Monday, April 25, 2011

Chang: Are poets taught or born?

Originally printed September 30, 2010.

There's an old New Yorker cartoon in which one student says to another, "They say, 'Write what you know.' But all I know is writing workshops."

Lan Samantha Chang knows about a lot more than just writing workshops.

As the daughter of Chinese parents who survived Japan's World War II occupation of China and eventually moved to Wisconsin, Chang has brought a Midwestern sensibility to her fictional accounts of Chinese immigrants in American society. The promise shown in her 1998 book of short stories, "Hunger," and her 2004 novel, "Inheritance," have earned her a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and host of other awards.

For the past five years, however, Chang has learned more about writing workshops than she -- or nearly anyone else -- would ever care to know. Having taken over as director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she has been working to fill the very big shoes left by Frank Conroy, Paul Engle and a handful of other administrators/mentors over more seven decades.

That half-decade's worth of experience has given Chang ample opportunity to ruminate on what -- if anything -- writing workshops can offer to a developing writer or poet. She finds herself in a unique position to explore whether writers can be taught or whether writers just are. Whether there is a difference between learning to become a better poet and simply learning to write a few better poems.

And that's what makes Chang's latest novel, "All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost," such a brave and intriguing study of the creative life.

Set in Bonneville, the novel tells the story of one professor and several students in a fictional school of creative writing during the 1980s and then traces how their lives continue to intersect over the next three decades. Some go on to be celebrated academics and poets. Some go on to be stay-at-home spouses. Some go on to obscurity. But all continue to view themselves as taking part in the great poetic conversation.

Bonneville seems suspiciously similar to Iowa City -- complete with a fictional stand-in for George's Buffet. And "the School" seems suspiciously similar to UI's own No. 1 creative writing program in the nation. Even the professor, Miranda Sturgis, bears at least a superficial resemblance to workshop graduate and former professor Jorie Graham.

But the story that gets told in this slim, 200-page novel is about as far from navel-gazing meta-fiction as a contemporary author can be.

The poets in Chang's novel find no easy answers to the question, "Why did you write poetry?" But they do learn that their urge to write comes from the same source as the answer to the questions, "Why do we want to fall in love? Why do we pray?"

Chang manages to keep an anthropological distance between herself and her subject by focusing on the poetry half of the workshop's fiction/poetry divide. As she explains in her acknowledgements, her "interest in poetry and poets is that of an outsider." That perspective gives Chang the opportunity to describe poets -- "true poets," her characters would say -- as mercurial, near mythical beings.

(Former workshop fiction professor Richard Yates, in contrast, describes the workshop's faculty in far more earthy, petty and vindictive terms in his 1976 novel, "The Easter Parade.")

That perspective also allows Chang to avoid the more mundane, real-world implications of her abstract discussion of whether writing can be taught -- especially as the discussion relates to graduate programs funded by and housed in public universities. (Similar academic-political issues get raised and avoided in Tom Grimes's recent memoir of his workshop years, "Mentor.")

In the end, "All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost" is about much, much more than writing workshops. And the novel deserves a prominent place not only on that small shelf of novels set in fictionalized versions of Iowa City but also on the must-read list for anyone interested in becoming a better writer.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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