Iowa Writer's Workshop

So, the Iowa Writer's Workshop is considered by many to be the gold standard of creative writing programs. It's been around since the 1930's, and handed out the first Master of Fine Arts in Writing degree in 1941. Writers such as Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, Stuart Dybek, Denis Johnson, Richard Bausch, Jane Smiley, Charles D'Ambrosio, and ZZ Packer have gone through Iowa. I've heard stories of literary agents visiting the Iowa program and handing out business cards to the students, which is otherwise pretty much unheard of in the tooth and nail world of getting a good agent. I myself was rejected by the Iowa graduate writing program, as well as the Syracuse, Missoula, and Washington State programs (I stupidly applied only to four programs my senior year). I got the rejection letters all on the same day, at my home, during spring break my senior year of college. The letters which I'd been impatiently waiting for had been piling up at home without me even knowing it. I also found out that day that my step dad was selling our beloved home of twelve years, so it wasn't exactly the easiest day in Blogagaard history, though looking back now it all turned out all right. A year later I was accepted to Hamline, a smaller program in St. Paul that was able to give me the time and personal attention I needed to suck less as a writer.

With all that said, I still wonder what could have been at Iowa and yesterday I picked up a thick fiction anthology called The Workshop: Seven Decades of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Here's an excerpt from the introduction:

Unsurprisingly, a psychological survey of the Iowa Workshop showed that 80 percent of writers in the program reported evidence of manic-depression, alcoholism, or other lovely addictions in themselves or their immediate families. We're writers. Who ever claimed we're a tightly wrapped bunch?
What's going on actually, what we're still learning and struggling with, is the emotional rather than the intellectual meaning of not-doing, the impact of finally and fully knowing that we know nothing. This is more difficult than rationally accepting all the arguments about what constitutes literature. Because until the Workshop's resistance to our desire to "write literature" and to "become writers" touches the quivering, naked, three-o-clock-in-the-morning doubt-filled creatures we all are, understanding cannot begin.

Sounds fun, huh? Sign me up!


Missy said...

A friend of mine whose husband went through this program says:

"Well, nobody handed him any business cards, but they were a bunch of crazy drunks.... ;)"

Blogagaard said...

Well, THAT doesn't surprise me.

Anonymous said...

I was there. Class of '76-78. Frank Conroy was a new, snot-nosed out-of-left-field author, a last-minute-addition visiting lecturer. (He would go on to become director of the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Program and eventually director of the Iowa Workshop.) Ian McEwan was an unknown kid from England writing creepy, itchy short stories. Jayne Anne Phillips was a young Southern Gothic beauty, rumored to be the new Flannery O'Connor. Bill Kinsella, a Canadian, was entranced by Iowa cornfields and softball, and was starting a novel that would eventually be retitled "Field of Dreams."

I told a fellow student, John Falsey, to send his story to The New Yorker -- they bought it, wanted more, invited him to NYC where he met a girl at a party who was writing for the TV show "Kojak." She gave him copies of her screenplays. He told me, "I CAN DO THIS!" (He went from Iowa to write for the TV series "White Shadow" and, with Joshua Brand, created "St. Elsewhere" and "Northern Exposure.") In Hollywood, Falsey mentored another classmate, Robin Green, who became executive producer of "The Sopranos."

Sandra Cisneros was a 21-year-old Catholic/Mexican kid just discovering men. She would soon write "House on Mango Street." (3 million copies sold.)

Here's a partial list of visiting writers to the Workshop those two years --

John Irving ("The World According to Garp" had just come out), William Gaddis, Grace Paley, Alan Dugan (passed out while dancing with two coeds at the post-reading party), John Cheever (read us "The Swimmer"), Kurt Vonnegut (read the first pages of "Slapstick" he'd just written), John Updike.

Updike had been sent one of my stories. At the post-reading party, he took me into the Workshop Director's bedroom (only place for privacy) and gave me a one-on-one critique sandwiched between the bedroom and closet doors. He told me, "This story reminds me of my own early work."

Iowa Writers' Workshop? You have no idea.

Anonymous said...

Oh... And the New York agents did come on talent-scouting outings. Business cards? We wouldn't have known what to do with a business card. Somebody says, "I want to help you get between boards," and you ask yourself " 'Boards?' What the fuck does that mean?"

Anonymous said...

At his post-reading party, Vonnegut, squashed by the crowd, retreated to the Director's bedroom. Surrounded by coeds asking, "Kurt, can I get you anything? A drink? A sandwich?" he said, "Know what I wish?" Coeds (giggling): "No, Kurt, what do you wish?" Vonnegut: "I wish I was dead."

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