Girls – Isn’t That a Kick in the Head: Thoughts about the Iowa Workshop in Season 4

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.



I Think Therefore I’m Ricked – Thoughts

“Rick, the only connection between your unquestionable intelligence and the sickness destroying your family is that everyone in your family, you included, use intelligence to justify sickness. You seem to alternate between viewing your own mind as an unstoppable force and as an inescapable curse.”

  • Dr. Wong (racist name by the way) Episode 3.3 “Pickle Rick”

I just finished a rewatch of Episode 2.3, “Auto-Erotic Assimilation”. Rick tries to kill himself before the end credits and only fails to do so because his self-destructive substance abuse problem renders him unconscious. I love this kind of thing. Palpable irony is something I look for in dark comedy. It needs to hurt a little.

There’s a debate about whether or not Rick and Morty is a worth real critical discussion. One side rejects any philosophical framework, and reduces it to entertainment, placing it alongside Archer and South Park for cultural importance. Maybe it’s because I remember watching Community when I was doing film in community college that I am so offended by the idea that Dan Harmon doesn’t think about humans or why they are the way they are. At best, it’s lazy.

I’ve been thinking about why I have such affection for Rick. In reality, the frothing libertarian with a joint in one hand and an AR-15 in the other is why I avoid Gulf Islands and the far north of BC, but I reject that out of hand as being Rick’s core mentality. What I like about him, aside from my affinity for agents of chaos, is that he himself is such an unreliable narrator. He often refers to his disdain for the “sheep” but it’s no accident that the more-or-less love of his life is actually a hive-mind who values his individuality and then rejects him. Wolf-whistling into the void is Rick Sanchez’s whole raison d’être.

Rick is a paradox of neediness and his own professed nihilism. These days I really do appreciate the desire to invoke the Final Option and erase the messy, flawed, and often categorically hateful human species – though there’s nothing Rick could do to us that we haven’t already done to ourselves. He declares to the entire world every episode that he hates organized society and yet constantly must be within it to feed his addiction of being at odds with his environment. Conflict is his main vice, which drives the narrative engine.

Rick’s need for an audience is the motivation behind his relationship with his family and particularly Morty. Not only does he need Morty’s mediocrity to affirm his own genius, but Morty himself represents innocence that Rick manifestly rejects as important or valuable. If Rick’s worldview is said to be conservative, it is in the denial not only in the worth of improving human civil society, but that human civil society exists in the first place.

The relationship is so crucial because it hints that underneath his brutality, Rick is a desperately lonely entity, and that’s where he and Morty really intersect. Morty is a fuck-up, a reject, a try-hard wannabe whose sole purpose in life is to find acceptance in a world where he has no status or respect. We all knew that kid, and some of us were that kid. Rick may not appreciate that pathos but he’s certainly willing to exploit it.

On a personal level, it’s important to me that Rick is a cartoon. Cartoons have a legacy of being a function of childhood innocence and distraction, of promoting heroic narratives and moral lessons. Rick gives me permission to reject that shining McDonalds commercial version of reality and accept that the admission of imperfection is more truthful than the Good Life image we often choose to project. Even his own declarations of his superiority are exercises in futility – and that’s all craft. Harmon and Roiland, like all good writers, are sadists. They know announcing plans is a good way to hear the gods laugh, and they have no mercy on any of their characters.

What makes me connect with this brooding mentally ill incarnation of human cynicism and moral decay is the fact that he inherently rejects the paramount value of contentment. Unlike Jerry, who is the kind of person who puts a premium on society’s version of success and domestic bliss, Rick obviously gave up on that reality early in the game. He’s constantly looking for the next thrill, the next stimulant, the next quick payoff. His joys are always fleeting and immediate because he has no faith in the future.

Rick is the smartest man in the world, and therefore incapable of happiness – and the futility of his efforts in spite of his advertised disdain just compound that fact. He is destined to remain unresolved, and therefore deserves to be treated as an honest depiction of the human condition. Screw anyone who says otherwise.