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We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers' Workshop Paperback – August 16, 2011

4.3 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Eric Olsen is a journalist and graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He directed the U.S. branch of the International Institute of Modern Letters and created the first American City of Asylum, which provided a safe haven for persecuted writers. He was also an executive editor at Time Inc. Health, a Time Warner company. This is his sixth book.

Glenn Schaeffer was, for twenty years, president of Mandalay Resort Group in Las Vegas. In 2009, Liberty Media rated him as the gaming industry's most influential executive, after Steve Wynn. Schaeffer is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and he's finally finishing a novel he started there thirty years ago, Holy Shaker.

Bill Manhire is a professor at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, where he resides.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing (August 16, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 160239735X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1602397354
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 5.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #737,636 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Sean J. Giorgianni on November 9, 2011
Format: Paperback
We Wanted To Be Writers tells the tale of The University of Iowa Writers' Workshop during the 1970s, a time when literary theory cold-cocked craft and creative writing congealed into a career instead of a calling. 30 graduates of the program and survivors of life after an MFA offer up a master class over seven chapters, what they call "a compendium of reflections we wish we had before we arrived naked in Iowa City ..."

You can turn to any page of We Wanted To Be Writers and learn something. But it's much more enjoyable to go slow and allow that cumulative effect to take hold. It's the difference between glancing at the sky or lying on your back and staring at clouds - eventually the patterns that make a difference introduce themselves and ask for spot beside you on your blanket.

Here are 12 interesting things I learned by reading We Wanted To Be Writers:

1. A 3-step Primer For Writing An Authentic Literary Narrative
2. 99 Books Writers Read by Nightlight
3. Whether Or Not Writing Can Be Taught
4. 32 Statements About Writing Poetry
5. A 16 Book Reading List On Creativity
6. The Pennybacker-Schaeffer Realistic Dialog Method
7. The Importance Of Beer, Clear And Cold And True, Like A Trout Stream In Spain
8. Three Writing Assignments Sure To Unblock Writers' Block
9. The True And Untold Story Of The Great Writer Riot Of 1976
10. Eight Writing Quotes No Moleskin Would Be Complete Without
11. Why Accumulation and Consumption Are Crucial To Creative Success
12. The New Yorker's Three Rules and Five Step Formula (see comments for explanation)

There's much more to We Wanted To Be Writers than these 12 things, but that's why you need to find a copy to keep on your shelf!
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As a longtime fan of many of the writers who have passed through the Iowa Writers' Workshop, I was thrilled to discover We Wanted to Be Writers. I had hopes that it would speak to avid readers like me as well as to writers and writing teachers, and I wasn't disappointed. I read the entire book aloud to my husband on a nine-hour road trip from Oregon to California. Both of us were delighted by the clarity of the individuals' voices as they spoke with candor and insight of the influences that have informed their work: the events that led them to Iowa, their experience in the workshop, and the vicissitudes of a writer's life after they left.

Resonant passages are too numerous to mention, but one I find myself going back to is from a work in progress by Marvin Bell, a series of statements about writing poetry. He said, "The good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff. No good stuff without bad stuff." Surely this applies to all writing--and probably all art. We get to witness that process of distillation in We Wanted to Be Writers, where all the good stuff has found its way to the pages.
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Format: Paperback
This is the kind of book I would notice in a bookstore (great title!), but not pick up to browse or buy. Big mistake! Just like most of us hate Harvard because we could never get in there, a fare share of wannabe writers, like me, have that kind of prejudice against the Iowa Writers' Workshop. But the format here is so real when you read this book you feel, not like an outsider, but a participant in a discussion about the things you love, the challenges you face. And for writers, who are a solitary bunch, that is a welcome treat. You join a creative community that leaves you to do your own work in what Eudora Welty called an absolute state of Do Not Disturb.

Participants talk about what possessed them to write in the first place, how their parents felt about that, what their lives were like when they were accepted into the workshop, directions they took afterwards, agents, publishing and rejection. You also find out what books they have beside their beds.

And there's some good advice for those of us still skeptical that writing can be learned:

You need to have a willingness to explore life through experiences (scenes).
Build a dramatic arc. This is not expository writing. Play up opposites.
Realize the resolution won't be the one you envisioned when you began (You will turn the page to find out what happens, just like your readers).

I might have cut the book's length by about a third, though it is the rambling of these responses that gets us thinking of what our answers would be. Here are my two favorite quotes.
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I hope I have enough chops to give WE WANTED TO BE WRITERS the glory it deserves. Co-authors and editors Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer have put together a sprawling look at the students, teachers, and culture of the Iowa Writers' Workshop (IWW), the top rated university creative writing program on nearly every published list of such institutions.

In this book some thirty graduates and teachers become blabbermouths and offer commentary, advice, gossip, and anecdotal history about the school and those who inhabit it. Opinions differ on the value of writing workshops in general. Most writers deem advice to be akin to handling snakes. But here they are quite adept at handing it out, repulsive as it might be to them. The authors, Olsen and Schaeffer, have scraped it up into a highly entertaining and informative package. There is a tremendous amount of valuable writing information to be found along with the entertaining chaff.

I didn't expect such literary luminaries as John Irving, Jane Smiley, T.C. Boyle, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O'Conner, and Vance Bourjaily, naming a few, to become such tattletales. From them we find that talking and toking are a big part of IWW communal life. Both vitriol and adoration are expressed when discussing the values to be found there. Conversation seems to be the most popular activity on campus, traditionally pursued after hours with jugs of cheap Chablis, potato chips, and weed.

Gossip is rampant here. The authors, Olsen and Schaeffer, both graduates of IWW, were members of an unofficial boxing fraternity while enrolled. Olsen reports that his journals of his time in Iowa City contain more notes about his boxing exploits than workshop achievements.
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