In the Company of Writers (excerpt)

One of the ironies of the talk about writing programs is that Iowa was sometimes used as a straw man by people who claimed such programs produced look-alike art of no ambition,” notes Marvin Bell, “whereas in fact, Iowa was very much the opposite of that. Among the hundreds of my former Iowa students to have published books of poetry are Michael Burkard, Marilyn Chin, Rita Dove, Norman Dubie, Albert Goldbarth, Robert Grenier, Joy Harjo, Juan Felipe Herrera, Mark Jarman, Denis Johnson, Larry Levis, David St. John, and James Tate. There is a wide range of methods in just that little sample. By the way, my former poetry students include a movie star, two well-known playwrights, several successful novelists, a pool hustler, two Zen monks, two professional basketball players, and a former assassin.”

SANDRA CISNEROS — I didn’t know anything when I got to Iowa. I had no concept of self, low self-esteem; I’d never been away from home by myself, so what did I know? I was like a little 15-year-old, as far as worldly experience.

My father and brothers had protected me completely. They’d walk me to the bus stop, which people did in poor neighborhoods in Chicago. So of course as soon as I met that poet who paid some attention to me, I thought, wow, I was The One.

I didn’t know how to be a writer except to be bad. But the word apparently was out by the time I got to Iowa. People saw me as so-and-so’s little bimbette instead of seeing me for who I was. So when people looked at me I thought I had lettuce between my teeth or something.

MICHELLE HUNEVEN — . . .  I thought the Workshop would be a world of writing, that I would live and breathe writing, meet other writers and talk about writing non-stop-and that is pretty much what happened . . . I was a little stunned by the intensity, intelligence and competitiveness of the workshop, and I didn’t really have all the tools to take full advantage of what was being offered. That said, it was a world where writing fiction was the most important thing, and over the years, I have yearned for that environment again.

DOUG UNGER — . . . after getting to know my fellow writers there, and realizing how good they were, many of them writing much better prose than I was, I understood that it would be a lot of hard work and would take a great deal of luck also for me to succeed or even to keep going as a writer. It was a very humbling experience.

ANTHONY BUKOSKI — . . . By then, I’d served in the Marines in Vietnam, taught high school for three years, gotten an MA at Brown. I always felt I was fortunate to come to Iowa at 29; I was ready to study and to learn.

. . . what helped me so much was the feeling I had of gratitude that I had been accepted and that now others would read, with some seriousness, what I submitted on those Workshop Tuesdays.

DOUG BORSOM — You hear about the so-called “workshop story,” but the only pattern I detected in all the worksheets I read running them off was in the quality of the writing. Even when our stories didn’t have a lot to say, they usually said it well. Beyond that, they were all over the place . . .

DOUG UNGER — . . . I remember a séance that Leonard Michaels had at Jane Smiley‘s house, in which Brenda Hillman and Chase Twitchell and I (and I think Allan Gurganus might have been there, too) and several others were sitting around with candles lit, very stoned, trying to decide what the difference was between writing fiction and writing poetry, and finally we determined that writing poetry would tend to make you more physically beautiful, and that writing fiction would tend to make you ugly. . .

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. . . it turns out that many of us, looking back at our time in the Workshop, share the impression that the real work of the Workshop was done outside the classrooms, as we shared our work with one another over beers at The Mill or George’s Buffet, or joints in a cabin on the shore of Lake McBride. At the end of the day, we all found ourselves rooting for one another, because we were all in the same boat, up against the same horror:  the blank page. . .

JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS — . . . The draft I put up . . . had almost no punctuation. It was a long stream of language, in titled monologues. Everyone hated it . . . One guy, in disgust, said, “Why are you making us read this shit?” I was not crushed, however. I was actually encouraged at the intensity of their reactions. I figured I was doing something right. I did, however, add punctuation . . .

T.C. BOYLE — . . . I was writing stories then like the one that got me accepted into the Workshop, stories that played with the notion of narrative, and little sections you could mix and match, and I kept writing those stories and I was getting tired of them, and one day I said to Vance [Bourjaily], “Vance, I’m tired of this.”

And he said, “Do something else.”

He was absolutely right. So I did something else, but I needed to hear it from him.

JENNIE FIELDS — To be honest, I was disappointed by the faculty when I was at the Workshop. They weren’t nearly as involved or instructive as the faculty I had as an undergraduate. I rarely felt inspired and sometimes thought they were coasting. But when you’re around fellow students saying brilliant things, you couldn’t help but be inspired by them . . .

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