Saturday, April 09, 2011

You Are Here Or You're Not: The Iowa Workshop Turns 75


So the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is 75! Cue the music. Several songs will be playing, ranging from celebration for the time and space that Iowa (and writing programs in general) has allowed young writers to take, to calls for the end of writing programs, saying that they do more harm than good to young writers.


Either way, to get the anniversary started, here’s the transcript of the piece that ran on The News Hour the other night:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/jan-june11/iowawriters_04-07.html

A few highlights:

JEFFREY BROWN: But, for as long as Iowa has existed, and no doubt a lot longer than that, the question has been asked: Can writing be taught?

Surprisingly perhaps, the official answer from Iowa is not really. Its website makes clear the "conviction that writing cannot be taught, but that writers can be encouraged."

LAN SAMANTHA CHANG: We try as hard as we can to take everybody's work seriously, to respect the writer's intentions, to discuss technical and non-technical elements of the work. Having said all of that, I sometimes feel that if I just brought them into the room and fed them chicken soup, they would get better anyway.

The elements of -- you know, that go into creating a great writer are completely mysterious. Nobody really knows what they are.

Another highlight:

JEFFREY BROWN: What happens to all those graduates? And what's the impact on American fiction and poetry?


MARK LEVINE: The danger is that there's a kind of a uniformity in the work, or that the work is written for critical approval and so tailors itself to whatever the prevailing critical interests or trends are.

It's a thing that you have to patrol your – that you would want to patrol yourself for in a creative-writing classroom.

One last one:


JEFFREY BROWN: So, what's different about from when you were here?

ALLAN GURGANUS: I think they're healthier than we were.

JEFFREY BROWN: Healthier?

(LAUGHTER)

ALLAN GURGANUS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Physically? Mind?

ALLAN GURGANUS: It used to be -- all the above. They go to gyms. They swim. They don't drink as much. The parties end at 11:30, so they can go home and write the next morning.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which was not how it was for you?

ALLAN GURGANUS: Oh, no.

Here's the full transcript:

Iowa Writers' Workshop, Famous for Training Top Writers, Turns 75
REPORT AIR DATE: April 7, 2011


JIM LEHRER: Now, writers, poets and one of the nation's leading literary institutions.

Jeffrey Brown reports.

MARCUS BURKE, writer: All the little birds fluttered through our block, cocoa-buttered up in their poom-poom shorts.

JEFFREY BROWN: A portrait of the artist as a young writer: 23-year-old Marcus Burke, a first-year student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where his short story in progress is about street life where he grew up, near Boston.

I mean, Iowa is a famous place, but you didn't grow up knowing about it?

MARCUS BURKE: No, no. I -- God, no. No.

(LAUGHTER)

MARCUS BURKE: There was no writers in my neighborhood.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: But now Burke has turned from basketball – he was a high school star and played in college – to a different kind of bruising sport: writing and presenting his work in class to peers and teachers at the country's oldest and most renowned graduate writing program.

MARCUS BURKE: There'll be days that you leave and you're like, wow, I felt that one in the ribs a little, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: It can – it gets a little rough sometimes?

MARCUS BURKE: Oh, yes, definitely. I mean, the truth isn't the nicest thing to hear all the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's one of the surprising and counterintuitive facts of literary life today. Even as we hear that fewer and fewer people read serious literature, writing programs like the famous one here at Iowa have never been so popular.

Does it surprise you how many people send applications?

LAN SAMANTHA CHANG, Iowa Writers' Workshop: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Novelist Samantha Chang is director of the Iowa Workshop. When we met her recently, she'd just finished reading more than 1,200 manuscripts from applicants for next year's class.

So, something in those folders jumped out at you and your colleagues?

LAN SAMANTHA CHANG: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: This bin held the work of the lucky 26 who were accepted to the two-year master's program.

LAN SAMANTHA CHANG: Something just jumps off the page.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

LAN SAMANTHA CHANG: And you think, oh, my God, I'm in another world. I have been transported.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Iowa Workshop has been attracting would-be writers for 75 years, first in a small Quonset hut on the campus of the University of Iowa, then moving into much larger quarters.

MARK LEVINE, Iowa Writers' Workshop: It is a fantastic poem.

JEFFREY BROWN: The program has two departments, one for fiction, the other poetry, with a core faculty joined each semester by visiting writers.

And it's been home to a roll call of literary lights, graduates such as Flannery O'Connor, Wallace Stegner, John Irving, Rita Dove, and last year's Pulitzer winner for fiction, Paul Harding, teachers including John Cheever, Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren, and, currently, Pulitzer-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson. All passing through a university town that goes out of its way to honor its writers, including special plaques along a downtown avenue.

But what exactly do they teach and learn at the workshop?

Samantha Chang was herself once a student here, so has seen it from both sides.

LAN SAMANTHA CHANG: I think I go into the class with the general assumption that every piece has something good and not good in it. It's interesting to me that the student become aware of their strengths, because I think that by sort of really working on their strengths, they can become extraordinary.

Do you get a sense that you can tell from what point she's telling the story and why she's telling it?

JEFFREY BROWN: The heart of the Iowa experience is the classroom workshop, where poems and stories are critiqued by teachers and fellow students.

WOMAN: Any time there was dialogue after that, I just felt completely riveted.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, for as long as Iowa has existed, and no doubt a lot longer than that, the question has been asked: Can writing be taught?

Surprisingly perhaps, the official answer from Iowa is not really. Its website makes clear the "conviction that writing cannot be taught, but that writers can be encouraged."

LAN SAMANTHA CHANG: We try as hard as we can to take everybody's work seriously, to respect the writer's intentions, to discuss technical and non-technical elements of the work. Having said all of that, I sometimes feel that if I just brought them into the room and fed them chicken soup, they would get better anyway.

The elements of -- you know, that go into creating a great writer are completely mysterious. Nobody really knows what they are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, one way to learn is through careful reading.

Mark Levine, also an Iowa alum, teaches a poetry workshop, as well as seminars on past masters, here, the odes of Keats.

WOMAN: "My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense."

JEFFREY BROWN: Levine says he works on technical aspects of writing, but there's a lot more, things like courage, confidence and honesty.

MARK LEVINE: One of the acts of faith in the exchange between the student and the teacher and the other – and the other members of the class is to be honest. And the honesty is hard. I mean, it's a very – it's a much more emotionally fraught setting, I think, than other classrooms.

JEFFREY BROWN: Whatever one thinks about the ability to teach writing, it's indisputable that what began in Iowa has exploded.

Thirty-five years ago, there were just 79 writing programs around the country. Today, there are more than 800. And that's brought new questions: What happens to all those graduates? And what's the impact on American fiction and poetry?

MARK LEVINE: The danger is that there's a kind of a uniformity in the work, or that the work is written for critical approval and so tailors itself to whatever the prevailing critical interests or trends are.

It's a thing that you have to patrol your – that you would want to patrol yourself for in a creative-writing classroom.

ALLAN GURGANUS, author, "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All": That's the surprise of the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Allan Gurganus, the acclaimed author of "The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" and other works of fiction, is an alumnus of the Iowa program and comes back to read and give master classes often.

So, what's different about from when you were here?

ALLAN GURGANUS: I think they're healthier than we were.

JEFFREY BROWN: Healthier?

(LAUGHTER)

ALLAN GURGANUS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Physically? Mind?

ALLAN GURGANUS: It used to be -- all the above. They go to gyms. They swim. They don't drink as much. The parties end at 11:30, so they can go home and write the next morning.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which was not how it was for you?

ALLAN GURGANUS: Oh, no.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Gurganus has certainly heard the critiques of writing programs but says that, for the students, it comes down to something simple.

ALLAN GURGANUS: They get time and readership, time in that two years are free and clear to do the work and to put the work not at the back of their life, but at the absolute center of their life.

JEFFREY BROWN: And after those two years, armed with an MFA degree, who knows? Gurganus himself didn't publish his first novel until age 42.

ALLAN GURGANUS: What's the rush? You know more as you get older. You develop more. Your heart is broken many, many times. And that is essential to getting your driver's license as a writer.

(LAUGHTER)

ALLAN GURGANUS: And, boy, can we drive.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Taking your time, in fact, is another lesson they try to impart here, even as the publishing industry looks for the next big and often young thing.

Marcus Burke says he's already been approached by agents, but he's not biting, at least yet.

MARCUS BURKE: I think there is that pressure to publish. But, at the same time, you only get to come out once. And first impressions are very important. And if the work isn't right, you can get charged up for people to look at you, but they aren't going to look very long.

JEFFREY BROWN: And as everyone we talked to put it, if you're in it for the job, the fame, or God forbid, the money, it's probably best to find another line of work.

12 Comments:

At 4/09/2011 1:45 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

"They go to gyms. They swim. They don't drink as much. The parties end at 11:30, so they can go home and write the next morning."

This reminds me of a passage in Daniel Woodrell's Give Us a Kiss. It recounts a Dionysian Iowa workshop party back when Iowa City was dubbed "Fuck City." No doubt it's based on Woodrell's memories of Iowa. Why are workshop would-be poets so "healthy" now? Poets are supposed to have fun.

 
At 4/09/2011 4:30 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

"Why are workshop would-be poets so "healthy" now? Poets are supposed to have fun."

Because if they were actually poets they wouldn't be in an MFA program in the first place. :-)

 
At 4/09/2011 6:14 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

OK, I guess it was predictable what the reaction would be to posting anything about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop . . . but I have to take the bait to the extent that I have yet to be shown any proof that MFA programs do anyone harm.

These critiques above are two that are made now and then. First, the Grove argument. Well, I see no need to stay up past 11:30, myself. Art doesn’t care what the artist’s definition of fun is.

Which leads directly to the Fitzgerald argument, and again, art does not, and you know it (despite the smiley face emoticon), care if the person making it has an MFA degree or not.

Great art and lousy art is made by people who party all night as well as by those who get their eight hours in . . . and great art and lousy art is made by people who didn’t get any formal education as well as by those with advanced degrees.

You can try to make these arguments, but they will simply not go anywhere.

The Iowa Workshop is 75. There are writers out there who are in their 90s who went there, one could imagine. That's really something.

 
At 4/09/2011 7:40 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

.

Touché

 
At 4/10/2011 5:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

My blog imports into facebook. Here's a comment that was posted there yesterday:

"Just want to clarify, for anyone reading this transcript: The number of MFA programs in the world is around 205. That "800+" figure is a misreading of AWP data first reported by The New Yorker and now mindlessly re-reported by journos like Jeffrey Brown who don't know anything about MFA programs."

It did sound a little high.

 
At 4/10/2011 5:55 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Hey, whoa, I never said Iowa--or MFA programs in general--are for pseuds. (Though I have some reservations about them, and what Gary wrote made me chuckle.) A lot of gifted people have come from the Iowa program. Some girls I knew at the U of Mich, Larissa Szporluk and Margaret Reges, went to Iowa, and they're writing lovely stuff now. Woodrell went to Iowa; he's a good writer. I went through the U of Mich program myself. (At that time I was reputed to be a bookworm and an incessant scribbler, not a party animal.) I'm just wondering what happened to the fun, and if we need to bring that back.

I'm not one to forestall retaliatory scuds by adorning my comments with smiley faces, but I'll tell you that I'm smiling at this moment. As winsomely as possible.

 
At 4/10/2011 6:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Oh, well, if it's just having fun you're talking about . . . all I can say is that I get terrible headaches if I drink. It's some sort of allergy or something, and it's gotten worse as I've gotten older. So the idea of staying out all night drinking and running around yards doesn't sound like fun.

The gym, on the other hand, sounds good to me. And running. And having donuts with my kids.

What I thought you were saying was a version of the Franz Wright critique, where people in MFA program aren't out being "real." Sorry for the misreading.

 
At 4/10/2011 7:09 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

There are lots of ways to have fun, of course. I can't drink a lot myself, and I don't care for weed. Running around yards is fun, a-roving by the light of the moon, tho once I wouldn't accompany friends on a midnight graveyard romp--appalled by the sacrilege. Kids are fun. Don't have any, but I've had a lot of fun subbing for kindergarten and other elementary grades. I've thought about getting certified for primary and teaching elementary.

 
At 4/10/2011 7:57 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

back to the numbers game:

I had this exchange about the 800 programs number that I mentioned above with the person who posted it:

Me: It did sound a little high. Is it that they included all programs in it? MFA,MA, PhD, BA, BFA, or something?

Other Person: Yes, it's low-res MFA, full-res MFA, English MA with Creative Thesis, English Ph.D. with Creative Dissertation, Creative Writing Ph.D., BFA in Poetry or Fiction or Creative Writing, undergrad English Major with Creative Writing track, and u...ndergrad Creative Writing Major. The largest groups in there, by far, are English MA with Creative Thesis (which is not a "writing program," it's not even a creative writing degree), and undergrad English Major with Creative Writing track (which is also not properly a "writing program," and again leads to a traditional English degree in many instances with no reference to creative writing on one's diploma). What PBS has done -- this isn't the first time, actually, they did it also in covering the recent N+ 1 article comparing the New York City publishing scene and the national network of MFA programs -- is do a story that is explicitly about MFA programs (and explicitly about full-residency MFA programs, of which there are 152 worldwide) and then, without any clarification, throw in that "800+" figure. Which immediately leads the anti-MFA crowd to say, "See! There are more than 800 full-residency MFA programs in the U.S., this is out of control!" When in fact if we ever _do_ reach 800+ full-residency MFA programs, it will be in the 22nd C. And likely not even then, as we will see the apocalyptic contraction of all unfunded MFA programs well before that.

Me: If there ever did get to be 800, it would be out of control, I'd think. That would be an average of 16 per state. There could be 16 in California, possibly. And/or possibly New York . . . but there would have to be nearly double that in those states to make the average hold nationally (as it would be impossible to have more than a couple or few in most states).

 
At 4/10/2011 8:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

DG:

Well, we all will wear such rags as we have to wear!

 
At 4/11/2011 7:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Marcus Burke says he's already been approached by agents, but he's not biting, at least yet."

That must make ingesting solid food very difficult for Mr. Burke.

 
At 4/11/2011 7:22 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Or very good news for the agents who might get bitten.

 

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