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 , / correspondent

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

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.

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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?

Not everyone thinks they have. "Are MFA programs ruining American fiction?" reads the headline in one Salon.com article outlining a recent vitriolic debate between supporters and critics.

Jeter (now Naslund) and Tate have done well. They aren't as famous as the big celebrity from our class, John ("The World According to Garp") Irving. But in 1992 Tate won a Pulitzer. Seven years later, Naslund achieved a kind of literary trifecta: critical acclaim, a variety of awards, and genuine bestseller status for her novel "Ahab's Wife."

Beyond that, they are serious, thoughtful, and candid. I want to talk to them and others from our class, like National Book Award winner John Casey ("Spartina"), as well as people here now. Who better to help us look at the state of writing in America?

* * *

"It's strong," says Lan Samantha Chang, the Iowa workshop's sixth director and, as the first woman, Asian American, and graduate of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, superficially different from the others. But really Ms. Chang is very much in the Iowa tradition: a gifted writer herself, passionate about writing and the worth of writing programs.

I ask her about the latest antiwriting program broadside, a scathing London Review of Books piece by critic Elif Batuman with a title that tells you what's ahead: "Get a Real Degree."

Dr. Batuman argues that workshops encourage craft, not excellence, tolerate students ignorant of literary tradition, and encourage "cookie cutter" stories. Of the typical workshop story, Batuman says, "I probably wouldn't read it for fun."

Sitting in her office, at a wooden conference table, Chang sweeps an arm toward student manuscripts stacked neatly on each chair. "I have a student writing about a zombie. A postapocalypse novel. Stories set on an urban tennis court. Quietly observed stories. [They're] erudite and fun to read."

Chang doesn't want a reunion larded with self-praise – there will be some. She and her staff have planned two days of substance: a keynote speech, then two solid days of back-to-back panel discussions on thorny and traditional questions (The Writer as Outsider. The Future of the Short Story. Resistance to Poetry.)

They've included another tradition. For more than 50 years, writers and poets have met most Sundays, when snow isn't on the nascent cornfields, to wage war over slow-pitch softball.

"One time poets won nine years in a row," says Ethan Canin, the short-story writer and novelist. Mr. Canin actually went to medical school after the workshop but gave up medicine and now teaches at Iowa. "It's crazy," he says. "People dress like leprechauns.... I'll pitch for both sides."

Canin despises the cookie-cutter argument, using a term I can't quote. Yet Batuman isn't wrong about everything. Of course some students need to know more. She may even have a point when she says writing-program stories are not "fun."

The number of people reading serious stories and poems is tiny. "It's declining. Serious readership of fiction and poetry is 8.5 percent," says Chard deNiord, who came out of the poetry workshop in 1985, has published three books of poetry, and teaches at Providence College in Rhode Island.

Of course, readers of any book sometimes seem hard to come by. Forty-two percent of college graduates will never read another book, cover to cover, once they walk across the stage and pick up their diploma.

Still, if you include novels or poetry of all kinds, the situation might not seem dire. Publishers still put out about 5,000 novels a year. In 2005, more than 2 million people bought Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" each month.

As for poetry? "There's hip-hop," says Jane Shore, grudgingly, also a workshop grad who now teaches at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and whose seventh collection of poetry is at the printers.

But Mr. Brown and rapper Rick Ross aren't the kind of writers the people here care about most.

* * *

"One of the great novels of the age!" Chang says to the crowd, describing a book by the reunion's keynote speaker.

Marilynne Robinson climbs up some stairs, walks to the podium in front of a black curtain and into the bright glare of a spotlight. Ms. Robinson is the kind of writer they care about. They don't just cheer. They whoop for the longtime teacher and – yes – Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Gilead."

"There will always be skeptics," Robinson says of the workshop. "I'd be interested to see the evidence." She mentions a major magazine writer who quizzed her on something she seemed certain about: the decline of American literary tradition.

"She was British," Robinson says.

She gets her laugh. But not every pessimist is someone you can dismiss. What about author Philip Roth's recent gloomy assertion that in 25 years or so people won't read novels? Mr. Roth, who taught at Iowa from 1960 to 1962 and set part of a novel here, says, "It's going to be cultic ... a small group of people – maybe more than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range."

Mr. Casey is not that pessimistic. A third-year law student in the early '60s, he was writing stories under the tutelage of then-famous short-story writer Peter Taylor, who liked his work. One day, in 1965, Taylor told Casey to forget law – and go to Iowa.

"I'd heard of it," says Casey, sitting in the Charlottesville, Va., house where he's lived for the 38 years he's taught at the University of Virginia. Casey is balding, bearded, and, as someone who rows two hours a day, skinny. He remembers his reaction. "Why Iowa? Oh – Flannery O'Connor went there! That was that."

Full disclosure. I roomed with Casey for a year. I remember how quickly he established his brilliance at Iowa. He stuttered. The class, whether led by the virtually unknown Kurt Vonnegut or by the idolized Richard Yates, would wait patiently for him to unblock. It was worth the wait.

But Casey struggled for decades without the success we all expected. It was 10 years and two rejected novels before he published his first book. He suffered from depression, the devastating suicide of his talented student Breece D'J Pancake, and years of writer's block. In 1982 we might have counted him out.

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.

"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.

"What?"

"You've been nominated."

"For what?"

"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.

" 'Brownies' is one of the best stories I've ever read," says my classmate Suzanne McConnell, Bellevue Literary Review fiction editor, who teaches writing at Hunter College in New York.

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."

Li is now living in San Francisco and teaching at the University of California, Davis, but misses Iowa. "When you go out in the world, you don't get 10 or 15 readers to read [a draft] with respect," she says.

Li has identified one of the great things good writing programs offer: insight not just from teachers but from peers. For many students, Iowa marks the first time they've been surrounded by people who think writing is the most important thing in the world.

There's also a second thing. I heard it most succinctly from another rising star, Alexander Maksik, who has just graduated, sold a novel, and won a coveted fellowship allowing him to teach at Iowa next year. "Absolutely, the gift of time," he says.

Time! The program allows whole days without distraction! You can write at a desk, or on a bench on a downtown street where the city has put up statues of writers and engraved their quotes in graceful curves along the sidewalk ("Words are deeds – Aesop"). Or you can sit on a porch outside town, pecking out stories while mini landspouts glide across rolling fields.

Back in 1965, Tate found that combination exhilarating.

* * *

"Iowa was the cat's pajamas," he says. "I had never known [a poet.] Suddenly, I was surrounded by them. This was heaven. My work took a quantum leap."

Success came faster to Tate than anyone in our class. He impressed his teachers right away. Once Engle passed Tate in the halls, and said, "Hear you're doing well." Engle took two hundred-dollar bills from his wallet and handed them to him.

The major literary prize for young poets in the US is the aptly named Yale Younger Poets award. Young is a relative term; to be eligible you have to be under 40.

Well, why not? At 23, Tate bundled up a manuscript and sent it to Yale, then forgot about it.

One day, he went to the post office to pick up his mail and saw a letter from Yale. He opened it.

"I literally read it seven times," he says. "I stared, and stared. I couldn't believe it. Why did it say, 'you won'?"

I remember how the news raced around the workshop. Tate! Won the Yale Younger Poets! Really!

Tate did readings around the country. The next year the University of California, Berkeley, offered him an assistant professorship. "Pretty outrageous," he says now.

But his audience is far smaller than Casey's. Well-known poets sell 1,000 to 2,000 copies of a book, mostly to libraries. Even after his Pulitzer, Tate had no hope of making a living from books.

That doesn't bother him. Like Casey, teaching provides not just money but fulfillment, and the freedom to be uncompromising in his work.

"I've never been one who said poets should reach 10 million people," he says. "I want to make my poems accessible. I really do. But I'm not going to reach 10 million. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the country. People's lives don't include poetry." He smiles. "Maybe that makes it more special."

* * *

Friday, the first full day of panels. One after another, panelists come onstage in the large, dimly lit student union. Sometimes the seats are full. Sometimes not.

But something turns out to be interesting. People eat lunch fast. Then a lot of them head for the library in Dey House (pronounced die), now the workshop's home. There, behind locked glass doors, they find the long wall of alphabetized shelves that carry the more than 3,500 books Iowa grads have sent into the world.

It's thrilling, and nobody's immune, not even the honor-laden Mr. Levine. His wife gets someone to unlock the glass doors, and he sits with a stack of some of his 20 books. Then he signs them.

Pianists sometimes like to trace the genealogy of their teachers back to Beethoven. Here it doesn't go back that far – nobody apprenticed themselves to Melville. But at Iowa, passing the torch is not a sentimental metaphor.

Packer has two books on the shelf. At one point, she sits with Levine. I have no idea what they're saying. But they came here 54 years apart. People quietly watch from across the room.

The next night's dinner features speakers from each decade. Levine, who taught throughout his career, pays a long, respectful tribute to his teacher, John Berryman.

"I can still hear him saying, 'Levine, this will never do!' " says the poet, whose own reputation as merciless critic is secure. "He gave all he had to us and asked no special thanks. He did it for the love of poetry!"

The audience listens. The applause is loud, even from fiction writers, known for reading poetry only under duress.

* * *

Naslund is in the library, too, half expecting that her books wouldn't be on the shelves. "How did they get here?" she asks, spreading them out on a table.

It's taken people by surprise to see her here, and I understand why. Her student work was great. But over the years, I would walk into a bookstore, find novels from classmate after classmate, yet nothing from her.

It's not that she wasn't busy. She got a PhD at Iowa, taught at the University of Louisville, created The Louisville Review, had a daughter, cared for her mother, and wrote some stories. Why not a novel?

"I started trying while I was at Iowa," she says. "I couldn't manage plot." To learn how, she tried a Sherlock Holmes novel, similar to the approach of another Iowa grad, Nicholas ("The Seven-Per-Cent Solution") Meyer. She put it away.

In 1990, her mother died. "It makes you take stock of what to do with your remaining time," Naslund says.

She published the Holmes book. Then she saw an article that annoyed her. It said the two greatest American novels were "Moby-Dick" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Both were books without any women.

Ahab's wife gets one paragraph in Melville's story. What about giving her an entire book?

Naslund began the book in 1993. She traveled to do research. She set aside hours each day to write and stuck to them. "I thought about the book all the time," she says. "At a traffic light. Here's a boring moment – what can I do with my character?"

"Ahab's Wife" took five years. It came out in 1999. She was 56.

While some stories about Naslund focus on her $500,000 advance and how many copies she's sold, the more interesting point is what satisfies her most: that she found a way to win those readers without compromising the interest in character and ideas nurtured at Iowa. "I would not be myself without Iowa," she says. "It legitimized the act of writing."

The common thread running through what she, Casey, and Tate have done is a conviction about the worth of writing, coupled with the differences in what they produce. At least part of the reason serious writing is alive and well lies with the ability of schools like Iowa to encourage variety.

Just look at some of the other alums here – Joe Haldeman, the award-winning science-fiction writer, and David Milch, cocreator of the TV series "NYPD Blue" and "Deadwood." If there's a cookie-cutter approach, it hasn't succeeded.

* * *

It's 10 a.m. Sunday. The night before, people danced late. But some have come to Happy Hollow Park, ready to play. One, Dick Cummins, wears his full uniform from a softball league in San Diego.

Most people wear cutoffs and a variety of T-shirts. The sun's out. The sky is blue. White puffs of dandelion drift through the air. A few workshop people sit in bleachers behind the backstop. Nobody's wearing leprechaun costumes, but Canin is once again pitching for both sides.

What is it about softball that has made this an enduring tradition? One more manifestation of the competitiveness that makes these people sit in a chair for hours trying to bring characters they imagine to life? But maybe it isn't so surprising for people who have come to Iowa to find their literary "field of dreams" – the film is based on "Shoeless Joe," the novel by W.P. Kinsella, Iowa '78.

At the end of the sixth inning, it's 12-12, the kind of suspiciously balanced score only a shared pitcher could produce. Fiction scores a run in the seventh. This is one time the poets lose. Nobody seems upset.

They shouldn't be. For 75 years, young writers have come here to find a community, advice, and time. They have turned their backs on law school like Casey, or med school like Canin – and sometimes anguished parents.

Have the results been perfect? No, but what is?

When Naslund was here she used to take the bus home. "In winter, I'd go to sleep with snow on the ground and wake up to see dogwoods blooming," she says. On Sunday morning, she boards the bus again, as she did 45 years earlier, and starts her trip home. She looks forward to writing.

And teaching. Like every teacher I've talked to, she's fulfilled by it. Writers come here thinking workshops are for shaping sentences. They learn that they are also for shaping something else: the next generation of students.

Naslund is working on her seventh novel. A few years ago, she tells me, she was on a book tour, in a light plane, when a storm came up. "The wind was so strong at one point the plane was literally pushed across the sky! I thought, my daughter's almost old enough to take care of herself. I've done it. It's been wonderful. I'm not afraid!"

I look up from scribbling.

Then she says, "But I'm not finished."

Neither is Jim Tate, nor John Casey, nor ZZ Packer, nor Phillip Levine, nor the others who have come here because 75 years ago Wilbur Schramm had an idea.

There's a lot more writing to do – a lot more books to end up, carefully alphabetized, on the Dey House shelves.

Robert Lehrman, a former chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, teaches at American University and is the author of four novels, and "The Political Speechwriter's Companion."

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