The Writer's Writer

April 12, 2005

Ask almost any American writer today for a list of his or her literary idols, and Frank Conroy’s name usually rises near the top.

The author of one of the best books of our age, Stop-Time, published in 1967, as well as the director of the greatest incubator of literary talent ever assembled, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Conroy was as close to legend as any living writer gets.

Not to mention a Grammy winner—for best liner notes.

Despite a rough beginning, he made the most of a life that ended last week, when he died at age 69 of colon cancer.

Stop-Time slays everyone who reads it.

The poignant, tough and lean prose is every bit as great as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The literary establishment, from Norman Mailer to William Styron, fell before Frank’s wobbly 31-year-old knees when the effervescent memoir was published. Every shimmering word in Stop-Time seemed to detonate as Frank, from a teenager’s perspective, detailed the pain and legacy of an abusive, manic-depressive father and an absentee mother.

The book was the best kind of fiction because it was numbingly true.

It’s not "Genesis," but to many writers, the opening paragraphs of Stop-Time are the bible of literary beginnings:
My father stopped living with us when I was three or four. Most of his adult life was spent as a patient in various expensive rest homes for dipsomaniacs and victims of nervous collapse. …

I try to think of him as sane, yet it must be admitted he did some odd things. Forced to attend a rest-home dance for its therapeutic value, he combed his hair with urine and otherwise played it out like the Southern gentleman he was. He had a tendency to take off his trousers and throw them out the window. (I harbor some secret admiration for this.) At a moment’s notice he could blow a thousand dollars at Abercrombie and Fitch and disappear into the Northwest to become an outdoorsman. He spent an anxious few weeks convinced that I was fated to become a homosexual. I was six months old. And I remember visiting him at one of the rest homes when I was eight. We walked across a sloping lawn and he told me a story, which even then I recognized as a lie, about a man who sat down on the open blade of a penknife embedded in a park bench. (Why, for God’s sake would he tell a story like that to his eight-year-old son?)

Absent any sentimentality, Frank had created an instant classic, ultimately changing how we think of memoir and American literature, as well as how we perceive of the vulnerability of children and the passage each of us goes through to become an adult.

Premature adoration and fame can turn even the most humble of men and women into fools, but Frank seemed to manage. He used his writing to chronicle his personal struggles, publishing perfect-pitch short stories and novels, including Midair, Body and Soul and Dogs Bark but the Caravan Rolls On. His precision with language earned him the respect of legions of journalists, including David Halberstam and Russell Baker.

Unable to corral his prodigious creativity, Frank blossomed as a jazz pianist. He became director of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982. He arrived as director at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1987 and quickly developed a reputation as a no-nonsense teacher who lived and breathed writing.

Admiring From Afar

Frank was one of the most unpretentious writers I’ve ever known.

I came to the University of Iowa as an eager journalist wholly unfamiliar with the trappings of academic life. A great perk of my job as a journalism professor was living in the shadow of the Writers’ Workshop, known locally as "The Workshop."

Like many others in the business of putting words on paper for a living, I revered Frank from a distance.

I used to see him around town: nose in a book at Prairie Lights, the wonderful bookstore on Dubuque Street; hunched over a newspaper, his lanky legs and arms taking over a booth in the Chesapeake Bagel Company down the block, holding forth with Guinness in hand at The Mill on Burlington Street.
Frank and I shared at least one thing: The University of Iowa had hired us as full-time faculty members.

This was much less of an accomplishment for Frank than it was for me, but few universities then and now would consider hiring such undereducated writers. As far as I know, outside of an abstract painter in the Art School, Frank and I were the only full-time faculty members at the university with just bachelor's degrees.

Frank distrusted most academics, a healthy instinct for any writer. Many are long-winded and imprecise with language (a cardinal sin for Frank); they study memorable writing but seldom create writing that’s memorable.

When I got here in 1993, the Writers' Workshop was housed in the same dreary brick-and-concrete building as the English department. There was no love lost on either side when Frank was able to move the Workshop to a lovely renovated 19th Century home, high on a bluff overlooking the Iowa River.

He surrounded himself with wonderful writers who also were wonderful teachers of writing, including Marilynne Robinson (who just won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction), Jim McPherson (who won the Pulitzer in 1978) and Jorie Graham (who won for poetry in 1996).  Flannery O’Conner, Wallace Stegner, W.P. Kinsella, John Irving, Raymond Carver, T.C. Boyle and Jane Smiley cut their teeth as young writers at the Workshop.

Each year, Frank enrolled students who would go on to change the way we look at the written word. The Workshop is probably harder to get into than Harvard Law School: 800 applicants vie for 25 slots. Since its inception in 1936, 26 Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded to former Workshop students.

For all his facility with words, Frank was an anachronism, a technophobic dinosaur.

He didn’t do e-mail. He surrounded himself with felt-tipped pens, yellow pads and clipboards. He wrote lying in his bed, his back propped against pillows. Whenever he finished a draft, his wife (and best friend) Maggie, would type his longhand into a computer. Frank would then wildly mark up the printout and revise at a compuer.

While a tough teacher, he also was a generous one.

The coveted blurb

When I wrote a nonfiction book in 2000, like all authors, I slogged through the merciless business of trawling for blurbers. Blurbs are the pithy endorsements on the backs of book jackets that publishers hope will persuade otherwise clueless browsers to plunk down cash or credit card. Frank’s policy was not to blurb. Period. I think he probably felt that if he started blurbing, he’d surely never have a free moment for anything else.

At that time, I had not yet met Frank. Personal idols, particularly of the literary variety, are usually best left undisturbed, and I was satisfied to admire Frank and his work from a distance. But someone had handed him an advance copy of my book. Frank packed away the manuscript in his suitcase and took it to his summer house in Nantucket. "Don’t expect anything," I was told.

I blocked out what this great writer and teacher of writing could possibly say about my prose -- until word got back to me that Frank loved the book and was willing to say so. Blurb on the back cover, Frank’s endorsement probably didn’t carry much clout with the ordinary buyer at Barnes & Noble, but to me it meant the world.

We met finally at a reading shortly after the book came out. Frank had been playing piano for a local radio program that night and, just as the reading was winding down, this stranger/mentor arrived. He made a beeline for the podium and gave me a bear hug of congratulations.

Writers aren’t like that. They are morose, moody, competitive, gossips at heart who look askance instead of straight ahead.

Since that evening, Frank and I had often run into each other in this literary town among the cornfields. We talked about writing and politics, especially about our fears that our teenage sons might eventually get pulled into the widening war in Iraq.

Raising some eyebrows

The last time I saw Frank was right after he had caused some eyebrows to arch by accepting from President Bush the National Humanities Medal on behalf of the Workshop. It was the first time a university program had ever achieved such an accolade.

Frank was at Prairie Lights, the bookstore, and as we were both flipping dust covers, checking out too-serious visages of up-and-coming authors, I asked him about his experience at the White House.

And Frank, always the writer, always working, always trying to make sense of the world, said he enjoyed meeting Bush, despite their profound differences. Bush, he said, was caught up in the gears of some grinding machinery that couldn’t be shut down. The president might be at the switch, but he wasn’t in control. Bush, Frank said, really was a likable fellow but had become a victim, a hapless innocent.

And then I saw it once again, Frank turning generous, even magnanimous. But I could also see he was working. There was a magnificent story brewing here, and Frank was mapping out its plot.


Stephen G. Bloom, the author of "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America," teaches narrative journalism at the University of Iowa.

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