A Day in the Life of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

April 8, 2014 | 6 books mentioned 50 13 min read


coverWe here at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop have been surprised to find ourselves – for lack of a better word – trending. From Eric Bennett’s allegations in “How Iowa Flattened Literature” to n+1’s book MFA vs NYC, we really didn’t think there was more to say about our institution…and then Hannah Horvath, in an odd twist of fictional life becoming reality, was accepted on Girls.

Of course we were excited by the buzz. But in this larger discussion, we found that something was lacking: namely, the view from Iowa City. Right here, right now.

So: here it is.

On a dismal midwinter Thursday, we – eighteen current students of the Writers’ Workshop, poets and fiction writers alike – set out to chronicle one ordinary 24-hour period in our lives. That February 13th, we took copious notes. We worked, whether on our novels or on our Twitter accounts. Some of us taught classes. Some of us went to a poetry reading and after-party. And some of us just ran around tossing Valentines into each other’s houses.

My colleagues’ responses may vary widely in form, ranging from poems to stories to lyric essays, but all of them are, like my colleagues, entertaining. And furthermore: excerpts from their responses, when laid out to roughly span those 24 hours, give a decent picture of what it’s actually like to be a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop right now – that is, to be one of many people all striving to do the same difficult thing, in the same moderately-sized city, at the same talked-about school.

Hannah Horvath: take note.

On waking:

(Van Choojitarom, second-year fiction)

Van is having trouble leaving his apartment. The problem today is getting dressed. It’s not that Van is particularly vain or fastidious. It’s that as he’s putting on his suit and necktie he invariably begins delivering a bad guy monologue to the bathroom mirror. Welcome to my island, Mr. Bond, the solid grey suit seems to say. Sometimes he can cut it down, but other times, some inner Hans Gruberian impulse cannot be checked and he ends up trying on all his different coats in front of the mirror, regardless of the actual weather, lapels folded over his throat, inveigling the ceiling, delivering solid broadly humanitarian, ultimately Marxist reasons for Bruce Willis to surrender.

This morning he’s fixated on a grey plaid double breasted jacket that puts in him in mind of Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter. It seems to be driving him to wider, patterned ties: “I don’t really think your story has POV problems, Will. I just wanted to see how you’d react…”

(Jessie Hennen, second-year fiction)

Every morning I wake up and Colin is still asleep. Usually I lie there for twenty minutes and try to ease myself out of the bed without him noticing, but inevitably he does. “Stay,” he says, not quite awake. Then I have to sound like an absolute bitch and say that I am done sleeping, that I have things to accomplish. Really it is that I am sick of looking at the light fixture, at the sky coming in bright against my peach-colored curtain, the ceiling shimmering like the northern lights. While I look at the ceiling I think too much about the future.

“I can’t sleep in any more. I have to finish (x),” I always say. Today (x) is a novel chapter about giant deep-sea fish who grow weary of being imprisoned in a tank and incite their angry brethren to make the oceans swim with rage.

“Oh, okay,” he says, but he doesn’t let go. Frida the cat sits in the middle of the bed, meowing. I suppose she is cozy. I tell him I had a very episodic dream. “I was surviving the Rapture with my family. Our house was under siege, people kept throwing rocks at our windows, everyone wanted in. Finally the call came from heaven, and our whole house floated up into the sky above the angry mobs. I almost got Left Behind because I was drinking a beer, but I tossed it out and we made it to heaven.

“Heaven, it turned out, looked a lot like Milwaukee. Very small houses, a very bright sky. The powers that be were keeping us in a strip mall until they could find proper heavenly places for us. It was packed – kind of a shantytown, really. It had a barter economy going. Some guy had a computer with Facebook, and I convinced him to check mine. Jen Percy had been posting these really great photos of Hell. As it turns out, Hell is a dusty Victorian with vintage drapes and canopy beds. I wasn’t sure whether she was there on assignment, or permanently.”

“Well, you have to include that,” he says, and we get up.

On teaching:

(David Kruger, second-year poet)

I walk through a parking lot, down a flight of outside stairs and into an old brick building where I teach what is essentially Basket Weaving 101, but instead of palm fronds and twigs, I talk as vaguely as possible about metaphors.

Today I say things like: student A, you need more flesh and muscle for that prostitute in your car, and Student B, the statue of David you encounter during your trip to Florence might be thought of as symbolic of the patriarchy and therefore of the trials you and your gal-pals endure. Student C’s story is about the big game, and so I simply point to Plot Mountain on the board and suggest that stakes, when raised, are like little plateaus for the reader to climb and consider.

Toward the end of all of this, I really have to pee.

(Mallory Hellman, second-year fiction)

4:07 pm – I’m late to pick everyone up, and I’m the one leading our lesson today. When I pull up to Dey House, all four of my fellow Youth Writing Project volunteers are assembled on a snowbank waiting for me. One holds a bag full of construction paper. Another shivers under a hat with long ear flaps. Troopers. They get in, and I gently disrespect the speed limit until we’ve reached Cedar Rapids.

4:45 pm – Our gang of ten is happy to see us, even though we didn’t come bearing snacks. We cluster three tables together in the classroom and hang up our laminated Writing Club sign.

5:15 pm – Teonie, who is eight, has written an ode to tacos and nachos. Most of it is a meditation on her two favorite foods’ similarities, concluding with a tenderly inflected, “Are you sisters?” This leads, naturally, to a heated debate about which foods are sisters, which are brothers, which might be cousins, and which aren’t related at all.

5:45 pm – Lasagna and calzones are parents to spaghetti. Pizza is a cousin, on the calzone side of course. Macaroni wants to be in the family but isn’t – it rolls with the hot dish instead. Peaches and plums go hand in hand, but mangoes and green peppers have never met. Avocados and pears hate it when they’re mistaken for sisters.

(Matthew Weiss, first-year fiction)

Taught Interpretation of Literature. Big old room. Clonking around in my shoes.

Talked about the etymology of the word symbol.

  • It originally meant two shards of a ceramic pot broken at the moment two parties made a deal. Later, you’d know things were legit if the two pot shards fit back together.
  • Hence Plato’s: man is a symbol of himself, looking for his other half.
  • Also, a symbol could mean: a chance meeting, a receipt, a watchword, or a Pythagorean cult password.
  • For example, the Pythagoreans would recognize a brother by muttering things like, “What is the sea?” and getting back, “The tear of Kronos!”

Lost track of time. Possibly I showed the kids a clip from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I claimed was “symbolic.”

They’d never heard of 2001: A Space Odyssey before.

(Patrick Connelly, first-year fiction)

There is a girl in the hall where I teach rhetoric. She looks like she is about eighteen, nineteen years old. I always see her. She is hunched in an electric wheelchair with her wrists and her neck bent and her chin down. She isn’t quadriplegic; I have seen her hands and fingers move. I think she has a neuromuscular disease. Her body is small. She is sitting against the wall, alongside the other kids, waiting for the classrooms to empty. To be honest, I try not to think about her beyond the end of the hall (outside, at Prairie Lights Café, at the gym, at home, and then at a party after a poetry reading), but I can’t help it. Today is different. When I pass her, she is playing Bejeweled on her iPad Mini, swapping the colors around the screen with her finger; she is bored.

coverIn class, I ask for a show of hands. Who’s read To Kill a Mockingbird? I get up and talk about empathy. You can never really understand a person until you climb into her skin and walk around in it. You can’t understand a controversy or advocate for a proper solution until you’re able to consider things from other people’s point of view.

Is simply being aware of something or someone any good? Because I probably won’t ever talk to this girl in the hall. I will only write about her.

I should ask my students what they think.

(Misty Woodford, third-year poet)

On the way home from teaching, I’m thinking about trochees, and this happens: “GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum” – by now I’m stomping out the rhythm as I walk – and I don’t realize I’m also saying this out loud until I near my apartment building, and see a figure freeze up on the lawn. It’s the guy who lives in the basement and I’ve scared him this time. I start to walk normally, more pyrrhic, I guess, and say, “Hello!”

He says “Hi” and attends to his cigarette. Dinner is multiple cups of tea and the hope that chamomile and valerian work tonight.

On writing:

(Thomas Corcoran, second-year fiction)

After rereading the last day’s work, I begin the current day’s session, writing on a 1971 Olympia SM-9 typewriter with a 12-point font similar to Garamond. Typewriters are useful when the desire is more to make daily advances on a draft than to polish the prose. Before being written, sentences are usually imagined but not too precisely; and except for the occasional “xxxx” (over which I always feel a pang), corrections are simply too hard to make in great number. As with writing generally the challenge is to convert insights that might have limitless depth but no duration into sentences that are stretched out in length but constrained by their gathered energy, like ocean waves striking the shore. After a lot of practice the prose is reasonably good in this format anyway. The rhythm of the typing helps. What may still be needed are selection, precision, and courage.

(Dini Parayitam, second-year fiction)

…This place is about vulnerability. Every second of it is a lie you tell yourself. “I belong here. I am happy here. I am happiest here among people like me.” Really you are very hyper-conscious of the fact that you aren’t actually happy here. Being with so many people who do these things that you love better than you makes you question why you are worthy of doing it at all in the first place.

This is what Iowa Writers’ Workshop teaches you:

1. The wish to write a good story is fake.

2. The will to write a good story cannot be trusted.

3. The insecurity you feel when you are done is normal.

4. The insanity of the writer is a very real thing.

(Andy Axel, first-year poet)

“Observatory Log: 13 February 2014 Iowa City”

1 discreet tree relief

10 a whole class chanting what sounds like “TOGA” with increasing speed

11 dough-faced boy in american flag vest with cup not actually from starbucks

12 prime view of the capitol from the waiting room

1 the word “widowed” on a dropdown menu

2 when I see more than three robins in the same place I start to get suspicious

3 I check to see whether I’m wearing a sweater

5 child ode to cat:

“Feliz: you are not like a garbage can.

You are like a light when you surprise me.

Do you speak Spanish?”

6 when I enter the Dey House it smells like ink and xmas

7 my view field’s all baldspot

11 dogs express interest in the terrible smell of my boots

12 enough of weather

(Jake Andrews, first-year fiction)

After lunch, I sat down to write. The main character’s girlfriend had just walked into his room and told him some good news. He recollects: “Had I ever thought about sex as a way to celebrate academic achievement?” (I, the author, certainly have; Daniel was a bit more surprised.) The story had taken a turn I wasn’t expecting, and I was stuck. So I started cleaning up my desktop (the one on my computer, not the one on which the computer usually sits, though it wasn’t there on this day in any case; I was sitting in a chair in the living room because – to re-emphasize the solitude that prompts reflection – my wife was out).

I stumbled on a collection of photos that my step-mom had put together for my dad’s funeral back in December. I had downloaded them and forgotten about the folder.

Two photos in particular jumped out at me. In the first one, my dad has me on his shoulders. I can’t be two months old. (My mother remembers taking this picture and being horrified.) My head peeks out above his hair, and his hands hold me in place. My pudgy feet are almost to his chin. In spite of the 1970s glasses, he looks remarkably like my middle brother, mainly because he is skinnier than he was in later life. He’s smiling like a kid – he would’ve been 20 – and looking at the camera. I’m gazing off to the left, my hands gripping his hair, my face – wide cheeks and a small chin – looking remarkably like my own son’s the day we removed him from life support.

In the second photo, my dad isn’t looking at the camera, but he’s still smiling. He’s on all fours, and I’m crawling between his arms, probably just over six months old. My left hand is raised, reaching for a balloon. If you look close enough, you can see that he’s holding it for me. My straight blond hair has lost the red hue from the earlier photo; like my nephew, I’ve got pudgy cheeks and pudgy fingers. I’m in motion. There’s a blur to my hand.

I don’t really know how long I looked at the photos in the folder. I didn’t write for a while after finding them. I made myself a cup of tea.

On readings and parties:

(Sean Zhuraw, second-year poet)

A friend, SE S, sees the stich of my saccades trailing the runaway cambus down Clinton Street, sees I’ve missed the bus.

She gives me a ride to the doctor.

My eyes are fine.

Try this when looking at something, she says, after looking at it, look away.

Take sanitary breaks, she says.

Take mind off.

There are layers among the distances, magnifications.

Her assistant returns to dilate my pupils.

When the doctor leans into my eye, she says, don’t look at the light; keep focus past it.

I buy a few Valentines.

I live in a small town, so on the way home I stop by JM’s house, open her door, sneak into her kitchen, stuff a rabbit down the back of her shirt.

It says, Ears Hopping you’ll be mine.

I also make one Valentine from two.

They’re angels unless you mess with their halos – the TV’s ad.

Later, I catch myself eating a sandwich in a mirror. It is the only way I can see what my hands are on.

Ditto the poetry reading that night.

Language is an organ, he says, not just sensate but reciprocal too.

Q: Do the eyes rhyme with their host?

A: I don’t know. I keep checking to see if it’s changed.

(Laura Ferris, first-year poet)

Now that my schedule for the day has played out, I feel less certain of how I spent my time. Tomorrow I know I am going to the library to do more research for my historical-ish surrealist-adjacent poem, spending hours at a microfilm scanner. I consider going out because I’m supposed to be writing about my day, but ultimately decide I don’t care enough about making the day seem like anything.

I watch more episodes of Sailor Moon with Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, think about to what extent I care about Valentine’s Day. I want to say that I usually do more, write more, than this. Today, though, I’m spent, uninspired, and a little lonely – and unable to go out.

(Will Jameson, first-year poet)

Anthony and Elyse and Jordan and I are drinking gin and tonics. Elyse doesn’t have a lime but she has a lemon. We finished the pepperoni and mushroom pizza from Falbo’s we’d ordered which was a circle cut into squares. Jordan is playing Drake on his computer and Anthony is drawing a grid in his notebook that plots where our poetics stand in relation to each other. It looks like a sketch of Orion without the helpful lines drawn in between to illuminate the figure. Elyse reads aloud some Norman Dubie. Anthony reads aloud some James Tate. Then we keep talking about ourselves.

(D.R. Simonds, second-year poet)

“The Willow Tree on the West Bank, Iowa River”

For Emma Woodhouse

Near the “Train Only” bridge we footbridge, you burn

willow branches two at a time, saying

you know I know

how to respond

in a heartbreaking situation, (having broken

hearts before), spine-burn

running thru your hands, but the other

white-hot willows nearby

I am never showing you, my first impulse for our survival

I can’t never show you.

(Jerika Marchan, second-year poet)

I want to be original and smart. I want to not feel guilty about eating half a chocolate bar for breakfast. I don’t eat microwave dinners. I want to delude myself into health. I listen to this interview on Iowa Public Radio because I feel like I can participate and because the conversation is smart. People feel strongly about things and I can, too. I Can Too.

I go downstairs and make a bean burrito. The door to the house is usually left unlocked, and as I’m guiltily overstuffing my burrito, someone busts in to tuck in the tag hanging out of my dress and leave me a Valentine. I scream for a long time.

Jessie gets home and asks if I wanna go to Meredith’s for pad thai and sake. Yes get me out of this house, I’m full of burrito. (I will eat only bunny-amounts of pad thai is what I tell myself.) Pad thai happens in a sake-induced fog. (Meredith googles “what’s in sake bombs?”) Meredith and I successfully open a very-difficult-to-open jar of organic coconut oil. I bust my ass trying to sit on what I thought was a chair but really was a cookie sheet resting on a chair, and I fall to the ground. It’s kinda nice. (Is that weird?) I haven’t fallen on my ass in a while. It’s nice to know what it feels like from time to time.

Jessie and I tell Mere about my ongoing boob-angst, and she looks at me for a quick second before deciding that I’m at least a D-cup.

(Rachel Milligan, second-year poet)

coverI wake up at noon, spend the day reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets on the couch, lighting three candles, blowing them out, and then lighting them again. I have a glass of wine before the Richard Kenney and Carol Light reading. My night concludes with one of my best friends scream-singing at me, perched on top of the refrigerator.

(Cassidy McFadzean, first-year poet)

After dinner, we walk to Dey House for Richard Kenney’s reading. Nathan slips on the ice outside our apartment, but he doesn’t see the blood on his hand until he leaves a mark on the door of the workshop. He wipes it off. We sit with Will, with Connor in front of us. The three of us were in Rick’s workshop last semester, and I see the other seven students scattered around the room. Rick refuses the microphone and reads a mix of riddles, charms, and pun-filled haikus, occasionally stepping out from behind the podium to address us, bringing his words closer to our ears.

The after party’s at Will’s and I make him show me the group pictures he took of our class last semester. I feel nostalgic. I eat pita chips and hummus and talk with Connor and Nikki about the classes we’re teaching. I talk with Winter about the buttons on the sleeves of her dress. I talk with Clare about how amazing Hy-Vee is, though she does not share my sentiments. I talk with Chad about Canadian poets, and Petro about Trailer Park Boys.

Every party proceeds the same: the bass gets turned up, the lights get dimmed down. Someone plays Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” We talk about how every party ends this way. It’s around midnight, and some of us leave, and some of us stay.

Image Credit: J.Y. “Warmer is not warm.”

is a second-year MFA candidate in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a 2010 graduate of the University of Minnesota Morris. Before coming to Iowa, she worked in Munich, Germany, first as a nanny and then as a marketing project manager. Her work has appeared or will appear in Untoward Magazine, the Star Tribune, Fiction365, and Typografika. She is currently at work on Wealth like a Volcano, her first novel.


  1. Looks like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop hasn’t yet taught people how to avoid the total baby-diarrhea stankiness of artifice — absolutely none of this crap reads naturally. What’s the point, Millions? I guess I shouldn’t’ve clicked on it

  2. Um… no surprises whatsoever. Incidentally this could also be Baltimore, Boston, or Bennington and you would really not have to change one single interchangeable detail. Youth is wasted on the young. So are MFAs. I speak from experience. :-)

  3. Love what Dini wrote and I’m sure I’ll revisit her sentiments whenever I’m in mfa school with a bunch of talent. Thanks for the brief note on vulnerability! It encoraged me to find my writerly insanity…

  4. Having pursued a very slow growing writing career alongside Day Jobs in tech, public health, and higher education, I’ll just say that I can smell the money here though (as in Henry James) it’s nowhere mentioned. None of the first-generation college students I know are pursuing arts degrees. There’s a damned good reason. Thank heaven for my high-school-educated mother’s insistence that I Learn A Trade, or Two, or Three.

    The only way you get better at writing is by writing.

  5. What Dunbar said. Some of the worst, stilted, self-conscious, precious, pretentious, workshoppy writing I’ve ever seen.

  6. They are still trying way too hard and so these reek of “Look at me! I’m a writer!”.
    Not all of them, but most of them. Laura Ferris is the only one who I would seek out to read because hers seems the only honest one in the bunch.

  7. Thanks for reading, everyone! I’m sorry if you find us pretentious – the project began simply as an attempt to chronicle 24 hours of life in the same town. I didn’t originally intend to publish it online, but when all the articles about the Workshop started coming out, I thought it’d be cool to show what life here was actually like.

    There are thousands of brilliant writers in the world; we just happen to attend school here. We were as surprised as anyone to have been accepted; I think Sam Chang has confirmed that the Workshop strives to admit students from everywhere, not just the land of the moneyed.

    Thanks again, and good luck with your own projects.

  8. It seems like an ordinary day among people who are trying to chase something that is hard to achieve. And an ordinary day on the Internet, too, where people are spending so much energy throwing darts at other human beings for no good reason.

    Big cheers to all of you. Keep at it.

  9. Love the willingness to share! Dini, you’re my superheroine, wish we’d hung out more! Daniel Simmonds — excellent read, loved it!

    XOXO Workshoppers!

  10. PSH the haters here couldn’t write/read themselves out of a paper bag.

    E. P. Beaumont especially. You learned a trade! Congrats, bro. QQ

  11. Are people here seriously having an issue with criticisms of workshop writer’s writing? It’s nice that you want to stick up for your friends and family, but they are in The Workshop. They live for criticism. Will you also insult all the negative Amazon reviewers when they publish?
    I expected to see an actual article about the Writer’s Workshop, as that is what the title suggests. That is not what even close to what was presented. Perhaps change the headline to “Iowa Writer’s Workshop Students Offer Samples of Their Craft”, since this has nothing to do with the workshop itself. I don’t think it’s bad writing, but “self conscious” was an appropriate term.

  12. I’ve never read a more self-congratulatory, insipid, utterly meritless collection of sentences in my entire life. There is nothing less interesting than even good writers on writing, and nothing here pings appreciably close to that very low bar. This is public masturbation at its most egregious and least titillating. I hope you all are properly stricken by how little you have to say and how badly you say even that.

  13. As for public masturbation–“the insecurity you feel when you are done is normal.”

  14. Human Decency tested out of fourth grade reading, and, since then, has been very proud of his middling command of the English Language.

  15. Boringly cosy. No struggle. Too insular.

    I agree with EP Beaumont that you “can smell the money here” – even so, people with money can be more interested than this in what’s going on around them: not even one sentence of response to something in that morning’s news, or events in the town? The one who mentions the girl with the wheelchair has something of the right idea – at least that’s a life we don’t hear about all the time in the way we do about squeaky-clean MFA kids – but still doesn’t show much sign of imagining what it would be like to be someone else. Probably too sheltered, probably hasn’t ever spent much time with someone like her. Too many people these days try to write before they’ve had the life experience outside college to write about, and they don’t have the flair to make it interesting to non-peers regardless.

    Where’s the anger, the pain, the intensity? Not to mention the humour? NONE of these is funny. Nobody has a problem, even one so mundane as a bad hangover. It’s like an Instagram album you’d be happy to show your grandparents, and it’s a great supporting argument for those who think that books they love aren’t so likely to come out of these programs, because they prefer darker, weirder, more brilliant writing (like the Stig Saetterbakken novel which was the last great thing I read).

    Rather liked the Observatory Log though. Gives some sense of the place, not just of being in the head of a sheltered middle class American twentysomething.

  16. When I saw the title of this article, my first thought was “Man, the comment section is going to be dripping with vitriol.” And I wasn’t disappointed!

    It’s funny the amount of contempt people feel for MFA programs and MFA grads. I can only assume this contempt, and in particular, the consistently virulent nastiness of the contempt, arises from some combination of envy and a perceived or inferred feeling of superiority on the part of MFAers. As a recent graduate of a top-ten MFA program, I can assure the slavering hordes here and elsewhere that no one at these programs (well, my program anyway) thinks the MFA is in itself very meaningful. What it means is that you got into an MFA program, and didn’t fuck up badly enough not to graduate. It does, of course, in some cases (not all, or most) open doors in the publishing world that would otherwise have been closed. I can see how that might be annoying to non-MFA writers; nonetheless, if you write a great novel, it will probably get published. What MFAs really mean is money–two to four years of funding while you work on your craft. It’s hard to understand why anyone who knows how hard it is to write would begrudge another writer the opportunity to live at a subsistence level for a few years while they hone their craft, but yeah, we’re all a bunch of spoiled rich kid dilettantes or something. (Real spoiled rich kid dilettantes, you realize, don’t usually need or want to TA classes for 18k a year.)

    Anyway, yes, the article sucks and was a bad idea to begin with, but not for the reasons posted in this comment section. The problem with the article is less that MFAers are navel-gazing idiots and more that 20-somethings are navel-gazing idiots. I do generally agree with the argument that going from undergraduate directly to an MFA is not the best thing for an aspiring writer, and that you should probably have waited tables for six months before writing the Great American Novel; but then, everyone, not just writers, should wait tables for six months.

    The “MFA Novel” thing is a total canard, btw.

  17. Scumbag Germane Jackson:

    Tells you not to jump to conclusions about all MFA programs.
    Says that all 20-somethings are navel-gazing idiots.

  18. Yeah, actually, I’d never begrudge anyone attending an MFA program if they’ve got grant money to go — getting paid to write in an environment far away from the cesspit of the city? Hell yeah, go for it. But, you know, I’d also recommend, kind of like you said, working shitty jobs for a few years before you apply to an MFA or whatever, even if you get paid to go. My problem with the article above was that the writing was lousy and artificial and served no purpose — which I think is reasonable and something that people in an MFA “workshop” program should be receptive to. No one’s going to be a better writer for not being told that their shit is in fact shit. As for the rest of the vitriol jumpin’ around here, it’s just fun, I’d take it with a grain of salt. Anonymous vitriol is just sort of the main driving force of the internet, so it’s inevitable and unstoppable.

  19. From here, the view of my navel isn’t half bad. I’m wearing a crop top for this purpose and the light from the compact fluorescent is slanted in a way that makes it seem deeper than it actually is. Or maybe it’s just bellylint. What’s that they always say about navels? The bellybutton lint is always greener on the other side? Beauty is in the eye of the bellybutton? No matter. I reserve my ennui for other things. I might ask my mom to drive me to Barnes and Noble.


  21. Really, Dunbar Humbly? Grow up.
    The kind of rawness is most intriguing. There is a dark humor resonating throughout all of the pieces, the constant stress coming from choosing this life lingers between the sentences, between the words even. And this kind of writing ought to be lauded. You are all very brave. Thank you for sharing your day with the rest of us. I, for one, am truly touched by all of your voices. Congratulations, Jessie.

  22. @ Dunbar

    First, I like the scare quotes around “workshop.” Second, this article is meant to be a fun little thing about a day in the life, and I doubt any of these writers put 1/1000 the amount of effort into this that they do into their workshop submissions. To amend my previous statement, the problem with this piece is probably just that it’s inherently a bad idea to ask writers to write about their lives, since most writers’ lives, 20-somethings or not, are obscenely boring.

  23. What a lot of crazy energy here (primarily in the responses). A most deceptively provocative article indeed. Love it! I’ve just come scampering back to the Millions comment pages after a Twitter experiment in which I created a fictional character (who some truly strange people thought was real, even though I made clear that he died in 1913). I don’t think Senator Kefuaver F. Tutwiller, IV (1823-1913) is ready for the public yet.

    Some observations:

    a.) A lot here reminds me of hilarious mini-Twitter-bio I read. A gentleman described himself as “Rapidly overtaken by the smarter and more accomplished. They are probably also very nice people.”

    b.) Everybody has their Maureen Davorin. Maureen Davorin was in my 5th Grade Class. I was a grubby little working-class overachiever, who found in her the 98 to my 92 on tests. I hated her for her blue velvet ribbon, her silky blonde hair, and her huge group of friends. In her sweet, innocent, oblivious smile, I recognized the nasty toad lurking in my heart. But worst of all, the wormwood in my craw, was she had a NICE aunt, one who gave her the entire collection of “Little House” books. “Little House” books I had to get as they dribbled out of the public library once a month or so, invariably marked up, torn, and sometimes vomit-stained (sick bed reading).

    c.) Does above seem “sad” or “bad?” Hell no! What jet fuel, what energy. Look at this comment page…. I salute the Mad Capitalization of Dunbar Humby!

    d.) I have s suspicion that often the rare, great talent is recognized pretty quickly (Flannery O’Connor is a good example) but that the rest of it is a crap shoot, in which most of us in 50-100 years will be dust and long-forgotten.

    e.) I emerged sleepless and bleary eyed form Comcast Watchathon’s free HBO Cable last weekend, and after speed-watching an entire season of “Girls” must Confess that I did HATE the main character when she received her Iowa acceptance letter. There. I said it. Maureen Davorin all over again.

    f.) “Amadeus” build a whole play then movie, around the anguish of the mediocre thrashing around and eternally flummoxed by Genius. I hope someday to reach the great equanimity of the ancient Salieri, who, as the Patron Saint of Mediocrity, blessed his fellow Mediocre inmates at the nursing home from his wheelchair!

    (P.S. No, I don’t want to be a mediocre writer. No one does, and that is why rejection is so painful. Millions writers, keep taking that bile and hate and gall and cable binging and turn dross into written gold…. I want to read it!)

    Moe Murph
    (Likes Pseudonym of “Scumbag Germane Jackson” by was already taken by a Great Demented Wit – Bravo Sir!

  24. “the constant stress coming from choosing this life lingers between the sentences, between the words even.”

    Unless you’re talking about the constant stress of being a human being, this crap sounds like the work of a dipshit who never had a job in his life. I mean a job job — as in, one which requires standing on one’s feet for ten or twelve hours at a time. Or someone who hasn’t had a job like that in so long they’ve forgotten what it feels like to not be resting constantly on one’s own asshole. Grow up to what extent? To the extent where I don’t make obscene, stupid comments on a website devoted to books? Wherein the important work is done? Following another comment in which major concerns, as far as I see them, were addressed? Is anyone intellectually invalidated because following an argument they make a farting sound? Or does the intellectual argument, or a few casual observations, have no merit, because they were followed by something awful and stupid? At the same time, to what extent do you invalidate someone’s maturity? Mine is suspect entirely — but based on what I wrote, it was all done in keeping with Western literary tradition. More so, in any case, than any of the above writing, the writing in the article, which, as far as I can see, is nothing but the palest shadow of a number of mysteriously-labeled minimalists. Remember the Romans, sir! Remember the Romans! How many cocks are there in the Satyricon?


    “Second, this article is meant to be a fun little thing about a day in the life, and I doubt any of these writers put 1/1000 the amount of effort into this that they do into their workshop submissions.”

    I posted my message prior to those obscenities in the hopes that you wouldn’t feel it necessary to respond with anything explanatory whatsoever, as I tried to evidence understanding of your point and sympathy with the above writers, however poor their efforts here. If I failed in that, I apologize. But I do take issue with the notion that a fun little thing is, on this website, anything more than the hope of pulling in clicks for the Millions’ advertising revenue, based entirely on the fact that, as stated in the above article, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is currently popular or in the news a bit more (Girls I guess?) and so it behooves the Millions to post something about said school. Which would not be a problem if said article was not garbage.

    Though it was not necessarily ALL garbage — fun enough to get into a discussion, right?

  25. Anyone who uses “prior to” instead of a perfectly good “before” needs to learn a thing or two about the “total baby-diarrhea stankiness of artifice.”

  26. “Though it was not necessarily ALL garbage — fun enough to get into a discussion, right?”

    Indeed. It’s fun to see an article on a literary website with >30 comments! On that note, I think Girls is terrible, self-absorbed dreck, and that Lena Dunham should probably be put in a rocket and launched into the sun, but regardless it’s nice to see some aspect of literary fiction graze the consciousness of Popular Culture.

  27. The Millions Comments Section – The Internet’s Answers To 18th Century London’s Literary Clubs and Establishments For Gentlemen

    LONDON – 1748

    Messrs Jackson and Humbly, Awaited the arrival of that Odd Fellow, Raab, before being informed that he had been taken with a Most Grievous case of Gout and was being treated with an avaricious blend of Leeches frm the Coast of Greater Guinea. Twas doubtful that he would live.

    “Errm,, Hruuuumph, what of that Bluestocking Bitch Miss Dunham, up Mayfair Way with her rantings. Shut her up in a Nunnery, I say!! Haaarrrruph,” grumbled Master Jackson from just by the stove, where he was making a Most Vain Attempt to warmihis poor, in-stained fingers.

    “Humbug, you Clattering Fool,” bellowed Master Humbly. “If Thou would stickest to thy own Verbiage and attend to matters of Grammatical Correctness, Emulating the great Johnson in That Endeavor, Thou would have no time for such Frippery and Chatter.”

    Darting from his chair with a great roar, Jackson tackled Humbly, and they commmenced to pound each other slly, until separated at last by Charles, Idiot Son of The Proprietor, who quieted the Rioutous Outbreak === pourng the contents of the a full chamber pot on their heads!!! What Ho! Walk On!!!

    The End

    Moe Murph
    18th Century Swine Girl – County Cork

  28. Moe Murph,

    You are beautiful. Do you have any books/essays/poems/stories published anywhere? I want to read all of your things.


  29. Thank you, Mr. Raab!

    I am in the midst of getting my “pieces” together and putting them on the web in some semblance of a logical order, I have been primarily a “lurker” and Haunter of Washington DC Poetry Readings, and am a hopeless Luddite about technology, but am working to change that!

    I will be continuing to post in the Millions frequently and will ceaselessly flog my website address when it is ready! Also, Twitter, when I get back on (seriously, I invented a character named Tutwiller that attracted an odd group of people and I scared myself!) But I’ll be back there too! (Also, if you check out many of the articles over the past year, I should show up in the comment sections, I am also sometimes known as “No. 1 Toast Fan” I’m a big fan of “The Toast” as well as Millions.

    Best regards, a Fellow Lover of Writing,

    Maureen Murphy
    (“Moe Murph”)

  30. BACK TO WORK, ALL OF YOU!! — Martinus Scriblerus

    (Moe Murph goes “Tee hee hee…..”

  31. I think you all should know: this comments section has been read aloud by not just drunk Workshoppers at various dinner parties, but also by an entire class studying reactions to the MFA.

    And me, plenty of times. I love what it has become.

  32. Jesus Christ I don’t think I would’ve posted the above comment had my crazy illiterate neighbor not given me all those fucking BRANDIES, DENNIS YOU SON OF A BITCH. I don’t think there’s any greater reason to exist than to spread weird joy. Dennis would add: don’t let loud motherfuckers into your apartment, and if you smoke, USE A FAN YOU STUPID NOT-JOHN-WAYNE-LOVING MOTHERFUCKER. But despite whatever I wrote and however dumb I am, I love Moe Murph, and Jessie Hennen.

  33. Humbly: BEHAVE YOURSELF, you churlish cur!

    Raab: Do so hope your Gout is clearing up

    Miss. Hennen: As a motherly middle-aged person, i want to apologize for this rabble. You have taken our frothings with most good humor. I sent my great good wishes to the stalwart Worshoppers. Tales of your dinners bring to mind something out of a Harry Potter movie, tho I suspect you all have at least past puberty.

    Best regards,

    Moe Murph

    P.S. “Hi Timble, how ya doin?”

  34. Post PS: The above message is shamelessly unproofread. My policy for Millions comments is to just merrily bang them out when I am supposed to be doing something else, so I work fast and don’t ever edt. Not a good practice.

  35. This will be my last comment to this incredible chain. This article sparked a lot of ideas in me last week (in tandem with my Twitter “creating a fictional character in public” experience). I thought a lot about the concept of the “artisan,” who is able to find some peaceful space in the chaos of the world, and continue the work of creating. I am taking the liberty of including it here if you’ve got a minute. Moe Murph


    There is a little coffee shop inside a covered market on a narrow street in Damascus. A single bomb could leave it rubble at any time, but, for the moment, the stream of coffees carefully poured out into tiny cups join other streams, poured out over a thousand years. The server nods and smiles politely, then he gets back to his work.

    “Things here are unchanged,” says a patron. “Things are just as they always have been.”

    In Madrid, the Plaza Mayor is surrounded by side streets of tapas eateries. One serves snails in clay bowls, another bocadillos, another piles of crisp-fried seafood. At night, a parade of Madrilènos weaves in and out on an endless tapas parade, eating, drinking, moving on. At one of the smallest, a stone hobbit hole of a place, a middle-aged man wields his cast iron pans, turning out endless egg-and-potato tortillas, more omelets, really. As he breaks egg, after egg, after egg, his pattern is as smooth and perfect as the pour of the coffee man in Damascus.

    A tourist couple walks by him as the line to the cashier winds through the place. Simultaneously asking permission and snapping, the woman catches him mid-egg-crack. He looks up, nods very slightly, and looks down again, all before the yolk has finished landing in his bowl. The next second, he is back to cracking.

    In Venice, behind the glossy shops selling masks mass-produced in Pakistan or Viet Nam, sits an alleyway full of gondolas slightly past their prime. There’s a strong smell of varnish in the air. A young bearded man with the aquiline nose of a medieval monk ever so slowly slices at the edges of a piece of wood. It is the forcola, or oarlock, always built from a single piece of walnut. The only movement besides his slow carving is the ginger cat scratching in the corner, and every so often the lap of waves from the lagoon.

    One more artisan works in Tokyo, on an island of quiet just slightly north of downtown. It is Yanaka, a backwater somehow spared from the firebombs of World War II. Another worker in wood, he rescues bamboo from demolished houses, poles burned brown and black by decades of wood smoke. A faded autographed photo of Prince Charles hangs on the wall.

    With careful attention and total focus, the artisan helps a customer pick out something to fit her limited budget. It’s just a hollowed chunk of smoked bamboo filled with slivers of bamboo toothpick. Joining the coffee maker, the cook, and the wood carver, he rings his customer up, gives a polite nod, consigns her to the endless human stream.

    Then he gets back to his work.

  36. Hi, just depositing this comment here as I just gave “props” to the freedom of The Millions website, noting just such a comment stream as this. In case anyone ever excavates this, thank you, Millions!

    This addresses a very different kind of website, that “deleted” me, and got me thinking about web freedom in light of what’s now going on in China. Portions of original remarks copied below from original comment to site:

    Hello, I am the person who engaged in a pretty long comment thread a few days ago, and now had had a final comment on the thread “deleted.” It occurred to me that a big gap where that comment would be could create a lot of questions about “Who is this awful person and what did she say horribly awful enough to be deleted?!? ” So I am back..

    Beginning with the initial response to my comment, I was personally attacked, first, in comments by what seemed to be a group of “regulars” to the site and then the critic herself. My first, very gentle comment (I did get less gentle as things progressed but with one exception, for which I have apologized to the person, was always honest) was called “sneering” and “dismissive.” I was described as someone who from the start had “an attitude.” Rolling on downhill from there, I was a.) called “argumentative” by arguers; and b.) someone who made personal attacks, by people who had personally attacked me. My artistic identity was challenged (“calls herself a poet”) and my level of education was questioned (suggestion was made I look up definition of “hyperbole.”). I was shamed (I was a bad party guest, “other” guests got along OK on the site), and generally reprimanded for my inability to play well with others as if I was an errant kindergartener. When I persisted in responding to comments aimed at me, it was suggested I was argumentative because I, basically, “had nothing better to do.” As in, no life. In addition, there was some weird and random pettifoggery going on (on non-critical items such as getting someone’s name slightly wrong).

    Cool, one can expect such things when one engages in a comment stream. But what really bothered me was what I found to be a quite suppressive attitude of the web critic. When I brought up contrasting critical reviews (purely in relation to their impact on me) and the dichotomy between critical opinion on the film and audience generally, I was basically ordered not to talk about other critics here. Whaaa? Censorship, I say! . I was also ordered to “stick to discussing the movie.” When I challenged the unequal chastening and “marching orders” I received in comparison to other, more regular commenters, I was told regulars got more “leeway. I was then told by the critic that it was “my website, my rules,” which, I suppose, was meant to shut me up and make me finally go away for good.

    Being a sentient human being with a working sense of humor, I finally just began to chuckle to myself softly on the Metro, and fired off one more response, which referred satirically to what I perceived as the quite “Regal” personality of the critic, and the devotion of her coterie of frequent commenters. I thought my comment was pretty funny. Was it horrible, devastating, a threat to public health and the morals of our youth? No! The only thing my comment might have damaged was someone’s inflated ego.

    Alas, my poor comment was condemned to the web forum version of execution. Deletion. Only an ominous blank space left where we had been. Me and my comment were disappeared into the Etheric Twitter sphere to be heard from no more. The one last, ominous item, a comment by the film critic to one of the regulars who had snarked on me that it was “better not to engage with me.” Oooooh! I frisson of fear runs through the internet!

    I had gone on about my business but something unsettling wouldn’t let me be. I was reading about the 25th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square (go ahead, commenters, rebuke the spelling). About the suppression, the blockage of websites, the “disappearing” and isolation of non-compliers.

    Well, I may have many other “better things to do” but it strikes me that in this little microcosm of a public forum, I feel an echo in the way human beings interact. The progression from expression of felt opinion, through attack, shaming, censoring of what I could/could not talk about, then after non-compliance, the “disappearance” and suggestion that others isolate me by “not engaging.”

    As the critic point out, indeed, this is her website and her rules. (Note to The Millions Readers: I suspect the Chinese Army uses a similar rationale to block social media inside their borders). But it is also a public forum that invites comment, and it is clear that the visitors to the site use this forum to make choices about their behavior.

    I hold up in contrast the free and sometimes rambunctious comment streams of a literary journal such as The Millions https://themillions.com / I can’t imagine the author sweeping in to cut off topics as “off point” and also would suspect that involuntary deletion and blocking would be considered a “nuclear option.

  37. Hi Jessie Hennen! would love to hear your reaction to my “up dated” comment to your article and ensuing comment stream (on topic of freedom of expression, primarily). Hello and best wishes to all at Iowa.

    Moe Murph

  38. Wowie! How did I miss all this!?! and Moe Murph, I Agree with Raab — please publish and let us know through the generous Millions comment section where and when! And cut YOU off? Fie upon it! You, the witty and courteous queen of spot-on perception, writing with humor and finesse and historical accuracy? Philistines!

    I didn’t mind this piece, and took it at face value — something tossed off for another writer’s web piece. They were honest and touching in their insecurities, sometimes funny and clearly — admit it! — good enough writers. Did they address the concerns of the day, as someone suggested? thank god, no!! Did they smell of money? Um, I never know what that means, unless she is wearing very expensive cologne. I guess we assume the writer is loaded since she is in an MFA program instead of forging righteous steel in a factory or slogging to her soul-sucking cubicle or slinging bitter lattes, like all the real and good writers.

    But I do catch a whiff of reverse class bias, that knee-jerk reaction that surfaces not infrequently in the comments. Even in the Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky knockdown piece, several posters seemed to chose Dostoevsky mainly for his “poverty” and misery, citing them as reasons for his superior writing and understanding. Maybe, maybe not, but the proof is in the writing, not the pedigree. I guess i am tired of the pedigree — high or low, it’s all irrelevant. The social class — or worse, still, the presumed social class — of the writer is the least interesting thing about them.

    For the record, I am special ed. teacher of severe little guys (where the “baby diarrhea stankiness” has nothing artificial about it). So this this will make me a better writer, yes? I can only hope! Cheers to all!

  39. @Raab @Priskill

    Hi guys, best place to reach me (and ultimately published work) might be through my thoroughly silly locale on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MamurphyMaureen. We can venture into “dark social media” if you want to send me a message and I can connect with you on future writing projects.

    To Millions: Hope I’m not being inappropriate here, not trying to flack myself, but wanted to reach out to two people. Thank you.

    Priskill, very sharp comments as usual, would you consider writing something about your special ed work? Would love to chat w/you at more length on class issues as well.

    Best of luck to all in 2015 at the wonderful Millions site.

    Moe Murph

  40. Just a quick note on the strange meta experience of finally watching the Iowa Writers’ Workshop episodes of “Girls” a year later, and rereading this monstrosity of a comment section.

    a.) Dunbar Humbley’s “Baby diarrhea stankiness of artifice” phrase still packs a wallop.

    b.) Jessie Hennen was so much more polite and lovely than any one of us careening around this section deserved.

    c.) As the comment section headed into the weekend hours, the vitriol becomes ever more acidic, Mr. Humbley dips into the sherry and becomes increasingly Capitalized and enraged.

    d.) Ms. Hennen’s comment that the actual workshop people of 2014 were reading comments about an article that was based upon a future group of fictional workshop people on a television series. Watching fictional workshop people on television series in 2015, critiquing a fictional character, who subsequently critiques the other fictional workshop people. Gender issues fly. Author of the fictional character then criticized IRL.

    e.) The Iowa Workshop characters make no lasting impression, but I find myself abjectly terrified by Mimi-Rose. Grown-up personification of my 5th Grade Nemesis (cut from above) 0

    [Everybody has their Maureen Davorin. Maureen Davorin was in my 5th Grade Class. I was a grubby little working-class overachiever, who found in her the 98 to my 92 on tests. I hated her for her blue velvet ribbon, her silky blonde hair, and her huge group of friends. In her sweet, innocent, oblivious smile, I recognized the nasty toad lurking in my heart. But worst of all, the wormwood in my craw, was she had a NICE aunt, one who gave her the entire collection of “Little House” books. “Little House” books I had to get as they dribbled out of the public library once a month or so, invariably marked up, torn, and sometimes vomit-stained (sick bed reading).]

    Moe Murph

    P.S. The level of contempt for Live Journal held by the fictional “Iowa” workshoppers was funniest part of episode.

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