Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A welcome workshop history

Originally printed Sept. 26, 2011.

If you google the phrases "Sandra Cisneros" and "Iowa Writers' Workshop," the top search result is a YouTube video titled, "Sandra Cisneros: I Hate the Iowa Writers' Workshop," in which the Chicago-born Latina poet and novelist explains in detail why she detested her time in Iowa City.

That's why I was so surprised to see Cisneros listed as one of the more than 30 workshop graduates and faculty members during the 1970s whose shared memories and insights make up the new book, "We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love and Literature at the Iowa Writers' Workshop," by fellow Workshop graduates Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer.

I had been expecting "We Wanted to Be Writers" to be some kind of self-congratulatory, uncritical celebration of the workshop -- or, even worse, some kind of hagiography of the workshop's more illustrious graduates. I knew Schaeffer only as the donor for whom the Dey House's Glenn Schaeffer Library and Archives addition was named. And I knew little about Olsen other than that he and Schaeffer graduated with their MFAs in 1977.

But when I began leafing skeptically through the collection of transcribed interviews, I soon saw that not only was Cisneros allowed to say, "I believe in workshops. I teach in workshops. I just don't believe in the academic workshop." But several other interviewees -- from poet Joy Harjo to sci-fi writer Joe Haldeman -- also were allowed to express their own critiques of the Workshop experience. And many of those critiques were inextricably intertwined with the writers' positive -- often nostalgic -- memories of his or her time in Iowa City.

In addition to Cisneros, Haldeman, Harjo, Olsen and Schaeffer, the list of former workshop students interviewed include Jeffrey Abrahams, Doug Borsom, T.C. Boyle, Anthony Bukoski, Sandra Cisneros, Jennie Fields, Catherine Gammon, Robin Green, Allan Gurganus, Joe Michelle Huneven, Gary Iorio, Sherry Kramer, Geri Lipschultz, Bill Manhire, Dennis Mathis, Bill McCoy, Gordon Mennenga, Cheryl Olsen, Mindy Pennybacker, Jayne Anne Phillips, Jane Smiley, Douglas Unger and Don Wallace. Faculty members Marvin Bell, Rosalyn Drexler, John Irving and Jack Leggett were interviewed as well.

The list does include many big-name novelists and poets, but "We Wanted to Be Writers" is all the more interesting because it includes so many graduates who went on to excel in other, non-literature related fields. Schaeffer himself went on to make his fortune in the stock market and real estate/resort ventures. And while Olsen continues to write, he largely is focused on writing magazine articles and non-fiction books on health related topics.

"We Wanted to Be Writers" turns out to be not only an exploration of the literary creative process, but also a case study in what graduates can do with an MFA from the No. 1 creative writing program in the nation if they don't become a literary superstar or an creative writing professor.

And that's one of the main points Schaeffer wants to get across through this book.

"The MFA is the new MBA," Schaeffer told me this summer, while sitting in the library that bears his name. He said his next project will be a more detailed exploration of the links between literary imagination and entrepreneurship.

Of the two, Olsen seemed the more responsible for deciding how to present the insights by the interviewees. Rather than focus on one writer for pages at a time, Olsen chopped up the transcripts and shuffled them until they formed engaging, lengthy conversions around some general questions about the craft, the writing life, youthful ambitions and heartbreak.

As result, "We Wanted to Be Writers" reads like the transcript of a good documentary -- with voice-over narration from Olsen and Schaeffer thrown in along with the occasional lists of "Books by the Bed" for each of the interviewees.

Olsen and Schaeffer have presented a welcome, controversial addition to collection of books on the workshop that stretch from Stephen Wilbers's "The Iowa Writers' Workshop" (1980), to Mark McGurl's "The Program Era" (2009).

And if you want to hear any of the stories that -- for whatever reason -- didn't get included in "We Wanted to Be Writers," Olsen will be reading at 7 p.m. today in Prairie Lights.

Contact Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson at

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