The (University of) Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the granddaddy of MFA creative writing programs, has been celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Not surprisingly, the September/October 2011 issue of Poets & Writers in the Library’s periodicals room ranks Iowa number one in its list of the nations top 50 full-time MFA programs.
I recently read two books about the IWW. Mentor: a Memoir by Tom Grimes, published by Tin House Books in 2010, recounts the strong mentor-mentee relationship of workshop director Frank Conroy and Grimes, beginning in 1989. We Wanted To Be Writers: Life, Love and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by Eric Olsen and Glen Schaeffer, published by Skyhorse Publishing in 2011, is an oral history of the IWW experience drawn from current interviews with students and some teachers who were in the Workshop during the authors’ time there, the mid-1970s. The voices include those of Jayne Anne Phillips, Jane Smiley, T.C. Boyle and John Irving
The books couldn’t be more different. Grimes’ story is written, not spoken and compiled. It paints a portrait of the day-to-day life of an Iowa student both on and off campus. Mentor is the better continuous read. The Olsen-Schaeffer collaboration is the kind of book you can open to any page, with the likelihood that in a few minutes you will come across nuggets of advice for aspiring writers, and perhaps a humorous anecdote as well. Some of the voices ring with great passion, such as those of Sandra Cisneros and Doug Unger. At its best, We Wanted To Be Writers is instructive, fast and, at times, quite fun.
Here’s a taste of the two.
• On the first day of class, “Conroy went directly to the blackboard and picked up a piece of chalk. He wrote: meaning, sense, clarity. Then he faced us. ‘If you don’t have these, you don’t have a reader. . . .The writer cocreates the text with the reader. If a writer gives the reader too much information, then the reader feels forced to accept whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading. If a writer gives the reader too little information, the reader feels compelled to search for whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading. So, you want to meet the reader halfway.’ ”
• “My stories seemed to operate according to the laws of a boomerang. I’d fling one into space, and a few months later it would return.”
•“[C]oncentrating on sentences makes time dissolve. Your mind searches for the perfect word. You locate it. You type it. You look at it. Your hear it. Maybe say it aloud. Then you decide it’s the wrong word. You change it. Look at it. Hear it. Say it aloud. Decide it’s the wrong word. You try a third word, repeat the above, decide it’s also the wrong word, and restore the original. Then you count the word’s syllables. You listen to its tone. Is it sharp, flat, or out of key? By chance, you notice the clock. Sixty minutes of your life have been swallowed by eternity and you still haven’t found the right word.”
From We Wanted To Be Writers:
• Sandra Cisneros: “I like to use the metaphor of writing being like cutting your own hair; there’s only so much you can do yourself, then you need someone to help you with the back. That’s what we do at the workshop; we cover each other’s back. So you don’t walk out with a bad haircut.”
• Gordon Mennenga: “[H]alf the time, you wanted to ask, have you actually read my story? People complained about things that didn’t matter, and left the important stuff untouched. In class, comments got too personal. . . .There was a lot of posturing in the workshops.”
• Dennis Mathis: “I remember when [Kurt] Vonnegut came back to do a guest workshop/reading at Iowa. He said he’d pay for a plaque dedicated to the 90 percent of Workshop graduates who don’t go on to become writers. He said, ‘Can you imagine if 90 percent of the graduates of the Harvard Law School didn’t become lawyers?’ ”
• Rosalyn Drexler: “Writing is not only torture, it’s fun. It’s Let’s Pretend. It’s a cheap vacation.”
The number of MFA programs, both full-time and low-residency, since Iowa began awarding its degrees in 1936, has grown into the hundreds. The other day I attended a local writers’ salon where three women who had earned their MFAs in the first class of Fairfield University’s low-residency program spoke of how rewarding their experiences had been, in some ways that went far beyond the writing itself.
Before applying to the Fairfield program, one of the graduates recalled, she asked what she would get out of it. Program Director Michael C. White answered, “Community and craft.” For us in this challenging, often isolating pursuit, those are two precious offerings.—Alex McNab