Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Demystifying the Writing Workshop Ideal

When in the dark night of my literary soul I sometimes wonder, what if I had gotten into Iowa? I console myself with this thought: I might have gotten into Iowa if I had tried, later (in other words, if I applied now). I know I have the confidence for it now. But it’s a stupid question. Still, I often wonder what I’ve missed for opportunity for having not gone to a “better” school. Is all of my praise of my school something like the kid who is happy on Christmas morning with the particular shape of his lump of coal?

With these things it can seem like sour grapes. But I don’t think I’ve failed to exceed even my own initially meager expectations, so why look back with anything resembling regret now?

At Iowa, they must insistently focus on getting their writers’ work placed--a clear commercial approach that really had nothing to do with where I went for my MFA. There it was almost a defiantly anti-commercial, as if it was shameful to aspire to literary success.

In equal ways I’m resentful of my prior unsuccessful attempts to get into good MFA programs (by good I mean, perhaps the top ten on the US News listing), and yet glad I ended up with the experience I did. Likewise, with those Stegner people--I think about a former colleague applying every year and wonder when he’ll just start trying to write better and do what he can to get his work published. I don’t admire his blind persistence (to be a Stegner, or not to be, that is the question) because it assumes that lottery quality of it. Yet is the fact that a Fellow who has produced nothing but mediocre novels, and got in the year I last applied, make me wonder if in fact it isn’t unlike a lottery?

And yet if it is a lottery, I’d sometimes much prefer the odds of having gotten it; yet what does it say for all of the successful Iowa grads I admire I can think of an equal number whose work fails to excite (not only me, but the book world public,) and whom must have initially been greeted with the kind of bated breath and expectation befitting a Nobel candidate?

This all comes from someone who looks at himself as exceptional, of course, though probably not in ways that most people care. I consider that what I’ve been able to produce has been exceptional, and for whatever reason I didn’t have the grades, the pedigree, or the proper ass sniffing tolerance to get into an Iowa. I certainly dashed expectations of my imminent failure when I got accepted into the University of Michigan architecture program and became one of the sort of elect there--and I didn’t work nearly hard enough at what I should have then. And I’ve been floating on my U of M laurels ever since.

Maybe the question isn’t, is Iowa great? so much as, can Iowa open doors? Absolutely.

Just the tenor of these Kevin Brockmeier notes makes me believe Iowa is a cut above. The impression I have is that apparently all of these writers get publication contracts out the door--so it’s pure prestige to go to these programs. And knowing now what I do, I might have tried harder to get in. Because once you get in, that’s where you will forever be associated, besides all of the connections you will make in a good program, all of the opportunities to advance, and the name of the school you will forever talk about.

If someone says it doesn’t matter where you go to school, guess again.

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