Daniel Green reviews We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love and Literature at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, edited by Eric Olsen and Glen Schaeffer
Skyhorse Publishing, 2009, 320 pages, $16.95
A frequent criticism of creative writing programs is that they focus too narrowly on established techniques supposedly constituting “craft,” but if Gordon Mennenga is to be believed in this excerpt from We Wanted to Be Writers, very few concrete literary strategies were “taught” at all at the most famous such program, at least in the 1970s:
“The craft thing? I don’t think the topic ever came up, did it? At least not in the workshops I was in. You did your lump and threw it on the table. I was surprised we never picked out an element of “craft” and looked at it, how metaphor was used in a story, for example. We never did exercises of any kind. I suppose it’s that way still…We didn’t get into why things are done a certain way, or talk about different styles, what styles are tolerated and what aren’t…why and how.”
Although Mennenga is more blunt in his assessment of the degree to which writing “instruction” even took place at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the middle 1970s, the period of time during which the cohort of writers interviewed in We Wanted to Be Writers attended the Workshop, many of the participants in this assortment of reflections and reminiscences echo his comment. “Our teachers were writers, not teachers,” says Jane Smiley. “They knew a lot about writing, but hadn’t given a lot of thought to how to communicate what they knew.” Jennie Fields expresses outright disappointment with the teachers at Iowa, who “weren’t nearly as involved or instructive as the faculty I had as an undergraduate,” while Jayne Anne Phillips concludes that, anyway, “people enter into an MFA program, not to ‘learn” to write, but to spend time in a mentor relationship with an accomplished writer…and to be part of a community for a scant two years that supports literature, reading, and the attempt to write.” Co-editor Glenn Schaeffer believes “the real Workshop was a certain booth by the kitchen at the Mill, where I could watch the band, and my classmates would come by and we’d drink beer and talk about writing.”
We Wanted to Be Writers is essentially an extension of this “talk about writing,” although it is at least as much talk about being a writer after fulfilling the aspiration of the title as it is talk about writing or learning to write. Indeed, the book’s subtitle gives a more accurate description of the ultimate focus of the book: “life, love, and literature.” It is presented as something like a collective memoir by this cohort of writers (which also includes T.C. Boyle, Allan Gurganus, and Sandra Cisneros among its best-known members, as well as Marvin Bell and John Irving as teachers during this time), a memoir that is presumably justified because Schaeffer and his fellow editor, Eric Olsen, believe “our cohort to date, as a slice of scribblers, is the most decorated in the history of American letters, as far as having been enrolled at the same graduate institution at one time.” There is a tension in the book between this rather self-congratulatory explanation of the book’s existence and the effort to illuminate the influence of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop on the accomplishments of this “slice of scribblers” that is never satisfactorily resolved. The editors might say the book is intended to both chronicle a collective experience and examine the effects of creative writing programs on American fiction and poetry, but ultimately these goals may be at cross-purposes: The experiences are too superficially explored to be distinctive or surprising, while the focus on “life” at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop precludes extensive critique of the instructional methods used there and their utility in developing the talents of this literary greatest generation.
To call this generation “the most decorated” is not, of course, to say it is the most talented or most accomplished. A good case could be made that this cohort did indeed manage especially well to combine seriousness of intent (a dedication to “literature”) with a degree of commercial success or popular appeal (one of the graduates is a television writer whose credits include writing for The Sopranos), but is the implicit claim being made by this book that the Iowa Writer’s Workshop played some formative role in guiding these writers to this sort of success? Surely it can’t be that they were more naturally gifted than other groups of aspiring writers “enrolled at the same graduate institution,” including previous and later groups at the Iowa Workshop itself. Nor on the basis of what is revealed here about the level of instruction at the Workshop could the assertion be made that it imparted some special insights into the nature of literary creation. Is the focus on this particular class and the affirmation of its prestige meant to validate the Workshop’s status as the preeminent “program” of its kind? If so, what did it actually do for these students that could be seen as a contribution to literature?
Again if Glenn Schaeffer is to be believed, its contribution isn’t specifically literary at all, nor was the Iowa Writer’s Workshop finally teaching primarily writing. Instead, it was the center of what Schaeffer calls in his introductory chapter a “creative enterprise,” its principal object to foster a broader “creativity.” Creativity as encouraged by the Writer’s Workshop is in fact entirely compatible with creativity in business:
“Creativity captures and holds the attention (or money) of others, whether signified as audience or customers. In fact, people depend on narratives to get them through life; neuroscience tells us that our brains are hardwired to organize our existential states as ongoing narratives, draft upon draft of them. Therefore, a concept in business, as in a story, must be told forcefully and simply, using consequential logic mixed with dramatic leaps. Writers who can convince us of the real through the artifice of story are similar to entrepreneurs: Both start every day with the barest essentials, hoping to change us or our experience of the world, and struggle toward expression on the blank page, or the blank drawing board (infernally resistant media in either case)….”
Since Schaeffer himself went on from the Workshop to become a successful businessman, one could interpret this strained analogy as a necessary rationalization for his project of revisiting his previous “literary” indulgence. but it also helps to explain the amount of space devoted rather tediously to “process,” talk about how those who did make careers in writing organize their creativity. Although one writer does claim that a helpful “lesson” learned at the Workshop was provided specifically by John Irving through his efforts to “model” his own process in writing a novel, developing a systematic process suitable to a professional writer was otherwise not something the Iowa Writer’s Workshop appears to have much emphasized. Given the typical structure imposed by the workshop model in the vast majority of creative writing programs—a fixed number of submissions per semester, due at fixed intervals—these programs only accidentally teach writing discipline, as student writers scramble to meet the quota while struggling against the time constraints. In this way as well, We Wanted to Be Writers seems less designed to identify the beneficial practices of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop than to celebrate the superior skill level of this specific cohort who happened to pass through the Workshop together, as its members have developed the requisite discipline, perhaps in spite of the failure of the Workshop to sufficiently alert them to its importance.
Some of the writers interviewed here complain about other ways in which the Workshop’s failed to prepare them for the concrete realities of being a “professional” fiction writer or poet. Co-editor Olsen avers that “maybe I just wasn’t paying attention, but when I left and got into writing for a living (as if), I was amazed at what a rube I was. I was an Iowa grad, and I didn’t know crap about the real world of publishing…We absorbed the occasional dose about the art, but there wasn’t much nuts and bolts about the business or the craft.” If We Wanted to Be Writers works at all to sort through the at times conflicting goals to which creative writing is necessarily devoted—to “art,” to “business,” to “craft”—it seems to depict the Iowa Writer’s Workshop as more comfortably focused on art, even if there was little organized effort to specifically delineate the arts of fiction and poetry, little understanding of how to systematically “teach” those arts. The Workshop, no doubt like most creative writing programs at that time, was apparently a stimulating and convivial place for a collection of aspiring writers to reside for a time while also providing them an opportunity to concentrate on their writing and receive a critical response, but it was hardly the place to get a sophisticated education in literary aesthetics.
A number of those writers who themselves went on to be teachers of creative writing observe that instruction in most programs has improved significantly, and, to judge by the descriptions some give of their own teaching methods, it is likely that this is the case. But for the most part, such an improvement is a pedagogical improvement, an increase in efficiency or a more productive focus on process, not derived from fresh inspiration about how to develop aesthetic sensibility or determine appropriate artistic standards. Perhaps achieving such things is impossible, or, even if an effort could be made to orient creative writing in such a direction, perhaps undesirable, especially in lower-tier programs without pretensions to producing many ambitious “literary” writers to begin with. But there is little evidence that even “prestige” programs such as Iowa are graduating writers who are transforming American literature with their superior appreciation of the “art” of fiction or poetry. Instead, the very improvements in the teaching of creative writing have themselves arguably helped reduce creative writing to the acquisition of “craft” in the narrowest sense of the term.
It is doubtful that the workshop method of instruction, which most creative writing programs have adopted from the Iowa model, could ever work to privilege “art” as the primary ambition to be pursued by the workshop’s participants. The natural tendency of the workshop is surely to migrate toward issues of commercial acceptability or publishing prospects, issues that focus attention on the common lot of expectations facing the aspiring writer, lest discussion devolve into incoherence through the chaos of inevitably various and conflicting assumptions about aesthetic value. Individual instructors might want to dispense “the occasional dose about the art,” but students aiming to become professional writers are inevitably going to regard their instructors most of all as sources of information about the publishing world and as valuable conduits to that world. In creative writing programs that have themselves come to serve predominantly as conduits to the publishing world—and to supplementary sinecures as creative writing instructors in other creative writing programs, sinecures that have become crucial adjuncts to the publishing world—”business” and “craft” have inexorably come to be unavoidable concerns, arguably to the point that “art” is something left to take care of itself.
In the mid 1970s, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop apparently was still a place where simply being around other writers and aspiring writers, in an environment in which the writer’s vocation was taken seriously, was enough to make the experience worthwhile. Although the cohort represented in We Wanted to Be Writers of course had their ambitions to become recognized poets and novelists, few of them seem to have regarded the Workshop as a “professional” program providing direct preparation for a career in writing. Certainly they do not seem to have considered it certification for a job teaching creative writing. While many of them did wind up teaching in creative writing programs, the impression one gets from the comments in this book’s final chapter, which chronicles the group’s post-Workshop experiences, is that most of them fell into teaching as a job they now found themselves qualified to do. Most presumably attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop because they indeed wanted to be writers and it promised to help them attain that goal. One could conclude from the testimony of this book that at this time “creative writing” had not quite reached the self-perpetuating status it now occupies, through which the advanced creative writing degree provides students the appropriate credential to themselves become teachers of creative writing. That this is the current situation does not mean students enrolled in creative writing no longer want to be writers first of all, but it does mean that what began as institutional support that provided writers some security from an unreliable marketplace, whereby thay could also pass along first-hand advice to interested students, has become itself the primary means by which writers declare their intention to become writers in the first place.
Eric Olsen expresses the usual justification for creative writing from the writer’s/instructor’s perspective:
“Absent other forms of reliable support for writers, absent a marketplace that values writing and rewards writers commensurate with their labor (or at least sufficient to cover basic necessities), a teaching gig is about as good as it gets, until those royalties kick in, anyway.”
But by now, for the vast majority of writers with teaching positions in creative writing programs, those royalty checks will never “kick in,” at least not to the degree such writers might relinquish those positions to write “full time.” On the one hand, we could regard this state of affairs as even stronger justification for the now very extensive system of creative writing programs, which allows writers who otherwise would struggle to survive in an unfriendly commercial environment to keep writing. On the other, we might wonder if this system is artificially both maintaining a storehouse of writers who will never receive much attention and enticing students into pursuing a “career” that will never really emerge.
Perhaps it doesn’t finally matter. There are surely worse ways to spend a life than in talking about writing with literary-minded students, and much less rewarding legacies of one’s education that insight into “creativity.” Although one could still ask whether, whatever service the system of creative writing performs for individuals and for the American university system at large, it performs an equal service for American literature.
Daniel Green has published numerous essays and reviews in The Quarterly Conversation, Full Stop, Open Letters Monthly, American Book Review, Antioch Review, and Bookforum. Since 2005 he has maintained the literary blog The Reading Experience.