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.
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There used to be a myth about American writers: They showed promise early, then flamed out. Casey was different. Gradually, a new novel took shape, one about a Rhode Island man obsessed with building a boat, who sails it out into the Atlantic and gets caught in a storm.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Iowa Writers workshop 75th anniversary
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"I write slowly," Casey says. "I prick a finger and write in blood."
The book didn't appear until 1988. It got good reviews but early sales were slow. The publicist that Knopf had assigned him wouldn't return his calls. Casey got so upset he stuffed books into his car and set off on his own tour of bookstores.
He was still touring when the publicist called him. She told him to expense his trip.
"You've been nominated."
"The National Book Award," she said. A few weeks later, he won.
Casey's persistence is admirable, but his example is instructive. First, it shows that serious novels, rooted in character, can be compelling to read. But it also highlights some limits. Winning this major award meant total hardback sales of 42,000 that year, about what Brown sells in half a day.
That doesn't deter Casey, though. "Of the seven deadly sins, I don't have envy," he says.
He describes something else: the way serious writers have found a home in universities, which wasn't always the case in American literary history. Teaching, for Casey, isn't just a way to support his writing. He loves it.
He quotes a comment about teaching he remembers from Mr. Vonnegut that guides him: "He felt like he saw a story coming out of [a student's] mouth and I should gently keep pulling it out so it won't break."
* * *
It's after the keynote. We're at a reception in a penthouse suite that seems all glass and steel and uncluttered rooms atop the tallest building in Iowa City. "Where do they put their stuff?" someone asks.
Looking around, I realize something that wasn't apparent at the speech. The crowd is overwhelmingly young.
Of course. It's like high school. At 50 you'll be too envious of the people still publishing to come. Those here still hope. While there's deference to the old folks, like Pulitzer Prize winner Phillip Levine, who came to Iowa in 1953, people light up catching sight of the rising stars – especially two MacArthur winners.
She's talking about the celebrated story by MacArthur winner ZZ Packer, the energetic, reasonably young (age 38) black woman whose book of stories, "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere," won extraordinary praise ("Funny … Dazzling … Poignant … Brilliant … Incandescent") when it came out.
The next morning the excitement is palpable as alums recognize Yiyun Li, who, along with Ms. Packer, illustrates how far the workshop has come since the mostly male, virtually all-white classes of the '60s.
Ms. Li came to Iowa from Beijing – to study immunology. Her English was poor; she took a communications class and fell in love with writing.
She got a master's of fine arts in 2005, alarming her parents who thought she'd wasted her education. Within a few years, she had a book of stories, a novel, critical acclaim, and, last year, she received a call from the MacArthur Foundation for what they called her "spare and quietly understated style of storytelling."