Writing at Iowa

The University of Iowa’s tradition of great writing originates in its early and enduring commitment to the creative arts. Under the leadership of Carl Seashore in 1922, Iowa became the first university in the United States to accept creative projects as theses for advanced degrees. Traditionally, graduate study culminates in the writing of a scholarly thesis, but, under this new provision, works including a collection of poems, a musical composition, or a series of paintings could be presented to the Graduate College instead. Thus, Iowa established a standard for the Master of Fine Arts degree and secured a place for writers and artists in the academy.

Paul Engle with Writers' Workshop students, ca. 1957

The University of Iowa’s writing community flourished in the wake of this commitment to the arts. Though creative writing coursework was offered at Iowa as early as 1897, the curriculum expanded and diversified in the 1920s. Writers came from all over the country to enroll in courses in playwriting, fiction, and poetry writing.

A new method for the study of writing emerged in these classes: the writing workshop. In a writing workshop, a senior writer leads a discussion about a work written by a member of the class; workshop students share impressions, advice, and analysis. As Paul Engle, director of the Writers’ Workshop and founder of the International Writing Program, observed: “the students benefited greatly from hearing a variety of attitudes toward their work. It was like publishing then being reviewed.” Workshop students receive honest and immediate feedback about their writing and become better critics of their own work. Many also discover the sympathetic but critical readers who they will turn to throughout their careers.

 

Kurt Vonnegut at Iowa, circa 1966

The Program in Creative Writing, known worldwide as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was founded in 1936 with the gathering together of writers from the poetry and fiction workshops. It was the first creative writing program in the country, and it became the prototype for more than 300 writing programs, many of which were founded by Workshop alumni. The Workshop remains the most prestigious creative writing program in the country and one of the most selective graduate programs of any kind, typically admitting fewer than five percent of its applicants.

Since its establishment, the Workshop has been the cornerstone of the writing community at the University of Iowa. In its early years, the program enjoyed a series of distinguished visitors, such as Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell. Workshop students met with early success in publishing their work; thus began what Workshop director Frank Conroy would describe as the Workshop’s “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Talented writers teach and study here; this compels more to come and do the same. Iowa's perennial society of writers has grown considerably since the early days of the Workshop; this community has been a dynamic and sustaining force for growth and change. The logic of the “self-fulfilling prophecy” applies at an institutional level, as well as the individual. The University of Iowa set an early precedent for innovation in the study and practice of writing. This precedent created an environment where further advances, including the following, are possible, and likely:

 

Iowa City
The Writers' Workshop meets on lawn of Old Capitol, circa 194-.

 

  • Students and faculty in UI writing programs collaborate with International Writing Program writers to translate new works of poetry and fiction in English.
  • Each summer, students and alumni of the Writers’ Workshop mentor a new generation of authors at the Young Writers’ Studio, a summer camp for gifted high school-aged writers from around the country.
  • The Iowa New Play Festival, the most ambitious festival of new student work in the country, premieres the production of a new student script each night for a week, with responses from guest artists from the professional theater world.
  • Students from a variety of programs explore and create interpretations of print and print culture by studying book arts in the UI Center for the Book.
  • In 2005, the Nonfiction Writing Program organized “NonfictionNow,” a conference to explore the state of nonfiction writing. The next NonfictionNow conference is planned for fall, 2007.
  • The Patient Voice Project, created in 2005 by students at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and Arts Share, offers creative writing classes to chronically ill hospital patients.

Iowa’s tradition of writing has been guided by the principle that, though writing is a solitary practice, it’s one significantly enriched by the presence of other writers. As Paul Engle wrote, “Our plan gives the writer a place where he can be himself, confronting the hazards and hopes of his own talent, and at the same time he can measure his capacity against a variety of others.” Through the years, some of the best writers in the world have come here to deepen their understanding of the craft of writing. Since 1939, 40 individuals with ties to the University of Iowa have been awarded Pulitzer Prizes; four recent U.S. Poet Laureates have been either students or faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 2006, Orhan Pamuk, a 1985 fellow of the International Writing Program, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. While the UI has been host to many award-winning authors, Iowa is known as The Writing University because countless numbers of writers at varying stages in their development have found a literary home here. High school students can study writing at the Young Writers’ Studio, and over 1,500 writers each year participate in over 130 workshops at the Summer Writing Festival. The departments of English, Journalism, Theater, and Cinema and Comparative Literature offer writing classes to undergraduates, and Iowa’s graduate programs in playwriting, nonfiction, translation, and journalism are some of the best in the country. The Writers’ Workshop is the country’s oldest and most celebrated graduate program in creative writing, and the International Writing Program hosts accomplished writers from around the world each fall. The following timeline provides an overview of important dates in the history of writing at Iowa. For more information about the writers who have taught and studied at Iowa, please visit the Authors & Awards page. A directory of all of the writing programs, as well as programs affiliated with writing at Iowa, is available from the Programs page.
Timeline
1897 The University of Iowa offered its first creative writing class, Verse-Making, in the spring semester.

 

1922 The University of Iowa became the first in the United States to accept creative projects as theses for advanced degrees. 1936 The Iowa Writers’ Workshop was established under the leadership of Wilbur Schramm.

1943 After his tenure at Workshop, Schramm revolutionized the study of journalism as director of the UI’s School of Journalism. He introduced coursework in multimedia journalism and established the nation's first doctoral program in mass communication.

1945 In 1945, Schramm created the Typography Laboratory, which became an important factor in the resurgence of fine printing and small press publishing in the United States. In 1986, the Laboratory was re-inaugurated as the UI Center for the Book, now an innovative interdisciplinary program in book arts and book history.

1941-1966 Under Paul Engle’s leadership, the Writers’ Workshop flourished and became a significant force in American letters. Engle actively recruited students from around the country and the world.

1962 The Workshop offered the first Translation Workshop in the country. Paul Engle and his wife Hualing Nieh Engle pioneered a “tandem method” where the author and translator co-author the translated work.

1967 Paul Engle and Hualing Nieh Engle founded the International Writing Program, an international writing residency program. Since its founding, the IWP has hosted almost 1,100 writers from more than 120 countries.

1968 Performance artist Hans Breder instituted the country’s first masters program in new media arts and literature.

1971 After a long tradition of the study of playwriting in the UI Theatre Department, the Iowa Playwrights Workshop was formally established.

1974 Scholar and translator Gayatri Spivak founded the MFA in Translation in the department of Comparative Literature.

1976 The English Department approved the “M.A. in English With Emphasis on Expository Writing,” which evolved to become the Nonfiction Writing Program, a workshop-style M.F.A. program.

1987 The Summer Writing Festival was founded.

1991 WSUI first aired its live radio program, “Live From Prairie Lights.” The show is the only ongoing series of live broadcast literary readings in American radio, featuring writers of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction reading from their work.

2000 The Young Writers’ Studio was founded.

2006 Launch of the Virtual Writing University, an initiative to extend and enhance the University of Iowa’s community of writing with Internet technologies.

 


Picture of Kurt Vonnegut courtesy of Lustbader, Steven. "Complete Kurt Vonnegut Web Page, The." . April 1997.

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