Writer's Life, Writing Classes

Lessons From a Day with Dr. Kristen Iversen

In October 2013, when I was an undergraduate writing student, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Kristen Iversen, author of “Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats.” We read her book in my nonfiction writing class, and she was coming to present a lecture later that day. I was one of a handful of undergraduate students selected to attend some additional, more personal events with her.

When the day of Dr. Iversen’s visit arrived, I woke up terribly sick. Between my fever and the number of antihistamines I took, I went through most of the day in a sweaty, lethargic, dizzy haze. While the smell of cherry cough drops rekindles a few memories, most of what I remember about that day comes from the notes I took.

At least some part of me was clear-headed enough to make sure I could remember getting personal insight from Dr. Iversen for a day.

Part One: Dr. Iversen’s Graduate Writing Workshop

Our first stop was a workshop session with graduate writing students in one of Arnold Hall’s plain white classrooms. There were eight graduate students total, as well as three of my undergraduate classmates. We had all read four of the grad students’ essays over the weekend to prepare for the workshop.

However, no one wanted to be the first to speak. I kept my mouth shut as long as I could. Mostly, I didn’t feel like my feedback meant much to a graduate student, especially with a published nonfiction author sitting right there. But I also didn’t want my fever-brain to make me say something stupid. I don’t remember anything I said, but one of the graduate students liked my comments enough to find me later at Dr. Iversen’s lecture to discuss his essay further.

Dr. Iversen broke the silence for us, introducing us to an exercise to help figure out where the real interest of the story is.

The idea is to read the piece of writing, then flip it over and ask yourself what you remember most about it. She also asked where we thought the actual story began. Even though each piece we read was completely different, we consistently found the most memorable part matched up with where we felt the story began. Strangely, those moments always happened on the third page.

Dr. Iversen said she knows she’ll cut almost the entire first chapter from anything she writes, but she still has to write that first chapter to warm up. She told us about one assignment she did as a student where she had to bring in a completed draft of a novel. She said as everyone was seated, her professor went around, grabbed the first 25 or so pages, and threw them in the trash. I spent every fiction class after that worried one of my professors would do the same to my work.

Part Two: Lunch with Dr. Iversen

After the workshop ended, we went to lunch at the Gryphon Tea Room. Carved woodwork crown the ceiling, shelves of antique books arranged by color line every wall, and white-cushioned chairs surround every table draped in white cloth. It’s a popular place for a fancy brunch, afternoon tea, or lunch.

Only four of us were able to attend lunch: Dr. Iversen, one graduate student, myself, and a professor. The other student and I asked Dr. Iversen our questions, and she talked about how she balances reading with writing and touring.

Since my primary concerns then involved staying hydrated, graduating college, and getting a job, I didn’t pay much attention. Going on tour to promote my book seemed like such a distant daydream. It didn’t occur to me that I might find her insight helpful further along in my career.

Part Three: The Lecture

We all went our separate ways after lunch. Dr. Iversen went to visit Flannery O’Connor’s house along with my professor. Nearly tapped out of energy, I went back to my dorm room for a much-needed nap before the lecture.

I rested enough to go to the lecture with a fresh bag of cough drops in my pocket. I remember being startled by the shift from personal insight over lunch to a more general discussion of her book. She gave a brief history of the Rocky Flats nuclear facility, what happened to the surrounding area, and what’s happening with the facility now.

After spending the whole day hearing her personal writing experience and advice, I expected more of that from her lecture. With so much of that personal touch missing, it seemed nothing resonated with me enough to merit writing it down.

While I don’t remember much of the lecture itself, I do remember that getting to know the writer mattered the most to me. That may be because I was more confident in my writing skills then and wanted advice on being a writer.

But even now, I love learning about their writing lifestyle almost as much as how they view the craft. After all, the way they live as a writer informs how the write.

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