I DON’T REMEMBER WHEN I first heard of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, though I do remember the first time I lied to seem more impressive. I was six-years-old at the Jewish Public Library in Montréal, as was my childhood ritual. The library was a short walk away from the duplex I lived in facing a park. My older cousin was there—he was, very impressively, seven years old and a boy.
I went up to the counter and checked out a book about cars. “This is for a project,” I lied to the librarian, unprompted. “I’m in the third grade.”
I remember that moment clearly because I still get the same feeling when I enter libraries, the sense of being transported—or at least the possibility of it. Browsing the stacks, I’m awed by the endless access to other ways of being. I love the idea that I could be another type of person if I put in the effort. I’m pulled equally towards the great unreads like War and Peace and the illustrated guides to sewing, knitting, and crocheting. If I wanted to I could become a competent gardener, part time mystic, hobby historian, or at the very least a person who understands their own taxes.
Twenty years ago I suppose the type of person I wanted to be was older and more impressive, subversively into cars instead of—what? Horses, ballet? The Olsen twins? It seemed important to have a serious project to work on, and my cousin’s bed was shaped like a racecar. Needless to say he outed me immediately; I don’t think I had the heart to even flip through the book on cars before returning it, knowing the librarian knew I was a fraud.
I’m not quite sure why this memory feels tied to where I am now. It has something to do with the idea of “impressiveness,” surely. Yet in an audacious turn of events, I don’t feel like a fraud at one of the most celebrated writing programs in North America. I certainly don’t feel uniquely gifted, either. Think of a precocious first grader attempting to masquerade as an automotive-loving third grader (and here I should mention that both my parents don’t drive), then think of what little difference there is between a six-year-old and an eight-year-old in the grand scheme of things.
So it’s not out of some self-satisfied modesty that I feel hesitant back home when people ask me where I’ve been most of the year, or when friends want to know if the program is really the way it’s portrayed on HBO. It’s out of knowing that there’s no huge difference between the talent and merit of a writer accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a writer accepted to, say, the University of Guelph (where I’ve been once rejected and once waitlisted). There’s only the right mix of perseverance and good fortune that eventually finds your work in front of the right reader at the right time.
I would have been just as proud if I’d gotten into the MA program at the University of Toronto (also rejected), yet worse off financially which of course means worse off mental health-wise. Though I admit I do enjoy this unique brand of being taken seriously—a feeling it seems I’ve been searching for my entire life. The successes I’ve experienced are no fluke, yet in many ways I’m still a first grade fraud who likes having a project. I don’t take myself as seriously as I take my work and there’s always the library.
What’s the difference, I wonder, between ritual and routine? “Ritual” has religious connotations and an implied ceremoniousness that I find embarrassing, the same way I used to find the solemn songs and the monotone call-and-response in church embarrassing yet still felt left out when all the other fifth graders got their Confirmation and I did not, having just moved cities and schools after my parents divorced (and here I should mention that divorce is: A Sin).
Routine, however, is the ultimate comfort. I love me some routine. Using the word routine in a sentence, the dictionary offers: “I settled down into a routine of work and sleep.” I’ve never felt more seen. I’ve been trying to settle down into a routine of work and sleep my entire life. I can regularly be heard claiming that “I just need to get into the right routine” as if that will drastically improve every aspect of my being. Despite knowing better, I’m fascinated by other writer’s routines as if they’ll provide me with some sort of keystone.
One of the first shocks to my system in Iowa was the overabundance of the former and the sheer lack of the latter. The second shock was how nothing ever changed.
This summer back in Toronto was a complete dream in part because I was able to, for a few sweet months, completely reprise my pre-MFA routine. I moved back into the same room in the same apartment with the same best friend. I took back the same job on a flexible three-month contract. I went to the reading series’ I loved and missed, browsed used bookstores, and caught up with friends that I wish I was in a better habit of catching up with.
During one such catch-up over buck-a-shuck oysters (praise be), a friend asked if I’d read the new story in The New Yorker about a grad student in a creative writing MFA. I hadn’t but was intrigued. She described the story a little and I asked her to send me the link.
I read the story, “Show Don’t Tell” by Curtis Sittenfeld, absolutely riveted. It’s a really interesting portrayal of gender, exploring the rigid parameters of what constitutes a successful career and how misogyny and the sexist notion of ‘women’s fiction’ pervade writing communities. But in addition to all that—it’s Iowa! It is so Iowa that I forgot that nowhere in the story does it ever explicitly say that it’s Iowa. By the second paragraph the narrator has literally described my apartment, “a ten-minute walk from campus…on the second floor of a small, crappy Dutch Colonial, on the same street as a bunch of sororities and the co-op.” It’s my co-op! My second floor Dutch Colonial apartment!
I can’t help but get a kick out of the fact that various portrayals of my grad school experience reach such established platforms, the same way I was obsessed with observing my babyhood caught on tape when I watched home videos as a kid. Suffice it to say, someone should have installed some kind of software that kicked me off the internet every time I tried to re-watch the Iowa Writers’ Workshop episodes of Girls after I’d been accepted.
Maybe it’s because I never in a million years imagined being here, in a place rooted in the cultural imagination—in this writing program, in the United States, not a chill baby anymore but a person in her “late twenties.” As someone who struggles to live in the present and not 5 to 10 years in the future, I’d somehow stopped imagining myself aging beyond the Everywhere Legal age of 21.
Ruthie, the narrator in Sittenfeld’s story, is 25—the same age as me when I started the program. But the story takes place in 1998, almost two decades ago. This is where I run into some discomfort. The customs and rituals of this place are virtually unchanging, from the days that workshops are held on, to the bars people go to afterwards, right down to the week in March when students receive their funding offers in the mail. If it weren’t stated outright in the story, I would have assumed it was set today and not twenty years ago.
I don’t know if it makes sense to feel unsettled by this, but sometimes I find myself low-key unsettled. The architecture of celebrated MFA programs like Iowa reinforces the forward-propelling notion that we are part of a lauded and historied trajectory of literary production, while also providing a feeling of quaint timelessness and suspension. Considering the dark and deranged global moment we’re currently occupying, it’s a multipronged sense of unnerve. The fierce preservation of processes, procedures, and customs all around me simply amplifies the great existential arbitrariness of it all.
On a lighter note, I feel as if I’m missing something quintessentially American re: “laurels,” “pride,” “patriotism,” “tradition,” and “the passing of the baton.” Like a good Canadian I feel sort of sorry about it.
I maintain that MFA writing is the opposite of its institution—pleasurably unfixed. Do people still think that MFA programs crank out homogeneous, immediately recognizable types of writing? Readers would have a harder time identifying non-MFA fiction (if for the sole reason that the majority of writers now hold MFAs). I can’t bear to check in with Google, but I’m inclined to say that the discourse has moved beyond this gripe. Not that I’m any expert on “discourse,” and on top of that I’m a poet. Everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. There are no market demands because there is no market. I’m constantly reminded of this fact during the Workshop’s relatively frequent literary agent visits for the fiction cohort.
For example, Yaa Gyasi was accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2012. By 2015, in her mid twenties, she’d finished her novel and had an agent who sold Homegoing to Knopf for a seven-figure advance. Before Gyasi, Tony Tulathimutte attended the Workshop from 2010 to 2012 and published Private Citizens in 2016 with William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins). It was promptly named one of the best books of the year by all the usual suspects. I loved the book, yet it was a fabulous shock to my delicate sensibilities that Tulathimutte was invited on NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers to talk about it. Workshop alumna Jenny Zhang just published her short story collection Sour Heart with Lena Dunham’s Lenny imprint at Random House, and so on.
I find the successes of these vibrant new voices otherworldly yet heartening in the same way I found Alexander Chee’s essay “My Parade” heartening when I first read it. Chee describes applying to writing programs “as a cynic, submitting a story that included explicitly gay sex, psychic powers, and the occult,” as a rebellious assertion of his identity that he refused to bulldoze over. Like many, Chee initially envisioned the MFA program (with Iowa as its main cog) as “a machine that strips away all originality,” where the “people who enter [look] like themselves and emerge like the writerly version of Barbie dolls, plastic and smooth and saleable, an army of American minimalists.” To his surprise, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop embraced his “freak” self with a considerable funding offer.
Considering the stakes, especially for fiction writers, especially for fiction writers in prestigious American MFA programs, there are surely outside forces that push certain pens in more marketable directions. More than just the heightened access to agents and book deals and (sometimes serious) cash-money, what actually floors me is the access to… what? Relevancy beyond-the-bubble?
Regardless, back inside the bubble, writing programs are so incredibly valuable because they offer room for our ideas, voices, styles, and whims to stew in the big delicious crockpot called Time. It tastes better than scarfing down deli meat straight from the fridge between various financial anxieties, apartment hunts, job searches, and freelance gigs, though we must all return to the glow of that fridge eventually.
To return to “Show Don’t Tell,” Sittenfeld gave a short interview to The New Yorker about the story. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is, again, not specifically referenced (except in relation to a novel by Eric Bennett). It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it didn’t feel like an elephant in the room, as someone on the inside. Sittenfeld says she only decided to “put [Ruthie] in a writing program for the first draft, just as a place-holder, with a plan of subsequently scraping away all references to writing,” but admits to soon realizing that the story couldn’t be about anything else. She also says that she’s not a huge fan of “writing-program fiction,” but then goes on to call herself “robustly hypocritical,” so fair enough. I like her.
But then the interviewer mentions the “time period” of the story, noting that there’s something “nostalgic about the setting” because, among other things, students are “waiting by their mailboxes for letters and not for e-mails.” To which Sittenfeld responds:
You’ve actually answered this question for me. If one of the unresolved plot points is what kind of funding Ruthie has received, it’s a lot easier for it to remain unresolved if she doesn’t have a cell phone (or can’t, say, leave the party, check her mail, then Uber back across the river).
It was at this point that I actually doubted the Iowa connection. If the story is actually based on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, wouldn’t Sittenfeld know that she needn’t set the scene in 1998 for her plot points to remain unresolved? Iowa City just got Uber in 2016. I received my funding offer by mail the same week Ruthie did in the story and then had to go speak to someone in person to accept (bonus: the “program associate” I had to speak to is the same one Alexander Chee speaks to when he receives his acceptance in “My Parade”). Dare I remind you that the mail originated from a location that I frequent almost daily and is a ten-minute walk away from my apartment?
I don’t think it’s any great spoiler to reveal that, thanks to some quick Wikipedia action, I discovered that Curtis Sittenfeld did graduate from Iowa. Though I was wary about why she skirts mentioning the writing program by name, especially after describing it in extremely recognizable detail, it’s just sort of struck me—there’s actually no real reason for her to know that the program is operating the same way it did when she graduated 20 years ago. I mean, right?
In all likelihood she’s continued on with her career publishing books, leaving the fossils of those years behind in that sacred chunk of amber we call nostalgia.
The pros of being part of being seemingly fixed in time is the fact that everything is still analog. The poster, flyer, and photocopier industries are thriving. It feels nice to have a personal mailbox and a class cubby. I’ve rebooted my love for nice pens, pencils, markers, and highlighters. The Midwest seems to promote the crafting spirit in me and I’ve designed many elaborate and colourful birthday cards. Everyone prints out stories and poems, and laptops are generally out of sight in workshops and seminars. It seems the specific set of processes and procedures that make up the monolith of the program along with its tactility have set the stage for a heightened sense of innovation among students. Perhaps I’m able to view it in such a positive light because I opt-out of certain rituals (I have not built my experience around the sort of competitive friendships and “torrid love affairs” that Ruthie has in Sittenfeld’s story, for example).
For one of my first poetry workshops in Iowa someone submitted drawings and handwritten text that reminded me of Daniel Johnston, bill bissett, and a gifted yet troubled toddler. It’s—dare I say it—fun to observe and engage with all the weird and wildly different stuff my classmates are up to. I feel sort of honoured. One is not always lucky enough to enjoy the same sundry experience reading a literary journal, perusing a publishing catalogue, or attending an award ceremony, which can all feel quite uniform. Someone writes oddball persona poems that are maddeningly self-referential, include footnotes, and yet are inexplicably hilarious. There are New Formalists and Ashbery fanboys/girls and at least one feminist cyberpunk. I learned about the dustbowl and a lot of new American history.
So I come back to Chee’s metaphor of the “Barbie dolls, plastic and smooth and saleable.” If anything, that might refer more aptly to the ritual sense of preservation, the inherited cultural moors, and the somewhat standardized, white experience of the writing program. It’s the writers who inhabit the dollhouse that briefly animate it with a sense of possibility and then go on to create new spaces in their communities that are fluid and constantly reevaluating.
As Ruthie knows by the end of the story and twenty years after her grad school experience, people are writers by the “way they inhabit the world, the way they observe it”—not the MFA vs NYC world, not the literary or academic world, and not a world perfumed by nostalgia and ritual that people hope to extend beyond two years of grad school. It’s that perfect and unglamourous writerly world you can taste, touch, or create for yourself at the Jewish Public Library.
 Though MFA programs are seeped in toxic whiteness, it can be exciting to experience the successes of Gyasi, Tulathimutte, and Chee, alongside their program-poet counterparts Terrence Hayes, Ocean Vuong, Kaveh Akbar, and others. At a glance I can get behind the sentiment that writing programs have a “more overt interest in cultural pluralism,” as Chad Harbach puts it, compared to the publishing world where “it still avails one to be a white guy in NYC.”
 Yet Safiya Sinclair’s recent interview with The Rumpus, talking about being the only black poet in both years of her MFA at the University of Virginia and having to endure encountering the Robert E. Lee statue and other “historic” slavery monuments in Charlottesville, is not only topical and horrific but also reckons with the actual state of affairs within the academy. It’s no haven. Listen to a roundtable discussion of Sinclair’s incredible poetry collection Cannibal on The Rusty Toque’s On the Line podcast.
Domenica Martinello, from Montréal, was a finalist for the 2017 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. She is completing an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and her debut collection of poetry, All Day I Dream About Sirens, is forthcoming.