Faces of the City of Literature: Andrea Wilson

While the Iowa Writers’ House sits in the heart of Iowa City, the work done by Founder and Executive Director Andrea Wilson and a team of dedicated volunteers is based on a vision of a more connected world. Wilson’s international outlook, first cultivated in Columbus Junction, Iowa, was only enriched by her years living abroad. Today she is using her love for multicultural locales to build an inclusive space for writers in Iowa City, offering not only workshops for writers of all levels and backgrounds but a new bicultural writing residency as well.

Growing up in Columbus Junction, Iowa, Andrea Wilson was raised in the midst of traditional, and not-so-traditional, Iowans. With neighbors, teachers, and peers from Mexico, East Asia, and Latin America, she developed an interest in stories and storytelling as a way to build relationships and mutual understanding with those around her.

“Columbus Junction was a place where I was always interested in, and had a window into, the rest of the world. At a young age, I realized how much bigger the world was than just my small pocket in Iowa. I remember being a little girl and feeling like I was myself different—artsy, nerdy, bookish. There were times when I think that difference that I felt inside frustrated me,” Wilson says.

“But one of the glimmers of hope I had about who I was came when I saw the people moving to Columbus Junction from different countries and realized that they came from a different world. There were different priorities—people danced and painted their houses bright colors and displayed their emotions in different ways. I knew I wanted to explore the world and meet people that I could see parts of myself in.”

Wilson left her hometown for Ames, Iowa, where she attended Iowa State University. Even at this stage in life, Wilson had caught the travel bug and spent a semester in Rome. She studied graphic design and journalism with a plan to enter the creative visual arts. Journalism and writing were her passion, but not something she felt would serve as the base of her career. By the end of her time as a Cyclone, Wilson landed a job in advertising.

Starting her career in Kansas City, Wilson led web and digital efforts for a growing digital advertising agency. Her expertise earned her another position with the same company in New York City and then Toronto, Canada, where she became director for the Ford of Canada account. She spent three years in Canada learning the ins and outs of our northerly neighbors’ culture. Wilson remembers Toronto as a beautiful cosmopolitan city, avant-garde and dedicated to the myriad cultures that coexist there.

“That’s what I loved the most. Toronto, which is very different from New York, is less of a melting pot and more of a mixed salad. People retain their true cultural backgrounds. For me, that was the opportunity to see the world from a single place—and I started writing seriously,” Wilson recalls. “I created a blog called the Foreign Citizen that was all about living among people from all over the world. I was trying to shed a light on the fact that when people are provided safety and their basic needs are covered, we can all live together very easily. It was post 9/11 and I was living among cultures from all over the world. This perspective seemed essential to share.”

Wilson fell so in love with this writing project that she decided to make writing a focal point of her life. She left her job in advertising and spent a year backpacking through South America, continuing to write about the people she met and the lessons learned along her journey. In such a picturesque part of the world, she began photographing her daily life as well. The trip was a turning point for Wilson. In the following three years she would spend time writing and living in Australia, France, Spain, Brazil, and then doing another stint in advertising in Miami, all leading to the moment when she decided to move to Iowa City in 2014 to launch her writing career and work on a book of creative nonfiction.

Upon her return to her home state, she bought a historic house on the corner of Davenport and North Gilbert to run as a bed and breakfast and to serve as a personal writing studio. It was the experience she had once back in Iowa that changed her plans.

“I came back and struggled to connect [with the writing community]. It seemed odd because this is a place known for writers, but I just couldn’t find a way in. One of the first things I decided to do was meet with other people who worked in literature and see if I was one of the only ones who felt like there was a missing piece here.”

After meeting with John Kenyon, Amy Margolis, Ron Clark, Jan Weissmiller, and others, Wilson knew she had discovered a real need. Writers who were not students in the university’s full-time MFA program lacked a place to congregate and participate in workshops, so Wilson brainstormed ways to overcome the disconnect felt by many others in Iowa City. Wilson explains, “These were really important people that encouraged me, pillars of the literary community here, that said ‘We’re behind you—go, go, go!’ With their support, I knew I had a good chance to succeed.”

In March of 2015, Wilson founded the Iowa Writers’ House. “One of the things I knew about starting a nonprofit organization is that you can start out building a full business plan and fundraising campaigns and wait to do the significant work until you have a foundation set, or you can adopt a test-and- learn model. I decided to go with the second—to start by putting something out there and letting the people respond in a way that tells you where to grow.”

With a goal of making writing accessible for everyone, creating community, and developing bonds between writers, everyone who has come to the Iowa Writers’ House has been drawn in by the opportunity to find a home in the literary community and become part of a supportive, inclusive network. It hasn’t been without its bumps in the road, but Wilson says she’s had to learn that’s just part of the process when you are building something new.

In just over two years, the Iowa Writers’ House has grown its offerings from one workshop to 13 workshops this fall and weekly write-ins at area libraries. The hosts of the writing workshops are people who have written in Iowa City, individuals with a special connection to this city and its inhabitants, who want to bring their talents back to the community. These writers are returning to Iowa City from across the United States, and their students are just as widespread.

In fact, writers from across the Midwest have already begun traveling to Iowa City for workshops at the Writers’ House. With upcoming workshops featuring authors like Inara Verzemnieks, Robert James Russell, Jennifer Fawcett, and Keith Lesmeister, it’s easy to see why the Iowa Writers’ House is attracting growing attention from writers across the country.

In addition to workshops, the Writers’ House will add a new offering this fall—residencies. With support from an Iowa Arts Council Grant funded by the NEA, the Writers’ House will offer the first ever emerging writers’ residency for bicultural Iowans. Applications will launch this October to provide opportunities for writers in any of Iowa’s multicultural communities to apply to be one of three selected writers in residence. Fellows will come to the Writers’ House three times over the course of a year and contribute to a collective body of work telling rich stories of Iowa’s new generations.

Although the majority of her time is dedicated to the Iowa Writers’ House, Wilson is still working on her own writing and still driven by those early experiences in her Iowa hometown.

“I am definitely a nonfiction writer, someone inspired by true events and by real happenings in life. The way that I write, and the things I like to write about, draws these magical connections between what is playing out in society and the small, everyday actions that I can record.” But in the end, Wilson says, the Writers’ House has helped her find meaning in not just her own work but in helping others find their voices.

“I’m inspired by the people who come to the workshops. Seeing them rise and publish—especially people who came to our first workshop with a piece and now I know that writing has come along—this is why I do what I do. It’s why I took the chance and created this organization in the first place.”

Writers in the City of Literature for years to come will be glad that she did.

For those looking to practice their own writing, the Iowa Writers’ House is open to you. Find details for upcoming workshops here.

Applicants interested in information on the Bicultural Iowa Writers’ Residency can find more information here: http://www.iowawritershouse.org/residencies/