Here is a miracle: a city where readings draw blockbuster crowds, where everyone is writing all the time —except when they’re drinking. A city where there is nothing more beautiful, more powerful, or more celebrated than the written word. I drove to Iowa City praying for such a miracle.
A curious thing happens when you reach the westernmost point of Iowa. Nebraska’s brown flatlands give way to Iowa’s pastures. You swear the windmills are responsible for cornfields that ripple –flag-like– across the land. The grasshoppers that mussed your windshield are nowhere to be seen; butterflies now flit in their stead. Midwestern religiosity is no longer inexplicable. You feel very close to God.
The Writer’s Workshop is located in Dey House, an Italianate-style home on the banks of the Iowa River. Outfitted with heavy double-doors that suggest authority and reassuring permanence, it’s hard not to liken the Dey House to a fortress, or at the very least, a homestead on the old frontier. It’s true that the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was the first to offer graduate degrees in creative writing. Unlike the many MFA programs that have since followed, the Workshop is old enough to not only have its own history, but its own mythology. There’s Dave’s Foxhead, a dive bar affectionately referred to as “the Fox”, whose umber pews have supported the collective weight of Carver, Vonnegut, Irving, and many more. There’s Mercy Hospital’s red-eyed EMERGENCY sign, inspiration for Denis Johnson’s “Emergency”. On Iowa Avenue, from Clinton to Gilbert Street, there’s a series of bronze panels that announce lines from 49 writers who have ties to Iowa City, a list that includes Wallace Stegner, Flannery O’Connor, and Donald Justice.
Go to any coffee shop in Iowa City —High Ground, just steps away from the Fox. Or Prairie Lights Cafe, on the second floor of the internationally known Prairie Lights Bookstore. Or one of the three Java Houses in Iowa City. Everywhere you’ll see pens committed to paper, fingers dancing over keyboards. If Paris is the City of Love, then Iowa City is surely the City of Literature.
I grew up in Irvine, California —but despite UC Irvine’s prestigious MFA program, I’ve never felt like Irvine was particularly “literary”. In Irvine, you see people rolling bikes into coffeeshops, families with twin strollers, joggers with white earbuds and iPhones strapped to their arms. I’ve lived in New York as well: In New York, you see businessmen speaking into bluetooth earpieces, bleary-eyed MTA employees grabbing a bite before heading underground. What literary culture remains, remains diffuse.
The Workshop understands the role that Iowa City plays in nurturing the 100 or so fiction writers and poets who are enrolled in the Workshop at any given time (there are also dozens of third year, fourth year, and even fifth year students working in some capacity either with or for the Workshop). There’s a hands-off approach to instruction —students take one two-hour workshop a week, and spend the rest of their time sitting in on seminars, attending readings, or going to various social gatherings that take place on any given day of the week.
With nobody watching, it’s possible to go days, weeks, or even months without writing a single word. As with any graduate program, self-discipline is the most important asset a student could possess. This isn’t to say that the Workshop is negligent or distant. On the contrary, workshop instructors come to class well-prepared —student work is always taken seriously, and the level of discourse is higher than any I’ve known. Everyone has seemingly read everything, yet it’s impossible to go a day without adding two or three books to your reading list.
It’s also impossible to avoid the writing life when you’re attending the Workshop, even when you’re not writing. That’s one miracle. Here is another: In the middle of America there exists a place where you’ll spend some of the best years of your life. You don’t need to bring anything. Everything is already here.