Ethan Canin (1960) was born in Michigan, but spent his childhood in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California, all places his family moved for his father’s work as a musician. After graduating with a degree in English from Stanford University, where he had originally pursued a major in mechanical engineering, Canin came directly to the Writers Workshop, earning his MFA in 1984. At that point, realizing how difficult it would be to earn a living as a writer, he decided to become a doctor. He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1994 and began his medical residency at the University of California San Francisco. Halfway through his residency, Canin decided to leave medicine and return to writing. With two friends, he founded the San Francisco Writers Grotto, now a thriving community of writers, journalists, and filmmakers. In 1997, he returned to Iowa City as a visiting lecturer at the Workshop and the following year was hired as a member of the permanent faculty.
Highly regarded as both a novelist and a short story writer, Canin is the author of six books of fiction, including the novels America America, Carry Me Across the Water, and For Kings and Planets, and the story collections The Palace Thief and Emperor of the Air, a debut that brought him wide acclaim. That first collection was awarded a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, an honor Canin shares with such writers as Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Bishop, and Philip Roth. His second collection The Palace Thief, a group of four novellas, earned him the California Book Award and nominations for the International IMPAC-Dublin Literary Award and the PEN West Book Prize. His 2008 novel America America was also nominated for the IMPAC-Dublin prize. All of his books have been national bestsellers and widely translated. Canin’s short stories have appeared not only in such publications as The Atlantic, Esquire, The Paris Review, Granta, and The New Yorker, but also in dozens of anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction and The Houghton Mifflin Anthology of Short Fiction. They have also been the basis for four movies, including “The Emperor’s Club,” starring Kevin Kline, and “Beautiful Ohio,” starring William Hurt.
In 1999, Canin was selected by The New Yorker as one of “Twenty Writers for the New Millennium” and by Granta for its list of “Best Young American Novelists.” Among his other honors are the Henfield-Transatlantic Review Prize, an Ingram-Merrill Foundation Fellowship, the Lyndhurst Prize, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Currently the F. Wendell Miller Professor of English at the Writers’ Workshop, he is also a literary advisor to the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. He and his wife, Barbara, have three children and split their time between Iowa City and the woods of northern Michigan.
Smallness and Invention; Or, What I Learned at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
This essay originally appeared in The Eleventh Draft, an anthology of writers’ reflections on craft and the writing life, edited by former Iowa Writers’ Workshop director Frank Conroy. Canin tells the story of what brought him to Iowa and how the lessons of his experience here didn’t become clear until later.
TOO YOUNG TO BE COMING TO IOWA
I came to the Iowa Writers’ workshop in August of 1982, having driven across the country in a '67 Mustang hardtop that was gradually becoming a convertible. The stitching was coming out in the roof upholstery, and huge panels of it hung down inside the car like shades, which I pinned up again with safety pins so that I could see out the windows. I was 22 years old. I had bought the Mustang with money I had received that year from Redbook Magazine for a story I had written in a writing class at Stanford University, where until June I had been an undergraduate. I was too young to be coming to Iowa.
I didn't know it at the time. At the time it seemed like an adventure, not just to be moving to an unheard-of place a thousand miles from any ocean – people laughed when I told them: they said "Io-wa?" – but to be pursuing what had come to me in a late-night romantic reverie as my true calling. I had started out college as a mechanical engineering major, had taken physics and math classes for my first two years before idly stumbling one day onto the collected stories of John Cheever, a thick red paperback book that changed my life. Perhaps it was the normal maturation of a brain, but suddenly as a sophomore in college I decided that the fixity of engineering, the precision and derivability that had so drawn me as an eighteen-year-old, was now limiting. I wanted a field in which nobody, not even the experts, knew anything. This field, I understood, was writing.
Well, perhaps it was not writing but literature. That year in a required lecture course I had read Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, Freud's Civilization and its Discontents, and Gide's The Immoralist, books I would never in ten lifetimes have read on my own. Yet all of them had captured me with the power of their assertions –assertions that, most fascinating of all, seemed un-provable. Here were dark claims about the human soul, put forward with no basis at all except hunch, and here was I, trained in the rigor of mathematical proof and logical progression, absolutely seized with the truth – or at least the possibility of truth – of what was before me. Flipping through the Engineering section of the course catalog one day I wandered forward a single page to English. There I found a course: creative writing.
WHAT THE BIG RED BOOK TAUGHT ME
A few weeks later I sat down on my first day and watched our instructor, who rumor had it was a published writer, twist rubber bands over his hands until his knuckles turned white. The students around me were a different sort – many looked sad, somehow dissipated in their features, uniformly poorly dressed, the way I hadn't seen anyone look in my engineering courses. I had been reading the Cheever stories every night before sleep, and in my narrow dormitory bed had exalted in his prose.
Her smile, her naked shoulder had begun to trouble the indecipherable shapes and symbols that are the touchstones of desire, and the light from the lamp seemed to brighten and give off heat and shed that unaccountable complacency, that benevolence, that the spring sunlight brings to all kinds of fatigue and despair. Desire for her delighted and confused him. Here it was, here it all was, and the shine of the gold seemed to him then to be all around her arms. The Pot of Gold,” from The Stories of John CheeverHere it was for me, too, here it all was – reading until early morning while across the room my roommate snored his plain old snores. I felt every night that in my hands was the key to another world.
How could I justify such softness? An engineer, a student who had always disdained the lack of rigor outside the sciences? In my creative writing class I decided that I would write like John Cheever, that I would seek those elongated phrases, those elided leaps into the world of ardor and transcendence and unearthed human longing that shone in his stories like gems beneath a stream. Here was the chance to unbridle myself of the rigor I had loved and, only now, I realized, had also always wanted to shed. How far superior this raw emotion seemed to me. How much more profound and complex a truth. Exultant from my reading, I sat down and wrote a story.
It was dismal. My teacher grimaced when he handed it back to me. It contained elements of Cheever, elements of James Joyce’s “Araby,” which I had read that year as well, and elements of Gide – a maudlin poem in prose celebrating the unlocked door to the human spirit. My teacher wrote, “Perhaps you should give us a few details.”
Perhaps, indeed. I was wounded, but went back to Cheever. There again I found rejuvenation, found his unbridled emotion electrifying:
. . . It seemed then to be a sense of pride, an aureole of lightness and valor, a kind of crown. He seemed to hold the crown up to scrutiny and what did he find? Was it merely some ancient fear of Daddy’s razor strap and Mummy’s scowl, some childish subservience to the bullying world? He well know his instincts to be rowdy, abundant, and indiscreet and had he allowed the world and all its tongues to impose upon him some structure of transparent values for the convenience of a conservative economy, an established church, and a bellicose army and navy? He seemed to hold the crown, hold it up into the light, it seemed made of light and what it seemed to mean was the genuine and tonic taste of exaltation and grief.
“The World of Apples,” from The Stories of John Cheever. With that emotion coursing through me again, I sat down and wrote another story. Again dismal. It was pure emotion, I see now when I look at it, a story at a fever pitch from the opening words. Handing it back, my teacher grimaced again.AN ENGINEER LOOKS AT WRITING
So I went back one more time to Cheever. This time I looked more closely at how he wrote. Perhaps such a reflex for analysis was a remnant of what I had learned in my engineering classes, that even the most complex motion could be understood when broken into its component vectors. I began typing out some of Cheever’s great paragraphs. I simply sat down and typed:
. . . Alice strode to the door, opened it, and went out. A woman came in, a stranger looking for the toilet. Laura lighted a cigarette and waited in the bedroom for about ten minutes before she went back to the party. The Holinsheds had gone. She got a drink and sat down and tried to talk, but she couldn’t keep her mind on what she was saying.
The hunt, the search for money that had seemed to her natural, amiable, and fair when they first committed themselves to it, now seemed like a hazardous and piratical voyage. She had thought, earlier in the evening, of the missing. She thought now of the missing again. Adversity and failure accounted for more than half of them, as if beneath the amenities in the pretty room a keen race were in progress, in which the loser’s forfeits were extreme. Laura felt cold. She picked the ice out of her drink with her fingers and put it in a flower vase, but the whiskey didn’t warm her. She asked Ralph to take her home.
“The Pot of Gold,” from The Stories of John Cheever
In my own development as a writer, I suppose this was as important an exercise as I have ever performed.
I discovered two things: first, that Cheever’s great, epiphanic leaps were almost invariably preceded (and followed, it turned out) by paragraphs that accumulated small, accurate detail. Initially, this seemed like a profoundly important discovery to me. I could absolutely engage the fever pitch of emotion that had seduced me into writing in the first place, so long as I balanced it with large amounts of pedestrian observation. I went back to the stories I had written and added detail, surrounded my epiphanies with line after line of small-scale particulars.
But this alone did not make what I’d written much better, and it was here that I made my second, although admittedly in Cheever’s case, unproved discovery: that the progression from detail to epiphany is not a technique used merely for its effect on the reader, but that this method is in fact how a writer discovers his own material.
This changed my writing forever. To put it another way: I had chanced upon the discovery that for the writer it is not moral pondering or grand emotion that are the entrance to a story, but detail and small event. The next story I wrote I started not with the feeling of grandeur that had been my inspiration before, but with a narrowed concentration. I began by imagining a single act: a man going for a swim in San Francisco Bay. I didn't start with any message in mind; I didn't start with any climactic emotions swirling around me; I just started with the swim. And what I discovered was that as I wrote these details, as I imagined myself striding down to the dirty shore, as I imagined myself plunging into the chilly water, stroking against the hard current, the story itself came to me. And it was not the story I intended. It seemed to be a story that came not from me but from this character, a salty old guy who swam in cold water. And the amazing thing was, by the end, I had actually pitched myself up to the same feverish swirl that had been my old inspiration. The difference was that this time the fever was the result of the story and not the cause. I remember that the story was actually easy to write (perhaps the last one, alas, that I will ever know). And Redbook published it. And I bought myself the Mustang.
After that, I came to Iowa.
I stopped writing. Almost immediately, and almost completely. Why? I think it was because suddenly, now, added to the normal difficulty of invention was the stultifying pressure of observation. Everything I wrote was going to be looked at. For a year and a half I wrote nothing. What a secret I kept, walking around this idyllic Midwestern town, going to readings, talking about literature, meeting with my peers to read their new stories and handing them my old ones, pieces that I’d written in college. I was too young at the time to realize what a gift those two years in Iowa City were, how extravagant I was to waste them, and too young also to feel the unbearable guilt that an older person would have felt at such a wasted opportunity.
THE HIDDEN DOOR OF SMALL EVENT
But not only do we learn in unpredictable ways, we also learn unpredictable things. I didn’t realize then that what I would take away from Iowa was the rudiments of one of the most important skills a writer can learn, a skill that has nothing to do with prose style or pacing or narrative structure, and everything to do with inspiration. A writer’s lifelong battle, I learned that year (although I didn’t know I had learned it till later), is the battle to sustain the imagination, to discover the tricks of habit that allow invention to proceed in the face of conformity. As it turns out, I had to write thirty pages or so just to reach the required length for my thesis. By now, I had come to the end of my final year, and the pressure I felt as I sat down to write was overpowering. Not only did I need to write two stories (and fast), but I needed to write two greatstories. That was actually how I felt sitting down to begin. And I only realize now that this feeling was a close cousin to the old feeling I used to have, the old frenzy of emotion that had been my initial inspiration to write.
Nothing, of course, came of my attempts. I sat frozen at the keys for hours at a time, imagining not only completed stories, but stories already on their swift flight to acclaim. I saw readers moved, as I was, to inexplicable tears. In this manner I wrote four, five, six beginnings. Then I gave up.
As it turns out, the only thing that saved me was the despondency that finally forced me to abandon grandiosity and start once again with small event. A week or two later I sat down, deflated, nearly panicked, and simply tried to write the beginning of a minor episode. I had no idea where the episode would go, but I started by imagining a man whose neighbor wants to cut down his elm tree. Nothing more. No hopes. No messages. No finale.
The only way to circumvent the pressure was to sneak in around it, I discovered, to trick the mind, which so easily runs ecstatically or dismally ahead of itself, onto a path of small invention. That path, it seems to me, is a maze, and the writer is not above it but inside it.
Starting small, I wrote two stories. And I wrote them in a couple of weeks. I had no idea whether they “worked,” as my fellow students might say, but I felt at least that the events in them led one to the next. I felt that way because that was how I had written them, as a follower and not as a leader. I had learned, I now see, to enter the realm of imagination through the hidden door of small event and let the story show itself to me. This was an invaluable lesson, though I had no idea I had learned it at the time. The stories were good enough for my degree, at least, and in May of 1984 I received it, a nearly worthless sheet of black and gold, like earth against corn.
That summer I left Iowa finally and headed west again in the Mustang, windows open to what was now the powerfully nostalgic smell of a Midwestern evening. Just as I hit cruising speed on Highway 80, the roof upholstery popped loose again, flapping down across my vision, and I reached over and tacked it up with the old safety pins. Then I closed the window, pressed the accelerator to the floor, and zoomed down the incline toward Nebraska, headed toward California and the rest of my life. Little had changed, I thought. I had learned nothing in two years. I was deeply discouraged, but in my hidden heart I was also relieved, I think, to know that I did not have inside me what it would take to become a writer, to know that I would not have to follow this most difficult life that I knew then that writing was.
’I'm an old man and I want you to do something for me. Put down your bicycle,’ I said. ‘Put down your bicycle and look up at the stars.’
This quote is from the title story of Canin’s first collection, Emperor of the Air(1988).
In a recent interview, Canin talked about some of what he has learned and some of what he has hoped to impart in his more than a decade of teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Q: What are some of the pleasures of teaching at the Workshop?
A: Teaching forces you to define your own theory of writing. When I say theory, I mean a set of practical dictates that can help a writer construct a formidable piece of work, a work that simultaneously runs the engines of plot, character, language, and idea. Over the course of a career, one learns perhaps a few dozen things about writing. I learn usually about one a year, and often from something a student does, either well or poorly. This in itself is a great boon. But what I truly love about teaching is the chance to be with people who are doing something they care about. Teaching can be miserable if your students don’t care; Workshop students, in general, care deeply.
Q: What do you hope your students learn from you?
A: I hold in highest esteem the kind of knowledge that can produce other knowledge, and that’s what I try to teach my students: the fundamentals of fiction writing that, if allowed to, can guide the construction of something as complex as a novel, in the way that basic knowledge of loads and forces can guide the construction of a cathedral.
Q: How has the Workshop changed in the 25 years since you were here as a student?
A: I remember my own student days here as being rancorous, competitive, and filled with disappointment and doubt. I look out at my students today and they present to me faces of energy, enthusiasm, and writerly camaraderie. I must remind myself that little, probably, has actually changed.
Q: Is there anything you miss about the old days?
A: The springtime pig roasts out at a place we called “the Workshop farm.”
Interview by Jill Owens
Some thoughts about Iowa, Canin’s theory of fiction and his views of experimental writing are revealed in this 2008 interview posted on the Powells.com website during the summer that his most recent novel, America America, was published.
Jill: What is something that no one has asked you about this book yet that you'd be interested to have readers know?
Canin: You leave certain clues around. I think it's a book you might have to read twice to pick up all the clues. There are some answers to the mysteries in the book, but it certainly takes a second reading. I've always loved books that you get more out of on a second reading.
Jill: I've read it twice now, and I would definitely put this book in that category.
Canin: It's very gratifying to hear that. I've always admired the work of Alice Munro, partly because I know that the more I read it, the more I get out of it. Whereas there is some confusing fiction which, when you read it again, you get even more confused. There's very little art or discipline or organization behind it.
William Gass once wrote an essay about experimental fiction that I really like. It talks about experiment as a true scientific idea, meaning you made a hypothesis and you tried it to see if it was working. For a long time, experimental fiction has been synonymous with senseless fiction, but I believe in experimentation.
For example, in these last two novels, America America and Carry Me across the Water, I was experimenting with how you jump forward and backward in time. I have my own theories about it. When there's a break between scenes, I think you shouldn't go from 2:00 on Monday until 3:00 on Monday. You can go from June 1948 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to September 1990 in Brooklyn.
I think the moment of disorientation and then reorientation is actually really gratifying for a reader. At least, that's what I've always found when I read. The cost of it for some readers is going to be some confusion, but I think the gratification of it, to me at least, is worth it. Being disoriented, discombobulated, and then reoriented.
Jill: I think that's one of the pleasures of fiction generally, the initial disorientation of someone else's vision and then reorientation into it.
Canin: Exactly. It's the reader's version of the writer's empathic jump.
For the complete interview:
From Poets & Writers
Profile by Kevin Nance
This profile came out in July 2008, just before Canin’s most recent novel, America America, was published. In the interview he talks about the process of bringing a character into being.
"A tremendous amount of language that is untouched—sort of clamped by reason—I try to unclamp that a bit by getting into the character," Canin says. "I try to teach my students, ‘Don't write about a character. That never works. Be that character, and then write your own story.' And that's sort of a fundamental rule or truth in fiction writing. Deeply imagine somebody else, and then everything else takes care of itself. Otherwise it's paralyzing. Questions students ask, like, ‘Where should I start the story?' are answered by that. You are that person, so where would that person start it? Anyway, I try to get to that state where it's half unhinged, to see what results. I think [about] the point where I became half unhinged, especially after September 11, and that's when the book started working. But it takes a lot out of you."
This news of Canin's battle fatigue may come as a surprise to his readers, but it's familiar to his friends and former students. "It sounds in keeping with what he always said about the frustrations of being a writer—chiefly that it's a slog that's unending," says Nam Le, a 2005 alumnus of Canin's class and author of The Boat, a short story collection published by Knopf in May . "It's a very unique and unremitting type of pain to write a novel, and he expressed and communicated that quite often. That's not to say there aren't incredible pleasures and satisfactions or that he didn't inspire us to keep going through all the troubles. But he was never shy about expressing the fact that, in his mind, writing wasn't always, in the moment, pleasurable."
Bret Anthony Johnston, the author of the story collection Corpus Christi (Random House, 2004), who was a student at Iowa in 2002 and has since become a friend of Canin's, thinks his old mentor is merely being honest. "I think most writers feel the way he does, and that doubt is what fuels our best writing," Johnston says. "Ethan is very rare in that he speaks candidly, where many other writers try to obfuscate their real feelings. We're all a braid of self-doubt and bravado, and Ethan is just more honest about it than most. I, for one, don't believe for a second that this will be his last book. If I have to go over to his house and drag him to his desk every day, I'll be happy to do that."
For the complete profile: Poets and Writers
From L.A. Weekly
Interview by Michelle Huneven
This interview appeared just after Canin’s third novel, Carry Me Across the Water, was published in 2001. Canin and Huneven met in person for the first time this spring when Huneven taught at the Workshop as a visiting lecturer.
MH: Your main character is a 78-year-old Jewish immigrant approaching the end of his life. How did you come to write about such a person?
EC: Kleinman came in from a group of scenes: the old guy refusing to put up his airplane-seat back; the tycoon working as a bagger; the capitalist buying art because, strangely, almost across generations, it moved him. The voice is an amalgam of the voices of my childhood, old Jewish men who knew the rules of the world – rag salesmen reincarnated in postwar America – but men who still stopped on the street to listen to a violin sonata coming from an open window: the sacred and profane of New World Jewry. Recently, my wife asked me what was in my head in putting the Japanese soldier’s cave letter up on Kleinman’s wall, and I told her that Kleinman has a gentle soul hidden in fear behind the fierce one. He’s betrayed another gentle, aesthetic soul – the Japanese soldier’s – who had hoped that the GI to discover him would be like-minded. Well, he was; but fear – and thus fierceness – triumphed. And as Kleinman grows older, he grows less afraid – there’s less to lose. Thus, near death, the gentleness can re-emerge from behind the fierceness.
MH: The title is haunting and rather mysterious: Where is it from?
EC: My feeling about titles is that they should add to the mystery, deepen it, if you will, rather than answer anything. If a book or a story is solved by its title, it’s too simple a work. That said, the title came to me while I was playing a spiritual on the piano for my kids – I think it‘s called “Shenandoah.” It’s a heartbreaking song, and my guess is that it’s a slave’s song about deliverance. Kleinman doesn‘t need a deliverance, exactly, but perhaps he needs something to ease his passage to the other side.
MH: How do you view and create characters in general, and how did you go about writing Kleinman in particular?
EC: Writing is an exercise in empathy. . . . It was easy enough for me to become Kleinman. I prefer what some writers call a close point of view. Diction that is the diction of the character. Observation that is the thought of the character. This kind of writing allows the leap of imagination – the becoming of the character. In grad programs, point of view is discussed at great length, and finding POV switches is a ritual hunt. But I don‘t care about POV breaks or switches in any sense other than that they are often symptoms of a writer who is not deeply enough imagining character. The issue of how to create character on a page is one I can and do discuss all the time in class, but it’s still enigmatic to me. One truth that I always teach is that when a narrator observes another character, it is the narrator who is most deeply characterized. But all this is the trivia of the mechanics of writing. The key, I think, is to love your characters, the bad ones too.
For the complete interview:
Novels by Ethan Canin
America America (2008)
Carry Me Across the Water (2001)
For Kings and Planets (1998)
Blue River (1991)
Collections of Stories and Novellas by Ethan Canin
The Palace Thief (1993)
Emperor of the Air (1988)
For Ethan Canin’s website, go to: http://www.ethancanin.com/
Text: Barbara Canin
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