image of Schaeffer Library and  inside the Dey House

About the Workshop

The University of Iowa Writers' Workshop was the first creative writing degree program in the United States and the model for contemporary writing programs. Workshop alumni have won seventeen Pulitzer Prizes (most recently Paul Harding in 2010), as well as numerous National Book Awards and other major literary honors. Three recent U.S. Poet Laureates have been graduates of the Workshop. In 2003, the Workshop received a National Humanities Medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was the first Medal awarded to a university, and only the second given to an institution rather than an individual.

Verse-Making, the first creative writing class at Iowa, was offered in the spring semester of 1897. In 1922, Carl Seashore, dean of the Graduate College, introduced a new model for the academic study of the arts when he announced that the University of Iowa would accept creative work as theses for advanced degrees. The School of Letters began to offer regular courses in writing in which selected students were tutored by resident and visiting writers. The Workshop as an entity began in 1936, with the gathering together of poets and fiction writers under the direction of Wilbur Schramm. From the outset the program enjoyed a series of distinguished visitors, among them Robert Frost and Robert Penn Warren, who would lecture and stay for several weeks to discuss students' work. John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and others came to teach for a full year.

One of the first students to receive an M.A. in creative writing was Paul Engle. He offered as his dissertation a collection of poems, Worn Earth, which won him the Yale Younger Poets prize. Paul Engle assumed the directorship of the Workshop in 1941 and held it for 25 years, a period which saw it flourish and become a significant force in American letters. During World War II enrollment was no more than a dozen students, but after the war it grew, attaining in a few years a strength of over a hundred students, and dividing into the fiction and poetry sections which exist today.

The Program in Creative Writing is known informally as the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and these two titles suggest the duality of our purpose and function. As a "program" we offer the Master of Fine Arts in English, a terminal degree qualifying the holder to teach creative writing at the college level. As a "workshop" we provide an opportunity for the talented writer to work and learn with established poets and prose writers. Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed, and we see our possibilities and limitations as a school in that light. If one can "learn" to play the violin or to paint, one can "learn" to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well. Accordingly, the fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us. We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country, in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.