I thought about naming this post “I Dreamed of Iowa” because I, like many, dreamed of spending 2 sleepless, coffee-infused years writing my imagined masterpiece in that literary Mecca. I say this with all seriousness. I was 40 years old when the dream started. I imagined the little house I would rent, how my husband would commute, the route I would take walking my dog around the campus. I saw myself having cheap drinks with my peers and talking about literature and solving our manuscript problems, wearing all the shades of black. It seemed like every book I read in those days had IOWA stamped in the author bio: This Published Book brought to you by a Graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I longed (yes, Longed) to be destroyed by Frank Conroy. I wanted to sit in awe, in an uncomfortable wood chair, before Canin, McPherson, and Robinson, whose books I paid retail for and read fast because very soon, you know, they would be my teachers.
I got to thinking about all this after reading some recent articles about Creative Writing Programs. Mostly negative articles. You’re shocked, I’m sure. The one that really got me fired up was this one at The Rumpus. Surely the title had something to do with setting me on fire: blowing my load?, ponzi scheme? Give me a break. Then there was the link to this over-long, winding, and PhD-wordy piece in The London Review of Books by Elif Bauman titled “Get a Real Degree” reviewing Mark McGurl’s book about MFA programs. Get a real degree? F-you, I say. Mine is as real as they come.
I’ll post detailed thoughts on my personal MFA experience later this week, but for today I’ll keep it to this. Do I feel “programmed” by The Program? No. Was it perfect, was it the Iowa Mecca I so desperately wanted? No. Do I regret one bit of the 3 years I spent on my palm-tree-lined campus with my teachers and my peers — experimenting, thinking, failing, working? Not one bit.
Unlike the author of the Blowing My Load article above — whose program is ranked #11 in the country — mine is not even in the top 50. I went where my husband, the money-maker, got a job. I didn’t have choices. But I ended up in a great place. I feel lucky. Where else but grad school for the MFA would I have had the chance to focus that much, to learn up-close from visiting writers/speakers like Dorothy Allison, ZZ Packer, Salman Rushdie, Junot Diaz?
Finally, at the end of the “Get a Real Degree” article, after I’ve spent half an hour swimming against the riptide of all the rhetoric, Bauman finally makes a statement I agree with.
“In the greater scheme, of course, the creative writing programme is not one of the evils of the world. It’s a successful, self-sufficient economy, making teachers, students and university administrators happy. As for literature, it will be neither made nor broken by the programme, which is doubtless as incapable of ruining a good writer as of transforming a bad one. That said, the fact that the programme isn’t a slaughterhouse doesn’t mean we should celebrate, or condone, its worst features. Why can’t the programme be better than it is? Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves? Why can’t it at least try?”
Do I still wonder what Iowa would have been like? Sure I do. A dream’s a dream, right? I can’t imagine changing anything of my last 3 years, but still … I might have to order the sweatshirt in the picture. And sleep in it.