Writers’ Workshop at Seventy-Five

Jeff Martin

This year the oldest graduate creative writing program in the United States turns seventy-five. In June the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, alma mater of writers ranging from John Irving to Flannery O’Connor, Jorie Graham to Michael Cunningham, celebrated the anniversary with a reunion of faculty and alumni that brought together some of the most recognized names in literature today. T. C. Boyle, Robert Hass, Margot Livesey, Francine Prose, Marilynne Robinson, and Jane Smiley, among other Pulitzer Prize winners, poets laureate, and Fulbright scholars, converged on campus in Iowa City to engage in a weekend of reflections on the program, and, true to the program’s seriousness, discussions about the state of poetry and literary fiction outside the walls of Dey House, the Workshop’s headquarters.

The Workshop emerged in 1936, under the direction of Wilbur Schramm, in the midst of the Great Depression. Offering an MFA in English, the University of Iowa was the first American university to award the advanced degree for a creative literary thesis. Succeeding Schramm was Iowa alumnus and poet Paul Engle, whose 1932 MA thesis manuscript (among the first “imaginative” theses recognized by an American university, predating the MFA) won the Yale Younger Poets prize. Engle directed the Workshop from 1941 to 1965 and is credited with building the program’s reputation as a launching pad for successful writing careers: He assisted O’Connor in shaping what would become her first book, Wise Blood (Harcourt, Brace, 1952), nurtured poets such as Donald Justice and Philip Levine, and brought legendary faculty including Robert Lowell and Kurt Vonnegut to the university. (Engle went on to found Iowa’s International Writing Program with his wife, Hualing Nieh Engle, opening up the university to writers from around the world and earning the couple a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.)

Successor to the late Frank Conroy, current Workshop director Lan Samantha Chang, an Iowa alumna who has to her credit a Guggenheim Fellowship and three acclaimed books, readily acknowledges the legacy she cultivates on a daily basis. “Seventy-five years ago, the University of Iowa writers and deans who awarded the first degree for a creative thesis could not have predicted the extent to which their actions would change American literature,” she says. “The Iowa Writers’ Workshop has spun off so many decades-long conversations, on and off the page, about writing.” Chang notes that since 1936, “hundreds of MFA programs and even more hundreds of undergraduate creative writing programs have emerged.”

As another part of its anniversary celebration, the Workshop has put together an anthology that Chang describes as “a witty and nostalgic compilation of reminiscences, meditations, poems, and yarns from Workshop alumni.” The book includes dozens of pieces about memorable teachers, friendships, and romances begun and ended, and what it was like for decades’ worth of poets and fiction writers to live in Iowa City, which was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization as a City of Literature in 2008. Word by Word was printed and distributed by the Writers’ Workshop in June. (In August Skyhorse Publishing will release We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, edited by Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer.)

What’s next for the storied institution? Chang isn’t quick to make predictions. “It’s impossible to see into the future,” she says. At the end of the day, she’d prefer to see the Workshop remain as it is, “a place that puts writing at the center of life.”    

Jeff Martin is an author and editor living in Tulsa. His most recent book, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, was published by Soft Skull Press in March.