5 Unexpected Things I Learned at the Iowa Writers' Workshop

by Dina Nayeri

When I arrived at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the fall of 2011, I didn’t know anything about writers as a group: living and working among them, the habits and customs of literary communities. I was much more naïve than most of my classmates because I had taken up writing on my own and lived in a bubble since. In college I had studied economics and then I had followed a business path, ending up with an expensive Harvard MBA that I had no intention of using. When I decided to embark on storytelling, it was mostly by myself in a room full of novels or with my laptop and notebook in random Amsterdam cafés.

What would a Master of Fine Arts give me, I wondered? What would life be like after?

I did have a few reasonable expectations, of course. I anticipated the basic set of advantages I’d take away from here: a group of wonderful literary friends, a fuller fiction toolkit, a better developed body of work, a ton of great and not-so-great memories, some wisdom about the writing life and about art, legacy and so on. But there are a few lessons, both good and ugly, that I never expected to learn. I wonder, had I known, if I would have changed my mind about coming here.

1. Writers are like children: kind and vicious, generous and cruel. I used to think that the writing world would be a simple and happy place where people go out of their way to enable one another’s creative visions, to help one another become better writers. I imagined a utopia of storytellers where no jealousies or resentments flourish simply because you can’t (or shouldn’t) compare creative work, and where people are always having book club chats over homecooked dinners of Atlantic salmon and butternut squash. There are days that vaguely resemble this (we do eat a lot of butternut squash), but for the most part, I’m learning that artists are a lot like toddlers.

In my first few weeks, I witnessed such vicious bursts—though never in workshop—that my stomach was in knots for days. I thought, “Is that what they’re saying about my work?”  And yet, my classmates shocked me with their generosity. No one that I’ve met here has held back a good idea, a useful contact, or a bit of wisdom. They share everything so freely. When my novel was released and I needed my friends, the show of support from the workshop was staggering—even from those whose tastes in fiction are vastly different from mine. My local reading at Prairie Lights was my best-attended event, with my instructors and classmates and even members of the community coming out to show their support. It was one of my loveliest moments as a writer.

Now I often think, we’re all so alike, we “artsy types”—a little bit childish, eager and unguarded, in the way we show both love and frustration. There is a dark side to so much creativity and passion, and it’s worthwhile to have friends who feel everything so strongly, who can articulate it and come to your rescue, and, okay, maybe bitch about you a little bit.

2. A lot of really famous authors are frighteningly poor. One of the biggest lessons I learned from interacting with other writers is that they make this life work because they love what they do. Years ago, most of my friends were in finance, and I assumed that the successful literary authors I read about in The New York Times or on national prize lists were at least as financially secure as your typical 30-something private equity manager (Note that I’m only talking about literary fiction here). But now, I’m thinking, maybe I was wrong.

I’ve seen major voices in literature hopping between states for teaching gigs. I’ve seen a critically acclaimed author crowd-source for healthcare. There are people whose words will change your life, and sometimes you see them walking around with food in their hair. How can this be? I always imagined that the world would provide posses of handlers to deal with the eccentricities of its recognized geniuses. But no ... You do this work for one reason: You have to do it or you’ll turn into a husk of yourself. And, as I learned in my negotiations classes at Harvard Business School, when you’re publicly and hopelessly addicted to doing something, the world won’t find it necessary to reward you for it—at least not with cash. Weirdly enough, that’s refreshing to me. I am an addict. I have no choice and no negotiating power. I can put aside all logic, and just do what the universe calls me to do. I have no cards, no options, and that is wildly liberating.

3. Genius isn’t passed on through osmosis, but something better is: Over the past two years, I’ve been in workshops and seminars with some of the great minds of modern fiction—men and women whom I’ve admired and whose works have influenced my own. And yet, much of what they offer in class they’ve written about in craft books or articles. So I ask myself, was the act of moving to Iowa City, of subjecting myself to small town life and all the limitations and frustrations therein, purely so I could receive these morsels of wisdom in person? Before Iowa, I lived in Amsterdam and was building a future in Europe. Was it worth throwing that away so I could sit in the same room as my idols, to watch their mouths move and hear them say the same wise words that I might have read alone in a café in Amsterdam?

The answer, I am discovering is, yes, I think so. Here is something delightful that I’ve found: Though genius isn’t passed through proximity, there is a tiny spark of something … inspiration or zeal or childish energy, that wants toand will—rub off. It happens by a force that I can only describe as magic. This miraculous something wants to leap from person to person, to find a new host. It starts when you see the joy, the pure eagerness with which they approach their work. It makes you think, “I can do this too.” There is something delightful in watching a Pulitzer winner giggle at a play-on-words, or muse about Faulkner, or eat ice cream and just be human. It makes everything seem possible, and that is worth two years of being here in person.

4. To be a writer, all you need is hours and hours (and a library card). All that magic and inspiration aside, the fact is, you don’t need an MFA. There is no mystery to becoming a writer. It is simply dedication, heavy reading, heavy revising, and this I knew before I came here. Iowa gave me no new formula, just a confirmation of this basic truth of every profession. You must suffer for it. You must slave away to become any good. And while there are media and hype and frightening coincidences that make some people successful and some not so much, in the end, it is only about the work. As my favorite teacher, the brilliant Charlie Baxter says, “Good work gets found and it gets read.” That’s it.

5. You can’t stop being human. You need a community. You need routine, friends, family, romances, dinner parties, good conversations. You need to play with children and go outside and exercise and continue being human. You can’t write alone in an Amsterdam café. It may sound like a beautiful fate, but isolation is an ugly thing. And it’s nice to have people to cook Atlantic salmon for, people who love to tell stories and never get tired of it, who would also give up everything else just to do it forever.

I’m so glad I came here, to this small town, for my MFA. It made me a better woman (hopefully a better writer too), though I paid a heavy price for it. I learned that the reason writing has value is that it’s never going to come easily, that it will take me decades more to be happy with what I’ve contributed to the world. So I need to step back, relax. Don’t stop living, but work and work and work. Don’t be distracted. Live and write. Those three words, the blessing and permission they contain, are more than exhilarating.

This article originally appeared in Writer's Digest.