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For the budding writer

Bordered by the Mississippi River on the east and the Missouri and Big Sioux on the west lies the Hawkeye state, better known as Iowa. The area is often referred to as the American heartland, but many don’t seem to find much there apart from miles of cornfield, pig ranches and the world’s largest truck stop.

Nestled within the state is a little town called Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa. Housed in a wooden structure towards the northern end of the campus is one of the most distinguished university graduate programmes in the world — the Writers’ Workshop, formally known as the Program for Creative Writing.

As far as university degree programmes go, creative writing is one of the more esoteric fields. In India, there is hardly any university offering such a programme. A few institutes like the British Council may offer short courses in the subject from time to time.

Outside of India, however, choice is aplenty, especially in the US. But figuring out which is a good programme and which not can be tough. The criteria for judgement are a mix of word of mouth, some facts (for example, how many famous writers have emerged from the course), and your own idea of what creative writing is.

The Writers’ Workshop is reputed to be the best in the US, maybe even the world. Part of the reason could be the sheer number of distinguished writers that have been affiliated with it, such as Robert Penn Warren and John Irving. It might also be the 16 Pulitzer Prize winners that have graduated from there. Or maybe it managed to cement itself above the others simply by virtue of being the first of its kind in the US.

“One of our most famous alumni from India is Bharati Mukherjee,” says Lan Samantha Chang, programme director. Mukherjee received her MFA from the Writers' Workshop in 1963.

The programme began in 1936 with Wilbur Schramm — considered the father of communication studies — setting to work with a group of poets and fiction writers. Eminent writers such as Robert Frost visited as lecturers for a few weeks to a year.

Then, in 1941, Paul Engle — one of the first students to receive a degree from the programme — became its director. Under his guidance over the next 25 years, the programme flourished, becoming a force in the literary world.

In 1967, Engle started the International Writing Program. The goal this time was not to teach, but gather some of the best writing talent from around the world and allow them to write without having to worry about time, money or any such constraint. One such artist who benefited from the programme is Sunil Gangopadhyay. Then an aspiring writer, the chance to travel abroad to pursue his art without financial concerns was a huge opportunity.

“He [Paul Engle] invited me to the programme,” says the Bengali litterateur. “I hailed from a poor family and my academic career was not very bright. At that time, it wasn’t possible for just anyone to make a trip to the US or any other country. But this invitation included a place to stay, scholarship and so on. I jumped for it.”

All said and done, creative writing is not something that can be “taught”. In the world of academia, such programmes are seen as being different from others in that they are not a part of the same, institutionalised process. Indeed, the Writers’ Workshop itself claims that “writing cannot be taught”. What it does say is that it works “on the assumption that talent can be developed”.

Another Bengali poet, Joy Goswami, attended the International Writing Program in 2001. He wanted to attend one of the Workshop classes, and was allowed to watch American Poet Laureate Marvin Bell with his students. The students read out their creations and after that followed a most wonderful discussion whereby all present worked on the weaknesses, if any, in each poem, says Goswami. “It’s not just the classes, but also the readings, seminars and chatting with each other — the whole experience is enriching,” he adds.

Not everybody, however, is happy with the way the programme is currently structured. Gangopadhyay, for example, feels that over the years, it has become more about the programme itself and less about writing. “When I visited it two years ago, I found that things had become very formal — full of seminars, lectures and so on. This may not allow students enough space for writing and more writing,” he says.

Nonetheless, the Workshop receives a lot of applications. “The number varies from year to year,” says Chang. “We do have many applicants from Asia, including India.”

Any word of advice for budding writers wanting to make it to Iowa? “Read and write as much as you can. Work on the quality of your manuscript. And be patient; some people apply several times before they eventually get in,” suggests Chang.

Fast facts

Cost

  • $35,303 a year

Eligibility

  • Bachelor's degree from an accredited college / university, equivalent of a 3.00 grade point average as dtermined by the Office of Admissions, English proficiency test (Toefl or IELTS)

What you need

  • A manuscript of your best work, with cover sheet
  • Personal statement
  • Official copy of transcripts
  • Application for graduate awards
  • Supplement to the financial aid application
  • Letters of recommendation
  • General GRE (optional)
  • Application to graduate college
  • Application fee of $100.

For details, visit www.uiowa.edu

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