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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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On Elite Rejection: The Iowa Writers' Workshop Story

We're all elite in someone else's eyes.

August 4, 2017

As Harvard is to undergraduate admissions, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is to graduate creative writing.

I’ve always viewed admission to the Workshop as something like the equivalent of being a number first round draft choice in baseball. It doesn’t come with an automatic ticket to the big leagues, but it does mean some seasoned pros think you have the stuff that could turn into something special. Sometimes those old pros make mistakes, and everyone has to work hard to fulfill that promise, but being tapped to join the group is an excellent indicator of future success.

The elite nature of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop provides graduates certain structural advantages over others when it comes to taking the next step forward in literary publishing: improved access to agents and editors, a network of other accomplished writers who may be helpful in all kind of ways. But as my grandfather used to say, “You can’t buff a turd.” Talent/promise and the development that happens to any graduate student creative writer provided they put in the time and dedication weighs far more heavily in terms of ultimate success than any of those structural advantages.

Success in creative writing is by no means a pure meritocracy, there are many brilliant writers who barely publish, or when they do publish, are hardly read, but it is hard to achieve success absent at least some merit.

Due to an age discrimination complaint from 68-year-old Dan Thompson against the University of Iowa over his failure to gain admittance to the Workshop, the rest of us get a glimpse behind the curtain to see how elite the elite really are. 

In response to the complaint, Iowa provided data on applications and admissions. From 2013-2017, 5061 people applied to the Workshop and 135 (2.7%) were admitted. In comparison, Harvard admitted just over 5% of its applicants for the class of 2021.

Seeing those odds should perhaps salve the wound of my own rejection by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1994. I knew the odds were long when I applied, but with the naïveté of youth, I nonetheless sent my application off with some measure of hope. Unlike undergraduate applications where one could look at one’s GPA (never lived up to his potential) and test scores (quite good, but not…you know…super good), admission to creative writing programs hinges almost entirely on the quality of the writing sample, and I guess I thought maybe, possibly, there was a chance I was good? Possibly?

Time and experience has revealed that my hopeful naïveté approached the delusional, but even so, the rejection stung. I was glad only a handful of people knew I even applied. For years, when asked directly if I tried to get into Iowa, I’d say "no."

I was admitted elsewhere (McNeese St. University), which was a good fit all things considered, and I have no complaints about my writing career.[1]

According to Dan Thompson, his goal is not to trigger a reprimand from the diversity office, and he doesn’t seem to have made any monetary demand. Instead, after a dream delayed for work and life reasons, he wants a place for himself in the program.

Is it a desire for validation? Does he just want to be heard?

That’s what I wanted. I suppose it’s what I still want.

It has me thinking about how these same desires play a significant role in the student/professor dynamic at just about any level, in any course.

In fact, I was on the other side of the “Do I have what it takes?" question within weeks of starting graduate school at McNeese St. as the instructor of record for a developmental writing course. English 090 was not eligible for credit towards graduation, and yet passing was required to have any future shot at a degree.

An open admission university primarily drawing from southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana, at the time, McNeese St. had many students whose high school educations had not adequately prepared them for the demands of college-level writing.

Being the gatekeeper between those who would get to continue on and those who would wash out of college was not something I considered prior to starting grad school, but there I was. To my students, I was undeniably, “elite” in the sense I possessed something they desired and had the power to stop them from attaining it.

I did my best, which was probably not all that good given me lack of preparation and experience.

I didn’t feel qualified to make that call, and even with considerably more experience, I have no wish to make that call. I assigned the grade that was "deserved” according to the criteria I'd been asked to use, but no matter the grade, I was more than willing to validate their desire to at least make the attempt or in some cases, remake the attempt after not passing the first time. They would not hear a discouraging word from me.

A grade does not tell a full or particularly interesting story. Neither does a single rejection. I worry, though, that many students have internalized an ethos where those grade judgments are dispositive. I’ve had students aspiring to medical school one day tell me that their dream was over because of a B in Biology.

I don’t think this is accurate, but what if? I hope we haven’t made a world where dreams are so easily quashed.

It is maybe tempting, and even easy to mock Dan Thompson. While I have my doubts about the merits of his age discrimination complaint, and think we’re all better off not worrying about validation from those above us on the hierarchy, I respect the desire and the dream.[2]

As soon as we’re afraid to risk looking foolish, we’re in trouble.

         


[1] Or rather, of course I have complaints, but none of them are truly reasonable. The success I’ve had long surpassed what I once felt was possible, and yet, I’m simultaneously convinced I deserve even more. It’s tough to find a writer who doesn’t feel similarly, at least in their private moments.

[2] When I was editing McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, on occasion I would get angry/outraged responses to rejections. Almost invariably they were irritating and insulting, and are demonstrably bad form, but hindsight has allowed me to respect the spirit of desire and self-belief that animated those responses. That spirit was misdirected, but it was nice to be reminded of its existence.

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