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Monday, May 16, 2011

The Writers' Workshop

Dey House, home of the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop.
Photo courtesy of tjilafave, 2008.

What do Flannery O'Connor, John Irving, Jane Smiley, and W.P. Kinsella have in common?  They are all graduates of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, the first creative writing degree program in the United States, and the gold standard for writing programs.  Alumni have won seventeen Pulitzer Prizes, numerous National Book Awards, and other literary honors.  Three graduates from the Graduate Poetry Workshops have become U.S. Poet Laureates.  In 2003, the Workshop received a National Humanities Medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities - the first awarded to a university and the second awarded to an institution (as opposed to an individual).

National Humanities Medal signed by George W. Bush.

The two-year residency program has no textbooks, no grades, and admission is not based on GPAs.  One just has to show more promise than the other hundreds of applicants to be accepted in either the Graduate Fiction or Graduate Poetry Workshops.  When the program has been successfully completed, which entails the submission of a creative thesis (novel, story collection, or poetry collection), one will graduate with an MFA in English.  This degree will allow the graduate to teach creative writing at the college level, as well as serve as a proud affirmation of hard work well done.

Frank Conroy and Marilynne Robinson with students.
Photo courtesy of Tom Jorgensen, 2003.

The Program requires students to take a small number of classes each semester, including the Graduate Fiction or Graduate Poetry Workshop, and one or two additional literature seminars.  The Graduate Workshops meet once a week for three hours.  Some students submit their work for their peers to read prior to the meeting.  The class is a round-table discussion, and the students and instructor offer their thoughts and observations about each piece.  This allows the writers to get feedback on their strong points and shortcomings, and in turn the other students are able to observe each others' processes and learn about developing as a writer.

The Program agrees that writing cannot be taught per se but believes that talent can be developed, therefore they see the Program role as one of encouragement.  To this end, they provide access to established poets and writers.  Obviously, their program works, and works well.

Writers' Workshop staff Dave Pryce Jones, R. V. Cassill, Robert Williams, Richard Yates,
Paul Engle, Mark Strand, Eugene K. Garber, George Starbuck, Frederic Will in the mid-1960s.

The first creative writing class was offered in the spring semester of 1897. Twenty-five years later, in 1922, the dean of the Graduate College announced that UI would accept creative work as theses for advanced degrees.  The School of Letters offered regular writing courses with selected students who were tutored by writers in residence as well as visiting writers.   Officially founded in 1936, this year the Program celebrates their 75th anniversary.  Among the many special events to celebrate this anniversary will be a reunion June 9 - 12.

This has been a few exceptional years for Iowa as far as reading, writing, and literature go.  In 2008, Iowa was selected by UNESCO as a City of Literature.  The Creative Cities Network was established at the end of 2004 to promote social, economic, and cultural growth of cities around the world by recognizing their contributions in the fields of literature, film, music, design, folk art and crafts, media arts, and gastronomy.  The cities that are chosen promote creativity locally and with wider audiences, and offer new opportunities to develop creative productions.  The Writers' Workshop and its impressive history is arguably the core of the city.

Additionally, another coup has taken place.  Dr. Alphabet (writer Dave Morice) recently completed a 100 volume work of 10,119 pages in 100 days, the Poetry City Marathon.  (Full text here.)  This was in recognition of the City of Literature honor.  The final text was printed out by Bu Wilson and bound by Bill Voss of the UI Library Preservation Department.  The binding measures 8-1/2 x 11 x 24 inches.  Nancy Kraft, head of the Preservation Department, said it took 24 hours to bind, spread out over four days with half a day spent in making a small press to put the pages together.

The creators are considering submitting this to the Guinness
Book of World Records as the world's thickest book.

The book had to be assembled into small units then bound using the special press.  Making and attaching the cover was challenging, as the binding and cover must be both strong and flexible.  Obviously the book needs support while being read, and this is done by placing blocks under the "shorter" side, which are adjusted as the reading continues.

Check out this site for a slide show and explanation of the binding process.

The Hawkeye state has a lot going on, and literature is definitely one of their "prize" offerings.  Here's to another 75 years of excellence for the Writers' Workshop!
Images courtesy the University of Iowa website.
For a very good article from 2007 assessing the top graduate writing programs
click here.

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