The Writers Workshop is one of the best-known academic programs at The University of Iowa. While no undergraduates may be admitted, the Workshop still permeates campus and influences many undergraduate courses. We asked Lois Cole, a recent Workshop graduate, to tell us about her experience as a student and evaluate the influence of the Workshop on campus.
As a graduate student at The University of Iowa Writers Workshop, I would sometimes hesitate to tell people about my studies. First, there were the unflattering stereotypes of self-absorbed Workshop students in black garb, congregated at a small, smoky bar called The Foxhead, where we talked in endless circles about our painful or thrilling workshops (admittedly, there was a shred of truth to this). There were the moments when even in going to see my dentist, I would become an unwitting celebrity.
Most welcome were the times when my Workshop connection opened the door for people to tell me about their own writing, or a book they were reading, or some historic information. I remember my first landlord taking me down the block to look at a slightly run-down red brick house. "The former dwelling of Kurt Vonnegut," he said. It was a warranty that the neighborhood had good karma for writing.
Oldest and Most Famous
The mystique attached to the Iowa Writers Workshop may in part be due to its status as the worlds oldest and most famous graduate writing program. Shortly before I came to the Workshop in 1997, a U.S. News & World Report survey had ranked it as the top creative writing program in the country. In a recent conversation director Frank Conroy pointed out more substantive ways to measure its success:
"Were Number 1 because weve had more quality books published, more translations into other languages its mind-boggling, the students who went on to be well-published writers." (He can list them, too, an endless parade of big shoes beginning with John Irving and Flannery OConnor that many of us, I imagine, felt too small to fill.)
Its the Workshops alumni roster, Conroy informed me, that attracts serious young writers who then demonstrate a self-fulfilling prophecy by becoming widely published authorsthat is, if they have "character" (by character, I gathered, he meant the stamina to stick with the hard work of writing).
Its Hard to Get In
The Workshop turns away 94 percent of those who apply each year. A modest student body of 100 is enrolled, with 50 represented in each sectionpoetry and fiction. The workshop itself is a small, almost familial, operation.
The most pivotal member, from what Ive observed, is Connie Brothers, who bears the title of Program Associate but functions as student adviser, assistant to the director, office administrator, fund-raiser, and liaison. Her presence in the Workshop is maternal in a brusque, New York way. She will help students find a summer job, a scholarship, or even a friend. As easily, shell scold them for not stating their purpose clearly or writing course numbers in the wrong columns on admission sheets. With the Workshop for 25 years (she remembers when students had to type their stories on stencils and covered everything with blue ink), she is, according to Conroy, "the best literary connected person I know."
This is particularly useful in finding instructors and coaxing them from their lives on east or west coasts to the Iowa hinterland. About half of the teaching staff of eight are visiting instructors. They are chosen for being good writers with a disposition for teaching. Whether they have a Ph.D. is optional.
Although the Workshop was initiated as a graduate writing seminar in the Department of English in 1939 it is, and has been for many years, a mostly autonomous unit. The Workshop is concerned more with writing than literary theory, and the instructors maintain there is no overriding aesthetic agenda involved in their teaching. "We just get in the dirt with the words and figure out in a fresh way what a poem is, what poetry is," says Mark Levine, a Workshop graduate and now permanent staff member of the Poetry Workshop. "We sort of explore without preconceptions, to really find a way to invent poetry anew in each generation."
While there are seminars in poetry and fiction, the core courses are the fiction and poetry workshops, held for only three hours a week (students are encouraged to spend the rest of the 165 hours left in the week in seclusion, writing). The single focus of these workshops is the student poem or story, which is submitted to the office for copying by noon Thursday and placed the next day on large shelves in 100 duplicates, to be picked up and edited by students and instructorsor any interested person passing by. The student manuscript is seen as so primary to the programs education and learning that students have solemnly coined the phrase "being up" to mean having their work reviewed (e.g., "Have you been up yet?" "No, Im going up next week. How about you?" "I was up last weekI was trashed.").
Think of Work As Sacrifice
Part of the fear has to do with the tone of the workshops. "Criticism is a good part of what makes this place," says visiting lecturer Samantha Chang, a Workshop graduate. "If you want someone to tell you youre wonderful all the time, then this isnt the place for you."
"The point is to give a little time to some very good young writers and help speed up their progress," says Conroy, noting that when he was edited as a writer for the New Yorker he learned much more than when writing alone. Admitting his teaching approach is not always nurturing (he is sometimes referred to as "blood on the floor Conroy"), he says he keeps it up because former students have sent notes saying it saved them a lot of wasted effort. "With me, its about the page and not the student. I keep it impersonal, and talk about the spot where the text is weak. The student needs to think of their work as a sacrifice."
Although designed by former director Paul Engle as an American version of "a Parisian café where younger writers meet with older writers and talk about their craft," the Workshop today is not exactly a place where teachers and students can be casual and cozy. "The big challenge for the teacher is just that the students are so goodyou cant get by on your old shtick. Youve got to be on your toes," says Mark Levine, noting that his students seem to be more in touch with contemporary poetry than the faculty is.
One can sense the students seriousness and competitiveness in how quickly a particular manuscript or work sheet is snatched up off the shelf if word gets around that a classmate has gotten a fellowship, had a poem or story published, or has done well in a workshop. "The students have a desperate sense of the limited possibilities waiting in the world," says Levine. "Its true. Theres not much out there."
But Levine and others who come to teach in the Workshop present a model of hope because of their own success as writersa success not taken lightly by students, many of whom initially are awestruck to have their manuscripts read by a long admired author or favored master poet. When I had to choose a thesis adviser, I decided on Barry Unsworth, a writer from England. He had been introduced to us by Conroy as someone who traveled many places and liked to write about them. Since I traveled substantially and was working on a novel set in China and Hong Kong, it seemed a sensible decision. Unsworth was kind and affable, and we got along well. We would muse over the differences between American and British English, and I would humor his distaste for Iowa City restaurants and winters. The realization of who I was working with dawned on me when I took a seminar that required an opus Unsworth had written called Sacred Hunger. The book was so stunning in scope and literary quality (he had won the Booker Prize in Literature) that I felt embarrassed to have had such a genius looking over my inferior work. Fortunately, it was toward the end of the second semester and any sudden shyness would not get in the way of the progress of my thesis.
When we eventually said goodby, he shook my hand and then pointed at the thesis box clamped under my arm, saying like My Fair Ladys Henry Higgins, "I believe youve got something there yes, I believe youve got something!" I couldnt stop smiling. For me, the words were better than any diploma.
A Writing Atmosphere
The Writers Workshop has tendrils, some visible and some less visible, that go out into the University and community. Workshop students teach writing courses open to all undergraduates. Several Workshop instructors teach the more prestigious Undergraduate Writing Workshops in the English Department, where students are selected based on their manuscripts.
Andrea Loest, an undergraduate art major, was intimidated at first when she took a creative writing class from Workshop student Michael Dumanis. But she said his instruction was so good, she began to appreciate poems the way she appreciated paintings.
"Mike wanted us to realize that poetry was something we should be paying attention to. He made us really think about what we were reading. Once, when I was having a hard time with a poem, he suggested I look at it as if it were a Salvador Dali painting, and I said, Yeah, youre right."
Loest says she was able to integrate what she learned with her discipline by creating an "artist book," mixing text with collage.
"If every student had a class like that and applied it to their daily life as I didthe business majors, the math majorsit would be so valuable," Loest says. "Its like you suddenly get it. You understand why other people appreciate and love poetry."
The creative writing undergraduate courses offered by the Workshop are so in demand that English majors are allowed credit for no more than three classes, says John Harper, director of curriculum in the Department of English..
"We have never encouraged anybody to think about an undergraduate degree in creative writing," he says. "We believe they need a broad base of training. They cant become good writers unless they study a substantial amount of literature."
The Workshops interaction with the community is often one of give and take, with a mutual sense of appreciation and enterprise. Samantha Chang describes the day novelist E. L. Doctorow came to town to give a reading. Chang went to the Dairy Queen on Market Street and saw a young woman behind the counter reading Doctorows book. People like Doctorow are recommended by Workshop students at the beginning of each semester and are then invited for the following semester. Their readings are hosted in conjunction with the University or such institutions as Prairie Lights Bookstore, which sponsors radio broadcasts of the readings.
Perhaps the Workshop cannot separate its success from its setting, a university town highly receptive to writers. Some may wonder which came first, the chicken or the egg, but its clear that both are inextricably bound. When I asked Frank Conroy what the program brought to the town, his response was perfunctory:
"If you open up my old Encyclopedia Britannica and look up Iowa City," he says, "the first paragraph is about the topography; the second about the Writers Workshop."
Article written by Lois Cole