The Writers' Wordshop

Much of the celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has involved the program’s graduates coming together to reflect on the craft of writing. In June, the Workshop hosted an alumni reunion and this month sees the publication of We Wanted to Be Writers, a series of conversations with Workshop graduates discussing the writing process. But for those whose enthusiasm for writing is matched by an enthusiasm for language, one of the most intriguing aspects of the craft is the relationship a writer forges with their words. These enthusiasts yearn for a peek into a writer’s “wordly” insights precisely because they recognize how unique a writer’s perspective on words is; after all, the work of a writer often boils down to a series of determined and painstaking searches for just the right word, a word with just the right sound, meaning and impact. It is in this literary-meets-lexical spirit that we appreciate the legacy of the Workshop by highlighting some its notable graduates’ writing on words.

Published in June, the transparently titled Favorite Words of Famous People contains contributions from several prominent writers, including Workshop graduates T.C. Boyle and Jane Smiley. Smiley’s favorite words keenly unpack the various senses that ‘favorite’ can take on. Firstly, there is the word that is your favorite because of its euphony: “I like the sounds of the words ‘Krakatoa’ and ‘glistening’”; your favorite because of how it evokes associations: “I like the word ‘baby,’ because the b’s remind me of baby cheeks,”; your favorite to (over)use: “Clearly”; and, for the sense of favorite most often implied by the favorite word question (“What word is your favorite because of its personal significance?”) Smiley’s word is “garlicky,” a word that signals for her the most sublime of gustatory pleasures.

Far more personally revealing is Boyle’s favorite word, steatopygia, a noun that refers to excessive fat accumulation around the buttocks. Boyle stops short of professing an outright attraction to the quality described by the word, but he does mention, in a seemingly approving tone, “its splendid display in the flesh of our streets.” More incriminatingly, Boyle expands his list of favorite words in a Q&A at the 2007 Los Angeles book fair to include another word containing the bootylicious Greek root pyg: callipygian–an adjective for describing someone with a particularly shapely rear. These words seem to belong to a highbrow Sir-Mix-a-Lot verse and, indeed, Boyle does obliquely mention in his entry on steatopygia that “a certain Seattle rapper has made his career by proclaiming the beauty of this trait.” Boyle finally suggests that the captivating nature of the word owes as much to outward attraction as it does to inward self-consciousness, noting that his own set of cheeks are “entirely nugatory.”

Published last fall, One Word: Contemporary Writers on the Words They Love or Loathe turns a writer’s fascination with a word into a creative writing exercise. Sixty-six writers, including Workshop alums Cole Swenson and Robin Hemley, contribute pieces inspired by one word of personal importance. Swenson writes on the word solmizate, not because of its standard dictionary definition–to syllabically sing notes in do-re-mi fashion–but because of what she thought it meant upon first encountering it. Swenson recounts how she first heard the term while observing a game where birds on a telephone wire were treated as notes on a musical staff. Rather than inferring the birds represented a musical structure, Swenson, in a presumably young and wide-eye incarnation of herself, reached the enchanting conclusion that there was underlying musicality to everything around her. “This image seemed to suggest any object has an inherently musical relationship with those objects around it, and that any given scene, say, the one framed by a window, is its own orchestra.” Swenson defends her erroneous definition by arguing that it fills a gap for describing the harmony one senses in a scene, a harmony not of tone but of meaning. “Through solmization, all objects have a voice, which changes in relation to the others around it, some coming together in chords, others in discord.”

Hemley’s is a tour de force among the entries, as it thematically joins together four definitions of Ur: the Sumerian city purported to be the birthplace of Abraham, a prefix signifying “the earliest,” one of the first known board games and the muttered utterance one makes when groping for a word. To both profound and comic ends, Hemley blends the denotation of the prefix with the mystic connotations evoked by the biblical-era city. “Place the word Ur in front of any other and watch as it causes the word to emit a charge, a pop, or sometimes a thin wisp of white smoke as the word folds into itself, becomes itself in its truest sense, reverts to something like a cousin, grows horns, hoofs, loses its prehensile grip on modernity. Ur-waistcoat. Ur-invasion. Ur-zebra. Ur-occupation. Ur-piano. Ur-insurgency.”

Ur-workshop is an apt way to describe the Writers’ Workshop, given that its mythic status among creative writing programs owes much to being among the first such programs in the country. The word workshop alone, with its artisan roots, nicely captures the feature of the program most likely responsible for it its success, its approach to the writing process. At the Writers’ Workshop, writing isn’t a miraculous act catalyzed by inspiration or something that can be reduced to a paint-by-numbers exercise. It is a craft, one that can be improved upon by practice and apprenticeship. Writers are craftsmen, indeed. They are wordsmiths.

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