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Book Review: We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer

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We Wanted To Be Writers is a fairly humble title for a book delving into the careers of some of best writers in 20th century America. It shares stories of the inspiration and frustration these writers experienced in their days at the legendary Iowa Writers’ Workshop, from 1974-1978.

As you wander through the book, reading details of the lives of the young T.C. Boyle, Sandra Cisneros, John Irving, Eric Olsen and Jane Smiley, you might be surprised to learn how rough it was for them to become the writers they are today. There were financial struggles as well as intense competition with no promise of a stellar writing career to support their efforts. You’ll read as much about the personal lives and challenges faced by these writers as you will about the creative process and their compelling stories along the road to success.

They and dozens of others are represented in these high-energy conversations in We Wanted To Be Writers. You’re sure to make new friends when you read the authors’ reflections, worries and insights. Allan Gurganus is one that resonates with me, who now, looking back, says he’s been waiting his whole life for the internet. Gurganus also describes the moment when you’re “sitting in the dark at the keyboard at 1:00 a.m., typing as fast as you can toward some new idea, with your eyes closed…” Only later, as many of us recognize, comes the moment when “You know you’re on to something you wouldn’t have snagged during a usual workday after your usual breakfast… .”

The stamina needed to be a good writer includes knowing it is okay to set writing aside for a while if it just isn’t working, or if something greater is calling. As Catherine Gammon says when she felt a pull toward a Zen life: “I had to set it aside to just be willing to walk on the planet without being a writer.” Creativity itself, though, is likely never lost. As Iowa Writers Workshop faculty member Marvin Bell notes, creativity is never lost. “For a writer, it only takes the need to write again, and then enough writing until the machine is sufficiently oiled. Creativity creates.” Bell was also Iowa’s first Poet Laureate.

We Wanted To Be Writers is rich with advice, humor, empathy and honesty, leaving you with an urge to try a little harder with your own writing. One thing’s for sure; you’ll know you’re not alone with the rejection battles writers face. The book reminds that good writers make it, no matter the path they choose, as Doug Unger says: “… by sticking to making their craft, surviving out in the cold, and getting lucky enough that readers find their work.”

We Wanted To Be Writers includes full biographies, author photos, bedside reading lists of the writers included.

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About Helen Gallagher