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Monday, December 12, 2011

Jane Smiley: Writers Need Community More Than They Need Solitude

Posted By on Mon, Dec 12, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Jane Smiley - LARRY D. MOORE
  • Larry D. Moore
  • Jane Smiley

Among the most famous of all the famous writers who came out of the celebrated Iowa Writers' Workshop is the prolific and talented Jane Smiley. Smiley has written more than 10 novels, including the epic The Greenlanders and the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, based on King Lear. She's also written nonfiction, on topics including horses, child rearing, and a biography of Charles Dickens.

Smiley joins 29 other of her fellow workshoppers, including John Irving, T.C. Boyle, and Sandra Cisneros, to contribute anecdotes, memories and thoughts on what they learned and didn't learn in the mid 1970s in Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer's new book, We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love and Literature at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

She appears Tuesday with two other writers at Book Passage in San Francisco. She talked with us about enjoying the process, how living in Iowa supported her writing, and Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf's community.

In the book, you talk about how important community is for writers. Is the idea of a writer needing solitude still prevalent now?

I don't know the way people think about it anymore. That was the standard view when I was younger. There were these ads for the Famous Writers School and they said, "Are you one of the quiet ones?" So if you were one of the quiet ones and never said much, maybe you'd like to be a writer, you know? There was this idea that you would be the type of person who would go off and live by yourself and write your books.

But as I got to know about various great literary figures, like Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf, they weren't by themselves at all. They were part of a group. They had friends or associates or rivals that they contended with or joined with so when I got to the writers workshop it seemed normal to me that you would talk about what you were interested in, the way you would no matter what you were trying to do. This applied to artists too. There have been artists in the Renaissance, among the Impressionists, people were convivial about their work. So that seemed normal and automatic to me. I was lucky because my class and the class ahead of me were very congenial and we got along well and as far as I knew we didn't feel a lot of competitiveness and rivalry and we were all doing different things and we enjoyed what each of us were doing.

In the book, you talk about how important it is to be productive.

When I was teaching creative writing, I made my students do a draft every week. That had a couple of benefits. One was that the student critics would make suggestions and then they could see if their suggestions had worked or not. The other thing was they kept at it. I think for a novelist the most important thing to do is just keep at it and do it every day and work at it. If you don't do it enough then you tend to worry about it more. You're a little bit of a perfectionist, which means you do it less because you're anxious about whether you're doing it right or not. If you've made up your mind that you're going to do a certain number of words a day or you have an assignment that you have to do every week, you basically say, "Well, I have to get it done, so I'll get it done," so the chances are that something good will come out and then if you have empathetic fellow students who are doing the criticizing it all becomes a quest. That's more interesting to pursue than not to pursue.

If you're lucky and you go to a workshop where industry is appreciated then you come out with good habits. I always think if you're a novelist or an artist you can enjoy the rewards or you can enjoy the process. If you enjoy the rewards, then you won't have a happy life because there won't be enough rewards. If you enjoy the process, you will have a happy life because the process will become its own reward, but you have to break through to a certain level of fluency to enjoy the process.

Did Iowa help you enjoy the process?

My class was full of productive writers like Richard Bausch and Allan Gurganus, so it was sort of the norm that we would be productive rather than agonizing over making it all just exactly right, so that was a good thing for me because it gave me permission to go for it.

How would your life as a writer have been different without the Iowa Writers' Workshop?

My life as a person was formed there, and I lived there for a really long time. I lived there in Iowa City for nine years, and then I got a job at Iowa State at Ames and I lived there for another 14 years so it's hard for me to distinguish what brought me to Iowa, which was the program but then the way my life there was made by that place.

Iowa as a state is pretty relaxed. The great thing about Iowa is you can earn a relatively modest income and still afford to live and eat and have a good life and there's still plenty of stuff to do. So you're not scrambling to make ends meet, so therefore you're not scrambling to do your work. Some of my friends who moved away from Iowa to more exciting places had to find full-time jobs to survive. The pace of life in Iowa just isn't like that. I had the luxury both in the program and as a citizen at Iowa City and Ames of having plenty of time to write. Also the state presented me with certain subjects like farming, which was A Thousand Acres, and a certain culture that fascinated me, which was the Nordic culture, so I wrote about that culture in The Greenlanders. If I'd lived in California all those years, I don't know what I would have written about.

Jane Smiley appears with Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer at 6 p.m. Tuesday (Dec. 13) at Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, S.F. Admission is free.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Emily Wilson

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