By Eric Olsen
We Wanted to be Writers began as a series of interviews with old chums from Iowa. We asked them to tell us their hopes and expectations, and what they learned at Iowa—if anything—and what they didn’t learn but wished they had, and how they survived in the years after Iowa while they tried to write and pay the rent at the same time. We also delved deeply into the creative process itself, how they write and how they deal with blocks and rejection and other such nasty things. And we asked dozens and dozens of other questions, and before long, we had the makings of a book.
Rather than run the interviews a la Paris Review, each complete, we broke them up into a series of conversations and arranged these conversations by topic into six chapters (chapters two through seven), plus an introduction and a first chapter.
One of our teachers when Glenn and I were in the Workshop was the late Vance Bourjaily, who once informed our class that if one were a nice person, one should never write in the first person, unless one were prepared to be an unreliable first-person narrator. But Glenn’s a pretty decent guy and what he has to say in Chapter One is pretty reliable, I think, so there must be exceptions to Vance’s rule.
Chapters two through seven are made up of the conversations in which those we interviewed speak for themselves, but in the introduction to each chapter, and then here and there throughout each chapter, we interrupt with brief narratives, by way of setting the stage, as it were.
In these comments, we lapse into a sort of editorial “we,” referring to ourselves by name, in the third person, when warranted. Now and then, that “we” encompasses the entire group of classmates and faculty we interviewed.
We realize that we probably ought not to speak for the others, and in fact some of these others have rather emphatically pointed this out, but then everyone else gets plenty of space to speak for himself or herself, so we hope we’ll be forgiven for this presumption.
And now and then the “we” broadens out further to encompass writers—and artists—in general, still more presumption for which we hope we’ll be forgiven. I won’t go near the question of our niceness or reliability in these chapters.
Introduction — Aiding and Abetting. By our good friend Bill Manhire. Bill is one of New Zealand’s foremost poets. He also heads the creative writing program at Victoria University in Wellington, NZ, the International Institute of Modern Letters, which carries on a regular exchange of writers with Iowa. In his intro, he discusses the similarities of our own “workshop model” with what has existed among the Polynesians for centuries, among whom poetry and story-telling are still a vital part of community life.
Chapter One — Disruptive Creativity. By Glenn, who tells us more about the origins of the book. He also answers the question that he’s often asked: How the hell did a kid with an MFA end up in business, and more oddly still, in the gaming business? All good businesses, he says, tell a story, and in the chapter he has much to say about the links between business success and the ability to craft a compelling narrative.
Chapter Two — What Possessed Us. Here we discuss how we got into writing in the first place—how we got hooked on writing. In these conversations, the first of many patterns emerge: We all seemed to follow a very similar path to this particular addiction. It usually began with reading. We tended to have a tolerance for occasional solitude, plus a library card. Then, very often, we’d meet an actual writer, maybe someone giving a reading at the local library, someone with dandruff and bad breath and scuffed shoes, someone human, after all, and we’d think, Gee, if that guy can write, maybe I can too…. A dangerous, seductive line of reasoning. And so we’d give it a try and we’d show it to someone we trusted, a teacher, maybe—but almost never a parent—and we’d get a bit of praise and with that praise, we were hooked….
Chapter Three — We Were So Damned Polite. About how we decided to attend a workshop and how we ended up at Iowa, with some digressions into the history of the Workshop and the “workshop model.” Along the way, we explore such things as the tensions between an organized, academy-based workshop, complete with a formal application process, and the traditional view of the “artist” as a rough-hewn boho outsider.
Chapter Four — Say Yes to Everything! This chapter is devoted to the creative process: how we write, how we dither, how we deal with blocks, and much more. In this chapter we also explore the question of whether writing can be taught at all. Still more patterns emerge around the matter of this creative process. As different as we may all be, the processes that writers use to get from blank page to finished work are remarkably similar, with distinct stages. Much of success in writing seems to depend on trusting this process and letting it work for you, and in this chapter we discuss this at length.
Chapter Five — Light the Torches, Get the Monster! About our first year in Iowa City, our experiences in workshops classes, our fears and doubts, and what we learned about writing and about ourselves as writers. We formed friendships that first year, some that have lasted to the present day, some that lasted a week or two, if that. In this chapter, we also explore the role of community in a writer’s life, and how for most of us the real workshop was conducted in discussions with our colleagues over beers at the Mill or one of Iowa City’s other fine watering holes. Of course, these alliances became rather strained as we all began to compete for a limited number of assistantships and fellowships for the next year….
Chapter Six — The Craft Thing. Here we focus on the second year. Aid decisions having been made, we lick our wounds, toughen up a bit, and settle down to write. In this chapter we also consider more closely the “workshop method” and how the Workshop prepared us, or didn’t, for the cold, cruel world “out there.” We also discuss the “workshop culture” in more depth. Contrary to the Workshop’s reputation as a cut-throat haven for careerists, most of us recall an overall sense of collegiality at work there. Writers need to be a part of a community to thrive, and what Iowa may have provided above all was that community.
Chapter Seven — Heartbreak and Mono. The cold, cruel world at last. In this chapter, we explore how we survived those first tough years after Iowa. Separated from a community that had sustained us for two years or more, suddenly we’re on our own. This can be the most difficult time in a young writer’s career. We discuss strategies for sticking with it, and how some of us made the decision to move on. That said, while a handful of us did give up writing at least for a time to pursue careers in law, business, technology, and other realms, every one of us is back at it.