When fiction writer Lan Samantha Chang took the reins of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2006, she returned to a place of great personal significance—a place, she insists, that changed her life.
“Before I came here [as a student], I did not have a community,” says Chang, a 1993 workshop graduate. “One of the things Iowa City does is give emerging writers community and shelter.”
Chang, who penned Inheritance and Hunger after earning an MFA, says she pursued the directorship last held by the late Frank Conroy, in part, to experience that community again firsthand. She recently reflected on her path to becoming a writer, the workshop’s 75th anniversary, and her goals for the top-ranked program.
What is the significance of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop turning 75?
The administrators who approved the first degree for creative work could never have foreseen the influence that the graduates would have upon American letters. Our alumni have included some of America’s most distinguished writers—Flannery O’Connor, James Alan McPherson, John Irving, Wallace Stegner, Rita Dove, Mark Strand, Sandra Cisneros—and our faculty have included Robert Frost, John Berryman, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Cheever.
Our alumni have spread the workshop method of the creative writing process in classes all over the country; in fact, a large percentage of creative writing programs were started by former Iowa people. I think we’ve had tremendous impact on the way that writing is taught and the way that people read and what is written. It’s not been deliberate—we never meant to start such a change—yet it’s really obvious that our program is the mighty oak from which all the acorns have dropped.
How is the workshop marking the anniversary?
A few of my favorite things…
Lunch at Z’Marik’s (my daughter and I go there several times a week), Devotay, and the Hamburg Inn
What I’m reading: Order of Things by Michel Foucault and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn
And my favorite place to write…it’s secret!
We’re having an alumni reunion June 9–12. Several of the events will be open to the public, including an address by Marilynne Robinson on June 9 at the Englert Theatre and a panel discussion at 3:30 p.m. June 11 at Macbride Auditorium, followed by a reception at the Museum of Natural History. We hope this celebration can create a new and wonderful series of conversations that will continue to enrich our community and the lives of writers all over the country.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
When I was 4—I was very interested in children’s books, and spent a lot of time copying them and drawing pictures and making my own books. Because my parents are immigrants from China, they wanted me to pursue something a little more stable for a profession. When a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop came to my high school in Appleton, Wis., I became aware that there was an entire world of writing and reading, and I understood that to participate in that world was a great commitment and challenge. It was probably another dozen years before I took up the challenge, disobeyed my parents, and came to Iowa City as an MFA student.
You have a degree in East Asian studies from Yale and an MPA from Harvard. How did you land at the Writers’ Workshop?
Well, I’d been interested in writing that whole time but I was attempting to fulfill my parents’ wishes that I become a doctor or a lawyer or get a job that provided a secure income. So I went to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to do a two-year Master of Public Administration, thinking that I would get the kind of job where you wear panty hose to work.
It was at the Kennedy School that I realized that writers approach problems in an entirely different way than public policy analysts. An assignment for class, for example, was “Please take this case study of the Detroit debt crisis and write a two-page memo solving the problem.” My way of exploring a problem like that would be to make it much more individual—to describe the problem and its effect on people’s lives. I wasn’t there for very long before I understood that this approach was entirely wrong for public policy, and I had a crisis where I understood that if I didn’t pursue what I really wanted to do in my life that none of it would mean anything. So I started taking creative writing classes and applied here.
What makes Iowa City special for writers?
The size and strength of the peer group as well as the location. This is a high-residence MFA program. Because geographically we are relatively isolated from larger cities, and because there is a rich cultural life in this town, people form a community and bonds that are very intense and, ultimately, creatively generative for many. The friends the students make here will be their writing partners and their readers for life.
Also, the support from the town cannot be underestimated. Iowa City is filled with warm, generous book readers who respect what the students are doing and support their work in a thousand different ways every day, directly and indirectly.
What do you enjoy most in your role as director? What is most challenging?
I enjoy setting the tone for the program—I want it to be constructive and joyful and intense—and the director sets the tone by the way they teach workshop. I like the students to contribute a lot to our discussions. I demand a lot out of them, and they absolutely rise to the task. The students are amazing.
Admissions time is the most stressful, because we get so many applications and there are so few people we can admit. We had more than 1,600 applicants this year [for 50 spots]. It’s a lot of reading—and it means I have to sign a lot of rejection letters. But it’s exciting, too, when you open a folder and start reading and find a voice and sense a person on the other side of the page.
What are your goals for the workshop?
One is to increase aesthetic diversity in fiction to broaden the range of the kinds of writers that come here—people who write different kinds of work—and to keep that diversity. Another is to increase and equalize funding for students. Most important to me is setting that tone for the program, and to keep bringing the best people in the country to Iowa City in the students and in the faculty.
More information on the Writers’ Workshop anniversary celebration is available at iww75th.uiowa.edu.