When I’m identified as a fiction writer at parties, the question comes pretty quickly. “Did you go to school for it?” someone asks. Yes, I say. “Where?” they ask, because I don’t usually offer it.
I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I say.
Over the years, I’ve received two standard reactions when I say this. The first is a kind of incredulity: The person acts as if he or she has met a very rare creature. Some even challenge me, as if this is the sort of thing people lie about (and some probably do, though that makes me sad). Some ask if I mean the famous school for writers — and there are other writing programs in the state of Iowa, excellent ones, but I know they’re referring to the Workshop, and so I say yes, though instantly I feel as if I have been made an impostor, hiding in the clothes of a great man.
The second reaction is condescension, as if I have admitted to a terrible sin. To these people, I’m to be written off. Nothing I do could disprove what they now believe of me. All my successes will be chalked up to “connections”; all my failures will prove the dangers of overeducation. If they ever like a book of mine they will say, “It’s OK as MFA fiction goes.”
I suppose this is just part of the price I pay for having been one of those people, the doubting kind, sure that it was all bullshit.
I got my first glimpse of Iowa City when I moved to San Francisco after graduating college. I made the friend I was driving with take the Iowa City exit from I-80, and we pulled into the truck stop.
“I just want to look at it, in case I decide to go to school here,” I said. This seemed safe to say sarcastically, like saying I wanted to look at the White House because I was going to be president one day. I got out, pumped some gas into the car, looked around at the truck stop and said to her, “It looks terrible. Let’s go.” And we laughed as we drove away.
Even then, the moment haunted me, a vague premonitory knock — Someday you’ll eat those words. But I pushed it away. It was impossible for me to go to Iowa. I would never go, I told myself. And they would never let me in.
At the college my youthful self had left behind, I’d studied fiction writing and essay writing, and the three teachers I’d spoken to about my future offered strong opinions. Mary Robison warned of studying writing too much. “No one is doing anything like what you do,” she said. “You don’t want to mess that up by taking too many classes.” Kit Reed was dismissive. “Don’t waste your time. You just need to write, you don’t need the program. There’s nothing there you need. Just go write.”
Only Annie Dillard made the case for an MFA. “You want to put off the real world as long as possible,” she said. “You’ll write and read and be around other serious young writers.”
Two against one.
The real world I moved to was San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, which was well under way when I arrived. My time there felt more like a preview of the end of the world — especially after the earthquake that brought down part of the Bay Bridge. My activist friends from college were all moving to the Bay Area, getting apartments together, going to rallies, protests, marches, direct actions, street theater. I saw the AIDS activism and queer politics movement emerging as a response to the fight of my generation, and I joined with the seriousness of a soldier. My friends and I were people who knew AIDS could kill us all, and we were fighting against those who believed it would kill only gay people. To this day I can’t tell you if we were trying to remind them of our humanity, or their own.
I would stay two years in San Francisco, then move to New York in the summer of 1991, for the love of a man who lived there.
When I arrived in New York, I had a job waiting for me, courtesy of a bookstore I’d worked at in San Francisco, A Different Light. They had a New York store as well, and arranged an employee transfer. My new bosses set me to work cataloging the contents of a warehouse in Queens that had belonged to a mail-order gay and lesbian bookstore that A Different Light had acquired at auction. After the chaos of San Francisco, New York wasn’t much quieter, but this job was — it was like going to sit in a padded room every day, a room padded with books.
If I went to San Francisco with the seriousness of a soldier, I left with a soldier’s bitterness. I had seen friends beaten by the police and hospitalized, or arrested and denied their AIDS medication under the pretext that they were taking drugs. I had been profiled by the police, suspected of plotting against them. One of the organizations I belonged to had asked me to find out if my then-boyfriend was a police plant. This, I think, hastened the end of our relationship, though I don’t think he ever knew he was under suspicion. At least, he never found out from me.
It was nice, then, to sit in a quiet room every day, surrounded by books. And there were thousands of them, books I knew alongside books I’d never heard of, spilling off the shelves and out of boxes. They ranged from pulp pornography paperbacks to Vita Sackville-West first editions to the works of the Violet Quill group. Slowly I became aware that for me, a young gay writer who wanted to write, well, everything — poetry, fiction, essays — this was an education. The catalog I was creating was a catalog of what kinds of gay writing had succeeded and failed — what the culture allowed and what it did not.
My literary heroes were mostly women writers and thinkers — Joy Williams, Joan Didion, Anne Sexton, June Jordan, Sarah Schulman, Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, Christa Wolf — and much of this writing was political as well as literary. I hoped, like them, to find a way to fuse my work with my belief in the possibility of a better, more radicalized world. Their work was in this room, as well as that of their predecessors and teachers: Muriel Rukeyser, for example, whom I discovered there, and still love.
For every writer like Gore Vidal, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, or Susan Sontag, there were so many others no one had heard of. The fame of the well-known writers seemed to me a protection against the void, and worthy of study. Especially as two of my literary heroes, the artist David Wojnarowicz and the filmmaker Derek Jarman, were quite publicly dying of AIDS, and I knew, from the work I’d been doing, that nothing was likely to save them.
Back in San Francisco, a certain Beat poet used to come into the store and move his books from the poetry section in the back up to the new-books table. After he left, we’d move them back. Sometimes I let them stay a while; other times his pettiness angered me. But here in this room, I understood. Fame seemed like a terrible, even a stupid thing to want, but it also could protect you from vanishing forever, especially if you were a gay writer, already disadvantaged when it came to publication, much less posterity.
The question was — as always — how do you become famous?
The best and only honorable way, to my mind, was to write things people wanted to read. In my own small way, I’d made some progress on that front since arriving in New York. An editor at a publishing house invited me to lunch, because he was interested to find out whether I had a novel in me or not, based on a travel feature I’d written — I had begun writing for magazines. I was also interested in this question of whether I had a novel in me, and I showed up to that lunch cocky, with blue hair and a ripped T-shirt. My tweed-jacketed new friend smiled in the dark pub as he sipped his water, and we somehow got onto the topic of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Underneath my performance of assured sarcasm and San Francisco queer punk cockiness, I took mental notes as he told me stories about Michael Cunningham, one of the few male writers I admired (I held male writers in very low esteem then). Cunningham’s story “White Angel,” which had appeared in The New Yorker and was a part of his novel A Home at the End of the World, was the stark marker against which I measured my own ambitions. The story I remember best is how Cunningham would go running at Iowa and smoke Gauloises cigarettes afterward by the track, and how this led the other students to call him “French Cigarette.”
“After we graduated, we all moved back to New York,” the editor said. This I especially stored away as important: All these writers from New York heading to the Midwest to study writing, and then returning afterward. Cunningham had punctured what I thought of as the gay glass ceiling, all too visible to me there in that book warehouse. I began to wonder whether his going to Iowa was part of that — and if it was, if it would work for me also.
For years I had mocked the idea of applying to MFA programs, but after that lunch, I became obscurely fascinated by it. I still made snide remarks about how no one was going to force me to write to a formula. I said I didn’t want to write fiction that said nothing about the world for knowing nothing about the world (unspoken: like all those MFA students), and so there I was, out in the world — wasn’t that better? I made a point of saying, whenever possible, that I refused to spend two years being made to imitate Raymond Carver.
This wisecrack about Carver was the supposedly damning critique of the biggest criminal of them all, Iowa. If it sounds familiar, that’s because the formula for making fun of MFA programs, and Iowa in particular, hasn’t changed much in the past twenty years. The fantasy is of a machine that strips away all originality, of people who enter looking like themselves and emerge like the writerly version of Barbie dolls, plastic and smooth and saleable, an army of American minimalists.
I was writing fiction without my MFA then, and getting along — I’d written a story I was pretty sure was my best yet. I was also pretty sure it would never get published, for being a mix of too many strange things, some of them gay. I did not feel like a New York writer, and worse, I had to work a lot to afford New York. My bookstore salary was so low I sometimes had to choose between taking subways and eating. A subway token cost as much as a bagel or a slice of cheese pizza, and so it was always a question which would win. Some of my friends from college, whom I would see periodically, proceeded with a self-assurance that I didn’t feel into careers that seemed beyond my reach. didn’t have the connections they had, to get jobs at The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Grand Street, the various publishing houses — and I didn’t realize that, if I knew them, I had connections too. Wesleyan had been my entrée into this world, but it was a world they had entered 18 years before, here in New York or somewhere nearby. I was from Maine, the state where they had all gone to camp together, but I did not go to that camp. “You’re not really from there, though, are you?” they would ask, incredulous, as if I’d told them I cut a canoe out of the woods and rode it down the Connecticut River to school.
What I did have were my looks, a sharp eye, a sharper tongue, and a penchant for making a spectacle of myself, which I would then use to observe people’s reactions. I could do this and be amusing enough that most people didn’t mind. Also, all the schools where all the people who knew each other went had at least a few men and women like me around — which is to say, we didn’t necessarily have an alma mater in common, but we did have being gay. This was sort of like when I used to meet people outside parties because we both smoked. When these connections led to an offer of a job as assistant editor at a startup called Out magazine, I took it on the spot.
Maybe I wouldn’t need an MFA, I told myself — which was odd, because I’d never really admitted to myself that I might need one, or that I’d been considering it.
It was around this time that I went to my boyfriend’s apartment in the East Village to find he had ordered a slew of catalogs for MFA programs.
My boyfriend was the one I’d moved to New York for just six months earlier, after six months long-distance. We’d met at a Queer Nation meeting in San Francisco, and begun an intense correspondence that turned out to be our way of falling in love. He was a writer also, and I thought of us as two young, talented gay writers going it alone outside the system. Everything was possible. But my talented boyfriend was working temp jobs he hated, and while he made more money than I did, he didn’t feel as talented as I thought he was, and he felt his education had gaps — he’d been a communications major, not an English major as I had, and he wanted to know more about novels, poems, and stories. He’d never taken a writing class. He thought a program might help. And so, one night after I finished a shift at the bar beneath his apartment, where I worked to be able to afford to ride the train to my own apartment and still eat, I came upstairs to find him on his bed, covered in MFA brochures.
“What are these?” I asked. I felt betrayed but didn’t want to say so — I knew what they were.
He replied defensively — he’d heard me crap all over MFA programs — and our short conversation made me understand how differently we saw ourselves and each other. In his eyes, I had a future without an MFA degree, and he wasn’t sure he did. Me, I was afraid this was his way of saying he was leaving me, a sign of some secret dissatisfaction.
I picked through the brochures and looked at the faculty bios. I chose three schools to apply to, based on which schools, at the time, had produced the most faculty appearing in the brochures — the schools whose students were hired the most after graduation. These were the University of Arizona, the University of Iowa, and the University of Massachusetts–Amherst.
I applied as a cynic, submitting a story that included explicit gay sex, psychic powers, and the occult. “If they’re going to have me,” I said, “they need to know what kind of freak I am.” In the story, a young clairvoyant Korean adoptee helps the police find lost children and is the only actually psychic member of an ad hoc coven. He has penetrative sex with his high school boyfriend, who’s also in the coven, and is possessed by a ghost during an informal exorcism ritual. The idea was that a program devoted to the creation of minimalist realism would have to reject me and I could go on my way, my beliefs about everything confirmed. But that’s not what happened.
My first letter of acceptance, to UMass-Amherst, came with an offer of a fellowship and a note from John Edgar Wideman. A day later I got a phone call at work from a woman whose voice I didn’t recognize. The news came over the phone, in a call at work. “It’s Connie Brothers, from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop,” she said. “A letter is on the way, but I’m calling to offer you a place in the fall class and a fellowship.” She named a sum of money.
I was stunned.
“This is great,” I said, remembering to speak, and then blurted out, “UMass-Amherst is offering the same amount.”
“Did you say anything yet?”
“No,” I said, appalled at my indiscretion.
“Give me a day,” she said, and hung up. I hadn’t intended to begin a negotiation — I wasn’t even aware that negotiation was possible. I was only meaning to be literal: How could I decide between fellowships of equal amounts? I wanted to call back and apologize, but the next day she phoned and offered twice as much, and seemed entirely unconcerned.
“Thank you,” I said into the phone. “I’ll speak to you soon.” I hung up and gave the news, and my co-workers cheered and shook my hand.
Before I gave notice at Out, I spent a night walking the East Village, thinking about my decision. I ended up at Life Café, where I ordered an almond-milk latte and a veggie burrito, and I had some copy to edit — an asparagus recipe, in fact. I was still not sure I would leave New York. If I moved to Iowa, I thought, I would vanish forever. I would become unrecognizable to myself and others. And the amount of money in the fellowship, even after they’d doubled it, was that really enough to live on? I wasn’t rich here in New York, but if I stayed at the magazine, I knew I could get by and more — I could afford, for example, this meal I was having. I could make my way up the New York magazine-world ladder.
At the next table a conversation about the new Versace leather skirts broke out, if a conversation is people all saying the same thing to each other. They were so heavy, they kept saying. So heavy.
I wanted out, I realized then. I wanted cheap rent and a fellowship and people who were talking and thinking about fiction. A time would come again when I would kill to hear people talk about Versace, but it was not then. Anything you did that was not your writing was not your writing, and New York provided a lot of opportunities to write, but also a lot of opportunities not to write, or to write the wrong things. There were things I wanted, like being a contributing editor instead of assistant or managing editor, and you didn’t get there by working your way up. Contributing editors swoop down from above, made fabulous by the books they’ve finished, which they didn’t write while chasing after other people’s copy.
My boyfriend didn’t get accepted to Iowa, which disappointed him greatly — it was his first-choice school. But he was offered a fellowship to the University of Arizona, which was my first choice, the school where Joy Williams taught, and where I’d really envisioned myself, until it rejected me. We’d both been accepted to UMass-Amherst, but my boyfriend’s offer was without aid. We thought about it — we drove up to Amherst and had lunch with John Edgar Wideman, who was, well, John Edgar Wideman: a profoundly intelligent, decent man, but we knew, by the time we left, what we would do.
We had been long-distance before, and were prepared to be so again. We packed up our little apartments and had a last dinner where our friends sang “Green Acres” to us over a cake at Mary’s in the West Village, and we made our way onto I-80 West, to drop me off first.
That year, I lived alone in an apartment that was once ROTC housing for married officers at the edge of town, up by the graveyard and the Hilltop Bar. It lent the whole project the air of a failed military mission. The floors were linoleum, and a couch, desk, and table were part of the deal.
The Iowa I found was a gentler place than the one my editor friend had described. Under Frank Conroy, the director when I arrived, the list in the student lounge ranking students from No. 1 to No. 50 had disappeared, and with it, the fierce feuds the list engendered.
Conroy was said to reread the stories rejected first because he believed that real genius is often rejected at first. This rumor endeared him to me when I eventually heard it, but in those days he was only the legend, sitting in his peculiar way — he could double-cross his legs — in a room full of the incoming class, giving the speech he always gave.
“Only a few of you will get to publish,” he said. “Maybe two or three.”
I remember looking around the room and thinking, I bet not. I had no way of knowing, but I was right: Of the 25 students in my class, over half have published a novel or collection of stories. But the talk was not meant to discourage us. If anything, it was a bravura dare, or a whack on the head, like the one the Buddhist teacher gives as he walks around the room.
I never studied with Conroy, but he taught me one lesson I still remember. I was featured in Interview magazine that year as an emerging poet, and I showed him the page, with my face, huge, and my poem, tiny, almost hidden in my short hair. He smiled, congratulated me, and then said, “You succeed, you celebrate, you stop writing. You don’t succeed, you despair, you stop writing. Just keep writing. Don’t let your success or failure stop you. Just keep writing.”
I now knew the truck stop was not the town; the town was a pretty university town populated with Victorian houses that had been built from plans sent from San Francisco, the result being that I would experience occasional uncanny moments, passing houses I knew from another place. Not only did no one try to make me write like Ray Carver, no one tried to make me write like anyone. No one even tried to make me write.
The only thing I really had to do was figure out whether my ideas were interesting to me, and then, in workshop, if those ideas were interesting to other people. But attendance was, mysteriously, also not mandatory. It’s an occasionally controversial part of the Workshop. But the policy acknowledges a deeper truth: If you don’t want to be a writer, no one can make you one. If you need an attendance policy to get you through, then just go — don’t just skip class, go and don’t come back.
That year, the Workshop accepted 25 students from a field of 727 — now the Workshop regularly receives 1,100. In the fall of 2001, the numbers leaped upward — as did applications to MFA programs nationwide — and they’ve never really dropped. This fascinates me still, the idea that the Sept. 11 attacks drove people toward the institutional study of fiction.
The lore around your admission becomes irresistibly interesting once you get in because it seems the odds are so shockingly against you. You either suspect you do not deserve to be there, or you suspect the others in your class do not deserve to be there. Whatever you think at first, it doesn’t matter—at some point the projection, for that is what it is, flips. You go from being suspicious of everyone else’s talent to suspicious of your own, or vice versa, until finally you get over it. Or don’t.
Soon I was walking around town with people I barely knew as if I’d known them forever. The conversations were long and passionate and exhausting, punctuated by strong coffee and the huge, strangely fluffy Midwestern bagels, reading and writing, and a fair amount of drinking, for the alcohol was very cheap, and we were writers. The bars of Iowa City we frequented had been frequented by writers for decades. Something was happening to us all, and we were all a part of it, even the ones who wouldn’t speak to each other. It was a family.
My first professor was Deborah Eisenberg. I still remember her walking across campus, dressed usually in head-to-toe black, in the seemingly impossibly high heels she favored, an ocean of flip-flop-wearing undergraduates around her. She was the kind of woman I would have idolized in New York, and I’d found her here. She was a walking memory of the life I’d left behind, and a vision of the life I wanted, all at once, and I fell head over heels in love with her. I volunteered to drive her home from workshop, and this became a somewhat regular routine for us, one that thrilled me. I read her two (now four) collections of short stories, and I took her seminar, and read anything she suggested, from Elfriede Jelinek to James Baldwin to Mavis Gallant.
I didn’t want to become her, exactly, though it was close — here was a living embodiment of one of my ideals, a writer making serious literary work of the highest order that embodied political and aesthetic criteria I had set for myself. And she was a delight to study with, even when the results were humbling.
My first workshop with her was a revelation. I’d put up my application story — most of us did at some point — with the idea that it was the best I had. She saw straight through it, the way it was a mix of the autobiographical (I really had been in a coven in high school, with my high school boyfriend) and the fantastical (I did not ever help the police find lost children with clairvoyant dreams). I had tried, crudely, to make something out of a Dungeons & Dragons group I’d been in back in high school, but I hadn’t done the work of inventing a narrator who was whole and independent of me. Deborah drew lines around what was invented, and what was not, with a delicate pencil, and patiently explained to me how what we invent, we control, and how what we don’t, we don’t — and that it shows. That what we borrow from life tends to be the most problematic, and that the problem stems from the way we’ve already invented so much of what we think we know about ourselves, without admitting it.
One common way of trashing workshops is to say that the people who take them are all in some way alike, and that they enforce this alikeness on one another’s writing. This makes me think of a great line from one of Deborah’s stories: “You meet people in your family you’d never run into otherwise.” It’s true of families, and equally true of workshops: You meet people there you’d never meet otherwise, much less show your work to, and you listen to them talk about your story or your novel. These are not your ideal readers — they are the readers you happen to have. Listening to their critiques forces you past the limits of your imagination and also your sympathies, and in doing so takes you past the limits of what you can reach for in your work on your own. A fiction writer’s work is limited by his sense of reality, and workshop after workshop blows that open by injecting the fact of other people’s realities.
I often remember how one classmate said to me, “Why should I care about the lives of these bitchy queens?” It angered me, but I had to consider it, and defend my choices, and live them, and ask myself if I had failed my characters if my story hadn’t made them matter even to someone disinclined to like or listen to them. And if this sounds too harsh, well, this was as nice as it was going to get — the real world, the rest of it, is truly harsh.
I think of an MFA as taking 20 years of wondering whether or not your work could reach people and funneling it into two years of finding out. But it’s also, still, the real world. One in which my good fortune continued, after Deborah’s courses, in the form of study with Marilynne Robinson, James Alan McPherson, Margot Livesey, Elizabeth Benedict, and Denis Johnson. I had taken risks to come here, I reminded myself: I’d left a job, and a man who loved me, whom I loved. That’s as real as anything.
We broke up finally in 1994, the year I finished at Iowa. But we’d made a go of it that whole time. He’d reapplied to the Workshop again during our first year apart, and when he was rejected a second time, it ate at him. He said, “You’re going to be the famous one, the one everyone remembers,” and canceled our plans to spend the summer together. I tried to give him room for his disappointment, but it felt like he was punishing me for getting in there. He’s since had a lot of success as a writer, so in that sense he was wrong. But then I think disappointment, and the desire to revenge oneself on that disappointment, can be an enormous motivator. Being rejected from an MFA can push you as much as getting in can.
The first thing my MFA meant to me, when I finished, was that I seemed to have become unfit for other work, though this proved an illusion.
I was fit for writing — and for teaching. That I knew. I also knew I wanted to teach only in the sort of job you could get if you had published a book. I had by now broken up with the boyfriend who set out on this adventure with me, and as New York seemed like a good place to be single and gay and a young writer, I moved back, the words of that editor (“After we graduated, we all moved back to New York”) echoing as I did so. Sometimes it seems we know everything that’s going to happen to us before it happens.
That first summer I went on interviews for jobs in publishing, but everyone who interviewed me, on seeing that I’d just come from Iowa, assured me I didn’t want to work there. “Writers shouldn’t hear the way publishers talk about them,” one publishing friend said by way of advice. “Also the pay is crap.” I’ve since known several successful writers who had publishing careers, but I think it takes a canniness that I couldn’t fake to go into publishing and act as if one has no interest in being an author.
Deborah Eisenberg had been a waitress, I told myself. I could do that. And a few months after taking my first waiting job, I set plates down between an editor and a newly hired editorial assistant, and nearly gasped at the low figure quoted to said assistant. I stayed at that job for six years, writing my first book, and when it finally sold, I began to get the teaching jobs I wanted.
During those years, I was not above bragging about Iowa in moments of insecurity, but I always reproached myself afterward. And I bore it all because it didn’t really matter. The white shirt and black bow tie and apron served as a cocoon for the novel underneath.
I wrote that novel on the subway going back and forth to work. I wrote it sometimes at work — I still have a waiter check with an outline for my novel on it that came to me while I waited for my section to be sat. I wrote it, it was all that mattered. And I made good money. One story Deborah Eisenberg has told of her time as a waitress is about how Joe Papp at the Public Theater approached her to commission a play and was surprised to find her reluctant to leave her job. She didn’t want to lose valuable shifts. He asked her what she made on those shifts, and that was part of how the price of the commission was set.
Waiting tables was also a good education in people. I saw things I never would have imagined, and this was only for the best. Your imagination needs to be broken in, you see, to become anywhere near as weird as the world.
After my novel Edinburgh was published in 2001, I became a teacher, and have been a teacher ever since. First I was invited to teach at Wesleyan, my undergraduate alma mater, because the creative writing director admired the Q&A I did with students after a reading there. I moved on to Goddard College, then Amherst College, then my other alma mater, Iowa. Then to Columbia, the University of Leipzig, and now, Sarah Lawrence College, with the University of Texas–Austin on deck. It’s a strange thing to teach at the schools one once attended, like a stereoscopic narrative, the same story told twice from two or more points of view. The past is always around.
Since attending Iowa, I’ve learned to talk about Raymond Carver, because he often comes up if I mention the place. He had been part of the lore there, but not the way everyone seemed to imagine. He had not been particularly celebrated while a student at the Workshop, we learned. Neither was Joy Williams, a writer I’d have been more inclined to imitate. And as a professor, Carver was known for being drunk much of the time, at least in the stories I’ve heard.
If we are to fault Carver for anything, it may be the model of writerly misbehavior, and the resulting blanket reputation — all writers are like this! — that has insistently followed writers into academia. Though Carver, of course, had a great deal of company. And we are now told to believe that even our sins are on the decline — more and more there come complaints that we are too well-behaved, we writers. We have become domesticated creatures, apparently — and the MFA is also blamed for this.
The boom in the MFA, whatever you might think of it, didn’t come about because young writers wanted to imitate Carver’s work, it came about because too many of them imitated the late Carver’s life, too much — and administrators everywhere began to demand some sort of proof that the writer knows how to behave. There was a demand for writers with the skill and the will to teach, and to be a colleague, participating in the work of the department. You can sniff all you like that a book is the only credential that matters, but chances are, you haven’t met a provost. In the aftermath of these unaccredited greats, the rest of us are required to present our degrees.
It may be that you, like many, think writing fiction does not require study. And not only that — that it is not improved by study. That talent is preeminent, the only thing required to become a writer. I was told I was talented: I don’t know that it did much except make me lazy when I should have worked harder. I know many talented people who never became writers, perhaps because they became lazy when they were told they were talented — maybe it is even a way to take people out of the game. I know untalented people who did become writers — and who write well. What I mean is that you can have talent, but if you cannot endure, if you cannot learn to work, and to work against your own worst tendencies and prejudices, and you cannot take the criticism of strangers, or the uncertainty, then you will not become a writer. Ph.D., MFA, self-taught — the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.
“I am taking this parade down the middle of the road,” I wrote in a letter to one friend from San Francisco, soon after arriving at Iowa. A parade is a test of a community — the streets stop for a moment, and one part of that community, typically a minority, has a moment and then moves on. I’d been accepted to Iowa, but I still didn’t know if Iowa was going to accept me, a gay Korean American writer. There weren’t any such people for me to look up to; Chang-rae Lee’s first book didn’t appear until a year after I’d graduated, and he was the first contemporary Korean American writer, gay or straight, I’d ever seen. When I said what I said about the parade, I meant: I refuse to be marginalized, I have been invited inside an American tradition, and I’m going to make the best of it.
A favorite photo from this time is of me at a Halloween party, dressed in short shorts, fishnets, a black motorcycle jacket, a yard-long blond wig on my head, applying lipstick in front of a bull’s-eye — studiously not looking at the camera, aware that it was on me. To this day friends stare at the photo in disbelief — I seem to have been completely transformed. I was eventually crowned the Queen of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Prom, an event that saw me appear at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in a red leather coatdress slit up the sides, that same blond wig, Kabuki makeup, and heels. This was me throwing a parade — this was me testing Iowa. I remember the hush as I stepped into the bar area where the veterans sat, the saloon doors swinging, to go to use the restroom, and the pause as I realized I had to decide which one to use.
In writing this, I am trying to see myself as I might a character — I’m trying to do that difficult thing that Deborah Eisenberg began to teach me. I am still, I think, that prom queen, thinking I’m not radical enough, thinking I need to be even more intense, and thus failing to see other aspects of what I was or am.
I know I have taken what seems like a preposterous amount of time to write two novels, but then again I am the former student of teachers who took years to write stories, a decade or more to write a book. I am fortunate to have been the first published gay Korean American author, and am still the only one who has published fiction about a character with those characteristics. My first novel, Edinburgh, the one written on the train back and forth to that restaurant, took two years to sell to an independent publisher. Eventually, it was picked up by a major publisher and relaunched with a national tour, the book sold out front on the main table as if it were any other book by a mainstream author. My parade went right down the middle of the street.
If the myth about the Workshop was that it tried to make us all the same, my experience was that it encouraged me to be a writer like none before. Whether I did that was up to me. Going to Iowa was one of the best things I ever did for my writing life. I went because I got in, and because I was afraid. I feared losing the love I lost anyway, and I feared oblivion, because the writers and artists I knew and admired were being ignored by the culture or were dying. I still fear those things, and I’m still here.
Alexander Chee was born in Rhode Island, and raised in South Korea, Guam, and Maine. He is a recipient of the 2003 Whiting Writers’ Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in Fiction and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Ledig House, the Hermitage, and Civitella Ranieri. His first novel, Edinburgh (Picador, 2002), is a winner of the Michener Copernicus Prize, the AAWW Lit Award and the Lambda Editor’s Choice Prize, and was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year and a Book Sense 76 selection. In 2003, Out magazine honored him as one of its 100 Most Influential People of the Year. His essays and stories have appeared in Granta.com, Out, Tin House, TriQuarterly, The L.A. Review of Books, and Apology. He has taught fiction, nonfiction writing and the graphic novel at Wesleyan, Amherst College, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Columbia University and is currently the visiting writer at the University of Texas - Austin New Writers’ Project . He otherwise lives in New York City and blogs at Koreanish.
His second novel, The Queen of the Night, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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