The capacity to tell stories is an accident of birth for me. I was born thinking this way. There was no point in my life when I did not think about stories and causal events, about humorous and dramatic ways in which events could be told, and about how a blank page could be filled with wonder. If I have wandered far and wide, and been driven, seduced or called away from writing in my life, I have always returned to a string of authorial stepping stones that connects my past with the future before me.
Actually becoming a writer — by which I do not mean a professional, but rather a practicing writer — is a combination of accident and intent. The more things go in your favor, the easier it is to harness gifts and put words to a page. The more things go against you, the more you must overcome. Whatever obstacles I’ve faced in life, I was born with a number of storytelling gifts. I also happened to be born and raised in a town that is home to a school that values fiction writing. That I neither knew nor cared about these things until I went to college is yet more evidence that the fates were being kind.
My Home Town School
By nature I am not a particularly adventurous person. I have tended most of my life to look before I leap, even when others have counseled that he who hesitates is lost. So it should not come as a surprise that when I finally decided to go to college, after considerable academic carnage in my high school career, I had no thought of going anywhere except to the school in my home town. It wouldn’t have mattered what college it was, or what town I had been born in: that’s what I would have done at that point in my life, and probably for a decade after. (It’s true that my grandmother, father, mother, aunt and uncle also went to the same university, but that’s not why I went. I went because it was familiar and close.)
That I was born in and grew up in Iowa City, Iowa, is an accident. That Iowa City is the home of the University of Iowa, which is the home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is also an accident. I planned none of it, yet when I finally decided to wade into storytelling, after more academic carnage in college, the Workshop was there.
Now, if you remember nothing else about this post, please remember this: I do not have an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I have a Bachelors’ degree from Iowa, and all of the following relates to my undergraduate experience. That the process I went through, and even the level of instruction I received, was commensurate with the graduate workshop, is a blessing, not a license. Whatever an MFA is worth or means, I don’t have one.
My Fiction Workshops
When I went to Iowa the undergraduate offerings were pretty much as they are now. The first class I took, Fiction Writing, was a class you simply registered for. After that I submitted stories to the Undergraduate Writers’ Workshop each semester, and was fortunate to be accepted each time I did so.
Here are the people who taught the six workshops I attended over three years:
- Leigh Allison Wilson — MFA student and Flannery O’Conner freak, who would go on to win the Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction the following year.
- Jack Leggett — the director of the Workshop at that time.
- Hilma Wolitzer — an award-winning novelist who just recently dipped her toe in the cyber sea. (Stop by and say hi!)
- Bob Shacochis — a writer’s writer, and at that time the most recent winner of the National Book Award for first fiction.
- Rust Hills — long-time fiction editor of Esquire magazine, and a person about whom I will have more to say in an upcoming post.
- Jack Leggett
Looking back, that’s an absurd list of extremely talented people. To me at the time, however, they were almost ancillary to the process — by which I mean the nightmarish process of risking my ego, identity and life in order to determine whether I had any capacity to tell stories. Because somewhere along the line that became more important to me than anything else.
The Workshop Environment
With all that literary firepower floating around, and with the Workshop’s storied history as a backdrop, you might imagine that I was exposed to all kinds of secret handshakes and rare literary knowledge. You might also imagine that the environs of the Workshop were teeming with publishers and agents looking to scoop up the next award-winning breakout star, and I’m sure there was some of that. At the undergraduate level, however, and even at the graduate level, almost all of the conversations I was privy to were about craft.
And I’m not just talking about the students. Of all the workshop leaders listed above, I cannot remember any of them talking about literary trends or publishing deals or bullet-pointed solutions. There were no classes on pitching ideas or writing query letters or figuring out how to please the gatekeepers of the day. There weren’t even discussions about how hard it is to write, because every single person there — at every level — took that as a given. (There’s no point grousing about the emotional trauma of writing when everyone in the room is going through the same hell.)
So what did all these people talk about? They talked about craft. They talked about the stories that were being workshopped on their own merits, not relative to what anybody else was doing at the time. They talked about whether or not each author hit what they were aiming at, and why that was the case. They talked about how some of what a writer writes comes from a place that no one can control, but once it’s on the page it’s the writer’s responsibility to shape it and make it work harmoniously.
We all wanted to be effortlessly great, but those teachers never talked about writers who were effortlessly great or profound or genius. They talked about editing and cutting and tightening and focusing and killing darlings, because they knew that there never has been, and never will be, a writer who is effortlessly great.
I had a difficult relationship with my father, for reasons I think anyone would understand — chief among them abandonment. After I had been writing in college for several years, and had been in the Undergraduate Workshop for a year or so, I happened to talk with my father about the Workshop and about my interest in fiction writing.
Now, my father had his own history with the University of Iowa, some of which I knew about second-hand through my mother or family friends, but nothing I knew about directly from him. So when he told me that he had been in the Writer’s Workshop himself, back in its early days, I was neither surprised by the fact nor surprised that I had not previously heard about that part of his life.
As we talked it turned out that not only had he been in the workshop, but one of the people in the workshop with him was Flannery O’Conner. It also turned out that Flannery O’Connor was incredibly shy and could not bring herself to read her stories aloud when she put them up — as was then the practice.
My father had been a musician and band leader, and because he had a pretty good voice even then (which only got better with age, and alcohol), it turned out that he was one of the people who read Flannery O’Connor’s stories out loud for her. (I later told this to Leigh Allison Wilson, and I still have an image of her rapt and excited face in my mind. That my father’s story made its way to her — to the one person on the face of the Earth who wanted to hear it more than any other — amazes me to this day.)
Now, interesting as that all is, that’s not the happy accident I wanted to tell you about. The happy accident is the fact that I didn’t learn about any of this until I had already invested myself and tested myself in a number of workshops. Because when I say I didn’t have a good relationship with my father at that time, what I mean is that I didn’t like him and I didn’t want to be like him.
Had I known about his fiction-writing past I almost certainly would have decided not to pursue my own interest. So I will be forever grateful that I knew nothing about my father’s history until I had made storytelling and writing at Iowa my own.
The Limits of Luck
In the end, I feel I took full advantage of the fortunes that befell me. I don’t talk about these experiences much because I didn’t work to put myself in that position. I know a lot of writers — both in spirit and by profession — who never had such advantages, but who would have given anything to take my place, and who would have worked like dogs to get there.
I got lucky, and I know it. What luck didn’t and couldn’t do was write a single word I wrote. And I wrote a lot of words.
So whether the fates are smiling on you on any given day, or throwing obstacles in front of you like a tornado tossing trees, remember that you can always write. Even when you think you can’t write, put a few words down. It will give you a new stepping stone to stand on, and bring another within reach. And you won’t have to lean on luck.
— Mark Barrett