What Girls Got Wrong (and Right!) About the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Season four of Girls premiered last week, but it really kicked off with last night’s second episode, which opened on a cornfield and closed with Hannah Horvath slurring, “I want to go back to undergrad school, I don’t want to stay in grad school.” For those fortunate enough to have passed through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, this season ends a year of speculation in the wake of Hannah’s fictional acceptance there: What would Girls make of the prestigious MFA program, and what would students make of its fun-house interpretation? After talking to a few teachers and alumni (some of whom shared their thoughts last year), it’s safe to say that reactions are mixed. “It’s just not possible to capture in 22 minutes,” says Thessaly La Force, class of ’13. “But if an alien came to planet Earth and saw Girls, and that was their only representation of the workshop, I would not be unhappy.”

Unlike Hannah’s short story in last night’s brutal workshop scene, news of Girls’ coming Iowa arc was greeted warmly by the country’s highest-ranked fiction program. The greater University of Iowa wasn’t so enthusiastic: It turned down the show’s request to film on campus after deciding it placed it in “an unfavorable light.” Maybe it was that wrestling scene at the frat party? Lan Samantha Chang, the fiction workshop’s director, puts it down to midwestern squeamishness. “The minute I heard the word fuck in the episode, I thought, oh, now I get it.”

Chang decided, after some hesitation, to host a viewing of episode three — the spring semester starts this Tuesday — at Dey House, the workshop’s quaint, white-shingled home. Instructor and recent graduate Pramodini Parayitam urged her to go ahead with it. “It’s nice to see yourself portrayed,” she says. “Whether it’s good or bad, it’s comedy. We’ll get together and make popcorn.”

Parayitam co-hosted last April’s party for visiting speaker Sarah Heyward, the Girls writer and Workshop alum who mined her own experiences for the show. Iowa students are leery of commercial fare; last night’s crack comparing Hannah’s story to Fifty Shades of Grey was “the worst thing you can say at Iowa,” says novelist and Iowa grad Kate Christensen. But after Heyward told students how creator Lena Dunham had hired her on the basis of a workshopped story, Chang repeated the anecdote at graduation — an aspirational tale of real-world success. During Heyward’s Q&A, Chang lamented that Hannah might have to quit Iowa, given the show’s New York focus, and “No one ever leaves Iowa.” Hannah is a champion quitter; we’ll see if she beats the odds against early departure.

Heyward’s visit came weeks after Hannah’s acceptance, and “we were all wondering if they were going to cast us or just have attractive actors play us,” says Parayitam, half-joking. Party co-host Jessie Hennen, a 2014 graduate, took Heyward to their house early, and was worried no one would show up. Heyward asked to see the students’ bedrooms, where she took photos and notes. (Alumni say Hannah’s house, though unrealistically cheap, passes convincingly for a down-at-heels Iowa City Victorian.) Heyward and Hennen went out on the porch for a few minutes, and when they turned back, the house was packed.

It wasn’t quite the rager Hannah crashes on North Linn Street (a real-life frat-party nexus). Slumming with the undergrads is discouraged, especially for the vast majority of Iowa students who have to teach them. “Hannah would have gotten a really killer fellowship if she didn’t have any teaching responsibilities,” says Hennen. La Force, for one, did crash the occasional frat house. “You’ll hear a rager and just pop in,” she says. “You’ll definitely be the weirdest, oldest-looking people there, but no one questions it, and after a few tequila shots, you’re in. That can be anthropologically interesting for someone who didn’t go to a Big Ten college.” And while she doesn’t remember any girl-on-girl wrestling, undergrads are notorious for raiding graduate parties, passing out on lawns, and stumbling into strangers’ houses by mistake. One MFA grad compared them to raccoons.

The most believable pest on Girls, all agreed, is the bat that takes Hannah hostage. Other aspects of the setting, cobbled together from Ditmas Park and other locations, were more of a stretch. Chang “thought they did a pretty good job,” but Christensen believes “the sense of place was missing. It was clearly East Coast and urban.” (She did appreciate the shout-outs to the Fox Head, the storied writers’ hangout, and the Yacht Club, a divey rock bar.) Then there was the idyllic weather. “She’s riding her bike down this beautiful pathway with bright-pink flowers,” says Casey Walker, a recent graduate who’s just published his first novel. “It looks like no Iowa that I know. For six months of the year, it’s just these bitterly cold, windswept plains.”

More problematic is the heart of last night’s episode — and the program — the workshop itself. The students’ quick pile-on over Hannah’s story, dismissing it in unison as the bloggy scribbling of a bratty exhibitionist, makes sense for Girls but betrays the Iowa ethos of constructive dialogue. “Workshops are very, very intense, and they go on for hours,” says Christensen. “You dig really deeply, but with very little hostility or jargon.” Hannah’s chastisement for talking during her own critique is more accurate. “I got yelled at once for making big gestures and angrily eating,” Hennen says.

For novelist and alum Alexander Chee, it was a believable bit of cringe comedy. “She basically made herself the most annoying person at the workshop,” he says. “It will define the way her peers think of her for, basically, the next two years. If she’s successful later, it will be one of those little stories told about her at parties by jealous classmates.”

“I’m a fiction writer, I get it,” says Walker. “The workshop is being used as a backdrop to express certain emotional preoccupations of the protagonist. But I think it would focus much more on the actual language of the piece.” That’s not to say that Hannah’s story isn’t worthy of scorn. “She’s a 12-year-old diarist, she’s not good enough,” says Christensen. “I can’t believe she got in.” Hennen agrees that “Hannah’s writing was terrible,” but thinks students would have been too polite to slam it. Chang is more generous. “I was actually interested in Hannah’s manuscript,” she says. “If someone puts something up in the class, I just think, Okay, let’s take this seriously.

While the classroom scene was necessarily simplified — “it’s like Grey’s Anatomy to a surgeon,” says Parayitam — the tendency toward affected cultural umbrage and what Walker calls “workshop mumbo-jumbo” seemed realistic. “There really was something accurate about this PC self-seriousness,” says Christensen, who relished a (yet-unaired) scene in which Hannah calls out her classmates’ identity politics. (Another dead-on element is the group’s ethnic diversity — though the actual class skews older than the show’s.) Every graduate identified with Hannah’s sensitivity to criticism, as well as the need to unpack it at the Fox Head. “That’s as true as anything on the show,” says Walker. “You feel aggrieved or beat up in class, but at the bar, you keep talking it over. That’s where a lot of the best workshop takes place.”

No one was surprised to learn that Elijah, Hannah’s Iowa-crashing, party-mad, gay ex-boyfriend, will soon find common cause with hard-partying poets (the Workshop is split between fiction and poetry). “There is a wink-nudge jokiness, even among the poets, that they are the ones who are super-out-of-control,” says Walker — freaks to the fiction side’s geeks. “We have to write 1,000 words a day, but 28 is good for them.” The character that most reminded Walker’s wife of Iowa poets was Jessa, Hannah’s recovering-addict friend back in Brooklyn. But Christensen, who graduated years ago but returned recently to teach, says today’s poets are a tamer breed: “There was a kind of fog of decadence that hung over them, but that was in the late ’80s. I think now the poets are more cerebral.”

The workshop holds an intensely competitive poet-writer softball game — one of several comic opportunities that grads were disappointed to see unexploited by Dunham and company. What about the full-dress graduation prom, or students’ surprising fondness for Game of Thrones? Hannah’s teacher is a nonpresence in a school where students jockey relentlessly to be taught by celebrity authors. “I was really hoping there would be a Marilynne Robinson kind of teacher,” says Christensen. “She’s on a higher plane, and I could see Hannah grappling with that.” Walker agrees: “Robinson is like, ‘What is the ethical import of the stories we tell?’ The failings of your fiction are often the deformities of your soul.”

The biggest disappointment, though, is the character flaw that drives the series: Hannah doesn’t seem inclined to make new friends, to push beyond her defenses, or to learn anything. “Wherever she goes, there she is,” says Hennen, echoing what Elijah tells Hannah at the frat party (though Elijah drunkenly mangles it). Chang, ever charitable, wouldn’t write her off. “Many people enter the program feeling defensive and isolated. The most vulnerable part of them is being discussed by people they don’t know. After the first semester, they settle in and start to make friends and feel less defensive. I’ve seen enormous change take place in two years.”

Christensen’s prognosis is bleaker: Clearly she didn’t belong here, and she recognizes it. She’s the wrong kind of writer for Iowa.” Whatever happens, one thing Hannah has done, for good or ill, is put the school on the map of pop culture, perhaps beckoning more would-be Hannahs in her wake. Applications are up this year, despite an improving economy. It might have something to do with a streamlined application process — or there might be, as Chang puts it, “a Girls effect.”

What Girls Got Wrong About Iowa’s MFA Program