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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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.