Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2007 | Reviews

A Community of Writers: Creative Writing at the University of Iowa, a UI Old Capitol Museum Exhibit

By Kathryn Howe
An exhibit at Old Capitol celebrates the UI's writing heritage.

In 1946, a young woman named Flannery from Baldwin County, Georgia, came to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Originally a journalism student, she soon told then-director Paul Engle her true intentions: "I am a writer."

Justice Handwritten draft by Donald Justice

Her thick Georgian accent often kept Engle from understanding a word she said, so she scribbled her end of the conversation on a pad of paper. Although tough-skinned and quick to respond to criticism, she was too shy to read her own stories to the workshop class, so Engle read them for her.

A quiet, but undeniable force in Engle's classroom, Flannery O'Connor went on to become one of the most highly revered American authors of all time.

She was just one of many of the last century's most acclaimed writers, poets, and playwrights — including Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Kurt Vonnegut, Marilynne Robinson, John Irving, Jane Smiley, Tennessee Williams, and Dylan Thomas — to spend time in Iowa City.

From near and far, writers descend on our state, many not knowing much about Iowa but later referring to their experiences here as the epiphany of their lives.

Typewriter Paul Engle's Olympia typewriter

The mesmerizing details of these world-class writers' personalities, as well as their unforgettable work, await discovery in a new, yearlong exhibit on the lower level of Old Capitol Museum. "A Community of Writers: Creative Writing at the University of Iowa" presents the history, characters, and events behind the development of the UI's legendary writing programs.

The exhibit begins with a stirring introduction and then divides into two rooms — one that highlights the history of the writing programs and another that offers a glimpse into a writer's painstaking creative process.

Vonnegut Kurt Vonnegut's colorful silk screen

While the university offered its first verse-making class in the late 1800s, it wasn't until 1939 that the Workshop took on its official title, operating out of Quonset huts north of the Iowa Memorial Union. On panels that resemble those early huts, posters, pictures, drafts, letters, and quotes illuminate the evolution of all the UI's literary branches—including the International Writing Program, the Nonfiction Writing Program, the Playwrights Workshop, the Translation Workshop, and the Center for the Book. Here, in a timeline of the programs' key milestones, stacked volumes adorn the space and reams of paper extend from old typewriters.

Across the hall, the "process room" pays homage to the heart and soul that writers put into their work when they get into "The Zone." Writers describe the late-night sessions, the fist-pounding and hair-pulling, the endless rewrites to produce one acceptable short story.

Flannery A quote from Flannery O'Connor

A replica of Engle's desk — featuring his actual typewriter, mail scale, and chair — anchors the presentation, along with O'Connor's 1947 M.F.A. thesis, The Geranium, and a silkscreen that Vonnegut created of one of his favorite characters, science fiction writer Kilgore Trout. Also presented are scribbled, water-stained drafts and notes, including a handwritten manuscript of Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping and Frank Conroy's memoir Stop-Time.

During his years with the Workshop, The Hours author Michael Cunningham once said: "I walked around at night sometimes and stood for awhile under certain lighted windows, knowing that inside someone I admired was struggling to put something down on paper and that what was getting put onto paper might in fact be extraordinary."

The lights still glow today.