A Few Things I Did and Didn’t Do at Iowa

June 24th, 2011

I wrote the piece below for an anthology of essays by University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumni about their experiences at the school. The anthology, called WORD BY WORD, was published this summer by the University of Iowa in connection with the Workshop’s seventy-fifth anniversary. The piece here is somewhat longer than what appears in the anthology.

I wrote one story during my two years at the Workshop. My so-called master’s thesis consisted of that story and a couple of pieces of fiction recycled from my undergraduate days. I don’t blame the Workshop for my failure to be productive. I received nothing but encouragement from teachers and staff. My first year, I was given a plum job at The Iowa Review. (I had little to do as the assistant to T. Coraghessan Boyle, who was the assistant to the fiction editor, Robert Coover. What I remember best about the office is the smell of chlorine that came in the door with Tom, who burned off some of his prodigious energy by swimming.) My second year, I was invited to teach undergraduates (fiction writing, of all things). But these forms of encouragement seemed to only deepen my self-consciousness. I had thoroughgoing case of it; it was oppressive, like some sort of chronic illness. I spent my so-called writing time at my off-campus desk studying the clean sheet of premium bond I’d rolled into my Smith-Corona. Sometimes on that clean sheet I’d retype an opening sentence I’d already typed seven or eight or thirteen times; more often I typed nothing at all. But I was allowed to graduate–after all, I did get A’s in Intensive Italian Grammar and a comp lit course called Dante & Romance Poetry.

Sometimes, during my second year at Iowa, when I was sitting at my off-campus desk that shook almost inspirationally whenever a freight train rolled down the tracks twenty yards to the south, I would think of the fellow Workshop student who had killed himself in the parking lot of the Coralville Fire Department, a student who had written a long story that reminded some of us of Salinger, a student who was a close friend of a college friend of mine (who at parties–or, to be more accurate, gatherings of the stoned–liked to take his pistol out of his saxophone case and moon over it until somebody told him to put it away), a student known to my college friend as Whaleman. Despite my troubles, despite being a washout as a writer, I didn’t think too long about doing what Whaleman had done. I had a girlfriend, I was reading Dante and Proust and Welty, I enjoyed my first morning cigarette and some of those that followed.

I didn’t tell the whole truth when I said that, despite my failure to write anything, I’d received “nothing but” encouragement from my teachers at the Workshop. The exception was a teacher whose fiction I greatly admired and whose approval I sought and to whom I showed the story referred to above and who, on the basis of that story, found little reason to encourage me. He said that my writing was “cute,” the equivalent of Mitzi Gaynor twinkling her pretty nose. (I happened to know who Mitzi Gaynor was; still, she was, even back in 1976, kind of an obscure point of reference, at least for a writing professor.) At the end of his note to me, this teacher wrote, “Do you really want to be a writer?” My sense was that he believed I stood little chance.

Some years later, it occurred to me that the best teachers at Iowa were not those with agendas, not those with outsize classroom egos, not those whose talent for eviscerating the weak often went hand-in-hand (to paraphrase Nabokov) with a fancy prose style. But it may also be true that the teacher who ripped my writing (which had obvious weaknesses, including a tropism for cuteness) lit a kind of fire in me, one of those smoldering dump fires that burn for years. Clearly, it wasn’t the sort of fire that drove me to go back to my desk in my apartment by the railroad tracks and write pages and pages of whatever. I didn’t have any confidence. I was so stuck that I couldn’t even figure out how to get self-pity on the page.

But I did go back to my desk, repeatedly. In fact, one night I skipped a reading by Raymond Carver (whose first book, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, had just come out) in order to sit at my desk and write nothing. I loved those early Carver stories, and I had a hunch even then that not going to hear him was a mistake, if a well-intentioned one. I made a number of mistakes while at Iowa. I got really drunk at what I believe was the first annual Writers’ Workshop Prom (held at a grange post, out in the countryside) and I shouted an obscenity at Vance Bourjaily, a teacher and writer I liked and respected, who (if memory serves) was playing clarinet in the Prom band. I attempted to drive home from this event, but was finally persuaded by my three passengers, two of whom would later write scripts for The Sopranos, to get the fuck out of the driver’s seat. I didn’t attend Whaleman’s funeral or write anybody in his family to say that I thought his Salinger-esque story was very good. I went to a Halloween party (I have some recollection that it was given by Jane Smiley, who had somehow turned herself into a philodendron, but I may be making this up) dressed, if that’s the right term, as a flasher–that is, as an exhibitionist (the same person who was afraid to speak in Workshop classes for fear of exposing his ignorance or general lack of intellectual heft). I wore a raincoat and a hat and sneakers and. . . basketball shorts. I was a fake flasher, an exhibitionist without portfolio, a joke without a punch line.

It was my feeling that a high percentage of the students at the Workshop in the mid-seventies–even some of those who wrote prolifically and with self-assurance–were miserable a lot of the time. This, despite the fact that we were reading good books and having sex with each other and hunting for morels on Vance Bourjaily’s farm and raising pigs. (My classmate, Michelle Huneven, kept pigs on her potter boyfriend’s place in Ely. One night, I was served a part of one named Joey. This didn’t put me off pork, though it did, I admit, focus my attention on what I was eating–a pig whose nose I had petted not long before. What almost did put me off pork–and I realize I am digressing here–were the stories I heard from another Iowa friend, one of those two people who would end up writing scripts for The Sopranos, about his work in a Cedar Rapids meatpacking plant.) Most of us were in our mid-twenties, and we were vain, thin-skinned, competitive, ignorant about life, prone to miseries fantastical and simple. All of us were trying to figure out how to be adults and writers at the same time, not an easy combination to pull off. The fact that the Workshop gave us space (and money and time) to begin to learn how to do that is to its credit.

–Dwight Allen

3 Responses to “A Few Things I Did and Didn’t Do at Iowa”

  1. Judy Goldman Says:

    This piece, about your inadequacies as a writer at Iowa, convinces me of one thing: what a superb writer you are. Beautifully done, Dwight.

  2. jeff skinner Says:

    That gave me quite a case of deja vu, Dwight–even thought I didn’t go to Iowa. I was, however, in the writing program at Columbia at around the same time, and much of what you said about Iowa was also true of Columbia. Just that, instead of rural horrors (”The pigs, the pigs!”) there was a murder every day on Amsterdam Avenue. But the sense of a writer in his twenties that you evoke is wonderfully true and engaging.

  3. Jolene Thoenes Says:

    Very nice Dwight. You made me chuckle and smile. Anyone who’s ever been insecure about who they are (be it writer, or nurse, or whatever..), will appreciate this sincere expression of your vulnerability. Thanks.

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