By Eric Olsen
In the intercepts that comprise We Wanted to be Writers, Glenn Schaeffer and I and our fellow Iowa workshoppers discuss what we learned in the Workshop back in the mid-70s—and what we didn’t learn—and what we learned in the decades since about life, art, the creative process, teaching, the lit biz, and more. Our goal is to provide advice and counsel and analysis, how-to, maybe some inspiration, and a cautionary tale or two. Along the way, I hope we also entertain with some good yarns and a little gossip….
One goal in assembling this book has been to provide a compendium of reflections we wish that we’d had before we arrived naked in Iowa City—a book in which practitioners call themselves straight up. As unique as writers may be, or as unique we like to think of ourselves, nonetheless patterns of similarity emerge, especially when it comes to the creative process itself. Part of what we learned at Iowa and the years after was how to accommodate and trust that process, and this is a major part of the discussion.
If there’s a prevailing theme in our book, it’s one of hope. Writers face doubt on a daily basis. Doubt is what makes modernists of us all. And it’s a writer’s persistence spurred by hope—however absurd or misguided—that routes him forward to creative product, beset by the usual miseries, until those lean, if intoxicating, aha! moments decide to reveal themselves. Sentences find their shape. Characters command the page. Which is the reason writers undertake their journey at all, because the distant destination is their summa, with discovery wrought by self-candor, guided by their internal diagrams or maps, cribbed in invisible ink.
Glenn and I started We Wanted to be Writers by calling up a few of our old gang with whom we’d kept in touch over the years, among them John Irving, Don Wallace, Sandra Cisneros, Jane Smiley, T.C. Boyle, Allan Gurganus, Michelle Huneven, Jayne Anne Phillips, Robin Green, and Joe Haldeman. They all agreed to humor us. And they knew others we should talk with—say, you remember so-and-so? Remember that time . . . And so-and-so would connect to someone else we should talk with. Over time, we ended up doing extensive interviews with nearly 30 classmates and faculty.
In these intercepts, as we navigate discussions of the creative process, we also try questions as to whether or not imaginative composition can be inculcated, or taught, or learned, and if so, whether the “workshop model”—to the degree there is one—is the efficient approach. Some of what we came up with in the interviews defies the conventional critique about workshops, and Iowa in particular: that MFA programs impose an institutionalized voice on impressionable writers that is altogether flat in its affect. The Iowa model, by testimony of accomplished pros, holds up well in their lifelong practice. Writers, to be complete, must grow beyond their early successes and create in their own mood and voice, in generative fashion, harvest upon harvest.
Contrary to the Workshop’s reputation as a haven for cutthroat opportunists and bloated egos, all of us—well, most of us—no matter which side or sides of the geo/politico/aesthetic debates we were on, enjoyed a remarkable collegiality and generosity of spirit at the Workshop. Indeed, 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. And we’re still rooting for one another. Because even after 30 years, the blank page is just as daunting and just as frightening as ever.
Want a sample? Read—and feel free to comment on—these chapter excerpts.
Then of course you’ll want to order your very own copy: