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Write stuff: The workshop that shapes American literature

The Iowa Writers' Workshop, on its 75th anniversary, offers a window into the state of American letters.

By Robert A. Lehrman/ correspondent / June 25, 2011

Yiyun Li, a fast-rising Chinese American writer and alumna of the Writers' Workshop, takes a break from a reunion at her alma mater in Iowa City and reads outside. This is the focus story in the June 27 weekly edition of the Christian Science Monitor.

Tony Avelar photo/John Kehe illustration

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Iowa City, Iowa

For Sena Jeter, it was a photo – one of a poet running a program at the University of Iowa called The Writers' Workshop.

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The caption told her this workshop did something incredible: grant graduate degrees for writing poems and stories.

She sent in a story, got accepted, and took the train north from Alabama, knowing she would need a job to support herself.

The poet, Paul Engle, asked her how much money she had.

"Five hundred dollars."

"I need a research assistant," Mr. Engle said. He hired her.

For Jim Tate, it was advice. He wanted to be a poet. He'd gone to a small college in Pittsburg, as in Pittsburg, Kan. There were no poets at his college. But two fiction writers there said he could find some at Iowa.

He drove to Iowa City, told a woman in the workshop office that he wanted to go there and had brought along some poetry.

"Have you applied?"

"No."

She called Don Justice, one of the poetry teachers. He dropped what he was doing and read through Mr. Tate's samples. Finally, he looked up.

"Yeah, you can go here."

It was the summer of 1965 – just before the country would explode in a bitter decade of antiwar protests, drugs, and untrammeled sex that would change the country. The program that accepted them would change their lives.

This month, along with 350 others, Tate and Jeter came back to Iowa City to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the workshop, a program whose title is now usually preceded by the word "famed."

It was in 1936 when a writer named Wilbur Schramm proposed that the school take this step loathed by academics. What? A degree for making things up?

But Iowa bought Schramm's idea, pioneering what even the most vociferous recent critic of writing programs acknowledges has been the "single most determining influence on postwar literary production."

Even in 1965, there were only a few such programs. Now there are more than 800. Over the decades, Iowa students have sent a flood of distinguished novels, stories, poems, and nonfiction onto bookshelves around the world, and won thousands of awards. This includes 28 Pulitzers in fiction or poetry going to Iowa students and teachers. In one incredible decade – the 1990s – they collected nine.

Among the 350 alumni joining Jeter and Tate are eight of those Pulitzer winners, a US poet laureate, and three winners of the prize people love for its air of mystery and huge grants: the MacArthur Foundation "genius" award.

I'm an alum, also from '65. I've come to examine a few questions. How is serious writing doing in an age of Twitter and Mortal Kombat? Do serious novelists and poets produce work as richly imaginative as those who captured the public imagination back in 1936? And have workshops helped?

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