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Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Famous for Training Top Writers, Turns 75

April 7, 2011 at 6:33 PM EDT
Jeffrey Brown reports on the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the nation's oldest and most prestigious postgraduate writing program for elite writers and poets. The workshop celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.
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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 h

ealthier 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.