Authors: Frank Conroy
Many good things happen outside the classroom. At Iowa, the students are in residence for two years in what is for almost all of them a mildly exotic environment: a calm college town in the Midwest where they tend to eat in the same restaurants, go to the same bars, theaters, concerts, and grocery store. They get to know each other very well, and many of them find two or three contemporaries who prove to be particularly sensitive, particularly smart and sympathetic readers. A good deal of discussion about one or another text goes on in coffee houses or even over the telephone as a student tries out a couple of paragraphs at one o’clock in the morning. (Allan Gurganus, for instance, found some special readers when he was a student here years ago whom he still consults.) The value of this dynamic cannot be overstated and may well be a critical factor in the integration of whatever may have been learned in class.
At Iowa young writers get to work with at least four different teachers during the course of their stay. Each teacher has his or her own approach, using methods only indirectly connected to the others, so that the students become aware that the process is more circular than linear. But a common theme is that the students should be focused on process rather than project. Typically students tend to cling to the texts that got them into the workshop in the first place, deeply and understandably worried that the magic might not strike again, that the magic is unpredictable. They mistakenly think that only their strong work is significant and that their weak work is a total waste of time. They fear being exposed as impostors. The workshop asserts that it is process that counts. All the work is necessary to move process forward, hence it is all valuable. Every writer creates weak, middling, and strong work. No one ever knows when lightning will strike, and we are all, much of the time, waiting for it. But we are not passive. We write, we struggle, we take risks. We work to be ready for the lightning when it comes, to be worthy of it, to be able to handle it rather than be destroyed by it. (Success has ruined more writers than failure.) Writing, sayeth the workshop, is a way of life. You either sign on or you don’t.
About the author
(1936 - 2005) was director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa from 1987 until 2005. He also taught at the University of Iowa, holding an F. Wendell Miller professorship. Previously, Conroy was the director of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts from 1982 to 1987. The above essay was written during his time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Conroy was also an author, most famously of the 1967 memoir
nominated for the National Book Award. His other works include the collection of short stories
Body and Soul,
and the collection of essays
Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On: Observations Then and Now
. His fiction and non-fiction appeared in such journals as
The New Yorker