write what you know

What Life Will Be Like for Girls’ Hannah at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Photo: HBO

The first thing Lan Samantha Chang, the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, wanted to do when she found out Hannah Horvath got into the prestigious MFA program was to phone the heroine of HBO’s Girls and offer advice. “I thought, I should give her a call and explain about what’s involved,” says Chang, who calls every prospective student personally. “And then I thought, No, she’s a fictional character.”

The most shocking twist of Sunday’s season-three finale wasn’t Hannah’s acceptance, after years of artistic floundering, but the notion that Season Four of the world’s Brooklynest show might take place in Iowa, at what Hannah’s friend Marnie calls “like, the best MFA program in the world.” A University of Iowa spokesman says the school denied HBO’s request to film Girls episodes there, but the location could easily be faked, and the presence of an Iowa workshop alum on the writing staff — Sarah Heyward, who wrote “really good short stories about adolescent girls” in Chang’s workshop — ensures at least a modicum of authenticity. Based on conversations with Chang and several Girls-friendly alumni, here’s what we might expect of Hannah’s heartland sojourn.

Hannah might be confused about the line between fiction and nonfiction — and maybe Lena Dunham is too? We’ve only seen Hannah write autobiographical essays, but the Iowa Writers’ Workshop teaches exclusively fiction and poetry. There’s a nonfiction program at the University, headed by rabble-rouser John D’Agata, but it doesn’t have the pedigree and prestige of the storied Workshop, and the two programs are known to take the line between them very seriously.  HBO confirms Hannah has been accepted into the fiction workshop, but novelist and Iowa grad Alexander Chee speculates she may have just relabeled her autobiographical work. “A lot of people apply with essays that they don’t declare as essays,” he says. Maybe if students or faculty see her work online as nonfiction, “it would be an interesting plot point.” Even better, she might see her own doppelgänger attacked in workshops and take it personally — which definitely happens at Iowa. “Suddenly, the class is like, ‘Oh my God this character’s such a bitch!’ and it’s based on [the writer]. And they suddenly have this personal crisis as a result.” Hannah loves a good personal crisis.

Her admission to Iowa is plausible — even typical. “A twentysomething from a metro area who’s sort of solipsistic but also has creative potential? That makes complete sense to me,” says Chang. “She seems a little lost and sees everyone succeeding; I certainly felt like that when I was 25,” says Workshop grad Thessaly La Force, now the culture editor of Vogue.com. “I applied to Iowa on a whim.

If structure is what Hannah desperately needs, she won’t find it in Iowa. “Her OCD would come back a little,” says La Force. “There’s this thing my friend calls procrasti-baking. You just start cooking things. Time is this endless expanse in Iowa, and the whole structure of the MFA is to give you the space to be creative.” What structure there is, anyway. “She would have a lot of unstructured time,” says Chang, “and almost nobody’s good at dealing with it! One of the hard things about being a writer is learning to be alone.”

Best of luck to her and Adam. “I think the year above me had three divorces,” says La Force. “They talk about it — the Iowa spouse. You’re just not part of the mentality,” says Kate Christensen, a novelist and Iowa alum. “I know of many long-term relationships, including mine, that didn’t go the distance. My boyfriend would visit me and say, ‘You have not said one word to me all night because you really just want to talk shop.’”

There’s plenty of room to get into trouble. Drinking and hookups are as notoriously rampant here as at writers’ colonies. “There’s a lot of drama, but it’s writer drama, not urban drama,” says Christensen, who also lived in Hannah’s Greenpoint for many years. “Psychosexual, interpersonal, professional for sure.” But, having been a student there in the eighties and taught last semester, she believes the freewheeling culture of Iowa has changed. “It was a totally different world back then, sleaze-bags everywhere. I think people are pretty careful now not to cross boundaries.” Chang confirms that there are rules against teacher-student fraternization — the sorts of rules Hannah lives to break. Maybe (assuming she and Adam aren’t great at the long-distance thing) she’ll hit on a professor who won’t reciprocate, like her creepy lawyer boss in season one. Or, more likely, says Alex Chee, “She’ll have an inappropriate affair with a visiting writer,” a prominent one-off lecturer taking a flyover-state breather. Chee has seen it before. “To a certain drama-queen student, you’re a target.”

But her parents can rest easy, for once. When Hannah breaks the news to her ever-indulgent parents, they dance a jig and say, “We’ll figure it out,” implying they might have to defer retirement just a little bit longer to continue supporting her. But under Chang’s leadership (she took over the program in 2006), all 50-odd fiction students get a free ride and a stipend. “Anything her parents contributed would be extra,” says Chang. “Like plane tickets.”

Iowa is not going to sand off her edges, and probably won’t make her a better writer. Hannah herself isn’t sure “writing can be taught” — a truism even the school’s mission statement half-concedes: “If one can ‘learn’ to play the violin or to paint, one can ‘learn’ to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well.” Under its previous longtime director, Frank Conroy, the Workshop had a reputation for encouraging too-polished, understated prose, emphasizing tight form over a diversity of style and experience. But that single-mindedness has started to change under Chang, whose workshop is more welcoming but also (as a result) a bit less of a style boot camp. Hannah’s self-obsessed prose is now “just one of the kinds of things that people write here,” says Chang. “People who describe experiences very close to their own — and also sci-fi and literary horror and highbrow, philosophically minded works.”

Hannah may fear the flat, square heartland, but the Workshop’s slice of it isn’t all that different from Greenpoint. “There’s a real pipeline between Williamsburg and Iowa,” Chee says. “PBR isn’t ironic in the Midwest, it’s what you can drink. Hannah will go to the Foxhead Bar,” the Iowa City haunt of the fiction students (poets prefer George’s), “and there’ll be this constant flow of published writers.” She’ll meet people from her past and cultivate her future. “In grad school, you get a cohort, who more or less you’ll see for the rest of your life, at parties, in book reviews, in institutional settings.” Those future parties, of course, are mostly back in New York.

If anything, Iowa will broaden her horizons (and Girls’). Girls has been criticized for its predominant whiteness — not a situation that relocating to Iowa would improve. Or so you’d think: Roughly 20 percent of this year’s workshop students are African-American. “My roommate was from Mumbai, and there was a really cool group of Caribbean writers,” says La Force. “I definitely met people I would never have met in New York. A real veteran was in the class above me.” For Chee, Girls is about the decline of white privilege, and Iowa plays right into it. “The kind of ego you need to be a writer is a lot like what white privilege looks like,” he says, “but it’s much stronger if you earn it. If you can imagine Hannah in a class with the next Yiyun Li or Ayana Mathis, then you have an idea of what is happening next season.”

What Awaits Hannah at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop