Writers’ Workshop to celebrate 75 years with visiting authors

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Jane Smiley sat in class in the English and Philosophy Building years ago, striving to learn from the accomplished authors leading her classes at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

“When teachers come, usually they are writers who made a name for themselves, so they have very different styles, and they didn’t really have a theory about teaching,” Smiley said.

Now, Smiley, who received an M.F.A. in 1976 from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, holds a Pulitzer Prize — one of 17 Pulitzer Prize winners to graduate from the program.

And she will be one of 50 writers — Pulitzer Prize winners, Fulbright scholars, and U.S. poet laureates among them — to return to Iowa City June 9 to celebrate the Workshop’s 75th anniversary.

Organizers have been planning the event for a year, and the four-day reunion will include live music, dancing, readings, and even a Sunday morning softball game — “Poets versus Fiction Writers.” PBS’ “Newshour” aired a special on the Workshop’s anniversary on April 7.

“The Iowa Writers’ Workshop 75th Anniversary Reunion will be an event that, we hope, will live up to the Workshop’s extraordinary history and set a course for the future,” said Kelly Smith, a librarian at the Workshop and organizer of the event.

That history includes being the first such program in the country. Since being founded in 1936, it has produced a string of successful authors and attracted a series of accomplished authors to teach.
And officials emphasized the Workshop’s national impact.

“Although they didn’t know it at the time, the writers and university administrators who began offering a degree for a creative theses were changing American literature,” said Writers’ Workshop Director Lan Samantha Chang. “Seventy-five years later, there are more than 800 writing programs in the country, and they all started here.”

The two-year residency program has two Pulitzer Prize-winning faculty members. Paul Harding, who won the 2010 prize for fiction, spent a year as a visiting faulty member in 2009-2010.

Smiley, who also earned a Ph.D. from the UI in 1978 before winning the Pulitzer in 1992, wasn’t accepted the first time she applied to the Workshop. The program only accepts 50 graduate students each year.

But her name is now emblazoned upon a downtown sidewalk as part of Iowa City’s Literary Walk.

“You should desire something ambitious, something big,” Smiley said. “Your desire shapes your actions.”

In 2008, Iowa City was named a “City of Literature” by UNESCO Creative Cities Network, becoming one of three municipalities (at that time — there are now four) in the world with such a distinction.

Jeanette Pilak, the executive director for UNESCO City of Literature in Iowa City, said the celebration is honoring a long legacy.

“The entire community is very much looking forward to recognizing the historical impact of the Workshop as well as its national and international reputation,” she said.

Another alumna, Margot Livesey, taught at the Writers’ Workshop in the early 1990s and again in 2005. She has published six books and won numerous prizes, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Livesey said she relishes the chance to return to America’s only “City of Literature.”

“Whenever I’ve had a chance to visit, I feel I am in a place where writing still matters, and that is something that’s hard to find in a lot of places in America,” she said. “It’s an accomplishment of the school.”

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