the end of the year.
• • •
More than 205 million unique people tune into NFL games each year, not counting those who watch more than one game throughout the season. Unsurprisingly, there are no statistics for those who come up with a full-length novel idea while watching one of these games – but at least one person has.
In 2013, Baumberger was a freshman at Drake University in Des Moines. A Green Bay Packers fan, she and some friends were watching a game one Sunday when a clip came on about Sarah Thomas, who in 2013 became one of 21 finalists for a permanent NFL officiating position. She got the job in 2015.
“From what they were saying on TV and from what my friends were saying, it was pretty clear that her presence was controversial,” Baumberger recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘How controversial would a female player be? That would be fun.’”
Two years later, Femme Fatale Football was born. The story follows Chelsea Tucker, a lifelong football player who takes her talents all the way to becoming a popular collegiate athlete. When college ends and she thinks her career is over, she gets a chance to make the jump to the pros.
As it turned out, Femme Fatale Football ended up being a decent working title and nothing more. November wore on, and Baumberger realized the deeper she got into her novel, the less appropriate the title was.
“As the manuscript developed and Chelsea grew, it just didn’t fit,” she says. “I know Chelsea would hate having her story called ‘femme fatale football.’ ‘I’m just a football player, dammit,’ is what her response would have been to seeing that title.”
Although Baumberger began with extensive outlining, she relished the idea that her characters were able to shape her story in the same way that she originally shaped her characters. She also found that the actual writing process told her more about Chelsea than her pre-November planning ever could have.
“I changed [the title] to something she would appreciate,” Baumberger adds contentedly.
“Breaking the pocket” is a term not normally used in football – players can “break the line” or “collapse the pocket,” but the phrase that combines the two is uncommon. It’s a fitting metaphor for the first female professional football player’s impact on the game.
“She’s not your typical football player, but she’s still a football player,” Baumberger says. “The title isn’t a typical football term, but it’s still a football term.
“And it is her story, after all.”
• • •
When most people think of the process of publishing a novel, one common factor tends to run through their minds whether they are conscious of it or not: the presence of a publisher.
Typically, a publisher seeks out new talent that fits their company’s brand, negotiates contracts with authors, oversees editing and design duties, and arranges who will sell the book, where it will be sold, and how much the author will be paid for each unit sold.
But Baumberger decided early on that she didn’t want to go through what can sometimes be a years-long process: she was going to self-publish instead.
“It’s a fairly simple process, but it’s not an easy one,” she explains. “Since I don’t have a publisher, I have to do everything myself: finding a reliable editor, marketing myself, creating covers, finding an ISBN number, pricing my book, learning how to correctly format everything.”
However, as someone whose entire scholarly repertoire revolves around writing and editing – her English major is supplemented by minors in Teaching English as a Second Language and Technical Communication, and she also serves as president of Iowa State’s literary magazine, Sketch – Baumberger initially wanted to dive into the editing process on her own.
She began formally editing on January 1, 2016, one month after finishing the manuscript, with an original goal of publishing by her birthday, June 10.
“Two weeks into the process, I realized that was not a realistic goal,” she admits.
So she did a little revision within her revision, enlisting the help of her retired copy editor uncle and a fellow writer friend to aid in her editing process. Baumberger refers to a phenomenon she dubs “author blindness,” not being able to see plot holes and grammar errors in her own work due to the fact that she is so close to her story.
“I had to find an editor who not only knew what they were doing, but would also want to work on an author’s first novel,” she explains. “These two people have been lifesavers in this whole process.”
Baumberger also learned along the way that seeking outside editing help set her apart from some self-published authors, where she claims it is “blatantly clear” who edited their own work. “You can self-publish,” she advises, “but you can’t self-edit.”
As the completed manuscript came together, she turned to the long process of self-publishing. Overall, it certainly involved a learning curve, but according to Baumberger it ended up being a completely feasible goal, even within her time frame.
“You just need to have the right motivation,” she adds. “And I’d say that seeing your name in print is a pretty good motivating factor.”
• • •
Her release date for her début novel just weeks away, Baumberger maintains that she doesn’t have any glamorous plans to celebrate.
“Nearly all my family and friends are out of town for [winter] break,” she says. “It might just end up being me with a glass of wine at my house, eagerly watching the Amazon page for my first sale.”
The lack of fanfare doesn’t mean her journey was somehow less legitimate, though. Baumberger’s newfound confidence extends beyond her writing, even beyond the stress of publishing.
“I learned that I don’t have to be afraid to be pushy,” Baumberger tells me. “If your editor slacks off, doesn’t do what they say, go ahead and find a new editor. If your cover photographer isn’t giving you the photographs you want, let them know.”
So as December 31 rapidly approaches, it’s more than a new year for Baumberger; it’s a new outlook on life, including her work. She’s learned to stop second-guessing herself and maintain ownership of her writing, realizing that what she once perceived as rudeness was actually the assertiveness she needed to succeed.
But for this soon-to-be newly-minted published novelist, her view extends to others as well.
“I firmly believe that anyone can become published author,” Baumberger says. “You just have to want it badly enough to put in the effort and time to accomplish it.”
• • •
Breaking the Pocket is available December 31, 2016 through Amazon and Amazon Europe and at bookstores, libraries, academic institutions, and the CreateSpace eStore.
Iowa State’s MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment produces authors, poets, and playwrights well-versed in what the program refers to as “the environmental imagination.” But for two students, exploring this idea meant setting out to advance a whole new genre.
After learning about solarpunk in a Tumblr post that gained popularity last September, now second-year student Phoebe Wagner came to fellow second-year Brontë Wieland with an idea.
“Phoebe approached me and asked me if I wanted to put together an anthology of environmental science fiction,” Wieland said.
“Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation” was born out of this conversation.
Solarpunk is an emerging genre focused on working toward a better environmental future in science fiction as well as the associated positive solutions. The “-punk” suffix refers to its association with countercultural ideology.
“There’s also a lot of social justice that’s also associated with it,” Wagner added. “This idea that you can’t take environmental justice away from social justice, that they’re just sort of woven together.”
Wieland and Wagner turned to Kickstarter at the recommendation of their publisher, Upper Rubber Boot Books, and leaned on their own previous experiences with the platform to make it successful. One of their major goals was to raise enough to pay every author whose work they decided to publish in “Sunvault.”
“It also seemed right that something like solarpunk that’s so based in community is also funded by the community,” Wagner said.
In less than a month, “Sunvault” reached its initial goal of $5,000. By the end of the funding period, 236 backers had helped them exceed their goal to the tune of $6,121.
“Having the Kickstarter funds allowed us to be generous so we were able to up how much we were paying for art,” Wagner said.
With solarpunk being such an unexplored genre, Wieland and Wagner were both worried and excited about the kind of submissions they might receive, as well as how people might interpret the genre and how they as editors would select the stories that would help define and embody solarpunk for a wider audience.
“We wanted to be able to give authors the chance to expand that without necessarily breaking the genre,” Wieland said. “I think we did a pretty good job; we’ve taken it interesting directions.”
The pair promised backers and fans on their Kickstarter that submissions would open as soon as they reached their initial funding goal. But in addition to open submissions, they also solicited work from some of their favorite authors, including A.C. Wise, Nisi Shawl, and Daniel José Older.
“Probably our most exciting one was Margaret Atwood,” Wagner said. “We don’t have a Margaret Atwood story, but Atwood did email back our publisher and say that she liked the idea. So we were very thrilled about that.”
In the two months where submissions were open, “Sunvault” received more than 200 submissions, of which around 35 stories, poems, and black and white line art pieces were chosen for the final anthology.
The anthology is due to be published in May, but in the meantime, many backers of the Kickstarter have some unique rewards coming their way as a thanks for their contributions. Wagner is creating several spray art paintings, while Wieland is writing around 30 personalized limericks.
“Limerick is a fun form, and I think Kickstarters usually work better when they have something a little bit different in them,” he said. “I was excited to get a chance to exercise my limerick muscle.”
Throughout what will turn out to be an 18-month journey from conception to publication, Wieland and Wagner both learned valuable lessons about the publishing process.
“[We’ve been] writing copy for the Kickstarter and creating our website and doing social media, and we’re currently proofing the entire book at this point,” Wagner said. “That’s been a unique experience. And working with a publisher and soliciting authors is not something you generally get on your own, so that’s been a really big learning experience for me.”
“Now we’ve got a pretty good idea of all the legwork that goes into it,” Wieland added.
And as for a second volume of “Sunvault”?
“We’ll see,” Wagner said. “Probably some of it will depend on [the] response and if Upper Rubber Boot offered and said, ‘we would really like to put out another one,’ then I think we would definitely both be involved. But we’ll see.”
Did you know that your SAT essays are right there, scanned and posted on the College Board website, just waiting for people who graduated high school years ago to log in and relive the best 25 minutes of their lives?
I sure did!
In honor of the new SAT expanding the length of the now-optional essay section to 50 minutes in order to accommodate a longer prompt, I thought I’d share these excerpts from my two 2007 SAT essays. I believe they conclusively prove my demonstrated Lord of the Rings obsession trumped my GPA, letters of recommendation, and extracurriculars in helping me get into college.
Also, I don’t think context is necessary, do you?
March 2007 (with bonus Harry Potter):
“Literature has shown countless times that one should not set smaller goals if one will be displeased with the results. One should try to achieve a goal with an optimistic outlook, like Sam in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Harry Potter in the Harry Potter series. Both characters exemplified their drive to achieve their respective goals. Sam was able to think about destroying the One Ring throughout the journey, and his optimism led Frodo to ultimately destroy the Ring. Harry Potter kept the destruction of Voldemort in sight as he, almost subconsciously, achieved smaller goals while keeping the largest one in his mind. Optimism is key in achieving large goals, whether one’s imagination permits it or not.”
October 2007 (with bonus Beowulf):
“If one researches some of the most recently recognized films, one will discover that history plays a large role in crafting these epic tales. The ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy is a prime example. Not only is it based on a book, but a myriad of the costumes and battle items forged for the battle sequences were based on Anglo-Saxon and Norman mail and swords. Director Peter Jackson knew that he had the task of creating Middle-earth for the very first time, but instead of treating his viewers to novel costumes, he told the employees at Weta Workshop to research the 12th and 13th century’s clothing and mail and design the costumes for ‘Lord of the Rings’ based on those pictures and descriptions. Although perfected, Jackson’s attempt at creating an original view of Middle-earth failed as he chose to mirror the Anglo-Saxon battlewear. However, one cannot assume that Jackson duplicated every aspect of the Anglo-Saxons; J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the novels, borrowed material heavily from Beowulf. The monster Grendel, for example, is an almost exact manifestation of Tolkien’s character Gollum. Shunned by his family, Gollum delves into the mist and becomes an unfathomable representation of a human gone mad.”
Now that I think about it, these read so much like posts on Shit My Students Write and lol my thesis that I’m surprised I didn’t get zeros on each of these essays. At least it wasn’t as bad as what I wrote/pictures I drew on my AP Biology exam, I suppose (purposeful vagueness and/or harkening to inside joke lost to time entirely intended).
Knowing someone who likes the obscure things that you like…and becoming friends I was going to write that I can’t remember a single friendship that has arisen from us liking the same obscure things, but then I realized my entry didn’t say there was a cause-and-effect relationship between the two. So yes, at some point, I probably have started a friendship with someone where we later learned – or later both discovered – the same “obscure” things. (See #97, I suppose.)
Herbie Hancock See #78. Also, in jazz band that year, we played Cantaloupe Island.
Nailing a musical solo :) I debated posting a video of me doing just that, but you’ll just have to trust me. My senior year of high school, we went to Orlando for our music department tour, and I had a solo in one of our concert band songs. When they were giving out awards later in the trip, they announced that one of the individual excellence award was for a flute soloist – cue exaggerated nudging from my classmates – that wasn’t me. But all those people thought it was me, so that was fun.
Being Haitian! I posted this video on my aunt’s Facebook wall and I woke up to see a bunch of Haitian relatives had liked it and my aunt had commented, “And now I want all of it!!!”
EPIC STFU CHRISTINE.
Paying slightly more for MUCH better floss I bought HyVee brand floss the other day. It’s fine, really.
Keeping busy enough not to worry Now it’s less wanting to be buy to distract from my anxiety, more needing to be busy because boredom, for me, means I’m apt to marathon several seasons of a TV show and get nothing done for days.
Sunsets The Midwest has the best sunsets because it’s so flat here. Quote me.
Being chosen for something prestigious When I was a junior in high school, my math teacher needed to nominate someone to be one of the two representatives the school sent to Apple HQ in Cupertino to learn about the laptop carts and new tech stuff they’d be implementing on campus. So, of course, he asked a guys – a friend of mine – if he’d be interested in going. Lucky for the teacher, that guy knew better; he admitted he didn’t know squat about Apple anything and suggested me instead. It wasn’t the most prestigious thing I was ever chosen to do, sure, but it was an amazing experience. Plus I got to make a podcast with the superintendent and my middle school principal in one of the workshops we attended at Apple, and I had to call them by their first names, which was SO STRANGE.
Middle English That dark period in my life where I was so into being an English major that I memorized a good chunk of the Prologue to Canterbury Tales is over now. But I still follow @LeVostreGC on Twitter, so.
University of Iowa football
Well, they had just won the Orange Bowl… But seriously, I am still a fan, bolstered by their improbably great season last year. I never did make it to a game when I actually went to school there, though.
Learning more about myself from a book This is so vague that I doubt I actually had a book in mind. But if I were to amend this item today, I’d say that I enjoy books that are so similar to my own (past) life and experiences that I can live somewhat vicariously through their characters. Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl is a perfect example, especially the “socially inept college freshman” part.
Sigur Rós I could talk about how a good friend of mine introduced me to them in high school, and therefore introduced me to Iceland. I could talk about how their film Heima screened in Iowa City and I was one of the first people to get a ticket. But instead, I’ll just show you this video, because it’s the song my husband and I walked down the aisle to at our wedding.
Reykjavík, Iceland A.K.A. “the dream.” My parents have been there, and I’m still not over it.
Powell’s Books I’ve been here once. In fact, the entirety of my time spent in Portland has been at Powell’s (and in their strange little parking garage). But I do remember buying a Calvino book – after marveling at how many they had – and getting lost in the stacks and adoring the color-coding and just having a perfect time.