In creative writing circles, the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa is known as the writer's Mecca. Why? Because it's the top-ranked Master of Fine Arts (creative writing) program in the United States. Because it is the oldest creative writing program in the States – the program officially kicked off in 1936, but creative writing has in fact been taught at the University of Iowa as early as the 1890s. Because graduates of the program have won 17 Pulitzer Prizes (most recently Paul Harding in 2010 for Tinkers), and the program's alumni includes the likes of Tennessee Williams, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, John Cheever and Kurt Vonnegut.
The first time I heard about the Iowa Writers' Workshop was through Vietnamese-Australian writer Nam Le. On the recommendation of a friend, I read his debut book of short stories, The Boat (2008), which was a New York Times bestseller. The opening story, "Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice", was based on his time as an MFA student at the workshop. Although in some ways the least polished story in the collection, it was also undoubtedly my favourite: raw and passionate and vivid and perplexing – exactly what great writing is all about. It was also a window into the world of a student at the workshop: riddled with creative self-doubt, fuelled by alcohol, hampered by writer's block and dogged by looming deadlines. At the end of the story I knew I wanted my own taste of the program.
What I hadn't expected was for it to happen so soon. Trawling the workshop's website, I noticed they were offering a special 3-week summer session in May 2011. Realising it was my chance to take part without committing to a 2-year master program, I sent off my application form with the required 2-3 samples of my fiction writing and a list of all the creative writing courses I had taken in the past (there were many).
To my delight, about 4 weeks later I received an email saying I had been accepted into the course. First and foremost, being accepted was a huge confidence boost, which is something all writers need from time to time. Although, having worked as a journalist for a number of years, I've had numerous pieces of non-fiction published, I've never had a piece of fiction published. There are far fewer publishing opportunities for fiction writers, and so it's much more competitive than non-fiction. As a result I was never sure whether my fiction was any good. But because the Iowa Writers' Workshop follows the belief that "writing can't be taught, but writers can be encouraged", I finally had the confirmation I'd craved: I at least had a glimmer of talent, however tiny.
The next 6 weeks before the start of the course set a flurry of documents and panicked phone calls by me into motion. First I had to organise my past academic transcripts to be sent by alma mater universities in Australia to the University of Iowa. Then, as a prospective international student, I had to visit my doctor and have the results of a pathology test sent to the University of Iowa to prove I didn't have measles, mumps or rubella. Iowa told me that after my arrival I would have to have a chest x-ray to prove I didn't have tuberculosis (still haven't had this done yet – fingers crossed). Then I was told that I needed health insurance, and that travel insurance wouldn't cut it. Luckily the university offers students health insurance which is only about $120 a month.
One major hurdle for prospective international students is getting a visa to enrol in the course. Although, as an Australian, I am allowed to enter the States on a 90-day visa waiver, I am not allowed to study at a university on a visa waiver. Iowa informed me the cost of a J1 student visa would be $2500. Obviously, for a 3-week course this wouldn't be worth it. But after digging deeper, I discovered I would be able to enter on an I-visa (for members of the foreign media) I possessed that was still current (I had this visa as a few years previously I worked in New York for an Australian magazine). I would be allowed to take short non-degree courses at universities in the States on this visa. Phew!
The cost of the 3-week course itself is not prohibitive. It is roughly $1100 in total (for 2 semester hours – I still haven't figured out what this means). As a summer course, the curriculum does not seem demanding. We will be meeting twice a week for three hours at a time, and over the course of the six meetings each participant is expected to share their writing and critique everyone else's.
My first class takes place tomorrow, and, in true writer style, it is 3am and I am busy updating my blog when I should really be polishing my fiction in preparation for the class!
For those interested in reading more about the course, here are a few links I found helpful:
A New Yorker piece about creative writing workshops and the Iowa Writers' Workshop in particular (www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2009/06/08/090608crat_atlarge_menand?currentPage=all)
A blog by current poetry student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop Stephanie Goehring (http://boxfordcourt.blogspot.com/2011/02/life-at-iowa-writers-workshop-according.html)
A transcript of a short PBS News documentary commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and an interview with director Lan Samantha Chang (www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/jan-june11/iowawriters_04-07.html)
I gratefully acknowledge the funding I received from the Copyright Agency Limited (www.copyright.com.au) that allowed me to attend the Iowa Writer's Workshop Graduate Summer Program Special May Session in Fiction.