- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 7, 2011

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Inside the 154-year-old Victorian home that houses the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, you won’t see many Amazon Kindles. Twitter is viewed as a potentially disastrous distraction. And you can even anger an instructor for mentioning Google in your writing.

At a time when so much has changed in the publishing industry, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious creative-writing program embraces tradition. And why not? For more than seven decades, the nation’s best young fiction writers and poets have escaped from life to spend two years in Iowa City writing, reading, hearing criticism of their work and meeting lifelong trusted readers. And that formula continues to have success helping top-notch writers develop their craft.

The program, which has helped train everyone from Flannery O’Connor to Michael Cunningham and T.C. Boyle, remains a powerhouse in American literature as it turns 75 this week. To mark the milestone, hundreds of alumni are coming back to campus in what amounts to an all-star gathering of writers who have breathed the air in Iowa City and that of its once-smoky bars.

Even in a town where it is not uncommon to bump into award-winning writers at the grocery store, the reunion is creating tremendous buzz. Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award recipients and MacArthur Foundation “geniuses” will be among the hundreds of workshop alums in attendance. One of the program’s star faculty members, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Marilynne Robinson, is kicking off the events on Thursday with a public speech about the workshop.


Mr. Cunningham, who wrote “The Hours,” will speak with other authors at a public event Saturday. Mr. Boyle, 2010 Pulitzer fiction winner Paul Harding, author Denis Johnson and dozens more will participate in smaller panel events Friday and Saturday addressing topics such as “What makes literature immortal?” and “The writer as outsider.”

“It will be great to see all these legends of the program,” Arna Hemenway, 23, who just completed his first year in the workshop, says during a break from working on a novel in a library filled with thousands of books written by alums. Mr. Hemenway says he feels a bond with those who have gone through before him: “You’re toiling under the same sort of magical, strange, impossible thing.”

Those returning will find a program quite similar to the one they knew. Admission remains extremely competitive: The workshop received 1,600 applications last year for just 25 fiction writing and 25 poetry slots. Students take literature seminars from award-winning authors and poets who make up the faculty. In workshops, they take turns handing in stories and poems to be intensely critiqued by classmates and instructors.

Students continue writing and discussing the word at all hours of the day in some of the same bookstores, bars and coffee shops that have long populated this college town. Even the quirky, decades-old tradition of having fiction writers play the poets in a softball game at the end of the spring semester continues (and a similar game is scheduled for Sunday).

“I would say that in some ways our program hasn’t changed,” says Lan Samantha Chang, the author who has directed the program since 2006. “It’s true that we’ve gone from way back when, when people would stand up and read their stories out loud to an auditorium to share their work, to mimeographs to photocopies, but basically the emphasis on writing remains the same here. The focus on writing, apart from the industry and apart from whatever kinds of media are used to carry away the product of what we do here, remains.”

Ms. Chang says her role as director is like “being a caretaker of the program” and making sure its best parts are preserved.

At the same time, the program has changed in many ways. Ms. Chang, the first woman and Asian-American to lead the program, shattered its image as an old boys’ club after succeeding the late Frank Conroy. The workshop’s accommodations are much nicer than in the past: The Dey House has been renovated to connect to a library that includes 3,500 books written by alums, and students now meet in conference rooms with splendid views of the woods along the Iowa River.

Ms. Chang is praised for raising more money for financial aid so students aren’t competing - as much as in the sometimes cutthroat past - over limited funding.

Eric Simonoff, co-head of the book department at the WME talent agency, applauds the Iowa workshop. His agency represents four of the six Iowa grads the New Yorker listed in last year’s compilation of the best 20 writers under age 40.

“I think it still has a very significant contribution to make to American letters,” he says, noting that because of good funding, those accepted into the program receive scholarships to cover their tuition.

Ms. Chang, who spends every January and February poring over boxes and boxes of manuscripts, says she has also worked to enhance the diversity of the types of writers who are admitted.

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