Jim Fleming: The Iowa Writers Workshop is one of the most well known and influential creative writing programs in the world. Lan Samantha Cheng knows it well. She attended as a student and she now directs the workshop. So maybe it's no surprise that her new novel examines the relationship between the students and a professor in the creative writing program somewhere in the Midwest. The novel's called All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost. Lan Samantha Cheng sat down to talk with Steve Paulson and to read from her new book.
Lan Samantha Cheng: Miranda Sturgis was an exceptional poet. Among the schools distinguished faculty she was the brightest star and graduate students fought to gain admission to her seminars. It was 1986 and the most fervent feared they had missed the age of poetry that they were born into the era of it's decline. To Miranda and the school, they came in defiance of that decline or at the very least to sit for two years in the circle of her radiance. They're yearned to know their mind and hoped to earn her blessing as they set forth on an uncertain path. But Miranda was critical of their work and dismissive of their hopes. She rarely offered praise. She discussed their poems ruthlessly as if they were not in the room. Of the students in her classes almost none escaped unaltered or unscathed and some stopped writing all together. Such was her teaching that the students at the school had invented a special nickname for her critiques. They were called bludgeonings as in he's drunk, he's just been bludgeoned. Out in the world the small passionate world of poetry, Miranda maintained a sterling reputation as a teacher who was learning an acuity in her body of work, the shimmering debut, the rigorous and ambitious second book, the third book short listed for several major national prizes. She was considered an accurate and influential judge of talent. It was rumored that she sometimes took a special interest in the career of a young poet and that her protégés began with a vital advantage. And so despite the bludgeonings, despite confusion and hurt feelings, the students kept lining up to take her classes. They concealed their disparagement from their families, most of whom did not read poetry, from the school of whose faculty she was by no means the worst instructor, and from Miranda herself because they sensed what the visceral knowledge of neglected children that if they were to complain to her she would notice. Instead they watched her keenly. They studied how she dressed and how she did her hair. They puzzled over the hesitant yet determined way she gestured as she spoke. They tried to copy these habits as if they could learn to be Miranda, could transform their own young hands grasping their pens into her delicate reluctant hands.
Steve Paulson: Why were you so interested in this subject, the aura that a famous writer can wield over her students?
Cheng: Well, I began as a student myself. Back in the dark ages I got my MFA from the Iowa writers workshop in 1993.
Paulson: Where you are now the director.
Cheng: Where I am now the director and I just remember that back and in the day our teachers were these powerful, powerful personages to us. They were like gods to us. I'm not saying everybody felt that way but I think a large number of us looked at our teachers as kind of immovable forces, these great and powerful deities who would be able to predict what direction our lives would take. If they liked our work then perhaps we would have good lives as writers. If they did not like our work then we might as well give up.
Paulson: Now there are stories about this kind of thing and stories that you have in your book about what happens to a student whose work has been ripped apart by one of these powerful teachers. I mean they go to pieces. They weep about it. Does that kind of thing happen?
Cheng: Yes, it does. In the very first scene of my book a young woman is critiqued and bursts into tears and I've seen this happen myself. When I was in the program someone fainted for example. That's another kind of reaction people can have. I don't think that the students themselves understand that they too have a kind of power in the classroom. And I don't think that certainly in that day it wasn't as obvious as it is now. The thing about the extremely harsh class is that it causes everyone to get up on their toes and try really hard but sometimes people stop. It fails and someone will be silenced and I think that is a great problem with that kind of class, that it actually can silence some writers. They stop writing entirely. They can't get that bad class out of their minds.
Paulson: So you've seen that happen?
Cheng: I have.
Paulson: Maybe a writer who has some promise but then goes in front of one of these brutal critiques and that's it. They are shattered.
Cheng: Absolutely. I've seen that happen. As Miranda says in my book perhaps though something else would have shattered them - bad review, rejection from a journal. An artist life is filled with rejection an there's no way to get around it. I think that back in the day when this story is set, it was par for the course that the teachers would do some of the rejecting.
Paulson: Of course what makes this all very interesting is that you are the director of the Iowa writers workshop, the most famous writers program in American, the most influential and you have enormous power doing that and I mean it's more than a little intriguing that you've written a book about the teacher student dynamic at a writing program which presumably has some similarities to the one that you teach at.
Cheng: yes, I don't teach the way that Miranda does actually. I think back to the days when I was a student with a certain nostalgic wistfulness. It's certainly not like that in the classroom anymore. Nobody is bludgeoned. Nobody in my class anyway has ever left in tears. I'm not saying this is a bad thing. I don't think I could teach the kind of class where people suffered that kind of violence. If I knew about it I would want make it better.
Paulson: One of the underlying questions in your novel and in an all creative writing programs is whether writing can really be taught. I mean we know the mechanics, the craft can be honed. But can talent be taught?
Cheng: Yes, that is one of the big questions in my book. I think that talent cannot be taught. It can be encouraged. I don't think it's possible to bring everyone up to the same level of accomplishment but I do think it's possible for a teacher to encourage students to do much much better in a much shorter time than they would have if they hadn't studied. I think that what people generally say about creative writing programs is that they teach people how to save time, that they save years that they might have spent sort of pursuing writing on their own by coming into a community of writers, being encouraged, been given the time and support to write and being critiqued.
Paulson: Could you tell me about one of your teachers? Maybe someone who did have an influence on you and sort of what you learned from that person?
Cheng: James Allen McPherson, winner of a Pulitzer prize for his book Elbow Room and a Macarthur genius award winner. He's a very mild mannered person, very quiet person. He rarely speaks in class. He let's the students speak and then will say a few words. Very early on in my time at the Iowa writers workshop I was in Jim's workshop he said as an offhand comment that not very many people write ghost stories anymore, that it was a form that people weren't pursuing. And I could tell from the way he said it that he thought that was a shame. I started thinking about ghost stories. I went to the library in Iowa City and looked up ghost stories and I discovered volumes of sort of hand typed independently published accounts of local ghost stories that had been bound up and put int he library. I read them and I began to see that they all had something in common which was that there was a story in life that wasn't finished and the ghost came as an attempt to finish off the incomplete story. And this was so interesting to me that I began to think of what kind of story would lead to a haunting and I believe that the pursuit of ghost stories kept me going for the next gosh, eight years in writing.
Paulson: So you wrote ghost stories yourself then?
Cheng: They were ghost stories. They were not obviously ghost stories but there were often characters in the stories that were haunted. My first book, Hunger, contained several stories in which an actual ghost existed and I don't think Jim had any idea when he made that comment how long I would chew over it, how relentlessly I would pursue it. I've always been grateful to him for saying that.
Paulson: It's fascinating because it almost sounds like it was an offhand comment that he made an it changed your life.
Cheng: Absolutely an offhanded comment. In other words what the teacher thinks that they're getting across isn't necessarily what the student is going to receive. The student could receive something that the teacher has no idea they were putting across. Jim knows this and that is one of the interesting things about his teaching. He's very, very unassuming. He doesn't think that he has the right to pronounce judgment on the work of others. On the other hand I had a teacher when I was at the workshop, the former director, Frank Conroy, who was another kind of teacher entirely and many people think a great, great and I also liked Frank very much and learned an enormous amount.