By Seth Abramson | Press Play March 31, 2014 at 3:54AM
I studied poetry at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop from 2007 to 2009, and had an amazing experience in Iowa City, primarily because, as a non-traditional student, I was largely left to my own devices by the program's famously hands-off curriculum. To be a thirty year-old poet at the nation's oldest graduate creative writing program—seventy-eight years old this year—is to marvel at how anyone in America can be permitted so much license with so little responsibility. Currently, the university fully funds all Workshop admittees with tuition remission and either fellowships or teaching assistantships, and it requires in return little more than attendance at one three-hour writing workshop per week. Sure, in the first of a student's two years in Iowa City, he or she is likely to take an ungraded seminar or two (one run by and for working writers, rather than through the university's English Department), but in the second year of the curriculum, most students do little more than take independent studies and thesis hours. It's a two-year writing vacation, and one I was happy to have as a poet still finding my footing. What it isn't, or shouldn't be, is a hideaway for entitled, directionless young people for whom living anywhere but a cosmopolitan enclave on the nation's East Coast is a source of shirt-rending psychic turmoil. By sending Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) off to Iowa City for two years at the Writer's Workshop, HBO's Girls is giving not just the Workshop but the discipline of creative writing in general exactly what it doesn't need: a bad rap.
The student body of the Iowa Writers' Workshop comprises, at any one time, about a hundred poets and novelists; depending upon the semester, the permanent faculty is made up of three or four poets and three or four fiction writers. Speaking only from my own experience—but mindful, too, of the similar experiences reported by dozens of fellow Workshop graduates—you couldn't ask for a more talented and artistically diverse group of classmates than the ones you routinely find in the Workshop's creative writing courses. That said, you also couldn't find many bohemian communities in the United States that are less diverse in several important ways: namely, in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and educational background. By and large, the student body at the University of Iowa's most revered graduate program is white, upper-class, and well-pedigreed. Blacks and Latinos in particular are woefully underrepresented, as are members of the working class and those from smaller, regional institutions of higher education. When I attended the Workshop in the late aughts, an appreciable percentage of my classmates hailed from just two universities, Harvard and Stanford; had wealthy parents (some of whom were donors to the program); or had lived for years in provincial but ostensibly worldly enclaves like those found in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
To be clear, everybody in America has every right to apply to the Iowa Writers' Workshop if they wish—and, if admitted, to attend. My classmates between 2007 and 2009 were no more responsible for the circumstances of their birth than I was then or now. And the majority of the largely white, upper-class, well-pedigreed student body at the Workshop is made up of talented, committed authors whose future work will undoubtedly be worth reading. The question, rather, is whether the Iowa Writers' Workshop—institutionally, that is, and not as a responsibility of any individual (faculty, student, or staff) associated with the program—does the discipline of creative writing an implicit disservice by leaving the impression that creative writing is reserved for children of privilege from the coasts. If the hard sciences have struggled for years against the (not entirely) unfair impression that they do little to actively recruit women and minorities, the struggle of creative writing since its first appearance in academia in the 1880s has been to shirk the sense that it's a haven for sheltered, arrogant, self-indulgent bullshitters.
All of the above is Exhibit A for why it's a sad day—and by no means a cause for celebration—when we discover that one of the most sheltered, arrogant, self-indulgent bullshitters on American television today is likely headed to Iowa City. Whether you love the show Girls or detest it, it'd be tough to call series lead Hannah Horvath anything but that archetypal spoiled white kid with whom the streets of New York City are increasingly lousy. Unlike previous generations of young New Yorkers, this generation seems less invested in either the history of the city or, more importantly, its unparalleled contributions to American art and the American literary community in particular. And while it's fair to say that Girls critiques this new class of New York City-dwelling enfants terribles as much or even far more than it glamorizes it, the fact remains that the medium of television invariably glamorizes anything it depicts, and American viewing audiences invariably under-theorize their entertainments. Whatever Lena Dunham's motivation might be in depicting in agonizing detail the lives of seven to ten young people many of us would want nothing to do with, the fact remains that New York City is already popularly identified with such figures but the Iowa Writers' Workshop (to its great benefit) is not. Bringing Dunham and crew to town will erase once and for all the lingering fantasy that the most visible institution in graduate creative writing is a diverse, resolutely populist haven.
Perhaps this is one reason the University of Iowa has now formally denied Dunham's request to film episodes from Season 4 on the university's campus. The official explanation is that such filming would cause disruption to the institution's educational mission—possibly true--though more plausible would be an acknowledgment that University of Iowa in general and the Writers' Workshop in particular has little to gain by being dramatized through the eyes of an entitled and only intermittently self-aware New Yorker. For the Writers' Workshop to be ready for primetime, it would need to commit itself to a forward-looking admissions policy—one in which former students of faculty members, or current students of friends of faculty members, receive no leg up in the admissions process; one in which existing pipelines between certain colleges and the Workshop (notably, Harvard and Stanford) are stopped up; and one in which all forms of diversity (including socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, and sexual orientation) are given at least some consideration by application readers.
Not all the blame for the Writers' Workshop being so homogeneous falls on the Workshop itself. As someone who's interviewed literally thousands of MFA applicants since 2006 as part of his doctoral research, I can say that many such applicants, particularly those who are gay or non-white, are leery of moving to a town in Iowa that's 83% white and (not unusual for a small city) overwhelmingly straight. Given how politically progressive the town is, however, and frankly how homogeneous most American locales unfortunately are—my own home state, Massachusetts, is 84% white, but I don't hear of artists refusing to move there—it's regrettable that some of the nation's most talented poets and writers might potentially feel Iowa City isn't welcoming to anyone but the Hannah Horvaths of the world. The truth is that the Writers' Workshop offers a community in which anything goes and everyone is welcome, a fact made more probative by the Workshop's dramatic segregation (culturally and geographically) from the bulk of Iowa City's university and non-university communities. The best way to feel stifled at the Writer's Workshop is to come to it with overdetermined expectations about what writing (or, for that matter, Iowa) really is; another is to come to Iowa City adamant that you'll do nothing to complicate your relationship with your past—whether it be your past as an artist, or your past as a cloistered resident of New York City.
Nothing in the plot of Girls thus far indicates that Hannah is ready to leave behind either her New York City sensibilities or her sense of herself as not just unique but superlative. Writing is neither a glamorous profession nor one in which practitioners benefit much from self-glamorization; the age-old adage to "write what you know" is profitable only when you first forget what you know, something Hannah has never seemed capable of or even very much interested in doing. Not only is Hannah unready for the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the Workshop—however much it might be able to see Dunham's interest in it as a net positive—isn't ready for her, either. And until the discipline of creative writing does more than it has thus far to focus attention on writing as a sustainable practice for the many rather than the few, for the working class every bit as much as the well-heeled class, the sort of attention Girls can bring to it will likewise be more a danger than a boon.
Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.