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We Wanted to be Writers

November 4, 2011

The Workshop

Ever wondered what your life would have been like had you attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop? I have but I don’t have to imagine anymore, because I just finished reading We Wanted To Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer. The bottom line is that I missed out on some incredible times, especially since I would have been there in the seventies – the golden era – when all the writers/teachers who contributed to this book were there.
Olsen and Schaeffer have put together a glorious book about the Workshop from an insider’s perspective. They graduated in 1977. Olsen went on to become a journalist and was at one time an executive editor at Time Warner.  Schaeffer has had a very successful thirty-year career in the gaming industry.  Both, no doubt, owe a lot of their success to the Workshop.
Together, they have amassed the best compendium of facts, anecdotes, gossip and history about what is inarguably the most-esteemed writing program in the U.S.  They talked to nearly 30 graduates and teachers who were at the Workshop between 1974 and 1978. It is a big reveal that it is full of factoids and juicy details.
Right off the bat, I liked the conversational tone that pervades, which makes it an easy and enjoyable read. There is plenty of truth-telling full of gossip, drugs, and sex. But they also discuss what it takes to write, writer’s block, how they handled rejection and what success feels like. Talk about their initial fears, naivete, and competitiveness is personal and honest. They wonder about the stuff they learned and did not learn at the Workshop.  They reveal who they liked as teachers and who left them cold.
The first thing I learned was something I’d been curious about for a long time. How did the Workshop with the most cache end up in the middle of the country – in Iowa of all places. Not New York. Not Chicago. Here’s one reason given, although it’s not the only one:
“Iowa was covered with prosperous family farms owned by folks who, maybe just a generation or two or three removed from Europe, held to the core values of the Enlightenment. They valued hard work and thrift, also education, and though they may not have had the time to read themselves, what with all the milking and planting and fence-mending to be done, by God their children would go to college and make even better lives for themselves! And so they paid the taxes, too, because back then values like hard work and honesty and community and literacy mattered. Back then, dumb wasn’t cool like it later became; back then, dumb was, well…dumb.”
You will recognize a lot of the contributors such as John Irving, Jane Smiley, Marvin Bell, T.C. Boyle, Sandra Cisneros and Allan Gurganus, to name a few. They each share their journey: How they came to writing; how they ended up at the Workshop; what their experience was like while they were there; and what happened after they left. Some became famous writers and some never wrote again, but I would bet that none of them, if given a do-over, would not do it again.
Marvin Bell, who now teaches at a low-residency program at Pacific University in Oregon, has so many great words of wisdom including: “One of the secrets in life is that if you do anything seriously long enough, you get better at it.”
You’ll also find interesting tidbits like this one: “…Workshops like Iowa’s thus became a refuge for young, developing writers in the absence of more support from anywhere else. And, of course, once writers started teaching other writers and got paid to do it, the movement went viral. From the official founding of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1936 until the mid-‘70s when we were applying to the Iowa program, there were only about a dozen programs offering the MFA degree in creative writing, many of them started and staffed by Iowa alumni. In all, including programs offering undergraduate degrees and PhDs, there were seventy-nine. At the time of this writing, there are 153 MFA programs and nearly 800 programs in total with more on the way.”
Most everyone had positive things to say about their days at the Workshop, but others were less effusive. Some were lonely and isolated and felt that they were left out or ridiculed. Perhaps they would have felt that way no matter where they had ended up. It’s certainly not just a nostalgic look through rose-colored glasses. There were plenty of problems, although some seemed to become more evident in retrospect, no doubt.  Drunk and lecherous teachers were considered more like a celebration of the times back then, but these days would not be tolerated.
The best take-away for aspiring writers who read this book is that there’s no right way to write. There is no secret to be imparted that will make anyone a bestselling author.  Each of these writers found what worked for themselves and kept at it.  What works for one, is anathema to another. Even boxing has a place. Yes, some felt boxing was “good for the soul,” but others just saw stars. Some techniques are stranger than others. Here’s what John Irving said about how he writes a novel: “I write last sentences first. I work my way backward from the end of the novel…”
Most writers everywhere would agree that a writer needs a community.  In a section about that need Olsen and Schaeffer say, “If there’s any one thing that might have contributed to the quality of “our class,” it’s probably the simple fact that if you throw a lot of talented folks together in one place and give them the freedom to work and play together, not always nicely but nicely enough, good things are going to happen.  But then this is the case for every workshop class, not just ours.”
This is a great read packed full of valuable advice and insight. I particularly like the Books By the Bed sidebars that give us a peak at what each contributor is reading. This book is a must-have if you are a writer, a wanna-be writer or are simply curious about what goes into the making of a writer. If you read one book about writing this year, it should be We Wanted To Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Skyhorse Publishing, 2011


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