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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.

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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.

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* * *

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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