Author profile: Marc Nieson
By the time he was 30, lifelong New Yorker Marc Nieson had seen plenty of adventure: he’d worked as a bike messenger in New York, an English instructor in Italy, and even as a ticket salesmen for the Big Apple Circus.
But he felt he was spinning his wheels, bouncing from job to job, stuck in a long-term, vaguely defined relationship with Sybil, a beautiful but distant older woman.
So in 1991 Nieson did something completely different: he moved to rural Iowa and spent a year living in a one-room schoolhouse.
In his memoir “School House,” Nieson, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, explores that transformative year spent between the Amana Colonies and Kalona.
The book is “Walden plus a love story,” Nieson explained in a recent phone interview. “Also it’s a coming-of-age story of someone who just happens to be in their thirties.”
“I’m just a little slow at a lot of things.”
Nieson’s methodical temperament helped him adjust to his new surroundings quickly. “The Midwest was a place I felt I belonged. It totally fits my temperament. The rhythms were different ... much more natural to my slowness than running around in New York City.”
When not attending classes at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Nieson spent his free time exploring the 496 wooded acres surrounding his school house — an entirely new experience for a man accustomed to skyscrapers and asphalt.
“What happened for me in Iowa was I went into retreat at the school house. I was experiencing a brand-new landscape, in particular the woodlands surrounding the house. And that just opened up a whole new sort of world to me.”
“I felt grounded for the first time in my life.”
Nieson threw himself into his environment, and was awed each day by new discoveries in the woods. And he also did something that most lifelong New Yorkers wouldn’t dream of: he got to know his neighbors.
“I actually found the people who were living out in the country were far more widely versed than the people in academia. In academia you’re a specialist: you know everything about one little thing. And if you’re a farmer, you have to know how to fix all kinds of things — you just know things.”
Nieson’s neighbors instilled in him a sense of purpose and civic responsibility.
“Having come from New York City, the sense of how you could have any kind of civic impact was sort of impossible. In time ... I learned that (my neighbors) had a lot of civic involvements. That led me to certain organizations and things I could do in the town of Iowa City that I could never have done anywhere else.”
“I found a sense of community that hadn’t had before.”
While living at the school house, Nieson began writing sections of what would become this memoir, but he shelved the book time and again to focus on other writing.
But there were three things, he explained, that pushed him to complete the memoir: being “emotionally ready to address some parts of the book,” feeling a sense of obligation to preserve the history of the school house after it had been razed, and, finally, realizing just how powerful — and rare — it is to live an unplugged, reflective lifestyle.
“Suddenly the idea of isolating yourself in something like a Walden existence and being unreachable feels very exotic. It’s harder to do.”
Nieson wanted to archive that particular time “when there was no internet,”
when the biggest connection he had to the outside world was when “someone gave me a phone answering machine.”
But writing an honest memoir about a transformative time was not without its challenges.
“The weird thing about putting a book out is the person I’m writing about is someone I hardly even recognize. I think, ‘Thank God, that isn’t how I live in the world anymore.’ But I was who I was.”
Nieson recognizes that memoir — at its best — is about more than self-reflection and navel gazing.
“There’s a part of (memoir) that has to do with memory, and a part of it that has to do with catharsis, and a part of it that’s sharing or giving a gift to somebody else. My hopes are that the book can offer that.”
“I learned really wonderful lessons there, and I just felt that they might speak to others. That period of time changed my life.”