Inside the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: Part 1

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Everyone knows the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the most prestigious MFA Creative Writing program in the Whole Wide Universe (Editor: unverifiable fact), and the one that trashed Hannah Horvath’s story in Girls so bad she quit in just a few days.*

Here are six more things you need to know about the Workshop in case you’re thinking of applying, or want to pretend you’re an alumnus at an agent meeting, or find yourself on Jeopardy! with the Daily Double in the category of “Graduate-Level Creative Writing Programs.”

1. Competition

“Students here resent each other and would take any opportunity to undercut another writer’s work”: It’s time to give this cliché a rest. Frank Conroy—bless his soul—is long gone. The days in which students fight for their reputations Hunger Games style—also gone. The only traces left of this “competition” are in the different ways people are funded: a few are on fellowship, some work for The Iowa Review, and the majority are teaching assistants. The amount of funding does vary, as far as I know, but in the grand scheme of things, not enough to break the vow of poverty that all graduate students must willingly take. At the end of the first year, one can apply for a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, a prestigious-sounding award that really just means, Hey, you get to help us read a ton of MFA applications in the dead of winter for a few additional bucks! Everyone is guaranteed at least the same amount (or more) based on their initial first-year funding. So while the uneven funding can still lead to some rivalry, it’s not unlike many other MFA programs that have fellowship and non-fellowship packages.

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The sheer size of the program (about 25 fictionists and 25 poets per year) combined with each person’s unique funding package also makes it hard to keep track of who-gets-what. In a smaller program of, say, five students, the only guy on fellowship probably feels really guilty and hides out in a bunker. But here, it’s hard enough to remember names let alone match them with people’s specific funding situation. I also get the feeling that most of us view the inequality as a bureaucratic malaise: the resources are limited, the gods are trying their best. Nobody talks about the issue, period.

There are also a few not-advertised, not-guaranteed third year options for funding. If you view this as a must-have (and I could see how that case can be made), then this is another potential sore spot. It’s not really part of anyone’s funding package, though, so this is more like an opportunity to apply for an internal adjunct position.

2. Traditions

Why doesn’t the Workshop admit fewer people and create equal funding? Who knows, I don’t work for admissions. But I’ll bet: it’s because the Workshop already attracts so many talented applicants that turning down even one writer—a potential Michael Cunningham or ZZ Packer—for the sake of a small increase in everyone’s fully-funded package, is simply not a priority. That, and well, Tevye, tradition!

Personal Mailboxes

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop was founded in 1936 and is the oldest-known program of its kind. Things change here at Vatican City pace. Hard copy posters and flyers are preferred to listservs; telephone and personal contact occur more often than e-mails. If it wasn’t too expensive to maintain retro equipment, the Workshop would probably still use typewriters and mimeograph machines. The Workshop librarian takes pictures of all the students and compiles them in a facebook—no, I’m not talking about the one online; this is a physical booklet that has very limited stalking capabilities.

All poetry workshops take place at the same time on Monday and all fiction workshops on Tuesday. Afterward, the poets go to George’s for drinks and the fictionists go to Foxhead’s. I’ve gone exactly once so I can only say with 98% accuracy that these local dives are where you go to rant about workshop and get very tired of ranting about workshop so you decide to flirt and hook up with another writer only to regret it the next day (though you did briefly consider writing about the experience and workshopping it—how very meta!).

On the first day of the school year, a convocation (the notices of which are sent via post) is called into order. The instructors are paraded in front of the hall and asked by Headmaster Chang to introduce themselves. It is still too hot in the summer so togas aren’t required. The instructors field all kinds of questions from students—from the mundane to the silly to the humiliatingly personal. Then the students write down their top three choices for workshop leader that semester. Sorting Hat (Connie Brothers) is then used to determine one’s ideal placement. The generations-old secret algorithm is so precise that few ever complain. Those who do are thrown into a recycling bin and eventually pulped into paper.


Cubbyholes are another eccentricity of the Workshop carried over when no one but the office had the resources to make photocopies/mimeographs. The office handles all the copying for you—the stories and poems for workshops magically appear in the designated “cubbyholes” if you are punctual and follow the rules properly. Anyone can pick up other people’s work, even if they’re not in the same class. You can view this as a gentle form of competition, or—for me at least—a way to appreciate the work of other writers you didn’t get a chance to interact with.

3. Tribes

On top of the large cohort at the Writers’ Workshop, the university also has four other significant writing programs: the Nonfiction Writing, the Spanish Creative Writing, the Literary Translation, and the International Writing Program. Together, these form what’s called “The Writing University”—an initiative to cross-pollinate ideas and coordinate events, or in their own words, “to create a virtual space for the University of Iowa’s writing community.”

There have always been rumors about the Writers’ Workshop being too aware of its own prestige and therefore shunning its “red-headed stepsisters/stepbrothers.” While I don’t find this to be true at all, there are reasons why some might wrongly arrive at this conclusion. First, fiction and poetry workshops are limited to Writers’ Workshop students (just as, I believe, Nonfiction or Spanish writing workshops, etc. are limited to their own students). Second, the Writers’ Workshop has its own cool space (the Dey House) whereas the other programs might have to share classrooms with other non-fun academic departments. Third, this geographic and physical divide makes it more difficult to hang out with the other writers. Parties and readings are a way to bridge programs—but who mixes at these mixers in real life except for the brave, awkward, few?

Still, if one were to actively seek out the company of another writing tribe, it’s not difficult to do. Iowa City is so small that if you randomly throw nunchucks out the window (don’t ask why, that’s not the point), you’ll either hit a drunk undergrad or a drunk writer. Given such demographics, the city is an ideal place to network, such as in your pajamas while shopping at the only decent grocery store in town (the Coop), or, if the stars align, to even fall in love. Though preferably, not with the drunk undergrad.


To be continued… 


*Note: The author is currently in the first year of the fiction program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it being his second MFA.

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