Write of Passage For 75 years, the Iowa Writers' Workshop has been cultivating scribes

Alumni to convene for workshop anniversary

The Program in Creative Writing at The University of Iowa—known informally as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—has been shaping writers for 75 years. To celebrate the milestone, the graduate program is holding an alumni reunion in Iowa City June 9–12. It will include a keynote address, panel discussions, and even a traditional softball game pitting poets against fiction writers. Several of the events will be open to the public.

To learn more and see a reunion schedule, visit iww75th.uiowa.edu.

Related: Watch this PBS NewsHour piece on the workshop’s anniversary.


We know that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the grandfather of the hundreds of creative writing degree programs that have taken root in the United States and around the world in the last 75 years, and the godfather of the International Writing Program, the University’s unique residency program.

We've all seen the impressive lists of Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, Guggenheim fellowships, and poets laureate affiliated with the UI Graduate College program. We know the seminal role the workshop played in the designation of Iowa City as a UNESCO City of Literature.

We have also heard—from both within and outside the institution—that the Writers’ Workshop does not really teach anyone to write. So what does it do? Is it mysterious or mundane? What made it not just an innovative idea in the cornfields but an enduring and influential institution whose name usually is preceded by “prestigious” or “world-famous”?

Here is just a sampling of recollections, assessments, and testimonials from writers who have attended or taught in the workshop:

“Good poets, like good hybrid corn, are both born and made. Right criticism can speed up the maturing process of a poet by years. More than that, tough and detailed criticism of a young writer can help him become his own shrewd critic...The writer finds that the students around him are alert to his faults and quick to praise his virtues. In brief, he is, while practicing a completely private art, reassured by a sense of community which gives him a decent regard.”

Paul Engle
Former workshop director (1941–65) and founder of the International Writing Program

“The three writers I was fortunate enough to study with at Iowa—Vance (Bourjaily), John Cheever, and Vance’s former student, John Irving—were all exceptionally generous and supportive. And that’s what a young writer needs to feed his addiction—the kind of praise and gentle criticism that leads to a wider ratification. Yes, you begin to think, ‘I am a writer after all. Not just in the little world I came from, but in the big world, too.’”

T.C. Boyle (MFA ’74, PhD ’77)
Author of World’s End, The Road to Wellville, and The Tortilla Curtain

“The workshop has a reputation for cutthroat criticism, and it’s true the commentary became heated at times. But there was never a finer group of souls assembled than those I was privileged to work with. We supported each other even while we dismantled each other.”

Karen Stolz (MFA ’82)
Author of World of Pies and Fanny and Sue

“Through your classmates, you learn to hear, if not necessarily heed, all criticisms. You learn objectivity, not creativity.”

Tom Grimes (MFA ’91)
Author of City of God and Season’s End and editor of The Workshop: Seven Decades from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

“The workshop never claimed to teach writing; there was no system one could follow, no dogma (unlike medicine) to memorize and hang your hat on. But what the workshop did was give me permission to write, permission to take myself seriously as a writer…I attended many of the parties, drank more than my share, went to all the readings, but for the most part I tried to perfect the attribute I thought best characterized a writer: the discipline of applying my ass to the chair.”

Abraham Verghese (MFA ’91)
Author of My Own Country and Cutting for Stone

“I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to figure out how to buy time. Time is the writer’s most valuable commodity. There aren’t many opportunities that allow you to take a few years off to spend it writing, but an MFA is one of those...My MFA experience helped speed up my development because I had writing professors who pointed out things that might have taken me years to figure out on my own.”

John McNally (MFA ’89)
Author of After the Workshop, Troublemakers, and The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide

“I was always trying to do what my parents wanted me to do. But then I entered a community where nobody told me I’d done the wrong thing. Everyone believed in writing. Writing was the most important thing to everybody there. I was surrounded by peers whose concerns were my own, and who held dear what I held to be the most important thing in the world, which is writing.”

Lan Samantha Chang (MFA ’93)
Workshop director since 2005 and author of Hunger, Inheritance, and All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost

“The gift of the workshop didn’t depend on who our teachers and classmates were. It was a gift of legitimacy. It was a sword touched to the shoulder. It was our license to hunt life, to track and lure it within touch, and then to write our names below its trail through the snow.”

Jonathan Penner (MFA ’66, MA ’72, PhD ’75)
Author of Natural Order and Going Blind

“The workshop, for me, was above all else a singular group of readers and writers, each of whom I respected utterly, all of whom had profound effects on me and my work. I still think about them. I still, in some way, write for them.”

Michael Cunningham (MFA ’80)
Author of The Hours and A Home at the End of the World

“In my 60s, when I taught workshop students…my mistake was not realizing that they were already writers when they arrived in Iowa City. All I had to do was hold their coats while they went at it…Inevitably, I learned more from those students than they learned from me.”

Doris Grumbach
Former workshop faculty member and author of Chamber Music and The Magician’s Girl

“It is the quality of the students more than that of the faculty that makes a good writing program. Students learn from one another, not from the hostile ones of course, but from the two or three whose work they admire and who signal approval with perhaps no more than a nod and brightening of eyes.”

John Leggett
Former workshop director (1969–87) and author of Making Believe and A Daring Young Man

“My friends from then still are my friends. I am so proud of their work. Even now, they are my darling early readers. I'm tempted to rattle through the famous and almost-famous and not-yet-famous names, but that’d be cheap, unfair to who we were before anybody knew us but each other. We were so young that when the phone rang, it was always somebody you wanted to talk to!”

Allan Gurganus (MFA ’75)
Author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and White People

“It has never surprised me that young American writers want to come to the Iowa Workshop. A place to read, write, and talk, a place to test ideas and to experiment. A literary community of some sophistication. Of course they want to come.”

Frank Conroy
Former workshop director (1987–2005) and author of Stop-Time and Body and Soul

compiled by Winston Barclay, from The Eleventh Draft, The Workshop, and Seems Like Old Times
Photo courtesy of Frederick W. Kent Collection of Photographs, University Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries

(pictured from left to right are David Pryce-Jones, R.V. Cassill, Robert Williams, Richard Yates, Paul Engle,
Mark Strand, Eugene K. Garber, George Starbuck, and Frederic Will)

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© The University of Iowa 2009