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I teach an online fiction course at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, one of a number of writing programs run out of Iowa City. We’ve dubbed it Get Dusty!, inspired by the Southern short story writer and all-round brilliant grouch Flannery O’Connor: “The world of the fiction writer is full of matter,” she once said in a talk. “Fiction is about everything human and we are made of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t write fiction.”
Let’s assume for a moment that O’Connor was right, that the world of the fiction writer is full of matter. What happens with this matter if large chunks of our lives are going virtual? Over the last year, as my work and social life migrated online, I started noticing how little I was using some of my senses. Our devices (or Internet Communication Technologies, ICTs, as they are called in jargon) are very good at transmitting visual and auditory experiences. But smell, touch and taste? Not quite there yet.
An expression I learned from one of the librarians at Central Library is “dwell time”, used to refer to the time people spend within the library’s walls, browsing or chatting or, say, having a quiet snooze in the periodicals section. What’s curious to me is that dwell time is also what we call the time we spend on a webpage. If you look up “where on earth is Iowa City” for instance (no shame in not knowing), the thirty seconds you spend on Wikipedia, before popping back to the search results page, would be your dwell time.
Whether online or in libraries, it seems like the world is interested in how we’re dwelling. And dwelling, as in lingering, staying, is also what being “in residence” is about. So here’s a quick dwelling tour of Iowa City, sister UNESCO City of Literature, through the five senses. If you’ve forgotten where you put some of yours, don’t worry, I’ll lend you my own. Turns out, if there’s one thing writers are meant to be good at, it’s grounding an imagined reader in a concrete, sensory world. Which is just another way of saying: being physically present, but at a distance.
George’s is most likely where Joy Harjo, current U.S. Poet Laureate and former Workshop student, met the moon. This, from an early draft of her poem “Remember”:
Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is. I met her
in a bar once in Iowa City.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
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