Three walls of the office of Frank Conroy, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, contain floor-to-ceiling bookcases, and they are completely full. They are filled with the works of the writers who have graduated from this prestigious creative writing and poetry program begun at the University of Iowa in 1936. “The program is the humanities,” says Conroy. “The basis of the humanities is the written word as represented by books and poetry.”
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City was the first creative writing degree program offered at an American university and the first to give thesis credit for creative work in the arts. “It is the oldest program of its kind,” says Conroy.
It is a two-year program in writing, either poetry or prose, that awards participants a master of fine arts and gives them a chance to learn from established writers and poets. The faculty is composed of distinguished writers who have included such literary talents as Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Philip Roth, and John Cheever.
A dozen Pulitzer Prize winners and a number of National Book Award winners have been Workshop graduates. It has produced four of the last five poet laureates. Graduates include Flannery O’Connor, John Irving, Wallace Stegner, Jane Smiley, Andre Dubus, and T.C. Boyle. “The program acts as a magnet,” says Conroy, “drawing a broad spectrum of students from all over the United States and Canada.”
The seeds for the Workshop were planted in 1922 when Carl Seashore, dean of the Graduate College, announced that creative work would be accepted as theses for advanced degrees. After that the School of Letters began offering regular courses in writing in which selected students were tutored by resident and visiting writers. The Workshop became a full-fledged program in 1936, and from the beginning enjoyed a series of distinguished visitors, including Robert Frost, Stephen Vincent Benét, and Robert Penn Warren, who would lecture and stay for several weeks to discuss students’ work.
Since then the program has graduated thousands of writers. “We don’t have an exact count because in the beginning no one kept track and there are no records,” says Conroy.
One of the first students to receive an M.A. in creative writing was Paul Engle. His dissertation was a collection of poems, Worn Earth, for which he won the Yale Younger Poets prize. He became director of the workshop in 1941 and stayed for twenty-five years as the program took shape and grew.
“It is a focused program, like Juilliard,” says Conroy, who is the author of three books, including Stop-Time, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1967. “We read constantly, rereading the classics.” And they write. “They can write anything they want,” says Conroy. “We teach them what we’ve learned as writers.”
The success of the program is evident at the bookstore as a force in American literature. Conroy notes that twenty-five prose students graduated from the program in 2001. “By 2002, seven had serious books of literature in bookstores,” he says. He adds that a recent graduate, Adam Haskell, was just nominated for a National Book Award for his collection of stories, You Are Welcome. “In the face of popular culture, the Workshop helps keep alive literary culture,” he says.
The Workshop gives writers a community of fellow authors and poets to connect with. “Being in a community of writers is half the reason they come here,” says Conroy. “There’s no distraction; it’s a close community. They call each other at two o’clock in the morning to say, ‘You’ve got to hear this stanza I just wrote.’”