"My instructions to them were deliberately vague--they were to write about writing, any aspect or approach that caught their fancy. Leaving it open seemed to me to heighten the chances of getting the strongest and least predictable work. And so it was. They came at it from different angles, using different techniques, and each piece is unique. Perhaps the only common tacit assumption is that writing is difficult."-- From the Introduction by Frank Conroy
Since its inception in 1936, the Iowa Writers' Workshop has been perched atop the creative writing landscape, producing some of the greatest writers of the century. Though no one claims that writing can be taught--the Workshop itself professes no method--there is no disputing the success of the program and its celebrated attendees. Of the 20 Pulitzers awarded for fiction and poetry in the ‘90s, nine have gone to University of Iowa graduates.
For The Eleventh Draft, present-day director Frank Conroy invited 23 former professors and students of the Iowa Writers' Workshop to pen essays on their craft. As he hints in his Introduction, he was looking for an eclecticism, and The Eleventh Draft is nothing if not diverse. Some pieces are deeply personal; others might have been scripted for the first day of class. They are sometimes prescriptive, often contradictory, but always eloquent and provocative.
The Eleventh Draftis an invaluable resource for aspiring and established writers, for lovers of literature, and for anyone intrigued by the writing process or the Workshop itself. If you have doubts, open this anthology and, as Conroy advises, "Listen up."
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For The Eleventh Draft, Frank Conroy solicited essays about writing from 23 fiction writers--all of them one-time Iowa Writers' Workshop students or faculty members. "My instructions to them," says Conroy, "were deliberately vague.... Leaving it open seemed to me to heighten the chances of getting the strongest and least predictable work." Conroy guessed right. Beyond the shared sentiment that writing is hard work, there is, blessedly, no common thread here. For T. Coraghessan Boyle, writing is an addiction as powerful as "putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in your arm." James Hynes claims that writing takes such a toll that "just writing this essay is probably as bad for me as a pack of cigarettes." And Barry Hannah describes writers as "not always the most vital people in the room, but often nearer ghouls sniffing at the trough of other living blood." In the book's most pessimistic piece, Doris Grumbach maligns word processors for destroying the richness of the English language, megabestsellers for the decimation of forests, and the notion of writer-as-celebrity (lionization, she says, does not advance one's writing).
Most of this book's contributors aim, often by way of story, to get at the mysterious heart of the fiction writer's experience. Fred G. Leebron recalls the moment he realized that the characters take the author by the hand, and not vice versa. Elizabeth McCracken confesses to having no inner or outer life, but to stealing all her material from her family. And Scott Spencer underscores the courage needed to create fiction. "A writer who will not risk hurting someone's feelings," he says, "is finally no more effective than a firefighter who will not smash in windows." --Jane SteinbergAbout the Author:
Frank Conroy, the former director of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts, became the fifth director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1987. He is the author of three books: Stop Time, nominated for the National Book Award; Midair; and Body & Soul. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with his wife, Maggie, and his son, Tim.
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