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March 7, 2003
Volume 40, No. 8


Iowa Writers' Workshop brings home national honor
David Skorton becomes president
On first day, president reorganizes administration
Athletics pays University offices $9.3 million
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Iowa Writers' Workshop brings home national honor

Writers' Workshop students and faculty gather around a table.
Frank Conroy and Marilynne Robinson meet with students in the Writers’ Workshop. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

If writers were musicians, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop would be like one long jam session.

There are no textbooks, no grades, and admission is not based on a student’s GPA.

You only have to be one of the most promising young writers in the country—and compete with hundreds of others—to make it into these ranks.

Welcome to a program hailed far and wide as the cream of the crop when it comes to cultivating future poets and authors.

It is the oldest, and remains the most prestigious, graduate-level creative writing program in America, although there are now about 300 similar programs in the country.

U.S. News & World Report has ranked the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as the top program of its kind.

Now, having earned the National Humanities Medal from the U.S. government for the program’s contributions to American literature, the workshop holds the highest honor possible in the field of humanities.

Text: The President of the USA presents the Naitonal Humanities Medal to Iowa Writers' Workshop
The Humanities award signed by President George W. Bush honoring the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Workshop director Frank Conroy is ecstatic.

“It’s the big one,” Conroy said in mid-February, a week before traveling to Washington, D.C., to receive the medal from President George W. Bush. “We’re very happy about it. It means people outside of here know about us, and of what we are doing.”

Actually, with the lengthy roster of famous workshop graduates continuing to grow each year, the workshop should be hard for the rest of the world to ignore.

Famous graduates include Flannery O’Connor, John Irving, W.P. Kinsella, Jane Smiley, and Iowa’s Poet Laureate, Marvin Bell, who is now on the workshop’s poetry faculty.

Former faculty members include Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, John Cheever, and Nathan Englander. About 15 workshop graduates have won Pulitzer prizes, including poet Jorie Graham and novelist James Alan McPherson, who also is on the workshop faculty. America’s roster of poet laureates includes three or four workshop graduates, such as Mark Strand, and some graduates and faculty members have had their work translated onto the big screen.

Workshop graduate Michael Cunningham’s The Hours debuted only recently on movie screens across the country. He also won a Pulitzer, in 1999.

This long list of success stories continues to attract the best applicants from all across the country, students and faculty say.

“I came because it is legendary,” workshop student Andrew Friedman says of the program. Previously, he was an investigative reporter for The Village Voice. “I thought this would be the way to push ahead my creative works.”

Workshop student Deanna Fei, a 24-year-old former teacher from New York, says Iowa “by far has the most prestigious reputation and the reputation of being the most competitive program.” She arrived last year on a fellowship.

Despite its high profile, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop actually is quite small and functions much like a family.

There are only eight faculty members, and for the past five years, the program has been run out of the Dey House, a two-story home built in the 1850s near the president’s house. With the help of a $1 million gift from workshop graduate Glenn Schaeffer, the Dey House is scheduled for a $2.3 million addition that will more than double the workshop’s facilities.

Author Marilynne Robinson, a workshop professor since 1989, hosts her fiction-writing workshop in a bright office that doubles as her classroom on the second floor of the Dey House. Colorful quilts hang on the walls.

During a recent workshop, students huddled around a large wooden table to critique a classmate’s latest effort. Students say the close-knit atmosphere of the workshop contributes to its success.

“It’s great to have this kind of community where everyone cares about writing, where for two years you are freed from worldly constraints and your only goal is to write,” Fei says. “It’s an idyllic environment for artists.”

Robinson says selecting participants is challenging because the school gets so many applications.

There were more than 700 applications for 25 seats in the workshop’s fiction-writing program next fall. More than 350 people vied for one of 25 seats in the poetry section.

“Admission is extremely selective,” Robinson says. “It compares with Harvard Law School in terms of the ratio of applications to admissions.”

To make the cut, applicants have to submit written work that shows merit or potential, she adds.

“You don’t pick people at random and teach them an art,” Robinson says. “You pick people who have a special gift or interest and help them to refine their gift or interest.”

Faculty members also are selected carefully, Conroy says.

“You have to be an experienced writer to know that a great deal about writing cannot be taught,” Conroy says. “A lot of it is really quite mysterious and not rational, so you have to know—when you are dealing with young talent—when to act and when not to act, and never interfere with their vision.”

In addition to the faculty, program associate Connie Brothers, two secretaries and five work-study students make sure the program runs smoothly. Staff members’ tasks run from the predictable—fielding phone calls and copying manuscripts—to doling out advice to students.

“Just the other day, there was a student going to buy an engagement ring for a fiancée who wanted advice,” secretary Deb West says. “It’s just kind of neat how they trust us, and the level of that trust.”

“I feel like a mom or a sister,” secretary Jan Zenisek adds.

Occasionally, that trust translates into a nonmonetary perk. Zenisek, West, and others have had their names listed in the acknowledgment section of several novels.

“I’ve got about four shelves full of books that have been dedicated to me personally or to all of the Iowa faculty and staff,” West says. “I’m sure there are people out there wondering ‘Who the heck is Deb West?’ It’s kind of nice to be one of those people.”

Occasionally, the staff fields some off-the-wall phone calls, as well. Once, a farmer called looking for someone to write his life story. Other callers have asked for expert opinion on copyright information.

Conroy and his colleagues take all of the unusual questions in stride, however.

“The people of Iowa own this thing,” Conroy says. “It’s theirs and we are looking after it.”

Article by Sara Langenberg


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