Obligatory spoiler disclaimer.
Putting aside my fear of living in the US without the healthcare I depend on, and putting aside the fact that environment contributes tremendously to my creative drive, even I have to admit that if I applied and was offered a place at the Iowa Creative Writing Workshop as an MFA, I would be tempted. For a while.
Really, though? Would I? What could possibly be contained in those walls that I couldn’t find at any program in the English speaking world? Because the Iowa workshop is a standard that has been adopted by my alma mater, probably by the majority of Creative Writing departments at any Canadian or American university. Which makes Iowa less special. Which makes me get Hannah, even as I deplore her antics, even as I root for her anyway.
Yes, she makes a hash out of every single social situation she’s in. Yes, lecturing the other students about the validity of their experiences is a breach of trust and faith. But the truth is, we’re all thinking it. Sitting around the table, looking at each other, some of us are thinking, “You are complete crap. You are a liar, and a pretender, and a derivative, illiterate, incompetent livejournalist with no real scope or recognition of the fact that people have a right to read your work and dislike it.”
A lot of us are thinking that about ourselves. I don’t, but only because it took me that long to realize that the only thing that separates a good writer from a bad one is laziness. Sheer hustle. Once I accepted that, I started turning in lazier content- but more of it.
Watching Hannah engage with the workshop group at Iowa is so familiar to me that it’s heartrending. She can’t even put a name to what she’s looking for because all she really knows is that the process has almost nothing to do with writing. Let me just reiterate that- workshopping has almost nothing to do with writing, except for the person being workshopped a few times a semester, for 20-30 minutes per submission. The rest of what we really do is read, and comment, and read, and comment, and say “I feel like” and “I want to agree with” and “this was problematic.”
That is the purpose of the workshop. I’m not going to deride UBC over the specifics because I know that the administration doesn’t give a damn if having 20 people instead of 10 in a classroom is going to harm the writer’s ability to turn out content, but at a certain point Hannah makes sense to me. Because her mistake is so colossal that it costs her the entire life she left behind, and that life is what makes her the kind of writer she is.
I could probably get into Iowa. I’m not bragging when I say this- I mean only that I could likely accomplish it after a couple years’ worth of trying. I’m not unique in that I have confidence in my writing. I have control over my voice. I have narrative, poetic and technical skills that I deploy at need, and that is exactly why I choose not to. Because some people can craft beautiful imagery effortlessly, but they can’t tell a damn story to save their lives- and workshop rewards that kind of writing. This kind writing for workshop.
Hannah, and I really love her for this, doesn’t give a damn about writing for the workshop. She writes for herself. I write for myself. It’s not that I don’t think the opinions of others are valuable, it’s that writing programs shouldn’t discourage writers from writing by wrapping their heads up in all this subjective opinion about what they can expect to receive on their semester’s 60-80 pages of submissions while instead training them to give feedback on 800 pages.
In the Iowa scenes, the room is small, with maybe six people at the table. This is an ideal situation, and unrealistic for most writing workshops. Maybe that makes a difference, and perhaps it does, but for my part? I’d run screaming back to New York. I would never have left in the first place. There is nothing that a grad school out in the middle of nowhere can teach me at this point, because the hardest and most important thing is not to turn in perfect pages, but turn in as many of them as you can. I can’t see myself going to grad school anywhere when a detailed rejection would give me the same, if not more value, than a peer workshop.