Inside the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Frank Conroy Reading Room

*Originally published in MQR, October 9, 2015

Everyone knows the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the most prestigious MFA Creative Writing program in the Whole Wide Universe (Editor: unverifiable fact), and the one that trashed Hannah Horvath’s story in Girls so bad she quit in just a few days.

Here are six more things you need to know about the Workshop in case you’re thinking of applying, or want to pretend you’re an alumnus at an agent meeting, or find yourself on Jeopardy! with the Daily Double in the category of “Graduate-Level Creative Writing Programs.”

1. Competition

“Students here resent each other and would take any opportunity to undercut another writer’s work”: It’s time to give this cliché a rest. Frank Conroy—bless his soul—is long gone. The days in which students fight for their reputations Hunger Games style—also gone. The only traces left of this “competition” are in the different ways people are funded: a few are on fellowship, some work for The Iowa Review, and the majority are teaching assistants. The amount of funding does vary, as far as I know, but in the grand scheme of things, not enough to break the vow of poverty that all graduate students must willingly take. At the end of the first year, one can apply for a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, a prestigious-sounding award that really just means, Hey, you get to help us read a ton of MFA applications in the dead of winter for a few additional bucks!Everyone is guaranteed at least the same amount (or more) based on their initial first-year funding. So while the uneven funding can still lead to some rivalry, it’s not unlike many other MFA programs that have fellowship and non-fellowship packages.

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The sheer size of the program (about 25 fictionists and 25 poets per year) combined with each person’s unique funding package also makes it hard to keep track of who-gets-what. In a smaller program of, say, five students, the only guy on fellowship probably feels really guilty and hides out in a bunker. But here, it’s hard enough to remember names let alone match them with people’s specific funding situation. I also get the feeling that most of us view the inequality as a bureaucratic malaise: the resources are limited, the gods are trying their best. Nobody talks about the issue, period.

There are also a few not-advertised, not-guaranteed third year options for funding. If you view this as a must-have (and I could see how that case can be made), then this is another potential sore spot. It’s not really part of anyone’s funding package, though, so this is more like an opportunity to apply for an internal adjunct position.

2. Traditions

Why doesn’t the Workshop admit fewer people and create equal funding? Who knows, I don’t work for admissions. But I’ll bet: it’s because the Workshop already attracts so many talented applicants that turning down even one writer—a potential Michael Cunningham or ZZ Packer—for the sake of a small increase in everyone’s fully-funded package, is simply not a priority. That, and well, Tevye, tradition!

Personal Mailboxes

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop was founded in 1936 and is the oldest-known program of its kind. Things change here at Vatican City pace. Hard copy posters and flyers are preferred to listservs; telephone and personal contact occur more often than e-mails. If it wasn’t too expensive to maintain retro equipment, the Workshop would probably still use typewriters and mimeograph machines. The Workshop librarian takes pictures of all the students and compiles them in a facebook—no, I’m not talking about the one online; this is a physical booklet that has very limited stalking capabilities.

All poetry workshops take place at the same time on Monday and all fiction workshops on Tuesday. Afterward, the poets go to George’s for drinks and the fictionists go to Foxhead’s. I’ve gone exactly once so I can only say with 98% accuracy that these local dives are where you go to rant about workshop and get very tired of ranting about workshop so you decide to flirt and hook up with another writer only to regret it the next day (though you did briefly consider writing about the experience and workshopping it—how very meta!).

On the first day of the school year, a convocation (the notices of which are sent via post) is called into order. The instructors are paraded in front of the hall and asked by Headmaster Chang to introduce themselves. It is still too hot in the summer so togas aren’t required. The instructors field all kinds of questions from students—from the mundane to the silly to the humiliatingly personal. Then the students write down their top three choices for workshop leader that semester. Sorting Hat (Connie Brothers) is then used to determine one’s ideal placement. The generations-old secret algorithm is so precise that few ever complain. Those who do are thrown into a recycling bin and eventually pulped into paper.

Cubbyholes

Cubbyholes are another eccentricity of the Workshop carried over when no one but the office had the resources to make photocopies/mimeographs. The office handles all the copying for you—the stories and poems for workshops magically appear in the designated “cubbyholes” if you are punctual and follow the rules properly. Anyone can pick up other people’s work, even if they’re not in the same class. You can view this as a gentle form of competition, or—for me at least—a way to appreciate the work of other writers you didn’t get a chance to interact with.

3. Tribes

On top of the large cohort at the Writers’ Workshop, the university also has four other significant writing programs: the Nonfiction Writing, the Spanish Creative Writing, the Literary Translation, and the International Writing Program. Together, these form what’s called “The Writing University”—an initiative to cross-pollinate ideas and coordinate events, or in their own words, “to create a virtual space for the University of Iowa’s writing community.”

There have always been rumors about the Writers’ Workshop being too aware of its own prestige and therefore shunning its “red-headed stepsisters/stepbrothers.” While I don’t find this to be true at all, there are reasons why some might wrongly arrive at this conclusion. First, fiction and poetry workshops are limited to Writers’ Workshop students (just as, I believe, Nonfiction or Spanish writing workshops, etc. are limited to their own students). Second, the Writers’ Workshop has its own cool space (the Dey House) whereas the other programs might have to share classrooms with other non-fun academic departments. Third, this geographic and physical divide makes it more difficult to hang out with the other writers. Parties and readings are a way to bridge programs—but who mixes at these mixers in real life except for the brave, awkward, few?

Still, if one were to actively seek out the company of another writing tribe, it’s not difficult to do. Iowa City is so small that if you randomly throw nunchucks out the window (don’t ask why, that’s not the point), you’ll either hit a drunk undergrad or a drunk writer. Given such demographics, the city is an ideal place to network, such as in your pajamas while shopping at the only decent grocery store in town (the Coop), or, if the stars align, to even fall in love. Though preferably, not with the drunk undergrad.

4. Autonomy

In some ways, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop feels like an intensive writers’ conference or residency that lasts for two years. There are no grades and no set curriculum. The only requirement is to take workshop (credit hours flexible from 1-6) and to enroll in twelve credit hours per semester. You can take craft seminars in fiction or poetry regardless of your genre, or take classes in other departments. Most seminars don’t check for attendance—it’s really up to you to decide when to come in. Some people show up for one class and never reappear. But as many people stick to the schedule and never miss a class.

Workshop Table

The workshops take place in Dey House—aptly named, because it does feel like a bunch of writers just getting together at someone’s house to talk about writing. Officially, workshops are two hours long. But again, more like a conference or residency, the teachers have a lot of autonomy. My workshop with Charles D’Ambrosio usually lasts three hours. Once, we went up to four hours (in which I ran out of snacks and contemplated eating the manuscripts). Contrary to popular opinion, there’s no such thing as the “Iowa style” of writing. Each instructor may have a particular way of approaching craft or talking about craft, and some may be more prescriptive than others, but in most cases, they’re trying to help you achieve your original vision. Of course, they’re also not immune to subscribing to the predominant literary trend—which has been, and still is, leaning towards conventional realism.

Socially, you can be a hermit if you want to; lock yourself up in a room and just write for two years. No one’s probably going to miss you—there are no required events to attend except for the first day meeting. Even student readings are informal and optional. You can finally experiment on growing that beard thick, long, and covered in crumbs.

5. Evolution

In its own snail-paced way, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is evolving, and some of the changes have to do with the following:

Marilynne Robinson NameplateSeminars. I’ve heard that it used to be that craft seminars aren’t taken all that seriously by the instructors and students. Maybe it has to do with the preeminence of the workshop experience, that everything else falls into second place. But I’m finding the class on Short Story Forms by Margot Livesey, and the class on the Long Story by Ethan Canin (which is really taught workshop-style) to be rigorous and profoundly meaningful to my understanding of writing. Craft seminars usually focus on studying published pieces, and they are a great complement to workshops, which by its nature focus on reading works-in-progress. Because the seminars are also open to any graduate students (with some prioritization), the classes tend to have more cross-discipline opportunities as well.

Novel. Perhaps as a response to student demand, or literary trends, there seems to be more opportunities to workshop novels in particular. So far, I believe, there’s been a class devoted to the novel every semester. Paul Harding (a fairly regular visiting writer) has been teaching it recently, and Lan Samantha Chang is also known to teach her own version. These are intensive workshops that require reading over 150+ pages of a student’s work each week.

Dey House SideDiversity. Compared to the time when Sandra Cisneros attended the IWW (and famously ranted against it), the Workshop has made considerable progress. There seems to be a more diverse cohort now—ethnicity, national origin, gender, age, etc.—that makes for a more welcoming and better learning environment overall.

6. Bikes, Yikes!

In the episode of Girls where Hannah Horvath briefly enrolled at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a friend told her she didn’t need to lock her bike because, well, it’s Iowa. But Hannah’s bike was stolen. There are few things thatGirls got right about the IWW and Iowa experience—but I can confirm that bicycles indeed do get stolen here. I lost mine in the first month, while parked (and locked) outside my house. So for those bike-enthusiasts thinking of applying to the program, caveat emptor. Get a cheap bike or learn the valuable lesson of letting go.

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