Madison County, Iowa
...home of Debra Landwehr Engle
Julie Gammack’s Potluck welcomes readers from the Madisonian newspaper. To mark the occasion, we offer this feature of author Debra Landwehr Engle, who makes her home in Madison County, Iowa.
Debra Landwehr Engle thanks Madison County, Iowa, for changing the trajectory of her life. The Iowa author, writing coach, and co-director of the Story Summit Writer’s School moved to an acreage about a ten-minute drive north of Winterset in August of 2001.
Deb and her husband, Bob Engle, had met about a year before when they locked eyes during a Barn Dance held at the Iowa Living History Farms. One year later, they bought the land and were married by October.
As the couple prepared for moving day, Deb, who grew up in Des Moines' Beaverdale neighborhood, took occasional trips to their new home. She had worked for Country Home magazine, which was just one of many reasons she longed to live in a rural setting, and she was eager to make the change.
Before moving day, she was by herself visiting their new acreage when she stretched out on the ground to 'soak in what it felt like to be on the Iowa land.'
She wrote a short essay about her experience of literally embracing the dirt. It was a reflection of the connection she felt, and it wound up included in an essay collection by Claire Elizabeth Terry, 'The Art of Living: A Practical Guide to Being Alive.'
When Deb first opened the book, she discovered her piece, ‘The Land’, among writings by the Reverend Desmond Tutu, Deepak Chopra, the Dalai Lama, and many other well-known names.
Here's an excerpt from “The Land,”
"…I stretched out on the ground one day with my arms spread out to my sides, soaking up the earth energy. In my mind, I saw an entire tribal nation of Indians, as though my elders were teaching me respect for these rolling hills. Since that day, they have shown me the change in the sky as thunderstorms roll in. I've paid attention when the grasshoppers come, and the butterflies, and the bluebirds. I've learned when the land will be cool and when it will be warm. I've watched plants find renewal in rain, marked the growing cycles of corn, and stood in wonder at a field of soybeans waving in the wind like a length of velvet.'
Deb has been a part of my personal 'people collection' since we first met while both working for the Des Moines Register's promotion department. In that collection, I have what I lovingly call my woo-woo pack, of which Deb is a leader. Early on in our relationship, she invited me to join a small weekly writers group. Five of us gathered around her round oak table and did 10-minute writing exercises, which we then shared and critiqued.
Memory is an inexplicable phenomenon. I don't recall much from our conversations, but I do remember her bathroom linen closet because her sheets and towels were neatly folded and stacked with a precision I'd not seen before. This stand-out memory says more about my approach to closet organization.
Fast forward 35 years: Deb was a presenter during a Writers' Retreat I produced last September in Okoboji and will be back for the second annual retreat next fall. She led workshops and a panel on memoir writing and earned high scores from participants. I wrote her a thank-you note for doing so and mentioned how I'd been impressed by her ever since I saw her linen closet.
She laughed and laughed when she read the note, confessing she thinks of me whenever she folds her sheets.
I wonder if I'll edit this anecdote out? Guess not.
We had a wide-ranging conversation when I called her for this column. I asked questions I'd never bothered to discover through the years.
Deb grew up in Beaverdale. Her father worked in the State Auditors office, and her mother was a homemaker. They had magazines around the house about 'Fate' and 'UFOs' and angels and all kinds of things that weren't around my house growing up. Deb was a voracious reader and absorbed what she could get her hands on.
Her best buddy lived across the street. They shared an interest in writing, so they designed newspapers and magazines for each other at age 12. The two served as co-editors of the Hoover High School newspaper, graduating in 1974.
In the 1980s, Deb embraced the teachings of Marianne Willamson and “A Course in Miracles.” She has fashioned her interpretation of spirituality through the years, which shows up in her writing and helps her handle the down days in a writer's life.
Oh, and it has given her an international platform and career. Living in abundance has become more than a state of mind. And her faculty peers with Story Summit include a mentor, David Kirkpatrick, former President of Paramount Pictures, former Production Chief of Walt Disney Studio.
As a teacher, Deb could be leading a writing class in some old castle in Europe. The following month, she’ll be helping families write about loved ones through a bereavement group Unity Point Hospice offers in central Iowa. She is in her fourth year working with the bereaved:
"The intent is to write the legacy of the person they lost. Invariably, some don't think they have a story. Nothing significant happened in their life, they believe. Then we start asking questions. And there is a story."It's so gratifying to see this over and over again. Most people think their experiences are not important, or nobody would care. There is so much value in helping people tell their stories.”
Deb believes she introduces people to themselves, which goes hand in hand with understanding others: “If we don't understand ourselves, it's easy to be afraid of others' opinions and actions. We can be more open to others when we know how we came to our own beliefs”
Ok, Deb, how do you manage this toxic political mess we find ourselves in today? I asked.
The answer, she believes, lies in finding understanding of others through their stories.
She is married to someone who often has a very different political perspective. Her best buddy from her Beaverdale days is more conservative in her religious views. It can take work but understanding how the other person came to their beliefs is essential, said Engle.
Deb's first novel, ‘TWENTY,’ was released just as the pandemic hit in February of 2020, stopping the planned book-signing tour. If you read the book, you’ll discover written images of Winterset, Madison Country, and the Engles’ acreage.
Maybe Meryl Streep will come back to Winterset and play the lead if the book is made into a movie. Stranger things have happened. After all, the dean of the College of Business at the University of Northern Iowa, Robert James Waller’s first novel was titled, ‘The Bridges of Madison County.’ Streep starred in that production alongside Clint Eastwood, so why not? It is precedent for first-time novels based in Madison County to be a hit.
"Reading Twenty is like walking into what C. S. Lewis called the 'thin place’—that land so close to Heaven, and you can practically touch it. Engle takes us through an emotional struggle in which life and death are the two prizefighters, making us believe there is so much more behind the comedies and tragedies of our lives." —David Kirkpatrick, former President of Paramount Pictures, former Production Chief of Walt Disney Studios
Engle has an assortment of books she has authored on her website. Sure, you can buy her books online, but if you are in central Iowa, why not pick them up at the local bookstore located in her hometown neighborhood. BEAVERDALE BOOKS
Check out the website for Debra Landwehr Engle.
So, what’s it like to live near Winterset?
Deb appreciates the local government officials and civic leaders, and says if there’s an opening for a business on the town square, it’s filled quickly. The rolling hills of the area remain a tourist attraction because Winterset was John Wayne’s birthplace, and home of the non-fiction bridges of Madison County. It draws tourists from motorcycle enthusiasts to small car rallies and a big fall festival.
And, for Debra Engle, Madison County is home.
Deb Engle will join 30+ award-winning authors, columnists, editors, and literary agents for the Okoboji Writers’ Retreat, on September 19, 20, and 21. She will teach about memoir writing, getting published and finding an agent. To explore more about the retreat: OWRII.