Marilynne Robinson’s Keynote at the Workshop 40th

Marilynne Robinson’s Keynote at the Workshop 40th



The festive mood before the keynote suggested the celebratory tenor. As current director Lan Samantha Chang stepped to the microphone to introduce Robinson, a rousing cheer went up through the crowd. In her introduction, she called Robinson’s move to Iowa from Massachusetts a “phenomenal stroke of good fortune” for the Workshop. Robinson would later repay that compliment by noting that Chang’s hiring as Director of the Workshop in 2005 was a similarly fortunate event.

The rest of Robinson’s talk sought to strike the tone for the rest of the weekend. In it she humbly outlined the principles on which the Workshop was founded and to which it still holds true. At the same time, she persistently defended the place of literature and of programs that train practitioners of literature. She opened her talk by noting the prevalence of MFA programs that resemble Iowa’s and offered that this influence is “owed to the fact that it is at base a very good idea,” which she summarized as providing a place to engage in a good faith collaborative, to criticize work, and to have one’s own criticized by others. This idea, she claimed, is at the heart of a liberal arts education before moving on to define the Workshop’s place against other graduate English programs. In doing so, she emphasized a common defense of workshops, the value of practice in concert with critique.

In elaborating on such a model, Robinson offered answers to two persistent questions that pop up around the Workshop, namely, “Can writing be taught?” and “Why is Iowa the Workshop in Iowa the state?” Addressing the first question, she echoed what seems to be the party line for the Workshop, that writing can’t necessarily be taught, but writers can be nurtured by providing writers, as Chang put it in her opening comments, “support to focus on idiosyncratic work.”

In responding to the “Why Iowa?” question, she offered simply, “because the Workshop expresses the place” before going on to elaborate on her affection for the “the unpretentious urbanity” of the “quietly mythic little town” and the earnest politeness that some of her students take some time to get used to. This expression of the place and its welcoming atmosphere became more important later in the talk when she discussed how competitiveness and divisiveness can poison the well and ruin the collaborative environment. In essence, Robinson argued that the Workshop is in Iowa because Iowa is uniquely suited to the collegiality of the Workshop.

To her celebration of the project of the Workshop, Robinson added a discussion of the Workshop’s place in the present and future educational environment where cultural institutions seem to be under such a broad attack. She remarked that she is often asked if she feels that the Workshop simply creates “auto mechanics for a world with no autos.” She juxtaposed those external concerns with the internal worries she hears from those who wonder if the proliferation of MFA programs and the linking of writing workshops to universities creates a monotony of voices that seeks to suit the academic critics who read and promote their work. In response, she took an approach that redirected these questions. Rather than defending the practice of linking workshops to universities, she observed that writers and universities have been linked for much longer than the seventy-five years that creative writing workshops have been in existence, yet original voices have continued to emerge. She then favorably compared this model to those of the past where writers lived in poverty or were supported by patronage from the government or ruling party, quipping, “What could possibly go wrong with that?”


Doyle, Shawn Patrick. “Why Iowa? Because…” Rain Taxi, Fall 2011.