We Wanted to Be Writers:
Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
By Eric Olsen and Glen Schaeffer
Maybe it’s a good thing there was no Internet back when we were applying to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; we were spared the Workshop’s buzz-killing disclaimer currently on its Web site concerning what can or can’t be taught or learned there. Would we have been so enthusiastic, so positively gleeful about our bright prospects and what the future held when we got those acceptance letters if we’d read that the folks at the Workshop itself agreed "in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught"?
Well, of course, we’d have been just as pleased with ourselves because we wouldn’t have believed a bit of it. We all assumed we’d come out of Iowa better writers one way or another. What writers don’t assume they’ll get it right eventually if they just keep at it? And besides, we were facing the delicious prospect of two years to do nothing but write—well, we intended to do nothing but write, until we discovered all of Iowa City’s swell bars. Afterward, for the rest of our lives, we’d have the right to say, “I was at Iowa,” which we were sure would open all sorts of doors at big publishing houses in New York City and then maybe even land us a tenure-track position at some nice little liberal arts college in New England teaching creative writing to a classroom filled with really, really bright liberal arts majors.
But the Workshop’s disclaimer does raise some questions: What gets taught at the Workshop, if anything, and how? What gets learned?
That “popular insistence” of course refers to all the carping about workshops that’s been going on since the first workshop took shape in Iowa back in 1936. One of the Workshop’s very own, Flannery O’Connor (certainly among its most noteworthy grads) famously pronounced, “The ability to create life with words is essentially a gift. If you have it in the first place you can develop it; if you don’t have it, you might as well forget it.” Nelson Algren, who taught at Iowa in 1965, was even crankier. After his stay there, he wrote a now-infamous article in the Chicago Tribune titled “At Play in the Fields of Hackademe” in which he declared that the Workshop “had not produced a single novel, poem, or short story worth reading.”
Some folks consider O’Connor worth reading, though, and it seems odd that Algren could be unaware of all the other esteemed, prize-winning poets and prosers who’d also already come out of Iowa by the time he showed up. But then Algren reputedly lost badly at poker night after night after night during his time in Iowa City, which perhaps dampened his enthusiasm for the place.
Philip Roth, who also taught at Iowa, was somewhat less dyspeptic than O’Connor and Algren, explaining, not unreasonably, that “writing workshops have three purposes: give young writers an audience, a sense of community, and an ‘acceptable’ social category.” But even Roth couldn’t bring himself to concede that something might get taught or learned there, and in the years since, one observer after another has taken a shot at the idea that anything useful might go on in a workshop.
The Workshop’s disclaimer does admit the possibility—and one can’t help sensing that what’s left unsaid is that it’s an exceedingly faint possibility at best—that “talent can be developed.” This passive construction, which would probably be blue-penciled as a rhetorical cop-out in most writing workshops, avoids dealing with such messy considerations as to what might be meant by “developed” and who’s doing the developing, and whether or not the Workshop’s faculty—its famous faculty at that—can be given any credit.
“But why do so many people dispute the value of teaching creative writing?” wonders John Irving, yet another famous Workshop grad who’s written more than a few books most folks think are worth reading. “We don’t discourage flat-out dreaming in other academic and/or artistic pursuits. I think the question about how writing is taught or if it can be taught is akin to beating off in a bathtub. Who cares how? Who cares if?”
“The question is meaningless,” says Marvin Bell. “What does it say about us that people spend time arguing over a question that is theoretical and can never be answered and for which an answer would be neither interesting nor consequential? Real writers don’t bother themselves with that question.”
“After all,” wrote Paul Engle, the Workshop’s director for twenty-five years, who probably had to listen to this debate countless times, “has the painter not always gone to an art school or at least to an established master, for instruction? And the composer, the sculptor, the architect? Then why not the writer?”
But the question may not be one that everyone necessarily wants answered, even if it could be. In the academy, in business, in the sciences, in politics, and certainly in the arts, everyone agrees that to be creative is a good thing. The myth of American exceptionalism is based on the notion that we’re the people who come up with all those great ideas—always have, always will. OK, so some of those ideas haven’t been so great, like subprime mortgages, Reaganomics, trickle-down economics, and derivatives.
The point, though, is that on the whole we are damned creative. And part of creativity’s allure is its ineffable, mysterious nature. No amount of study, training, practice, or socialization seems capable of getting at the heart of the creative process.
And thank God for that. Heck, if it was easy, then everyone would be doing it.
But setting aside the matter of how or if, this yes-it-can-no-it-can’t disclaimer on the Workshop’s website does summarize rather neatly the speculation about creativity and what it is, where it comes from, and how we can get more of it—speculation that’s been going on as long as there have been writers to speculate. It seems to come with the territory; we’re never quite sure what we’re doing or how we’re doing it—it is the spooky art—but by golly we’re always looking for some edge, an angle, especially when facing that dread blank page and waiting for a little inspiration so we can do it more and do it better.
No doubt the artists who, some thirty-five thousand years ago, painted the figures in the caves in Chauvet, France, the first recorded “creative acts” found to date, struggled with the very issues creative types have always struggled with, meaning above all they wondered where their next meal was coming from, when they weren’t yearning for—pleading for—another good idea, for inspiration, for some little nod of recognition from what might have passed for the muse back in the Aurignacian.
No doubt they struggled with creative blocks, too, and tried to ignore that nagging internal editor going on and on and on about that line there, the one defining the haunch of that ibex, really, you can’t be serious. And no doubt there were critics back then, too—surely there have been critics as long as there have been artists—one of whom probably held up a torch to view that new work daubed and brushed on the cave wall with red ochre and carbon black pigments, and who thoughtfully scratched at his lice and gnawed on the leg bone of some now-extinct mammal and opined, ”Don’t you think that auroch there—you do mean for that to be an auroch, I assume—isn’t just a little, well . . . derivative?”
Philosophers, poets, visionaries, and maybe a few lunatics have been pondering the nature of creativity ever since. And what all of this pondering points to, again and again, is that creativity (whether in the arts, the sciences, politics, business, or even the military) is a process with several characteristic steps.
The Workshop’s waffling disclaimer aside, the creative process can be practiced and honed and refined, and at least some aspects of it can be learned, perhaps most effectively in a community of people sharing their struggles and small triumphs along their individual wandering paths.
From We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Copyright 2011 by Skyhorse Publishing. By permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.