A Different Island & the CIA in Iowa City

I fell down twice on my walk.

“Are you okay?”

It’s just snow.

I was, however, upset that my coffee cup splatted into the snow.  Plus yellowish snow–we’re talking dog pee–suddenly covered the lid.

So there I was with a disgusting cup of coffee to get rid of.  I tossed it in the trash can at the coffeehouse.

When I fell down again while punching the button on a traffic light, I was miserable.  It’s just snow and ice but I’ve had enough of it.  I decided to go off my diet.  I’ve been dieting since November, not so I’ll lose weight, which is impossible, but so I won’t gain 10 pounds this winter.  So I bought a malt cup at the Git ‘n’ Go, and at the counter we talked about our favorite ways of eating malt cups.  I use a spoon.  Someone said she let hers melt and drank it.

At home I told my husband I had fallen down and was sick of living in the Midwest and wanted immediately to take a vacation and get away from winter.

I wailed, “Why am I going to England?  Why aren’t I going to an island?”

“You are going to an island.  Just the wrong island.”

And it is quite possible he’s right.

Next year, a different island.

BECAUSE I’M FROM IOWA CITY..

I recently read the article,  “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, by Eric D. Bennett, an Iowa MFA, author of a forthcoming book called Workshops of Empire.  The subhead says, “With CIA help, writers were enlisted to battle both Communism and eggheaded abstraction. The damage to writing lingers.”

A quote on the "Literary Walk" in Iowa City

A quote on the “Literary Walk” in Iowa City

Growing up in Iowa City, we were proud of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first MFA program in the nation, founded in 1936.  Whenever Kurt Vonnegut or John Irving or John Cheever or anybody who taught there published a book, there were big displays of the books in the window of Iowa Book and Supply.

As undergraduates at the University of Iowa my husband and I both took Fiction Writing multiple times (a fun, easy 3-credit course that could be repeated indefinitely).  One of the T.A.’s, T. Coraghessan Boyle, became famous, though most were never heard of again.  (What happened to Sara and Nancy?)  And I did take a course from Arturo Vivante, a doctor and fiction writer who seemed stunned and despairing to find himself teaching a summer course to undergraduates.  He was especially hard on two high school English teachers who were taking the course to learn to teach creative writing.

Am I surprised to learn that the CIA funded the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s International Writing Program during the Cold War?  I would be more surprised if it hadn’t.

Call me psychic, but I sometimes joke about how all the writers in Iowa are “locked up” at the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City.  I mean “locked up” in a lot of ways:  taught, controlled, and spit out into a network.

In the article Bennett talks a lot about the styles of writing that are encouraged and are not at Iowa.  He preferred Ethan Canin’s style to that of Marilynne Robinson and the late Frank Conroy, whom he deemed cold.

He writes,

At Iowa, you were disappointed by the reduced form of intellectual engagement you found there and the narrow definition of what counted as “literary.” The workshop was like a muffin tin you poured the batter of your dreams into. You entered with something undefined and tantalizingly protean and left with muffins. You really believe this. But you can also see yourself clearly enough: unpublished, ambitious, obscure, ponderous. In short, the kind of person who writes a dissertation.

My husband and I are laughing at this.  Muffin tins?  If they could get us all to write the same way, wouldn’t the world be a merry place?  Then we wouldn’t need workshops.

To write a whole book on this seems, well, perhaps revenge?

Perhaps the book is better than the article.

3 thoughts on “A Different Island & the CIA in Iowa City

  1. If the CIA funded the workshop, that means it was politically controlled: who got in, what they eventually developed for publication. I agree whole-heartedly about workshops, and would add only that they are attended by those networking for a career. The writers learn to write what publishers want.

    Much better off in some grotty flat in London if you can find the funds (remember Woolf’s 500 pounds a year unearned income …)

  2. Carol, I’m not going QUITE yet, but I may have to look into the wellies situation. I know you’ve been having flooding–awful!

    Ellen, Iowa City is a cultural center for the Midwest, and people do come from all over the world to attend the Workshop, so it seems obvious that organizations like the CIA would use this. (I don’t approve, but it’s what they do, right?) Flannery O’Connor, Eleanor Catton, Raymond Carver, Thisbe Nissen: all these writers came out of the workshop, and they’re very different. It is sad to think that creative writing could be “controlled” by the CIA, or perhaps the people are just observed. I wonder what percentage of people do make it as writers? I know two or three T.A.s who were pretty good, publishing in little magazines, and then…silence. They never published books.

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