The University of Iowa, specifically the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has a long legacy of producing and recruiting great American novelists. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first graduate creative writing program in America, has created the workshop model now commonly used by graduate programs. For example, Kurt Vonnegut and Phillip Roth both taught at the University of Iowa for roughly two years. Before going to the University of Iowa for creative writing, there are some alumni you should know. The university frequently references these alumni in conversation as common knowledge. When I first attended, it seemed that I constantly bluffed my way through conversations about alumni until I could escape to the bathroom to Google them. But once I knew the names, I found it easy to speak the language of Iowa City creative writers.
Check out this list that the University of Iowa creative writing undergraduates love to talk about:
1. Tennessee Williams
You’ll find quotes from Tennessee Williams decorating the city, from sidewalk engravings to public art. Prior to college, I was familiar with Williams’ work but had not connected the name to the title. It was embarrassing, therefore, when my college classmate pointed out that I was conflating Tennessee Williams with Arthur Miller. Tennessee Williams wrote the play A Streetcar Named Desire, not Death of a Salesman. You should know this sort of information before attending your first creative writing class.
“Tennessee Williams was one of the big three of contemporary American playwrights and a queer icon, easily top five Midwesterners of all time,” University of Iowa junior Lila Robbins said.
While the rest of the literary icons on this list can be debated, Williams cannot. That is why I felt so embarrassed that I did not know him as an English and creative writing major. Any English and creative writing majors who do not know him or have heard of him but did not know his work like me, don’t tell anyone. I suggest that if you have time, you may want to read A Streetcar Named Desire. Another fun fact about Williams? He lived from 1911-1983 and also wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and The Night of the Iguana.
2. Lan Samantha Chang
Barack Obama named The Family Chao, Lan Samantha Chang’s most recent novel, on his 2022 Summer Reading List. Her book also won the 2023 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction. The main reason you should know Chang before coming to Iowa, though, is that she is the sixth person appointed to director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Many creative writing undergraduate students attend the University of Iowa for the chance to be taught by graduate students in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and for the proximity to the literary icons teaching said graduates. Regardless of if that is why you chose the University of Iowa, Chang is the person in charge of one of the most competitive creative writing graduate programs nationwide, and a staff member of the university you now attend. Therefore, you’ll want to know her name in case you ever have an opportunity to be in the same room as her. You should also note that she is the first woman and the first Asian American to be director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
3. Melissa Febos
Melissa Febos is best known for her autobiography Girlhood. On top of being a national bestseller and named one of the best books of the year by NPR and the Washington Post, Girlhood was the National Book Critics Circle Award Winner for 2021. You’ll find her awe-inspiring, managing to shift fields from a sex worker to a best-selling novelist. What really makes her significant to the student body is that she teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program. Furthermore, Febos teaches an honors creative nonfiction course for undergraduates.
“Everyone that I know that’s read Melissa Febos’ work applied last semester to be in her nonfiction seminar for the fall. A genre that’s generally overlooked in class selection was suddenly overwhelmed with applicants because students wanted to simply be in the same room as Febos,” University of Iowa junior Madeline Fait said.
This creative nonfiction course is a big deal for undergraduate creative writers. Most undergraduate creative writing courses are taught by upcoming writers learning from the greats at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Not only is Febos an invaluable networking resource, you will also find her a troth of writing knowledge. If not for conversation with other creative writing students, memorize Febos’ name if you apply to honors courses. The chance to study under Febos is the chance to take an unofficial Iowa Writers’ Workshop course.
4. John Irving
Irving achieved international success with his novel The World According to Garp in 1978. He has also written fourteen other novels. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he stays involved in Iowa City. For example, Irving and Lan Samanatha Chang will be in conversation at Hancher Auditorium this October. Irving even studied under writer Kurt Vonnegut at Iowa. Also, from 1972 to 1975, he served as an Iowa Writers’ Workshop instructor. He is one of Iowa’s best-known living literary alumni. You should know his name not only to communicate with the student body but also to take advantage of his visits to Iowa City.
5. Carmen Maria Machado
You will inevitably read one of Machado’s short stories from Her Body and Other Parties for class. I have read stories from this collection for three different classes now. My Freshman year roommate, a communications major, had to read In the Dreamhouse, Machado’s autobiography, for her rhetoric class. My roommate notoriously didn’t like reading anything except the dystopian love novels her sister suggested, and so it was her love of the autobiography that inspired me to read it as well. It still remains one of the best autobiographies I’ve ever read.
“Carmen Maria Machado is impactful to me as a student at the University of Iowa because she is a queer Latina alumnus of a PWI in a state hostile to queerness and nonwhite peoples. And she writes freakin’ beautiful and devastating stories,” University of Iowa junior Calvin Brickener said.
Machado is a UIowa alumni, so you may actually have a chance of meeting her. For me, in my sophomore year I attended a woefully under-advertised reading of hers hosted by the University. I also scored an interview with Machado regarding the reading for the Daily Iowan, the school paper. Beyond knowing her name for class, you can also take advantage of her alumni status. You can do this by attempting to reach out to her or by waiting for her to visit Iowa City for a reading. If you want to become a creative writer, the chance to hear her talk can’t be missed.
6. Donika Kelly
Donika Kelly is Melissa Febos’ partner and an assistant professor for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She won the Anisfield-Wolf Award for her poetry collection ‘The Renunciations.’ Half of Iowa City’s own literary power couple, Kelly does a lot of work with the community and undergraduates. She developed a program where undergraduate writers of color can volunteer with her to create creative writing workshops at the local high school. So, beyond her own work, you’ll want to know Kelly’s name given her ties to Febos, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Iowa City community.
7. Paul Engle
Engle even has a prize named after him. The UNESCO City of Literature Paul Engle Prize is given to someone showing innovation in the creative writing world. Born in Cedar Rapids, Engle is one of the few notable creative writing alumni that originate from Iowa. He attended graduate school at the University of Iowa from 1931-1932. For his first manuscript of poems, Engle won the ‘Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize.’
“Paul Engle is really important, considering he really helped put Iowa on the map for writing even though it’s in the middle of nowhere. Like without his work with the Writers’ Workshop, a lot of people wouldn’t have attended the workshop or gone to UIowa at all for writing, including myself,” University of Iowa junior Nina Helewa said. “I think he’s a bit of a weirdo for loving Iowa so much, but thanks to him, it’s a huge writing school! That feels pretty impactful.”
Engle’s legacy extends out even further. In 1976 over 300 writers nominated Engle for the Noble Peace Prize. From 1933 to 1936, he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He directed the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for a long period of time and is the co-founder of the International Writing Program. Engle has helped pioneer the literary community at the University of Iowa.
8. Mildred Wirt Benson
Even if you haven’t heard of her, you’ve probably heard of her work. The Nancy Drew series has inspired generations of young women to become lifelong readers. Even though Benson wrote the series from 1930-1979, the spin-off show provides evidence of its lasting legacy. What most people don’t know is that Benson attended the University of Iowa for both her undergraduate and graduate degrees. However, don’t worry. If you don’t know that she’s an alumnus, nobody will judge you. That said, somebody will definitely flex this fun fact on you at some point during your degree, so it may be satisfying to already know this information.
9. Kurt Vonnegut
Most famous for his work Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut is a well-known literary icon. What is lesser known is that he taught at the University of Iowa as a guest professor only a few years before writing this masterpiece. While Slaughterhouse-Five came out in 1969, he taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a guest professor for almost two years from 1965-1967. This happened shortly after his publication of Cat’s Cradle in 1963. Iowa City is so proud of this tie you can find a plaque quoting Vonnegut on the Iowa Ave Literary Walk. So, while Vonnegut only taught at the school for a short window, it was during a very important period for the writer creatively. Furthermore, Iowa City and the creative writing department remain proud of this connection.
10. T. C. Boyle
Boyle is one of the University of Iowa’s most prolific alumni. Since the mid-1970s, he has written and published nineteen novels and over 150 short stories. An experimental writer by nature, his works vary greatly from one another. He received both his MFA and Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He also visits Iowa City semi-frequently to connect with the student body. Memorize Boyle for his literary prowess and his history of visiting Iowa City. You will likely have the chance to attend a reading of his before you graduate.