IOWA CITY, Iowa — This picturesque town of rolling hills smack dab in the middle of the corn and hog belt is a writers' town--a sort of literary pulse point through which almost every American novelist, short story writer and poet passes.
Fifty years ago Edward J. O'Brien of the "Best Short Stories" annuals declared Iowa City the "Athens of America" and noted that the nation's "literary geographic center" had shifted west to this small university and farm community more than a thousand miles from the publishing houses of New York.
This is where Flannery O'Connor wrote "Wise Blood," where Tennessee Williams earned a D+ in drama, where Philip Roth wrote "Letting Go" and John Irving penned his best seller, "The World According to Garp."
"It is just one of the weirdest things that in the United States our first writers' workshop would be in the middle of Iowa," said poet Robert Bly, winner of the 1968 National Book Award. Bly was graduated 30 years ago from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the magnet that for half a century has attracted writers of note and anonymity.
Over Memorial Day weekend, they returned--close to 400 graduates and former teachers back to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, the nation's first and, many say, best program to award a graduate degree for creative writing.
And it was a reunion to see and be seen--where current students eyed their idols and former students and teachers sought out old friends and looked over the competition.
'Like Seeing Movie Stars'
"To me it's like seeing movie stars. I look around this room and I can see five people whose faces I know from book covers," said Robin Reagler, who was graduated this month from the workshop.
They returned also to pay homage to Iowa-born poet Paul Engle, 78, director from 1941 to 1965 and guiding genius of the program, who scouted young talent and pioneered the idea of hiring practicing writers as teachers.
"I recruited writing talent the way football coaches recruit quarterbacks," Engle said. And in his 24 years as director he assembled an awe-inspiring team of literary all-stars.
"Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever, Philip Roth, W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Penn Warren and Kurt Vonnegut taught or studied here. I never made a distinction between students and teachers," he added, "because we were all in this awful writing business together."
John Leggett, a novelist and former editor who has directed the workshop for the past 16 years, feels far less easy pointing out the program's "literary lights."
"I get attached to the students that aren't very successful and I suffer with them over their lives," he said. He empathizes with writers who "almost always live with rejection and the feeling they're imposters--that the only people accepted are the Irvings and Vonneguts."
As it has for the last 50 years, the workshop above all emphasizes writing.
"We make it very hard to get in (only one in 10 applicants is admitted) and once they get in we leave them alone," Leggett said. "The only thing students are meant to do is spend two years working on a novel or a collection of stories or poems."
"You don't learn or teach something substantive at the workshop. It isn't a course with a subject," said John Irving, who wrote his first novel as a student under Vonnegut's tutelage and later taught here. Irving, who said he avoids "events," was not in Iowa for the festivities.
"Iowa gives you two years to write and someone to read your manuscripts," Irving said in a telephone interview. "That's it. It's not like going to law school. Writing is a gamble."
And--from a career standpoint--it's a bet most students are destined to lose.
Few fiction writers--and probably no poets--to come out of the program make a living exclusively as a writer. Many end up teaching. Others go into publishing, advertising, television or fields entirely unrelated to writing.
Michael Carey, a 1978 poetry graduate, runs a farm in southwest Iowa. In winter, he tours the state teaching poetry for the Iowa Arts Council.
"My best student from last year is pumping gas in Oakland," said prize-winning poet Jorie Graham, a graduate of the workshop who now teaches there.
"Virtually everybody's going to fail," Vonnegut, who taught at Iowa in the mid-'60s, said from his New York home. "If you ran a school of pharmacy like that it would be a scandal. But people (in the workshop) are willing to take the risk."
What students are given, at base, is two years to figure out whether they can write and whether they have the temperament to do so.
Students who demonstrate no promise don't have to be told that they're not going to be writers, Leggett said. They can "read it in the eyes" of their teachers and peers who assess their work in weekly sessions.