The UI is home to many renowned programs for aspiring writers and is a place where all students are afforded opportunities to improve their writing or weave it into their studies.
Cristóbal McKinney
Tim Schoon
Dana Telsrow

Julie Kedzie watched patiently as her cutman wrapped her hands before her final bout as a professional fighter. Four times around, then five. She opened and closed her fists to make sure the tape was tight enough to protect her but loose enough to let her deliver punches.

Her hands, so often bloodied from fighting, now punch at a keyboard, and the daily training she once endured has been replaced with hours of writing, re-writing, and writing again. The spirit that pushed her body’s limits now wrestles with sentences that never seem to fully submit.

As a fighter credited with paving the way for women in mixed martial arts, Kedzie traveled the world. She spent her days following rigorous training and nutrition schedules, putting in the work to make her successful in the cage. She was introduced to world leaders and her face appeared in magazines and on television.

She didn’t always want to be a fighter. In college, she imagined herself becoming a lawyer. English was her strongest subject; she was an avid reader as a child, and she loved to write. Her talent for language never disappeared—not even when she fought full-time—as she proved in an essay she authored for Sports Illustrated. In painstaking detail, she wrote about what it feels like to cut weight before a fight.

“If you want to review every minute of your life, force yourself into the hottest bath you can stand and make yourself stay in for twenty minutes,” Kedzie wrote. “You’ll relive every mistake, every lost opportunity. Sitting in the steaming hot water, your thoughts will begin to cook into a state of frenzy to match your overheating body as the minutes tick by slower and slower.”

After she retired from fighting in 2013, she struggled to find a job that held similar meaning. On the advice of friends and family, she applied to two prestigious writing programs with only her English degree and Sports Illustrated essay. No pedigree. No connections. No expectations.

That’s why she’s still shocked to find herself pursuing an MFA at the University of Iowa’s top-ranked Nonfiction Writing Program.

Julie Kedzie
Julie Kedzie

Her story is unique—she’s the only former professional MMA fighter enrolled in the university’s writing programs—but it would be a mistake to think she’s the only writer surprised to find herself in Iowa. While the UI is known for its acclaimed Writers’ Workshop, the creative writing program that established the university as a world leader in teaching the art of writing, it’s just one of many renowned programs available to aspiring writers. The UI’s programs draw hundreds of people from varied backgrounds to this small Midwestern community, and many soon find themselves counted among the world’s most promising writers.

But ask them why they write and what drew them here, and their answers point to the central place writing has in their lives and to the dreams the university is committed to helping them pursue.

“There’s a place between all of us that has to be filled somehow, and so much of that is filled with stories,” says Kedzie, 36. “I want to be in that space. I want to be on that train.”

Margot Connolly, 28, has been involved with theater since she was 6, but took a playwriting class in high school that she enjoyed so much that she took it five more times. She is now a third-year student in the UI’s Playwrights Workshop. 

“It was like I found the perfect form for me,” says Connolly, who most recently lived in New York City trying to make a career as a writer. “I love stories and I love books and I love knowledge and I love weird facts and things like that, and writing plays feels like it combines all these things that I care about and gives them to me to keep.”

Austin Hughes, 20, says he remembers feeling excited and fulfilled when he first started writing. Hughes is a third-year undergraduate studying English and creative writing as well as Japanese. He came to the UI from Arlington, Texas, where he was raised by a single mother.

“I grew up with a single mom. I had three older sisters—I’m the youngest,” says Hughes, who is among the next generation of writers studying at the UI. “So, writing these narratives where I could make someone have a brother or make someone have a father who was there all the time…it was like engaging with the imagination in a way that didn’t make real life better, but gave me something that I could have that was absent in the real world.”

Choosing Iowa

When considering whether to study writing in an academic setting, writers are often concerned about cost, location, atmosphere, the quality of the instructors, and how much time the writer is given to produce work. For different writers, different concerns are primary.

Connolly, like many writers who attend MFA programs, most wanted the time and space to write.

“I had spent my first 20 years in school,” says Connolly. “I thought it was important to go out and learn how to have a job and pay taxes and have life experiences—which was really great, but then I felt like I didn’t have time to write. It was really hard to balance my writing and hold down a full-time job.”

Connolly was living in New York City and says she often had to rehearse from 10 p.m. to midnight on Thursdays because that was the only time she could reserve a studio “on the cheap.”

Connolly investigated the backgrounds of playwrights she admired, like Samuel D. Hunter, Kristen Greenidge, and Jen Silverman. Connolly discovered that many of them earned an MFA at the UI’s Playwrights Workshop, which surprised her given how much they differed artistically. That diversity in the UI’s program was a plus for Connolly.

“Here, everyone is coming from such a different perspective that they pick up on things that I would never have,” says Connolly. “I’ve found a really good group of people here. I’m really going to miss them.”

Margot Connolly
Margot Connolly

Like Connolly, Kedzie says she felt unfulfilled at work, though she wasn’t so much searching for time to write as much as she was concerned about funding and atmosphere.

After nine years of MMA fighting, Kedzie retired and began working as a matchmaker for Invicta Fighting Championships, but discovered she had more fun writing fighter biographies and letters to embassies than dealing with the mathematics in the paperwork. She spent a lot of time in libraries, specifically at Indiana University where her mother was a graduate student. On the advice of friends, Kedzie signed up for courses at the Kansas City Writers Salon.

“I loved it,” says Kedzie. “I couldn’t believe how much I loved it. There was something about it where it was like, ‘Oh, this is what was missing.’”

On the advice of her sister, she applied to programs, including the MFA Writing Program at Columbia University and the Nonfiction Writing Program at the UI. Both offered her a seat.

“I was just stunned. I didn’t want to go anywhere else—these are the top schools,” says Kedzie. “I thought I was going to live in New York, but that’s a fun thing to do maybe when you’re in your early 20s. I have a lot of debt. I had a whole career. I have a beautiful, giant dog. I’m in my 30s. I want that fun New York life someday, but also I want to eat and be able to take care of myself.”

Kedzie investigated the writers who graduated from the NWP and discovered that one of the instructors, Kerry Howley, had written about MMA fighters. Kedzie started leaning toward the UI, but what clinched the deal was her campus visit.

“I came here and I was just blown away by the friendliness of it,” says Kedzie. “It was the parts of the Midwest that were the best parts of the Midwest to me.”

“It’s an earned title. To be a writer, you’re saying, ‘I have a seat at a table with some of the people I admire…and so to call yourself a writer, it’s that kind of presumption. And I’m about grabbing that presumption now.”

Julie Kedzie
Nonfiction Writing Program student

Location and finances were as much a concern for Hughes as they were for Kedzie. He applied to the UI because he wanted to leave Texas, and soon discovered that in addition to a strong undergraduate English program, it was home to the top creative writing program in the world—the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The more he learned, Hughes says, the more he wanted to attend. Fortunately, the UI offered him full funding, but he still faced an uphill battle leaving home.

He was raised by a single mom who lost her own mother at a young age. Growing up, she passed from relative to relative. After having her own children, her family struggled through many challenges, including years when they lived below the poverty line, and by the time Hughes turned 18, Hughes’s mother didn’t want him to leave the nest, fearing what would happen without him.

“It was really hard my senior year,” says Hughes. “I was applying to colleges and had no intention of going anywhere in the state. I don’t want to say I was trying to be my own person, because that’s very cliché and I was very much my own person before then—but I was trying to leave. It was time to leave. Becoming someone who valued very much the ability to choose for himself, the last step for me was leaving my mother’s house.”

Hughes says his relationship with his mother weathered his leaving, and he’s glad he chose the UI. He says his time here has been life changing, in part because of the literature he’s encountered. At a reading he organized for the English Society, an award-winning UI faculty member, Robyn Schiff, read her poem “Rapid Fire Colt Revolver,” and her work was so unique, strange, and new to Hughes that it changed his perspective about the craft.

“I’m still trying to find words to describe what it was like,” says Hughes. “While I was listening to her read, all these factors of my life went off at one moment. I think I was just recognizing what poetry could be.”

Writing as a way forward

A common misconception about writers is that they are solitary and isolated from the world, but writers at the UI come together in vibrant and diverse communities with a range of interests in contemporary life. Connolly, Kedzie, and Hughes write in different genres and about different subjects, but each sees writing as an important way to engage with and change the world. They say the other writers they’ve encountered at Iowa have helped them achieve that goal.

Kedzie says that at first she was intimidated because her classmates were discussing authors and concepts unfamiliar to her. The years she spent training her body suddenly didn’t seem as valuable as having read a mountain of books, but she discovered that her classmates saw her history as a fighter as a unique and valuable asset, and soon she did too.

“I had a great professor here, Inara Verzemnieks,” says Kedzie. “One of the assignments in her class was to write about who you are as a writer. It was all about figuring yourself out. I realized that everything I’ve been writing is me processing. There was so much I learned in MMA. So I thought, why would I avoid writing about something I’ve been involved with my whole life?”

Now in her second year, Kedzie says she has gained her confidence.

“To be a writer, you’re saying, ‘I have a seat at a table with some of the people I admire.’ It’s an earned title,” Kedzie says. “I’m not comparing myself to Hemmingway or other people that I admire so much, but I want to be at that table. And so to call yourself a writer, it’s that kind of presumption. And I’m about grabbing that presumption now.”

Kedzie now sees herself continuing a long tradition of writing about competitive violence, which includes James Baldwin and Ernest Hemingway, who both wrote about boxing.

“I hope I’m writing love letters to fighting,” says Kedzie.

Kedzie is quick to explain that she doesn’t want people to be victims of violence. She abhors unfairness, and says she doesn’t want people to suffer needlessly, or be exploited or abused.

“In an even playing field, when participants have signed up willingly and they know what they’re risking, I think it’s one of the most beautiful expressions of humanity: people smashing each other in the face. I think it’s art. I think it’s performance art,” she says.

In her 2015 Sports Illustrated piece, Kedzie describes her process for losing weight in order to fight in her weight class for what would be the final time. She writes about her body in visceral terms, inviting the reader to experience her day with the same intensity one might feel viewing two bodies slugging it out.

“To do what I love,” writes Kedzie, “I became a walking urine tank, stopping every five minutes to find a pee. As the lack of salt gives the water nothing to cling to, it pauses in your stomach and intestines and then strips your weight down through your body when you pee. It’s immensely irritating to force your bloated body to drink when all you want is food. I felt like I was peeing out all of my body, so that my feelings were directly on the surface.”

Austin Hughes
Austin Hughes

As an undergraduate, much of Hughes’s writing addresses a common experience among young people stepping into the broader world of a university. The UI is a top-tier research institution with top-ranked writing programs in one of only two UNESCO Cities of Literature in the U.S., and Hughes has been exposed to variety of writers and ideas that have expanded his understanding of himself and others.

“It’s very much an exercise in building a self out of what I’m constantly learning by being a human being,” says Hughes. “But also watching that same structure crumble as more information and more experiences accrue.”

Hughes’ writing attempts to capture a sense of his self in the sometimes-frenetic environment of a university. His poem “Similes,” an homage to Sylvia Plath’s “Metaphors,” was published by the Iowa Review and won the inaugural David Hamilton Undergraduate Creative Writing Prize. The poem attempts to describe its author in a litany of similes, each discarded and enthusiastically replaced by another, reflecting his experience as a person in a dynamic flux. Hughes writes,

                                or perhaps I’m
just as Adam’s other, far less fruit-

ful bones: a digit, vertebrae, or
even his skull—then again, maybe

like a melon smashed open and oo-
zing red—

For all his promise as a writer, Hughes is hesitant to call himself one. He plans to study Japanese after college and says he might apply to an MFA program after that, but isn’t sure. Hughes says that he’s a big planner and a control freak, but that writing is something he can’t control or fully plan for. His poems resist him, he says, and seem to have a mind of their own. And that’s why writing is so valuable to him, he says, at least for now.

“I think for me what it means to be a writer is someone who can’t help but do it, someone who needs to do it,” says Hughes. “It’s not that I don’t think that I’m that person, but I won’t really know until I’m out of this particular setting. When I’m not in this City of Literature, what will happen to me? Am I going to continue to feel this spur to write?”

While Kedzie draws on her rich history and Hughes on his sense of self, Connolly’s writing illuminates vast research she’s conducted about other people.

“What I know is pretty limited and pretty boring,” says Connolly. “The best part of writing plays is all the stuff I get to learn to write the play. It gives me permission to see and understand aspects of the world that I haven’t. Or that I feel other people haven’t.”

Over the course of writing 15 plays, Connolly has researched a variety of topics. For her play Tough, she researched “tough love” camps, which she says are often military-style boot camps where teenagers are sent by their parents for reasons she finds questionable. They include “talking back” or refusing to wash the dishes. Because of frequent accusations of neglect and abuse, the camps have become controversial, Connolly says.

Tough was inspired by one such camp where the participants plotted to commit a murder after hearing a rumor that a death would force the camp to close. In her play, the plot succeeds, and in this scene, Riley and Checa, two girls trapped in a “tough love” camp, stare up at the night sky and contemplate what they’ve done.

My mom taught me a trick. To find Polaris. You have to find the Big Dipper. That’s my mom’s third favorite. Then you find the two outer stars that make up the bowl of the Big Dipper. They’re called pointer stars. They should point straight to it. You should be able to just draw a line straight down and see it.

             (CHECA looks up. Tries to find it. Can’t.)

You can’t find Polaris here. We’re in the wrong place. We’re in the southern hemisphere. You can’t see the North Star from here. They have different constellations. My mother didn’t teach me those. I don’t know their names or what they look like. And I don’t know what they point to.

Connolly both is and isn’t writing about what she knows. Her work focuses on and critiques what she calls the public’s general ignorance of teen girls and their experience. She was a teen for seven years, after all.

“I feel that teen girls as a whole are just really underrepresented within the canon of American plays and virtually all things,” says Connolly.

While she was never sent to a “tough love” camp, she says she knows what it was like for her to be a teenager, and through her research, she says she is able to uncover and share what it was like for people who might otherwise be voiceless.

“It’s not that I am essentially the equivalent of teenage girl in a camp who feels like she has to kill someone to get out. I’m not that,” says Connolly. “But I feel like I have a little window into that, and that feels important. To me, that is a gift.”

Of the many advantages the Playwrights Workshop has afforded Connolly, the most important to her has been more time in her daily life for research—something she lacked while living in New York City.

“I’ve been able to work at a different pace here,” says Connolly. “I have time to really dive into doing research about things and really think about them and also juggle different projects at once.”

The University of Iowa’s writing programs shape the landscape of American literature.