WIN A FREE BOOK!! DETAILS BELOW!! Today, Eric Olsen tells us more about his tenure in the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the book he co-authored with Glenn Schaeffer, We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
I discovered Raymond Carver on my own, just browsing in the bookstore and he became one of my literary heroes. Did either of you know him and what can you tell me about him and what might he have said in your book?
Carver had left Iowa by the time Glenn and I arrived in 1975. He did come back while we were there to give a reading or two, a master class. Others in the book who did know him and they all found him to be a generous, gentle teacher. Doug Unger, who’s in the book, was Carver’s brother-in-law, knew him well, and tells some great stories about his tenure at Iowa. And Carver was a wonderful writer. Minimalism was hot at the time, and I was trying to be a minimalist, so I read Carver and re-read him and tried to learn from him that way.
My wife, who’d been in the workshop the two years before me, did have Carver as a teacher. She loved him.
How did the book trailer come about?
The Workshop celebrated its 75th anniversary in June. We knew a lot of the folks we interviewed would be in town for the festivities. So we organized a little pre-book-launch soiree in Iowa City with plenty of booze and food, just like the old days. We hired a local videographer to set up in a side room and we just snatched folks who are in the book to be taped. A few got away, but we ended up with about three hours of raw footage, which we edited down to about three minutes.
You focus on the Iowa program in the 70s. How do you suspect it’s changed, if at all?
Based on my own observations, what I know about how the workshop operates today, I don’t think the basic “workshop method” has changed much if at all. Young writers today have the same drives and fears and concerns as we did. And the basic “creative process” hasn’t changed at all, hard-wired as it seems to be into the human brain. A good workshop accommodates this process, nurtures it, supports it.
But one change I’ve noticed is cultural, or political. When we were there, the “writing culture” was still dominated by the macho Hemingway/Mailer school, or so it seemed. This culture was already going through some profound changes at the time, but we were guys and wannabe members of the macho Hemingway school, so Glenn and I were both oblivious to that sort of thing. Only later, as I worked on this book and interviewed lots of women who’d been there with us, did I realize what was really going on back then. And my wife has had plenty to say on the topic. These days, there are many more women in the workshop and the whole macho Hemingway school has given way to more diverse cultural models, I suppose. But, guys being guys, I’m sure the women there today still have to put up with a lot of macho crap.
How did the interviews work? E-mails back and forth like this one or some other format?
I did some interviews in person, and taped them with an audio recorder. Others I did by phone, and others by e-mail. In most cases, it was a combination of phone, e-mail and in-person, as I’d do several rounds of follow-ups. I worked however the person preferred.
What are you reading now?
I’m always reading several books at any given time. Right now, I’m reading Dark Star by Alan Furst (a novel set in Europe in the ’30s, the run-up to WWII); Infinite Dreams by Joe Haldeman (a collection of his early short stories); The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowan (about the economic collapse); and The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David W. Anthony (about the people of the Eurasian steppes in the bronze age, research for a novel). Not sure what Glenn’s reading at the moment; he’s been in New Zealand the past couple weeks. Figure he’ll manage to get the WSJ and NY Times down there one way or another. I’m sure he lugged a half-dozen books with him.
In terms of writing, what are you working on now?
As with my reading, I’m always working on several writing projects at once. I could probably use one of those drugs they give people with ADHD. Right now, in the works are a historical novel (thus the book by Anthony); a science fiction novel; and a revision and update of LifeFit, published 15 years ago, about exercise and health (I used to be a medical writer). And of course, I’m always working on a screenplay, god help me. Glenn and I are working on a short book about the creative process in business, an expansion of chapter 4 in We Wanted to Be Writers. And Glenn’s wrapping up Holy Shaker, which I’m editing.
Scribophile is going to giveaway a copy of WW2bW to the reader with the best comment on how to overcome writer’s block, which you are going to judge. Before our readers tell us their methods, what are yours?
Depends on the nature of the block, I suppose. I’ve never been stuck to the degree I couldn’t write something. Especially when I’m writing for a buck; then you can’t afford to be blocked, so you just crank it out. But on any given day, when I’m working on fiction, I’m always bumping up against little moments when it’s just not coming. The next line, the next word, whatever. Or sometimes I can’t shake the feeling that what is coming sucks. Then I’ll “look away” for a time. I’ll pick up whatever book’s sitting nearby, read a bit. Thus I keep a lot of my favorite authors close at hand, for just those moments. Also art books. I’ll look at the pictures. It seems to give the verbal part of the brain a rest. Sometimes I’ll go for a jog, which is mindless and repetitive, another way to give the verbal, logical part of the brain a break, which might give the other part, where the aha! supposedly comes from, a chance to work. Warm showers also help, I’m told. Sandra Cisneros recommends naps with small dogs.
I write on a computer, but when I’m really struggling to get the words going, I’ll take a notepad and pen to a coffee house, leaving the computer at home, and sit there and scribble on the pad. The switch in scenery and writing tools changes the whole dynamic of writing, for me, and this sometimes opens things up a bit.
Describe your foolproof method of beating writer’s block in the comment section and Eric will choose the best to win a copy of We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.