How We Got There (excerpt)

There was already then, as now, a sniff or two of condescension among the many critics of creative writing programs—and of Iowa in particular, big fat target that it is—that they produced “workshop writing,” “domesticated writing. . .” The underlying assumption, of course, was that writers are born, not taught, and therefore MFA certification is worthless, a scam, a sort of academic Ponzi scheme. . .

But apply we did, and how! . . . And if we had any twinges of uneasiness about whether or not this was the right thing for a young wanna-be writer to do, we quickly stuffed it. What were we supposed to do, after all? The romantic ideal of the writer suffering for art was being complicated by the threat of opportunity.

JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS — I don’t remember exactly how I first heard of Iowa. . . . I remember running into Gregory Corso after a reading at the Naropa Institute. The New York poets and Beat writers who founded Naropa considered Iowa boring and academic. Corso must have heard I was applying to Iowa, because he grabbed my nose and twisted his fist. “Don’t go to Iowa,” he said, “you’ll come out of there with your nose on all wrong.”

I was sick with mono and went home for a winter to regroup, working as an aide in a rural elementary school while I applied to several schools, including the University of Montana in Missoula, because of Richard Hugo. Montana rejected me.

I wrote my first story, “El Paso,” in order to apply to Iowa in both fiction and poetry. I was accepted in fiction, and realized within the first months that fiction, for me, was a far more subversive and less limiting form.

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JANE SMILEY — . . . When I got back from Iceland, my advisor (who was more interested in hiking than teaching) told me that medievalists were hired one per generation, so if you came along at the wrong time, you were screwed. It was clear to me my future was not in Old Norse. But my studies weren’t wasted; I got The Greenlanders out of it—it was in Iceland that I heard about the Medieval Norse colony on the southern tip of Greenland.

One day, I told my advisor I wasn’t looking forward to writing my dissertation, and he said good, because he wasn’t looking forward to reading it. So I asked Jack Leggett if I could turn in a Creative Dissertation made up of the stories I had been writing in Iceland, and he said yes.

My husband and I had split up early on—his true love was Marxism. He didn’t think grad school was political enough, so he went to Montana to organize the workers, and I stayed in Iowa City and got involved with a guy who tended bar in The Mill. A typical Iowa City story: come with one person, leave with another.

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ROBIN GREEN — . . . Then an old college friend got me an interview with the publisher of Straight Arrow Books, which was part of Rolling Stone Magazine. This was 1970, I think. The publisher already had a secretary, but he said it looked from what was on my resume that I could write, so he got me set up with Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone, and Wenner assigned me to write about Marvel Comics. I wrote 10,000 words. I was paid a nickel a word, which went up to a dime on my next piece.

The story about Marvel Comics was my first piece for Rolling Stone, but it was held until the summer, so my first published story was about Dennis Hopper, who was then crazier than shit and very drugged out and living in New Mexico near Taos in Mabel Dodge Luhan and D.H. Lawrence’s old place. It was a crazy scene and a good article . . .
So that’s how I got into journalism. I never intended it, though I did apply my skills as a short story writer to the articles, telling them like stories. It was the days of the “New Journalism,” so I was in step.

After four or five years of it, I got tired of magazine writing. It was 1975, and everyone around me was into drugs and I felt lost—I’d long before ended a relationship with the guy I went to California with, and I think I wanted to start my life over again and start it from the last place I’d started it, the last place I’d felt solid, and that was college and writing fiction.

I’d met some people who had been at Iowa—poets and trust-funders—and it sounded like heaven. All you had to do was read and write. I applied and got John Hawkes to write a recommendation.

I heard that Allan Gurganus didn’t want to admit me; he thought my writing was thin. He was right, but I got in anyway.

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JENNIE FIELDS — . . . I cried when I was accepted at Iowa. I’m from Chicago. I grew up there, went to school there, was desperate to get out of the Midwest. So I applied to Massachusetts, and when I got my acceptance letter, I thought:  at last, I’ll escape.

But I also applied to Iowa.  I knew the Workshop was the best creative writing program in the country. When I was accepted, I burst into tears. I had no choice but to go . . . There I was:  still stuck in the Midwest.

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