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Writers’ Workshop still going strong

BY ERIC ANDERSEN | DECEMBER 10, 2009 7:30 AM

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Graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop have gone on to do great things, but in many cases, their stories become hazy once they leave the UI.

But a number of recent Writers’ Workshop graduates have begun to find success in an area in which nothing is certain. Iowa City residents and Writers’ Workshop alumni Zach Falcon, Ted Thompson, and Jenny Zhang have all won honors for their writing.

Zach Falcon

“I think one of the differences between Iowa City and probably any other town in America is that nobody thinks you’re crazy for wanting to write,” Falcon said.

Falcon, 37, recently won a runner-up award in the UK’s Bridport Prize international writing competition for his short story “The Malamute.” The piece tells the story of a mother, two children, and a malamute dog, living in Alaska — where Falcon is from — after the father has left the family.

After graduating from high school, he received an undergraduate degree from Columbia and then attended University of Michigan’s law school because he felt being a writer was “a bad business plan.”

“I thought I could have a career as a lawyer and write on the side, but the truth is lawyering is a full-time job, and so is writing,” he said. “To try to split them means you’re probably going to be pretty lousy at both, which happened to me.”

His fondness for writing caused him to reconsider his decision to be a lawyer and apply to the Writers’ Workshop.

“The Workshop gives writers the confidence to face the blank page,” Falcon said. “With every story, with any project, you’re trying to build the world anew, and it can be a very daunting undertaking. The Workshop gives you the tools to forge ahead with something as crazy as that.”

Ted Thompson

Thompson, a New York University graduate, said his time in the Writers’ Workshop allowed him to “speed up the learning process” and improve his writing much faster than he could have done on his own.

The 29-year-old recently had a short story, “Some Things I’ve Been Meaning to Ask You,” placed in the Best New American Voices collection. The story is written from the point of view of a young man who is trying to explain to his dead father why he didn’t hang out with him more.

The creative-writing instructor said the Workshop is different from other graduate programs at the UI.

“The reason it’s challenging is because it gives you all of this time,” he said. “And if you want to be a writer and this is what you want to do, it basically just forces you to do it.”

Although Thompson, who is working on a novel, enjoyed his time in the Workshop, he recognizes that the experience is not for everyone.

“The program is not going to make you a writer, and it’s not going to teach you anything about whether you should be doing this, but it is going to give you time and space and help you if you’ve already decided to ruin your life like this,” Thompson said, then laughed.

Jenny Zhang

Zhang placed second in the Zoetrope Short Fiction Contest for her story “You Fell Into the River and I Saved You.”

The story is split into numerous parts by the subheadings “Reunion 1-4.” It is told from the first person point-of-view of a young woman who both loves and wants to get away from her family. In the end, the narrator grows wings and flies around the world, gathering family members for one final reunion.

Zhang, 25, who received an undergraduate degree from Stanford, teaches a creative-writing seminar as part of a fellowship with the Workshop.

She has applied for another fellowship, and she plans on traveling to France to work on a novel.

The Writers’ Workshop gave her time to concentrate solely on writing, something she could not get elsewhere.

“[The Workshop] is probably the one place in the world where you’re working alongside people who are going to be the best writers of the next generation,” Zhang said. “My love of the town is really high.”


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