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In Defiance of Iowa and Samantha Chang

by Michael Neff

DISCLAIMER: the aim of this article is not to defame, it is to challenge the Iowa notion that an imaginary genetic pre-disposition is necessary before a writer can ever be defined as a really good writer, and secondly, to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that a writer does not have to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop in order to learn to write really well.


"I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit."   
                                                                                       - John Steinbeck

"I feel that if I just brought them [her students] into the room and fed them chicken soup they would get better any way."   
                                                                                       - Samantha Chang

"I felt the years go by without accomplishment. Occasionally I wrote a short story that no one bought. I called myself a writer though I had no true subject matter. Yet from time to time I sat at a table and wrote, although it took years for my work to impress me."nbsp;

                                                                                       - Bernard Malamud 

"The elements that go into making a great writer are completely mysterious and nobody knows what they really are."   
                                                                                       - Samantha Chang

"Much discussion has centered on the means by which Fitzgerald, in the three years between the publication of  The Beautiful and Damned  and 1925 made the artistic leap necessary for the creation of his finest novel, The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald himself partially credited his technical experimentation with point of view to his having read Joseph Conrad's preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus  and the evolution in his thinking about western civilization to his exposure to Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West."

                                                                                       - Bryant Mangum (VCU 1998)

"The elements that go into making a great writer are completely mysterious and nobody knows what they really are."   

                                                                                       - Samantha Chang

"Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is."   

                                                                                       - Willa Cather



With curious mind and proper sense as both motivation and filter, just an hour or two on Google will demonstrate to you beyond any doubt that the greatest writers, poets and authors of all time struggled with their work, and it took them many years of toil and rewriting and experimentation, learning their craft and trade, before they stepped ever so lightly into the mainstream literary consciousness. And yet, if we examine the logic and philosophy of Samantha Chang above, if we listen carefully and blink in disbelief a few times, we hear her telling us just the opposite, that really good writers are simply born to be really good writers. They are BORN to it, and by inference perhaps, she and the Iowa Writers Workshop staff are among the best at deciding who is born to it and who is not.

So who is Samantha Chang anyway? 


She is the director and primary spokesperson for the Iowa Writers Workshop, the most expensive, famous, and perpetually praised college writing program in the U.S.-- a program that many other college programs have attempted to emulate for decades. Samantha and Iowa's motto: Writing Cannot Be Taught. Samantha has won loads of awards and fellowships from many of the usual places that cater to those in the academic club. She's been on a fast track you might say, and she might tell you no one has ever taught her a thing that has ever helped her grow as a writer. Note I said, she might tell you. But will you believe it? Perhaps. One wonders first of all if Samantha actually believes herself born to the literary gold. It's hard to know (though the video above seems to infer it). But if you read the two and three-star reviews in Amazon, i.e., those not written by friends or students (only 18 reviews total), the PM review, and then a bit of her novel (her opening paragraph below), you might question whether or not the born-to-the-gold status is true or simply all in her mind:
In Chang's hands, the world of poetry is a cliche; instead of a novel, she delivers a case study of the modern poet with little bearing in reality and characters as one-dimensional as the premise. While the language is well crafted, readers may be disappointed by the lack of quality storytelling. 
                                                                            - Publisher's Weekly

This is one of the worst PW reviews I've ever read, but perhaps this reviewer has a chip on the shoulder re the Iowa Writers Workshop? Perhaps the three-star reviewers and the two-star do also? It's possible. And now, Samantha's opening paragraph of her last novel, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost.




In all fairness, portions of Samantha Chang's prose demonstrate improvement over the paragraph above, and we do see show-don't-tell scenery as the novel progresses, so you can't judge the bulk of the novel based on above. But going on what I know so far, and after having dipped into her novel, I see a writer who, like so many, is struggling to define her voice, and who obviously has a lot to learn about craft. If I am accurate in my assessment of Samantha Chang's literary life graph, I would have to say that becoming a writer of literary gold is still a potential in her case, but she was not born to it. And who is? Back to the simple Google searching I noted above that proves no one is born to it. However, I do believe Samantha Chang can transcend the total sum of her current limitations and one day become a great writer, and I believe that potential lies not only with Amanda, but with the tens of thousands of writers who never attended Iowa. 


13 Students in One Samantha Chang Workshop?
And while we're at it, why do writers theoretically born to be great writers need to spend $80,000 to go to a program like the Iowa Writers Workshop whose motto is Writing Can't Be Taught? Why must they listen to a roomful of varying opinions from twentysomething gold borns recruited by Iowa much less putz around with Samantha Chang who thinks they would be just as well off if she simply skipped "teaching" and served them chicken soup? Emily Brontë and William Faulkner are great writers... or are they? After all, they didn't attend Iowa. And what about the likes of Ray Bradbury and Agatha Christie? Well, not sure if they count at all since they're genre writers. I don't believe Iowa and Samantha would have admitted them (it's a dirty little semi-secret that commercial genre writers are shunned by Iowa academics).

The primal God of the Iowa Writers Workshop Frank Conroy (God rest his soul), stated for the record that writing could not be taught. Frank's mantra waxed to universal in academic MFA and creative writing settings, and it resonates still today. From as far back as 1989, a note about Frank:

Conroy concedes the validity of one criticism of writing schools -- that which says writing can`t be taught -- but asserts it is beside the point. "You don't make a writer the way you make a lawyer," he says. "It's a situation in which you can save young writers a tremendous amount of time in learning nuts-and-bolts technical things."
Yes, who needs to learn those "nuts and bolts" anyway? Indeed, on the Iowa Writers Workshop web page, you read the basic philosophical statement:
"Accordingly, the fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us. We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country, in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged."
The Iowa assumption though is based, in large part, on the alleged existence of a nebulous and indefinable thing known as "talent" (see Samantha utterance above). But this assumption is not supportable in any demonstrable manner. For example, the brain skills, experience and tenacity required to write successful commercial novels, in any genre, are far beyond even the most brilliant of child geniuses. As all published authors know, the tortoise wins in the commercial novel race. 99% perspiration is what matters. Even if "talent" exists, it performs precious little function when all is said and done, regardless of Iowa viewpoint and chest beating ego to the contrary.
The Iowa Writers Workshop, therefore, unlike the Juilliard School of Music, is not so much a center of learning as it is a warehouse of collectibles.
The Iowa Writers Workshop, therefore, unlike the Juilliard School of Music, is not so much a center of learning as it is a warehouse of collectibles. Its reputation is so stellar that it only has to reach out and pluck those who have already been taught to write prior to Iowa, those who have written ambitiously for many years. The advantages to Iowa's elite collection program is obvious. The better the writers they allow in via their screening process, the better odds that a meaningful percent of them will struggle on to become published writers, thereby lending credibility to a program that denies the possibility of teaching anyone a thing. Make no mistake. There are no Eliza Doolittles in Iowa awaiting transformation, only young writers whose trajectory was ordained even before their destiny as future Iowa alums. 

One does have a vision though of Iowa students whispering arcane secrets of craft at midnight behind closed doors, playing Harry Potter-like, teaching one another something wonderful and magical about writing until the dictatorship of the institution cajoles them by morning light into once more assuming the obligatory Conroy personality.

After all, Samantha might be stalking the halls, sans soup.

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