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Hannah Horvath from GIRLS Is the Last Thing the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Needs

Hannah Horvath from GIRLS Is the Last Thing the Iowa Writers' Workshop Needs

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.

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