Cover Story continued

If you’re a serious writer, you’ve heard of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa –the nation’s oldest and arguably one of the most prestigious MFA programs, designed to enable writers to exchange ideas about writing and reading within a spirit of an arts colony as contained in a small bucolic Midwestern town.

What this means is that a non-traditional way of learning the craft of creative writing–otherwise known as “the workshop”–became quite famous through an institution which is surround by, well, corn, and in case you’re not familiar with the concept, here’s what a writers’ workshop looks like: A gathering of poets and fiction writers meet once a week and before each class a small number of students submit their material for critical review by their peers. A roundtable discussion takes place, and the class and its instructors offer impressions about each piece. Did this story rock? Did this story suck? Did this story have a point or did it waste our time? Brutal honesty, yes, but the idea is that authors come away with insight into the process of writing–and reading.

So why bring this up in Honolulu Weekly? Because a scoopful of Island-based writers are products, so to speak, of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, including Benton Sen; Gail Harada; the Weekly’s editor, Mindy Pennybacker and her husband, Don Wallace; and the late Ian MacMillan, who left an impression on just about every writer in this town. So when a book called We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop came across my desk recently, I couldn’t help but include it in our 2011 Winter Books issue.

The book is a blend of interviews, commentary (gossip!) and anecdotes from nearly 30 graduates and teachers who were at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1970s. Some of the contributors include Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street), John Irving (The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules), T.C. Boyle (World’s End), Joy Harjo (In Mad Love and War), as well as–full disclosure–Mindy Pennybacker and Don Wallace. Many of them were classmates of the authors of WW2BW, Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer, whose goal in writing the book was to “provide a compendium of reflections we wish that we’d had before we arrived naked in Iowa City.”

A few of my favorite moments include a reflection by Robin Green (The Sopranos) who wrote, “I’d met some people who had been at Iowa–poets and trust-funders–and it sounded like heaven. All you had to do was read and write…I thought school was irrelevant and boring. So first thing, I got a job at Iowa Book and Supply. That was irrelevant and boring, too, but I liked getting a paycheck.”

And then there is a story by poet Joy Harjo who said, “Poetry basically took me captive, took pity on me. Poetry basically told me: You don’t know how to listen, you need to learn how to speak, you need to learn grace, and you’re coming with me.”

And then, in a chapter titled, “We Were So Damn Polite,” the very colorful and brutally honest Cisneros gives us real insight into what it looked like to be a vivacious female writer in the 70s. Referring to one of her instructors she wrote, “We had an affair. I was very, very young, and I thought, this is what writers do. You have to live and break rules and dance on tables and have affairs. I didn’t know how to be a writer.” In the chapter, “Light the torches! Get the monster!,” Doug Unger (Leaving the Land, a Pulitzer Prize finalist) wrote, “I left Chicago thinking like most young writers that anything I vomited onto the page was God’s gift to literature, and I was disabused of that soon enough.”

The truth is, I could give you a hundred more examples of why this book should be on the shelves (or in the Kindle) of anyone who wants to be a writer, or who already considers themselves one. The gossip is just plain entertaining, and if written by a collection of recent Iowa grads, I’m not sure it would have had the same appeal. In this book, you have grads who have had time to grow and write and get published and win awards, etc., which makes us (the reader) look at their stories differently. Had just another 20 year old girl talked about the affair with her professor, I’d think, who cares, happens every day, but since it is Cisneros, the quote means something different. It’s an honesty one wouldn’t otherwise see as multi layered, or “innocent” if I could be so bold.

We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer
Skyhorse Publishing
344 pages

Truth and grits

Benton Sen is an author who earned an MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2001. His book, Men of Hula: Robert Cazimero and Halau Na Kamalei was published by Island Heritage in 2010. He’s written for Spirit of Aloha and Disney/Aulani, and for the last two years, he’s attended the Squaw Valley Writing Conference on the James Houston Fellowship.

Overall, was your experience at Iowa a good one?

I attended the Iowa Nonfiction Program and it was an incredible experience. Notable teachers included James Alan McPherson, Ethan Canin, Philip Lopate, Patricia Foster, and Scott Russell Sanders. The Fiction Workshop included writers like Frank Conroy and Lan Samantha Chang. Some of the students (at the time) in my classes were Nathan Englander, Chris Offutt, and Brady Udall. Incredible.

What do you think of the “workshop” setting? Does it work for you?

People say that you can’t “teach” someone to write. Mentors can guide them through the process. I agree. Many writers did not seriously write until after they graduated from either the Fiction or Nonfiction Workshop. One day when I was in the University of Iowa Library’s Special Collections, I saw Flannery O’Connor’s thesis and photocopied it. She went through the Fiction Workshop in the 1940s. That was an inspiration.

I’ve often heard that Iowa doesn’t “get” local work, in other words pidgin, local sentiment, etc., doesn’t often come across in the way “they” want it to. Do you agree or disagree? What was your experience in writing about Hawaii?

Flannery O’Connor used Southern dialect and James Alan McPherson wrote about black idioms. Ethnic writing isn’t about separation or “otherness” but about an individual’s sense of belonging and personal speech that secures that writer in a sense of place. I spent last summer at the Writers’ Workshop and I discussed jazz, music and race in Hawaii with James McPherson. I told him that Hawaiian music now includes Hawaiian rap. He laughed as if pleased with the current state of inclusion. Before I left I told him that when I return to Iowa I will bring a cooler with lau lau and poi. He said he would make grits.