A good Shepard for writing

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A good Shepard

This spring the Iowa Writer’s Workshop announced its new director for the world-famous writing program, a person who will have to follow in the legendary shoes of Frank Conroy. Conroy died last year after 18 years of leading Iowa. Samantha Chang will become the first female director of the program, one of the most prestigious writing schools in the country. Much has been said already about Chang, who as a 1993 grad of the program will be one of the youngest writing teachers to hold the post.

Iowa has the cache of Harvard among graduate writing programs. It celebrates its 70th year this year. “Students are always interested in finding a place and a group of people that allows them to pursue a writer’s true work, which is thinking,” Chang said this month in an interview. Indeed, a group of people is essential to the writing life.

I thought of the one of the other director candidates to make the short list, Jim Shepard, who was invited to give a public reading, lead a workshop and get interviewed by students and faculty at Iowa City. It was the intersection of a couple of summertime stops in my writing training. I’d taken a seminar from Shepard at the first Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, and earlier in that same trip, stayed in Iowa City while at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

Not to take anything away from Chang, but Shepard would have been a good choice, too. In looking over my notes from his classes, I found a day when we examined narration within a story. In using dialogue inside narration, you can

  • Minimize the dialogue’s importance
  • Move things along quicker
  • Show the reader that you’re hurrying

Shepard also told us — by way of teaching from the balls of his feet as we took apart a manuscript to see what made it work — that narrators are more sympathetic when they treat themselves with a brusque manner, “rather than those who piss and moan.”

Shepard was like that: funny in a tough way, but never mean-spirited about his advice and counsel. I consider myself lucky to have learned from him for a week. For a great book on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I recommend The Workshop, edited by Iowa grad Tom Grimes. It’s full of remembrances of the community in the workshop, as well as great stories from its graduates. To find a bit of Conroy’s legacy, dig up The Eleventh Draft, a series of essays Conroy assigned to Iowa graduates like T.C Boyle, who’d studied under him about the craft of writing.

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