A thing people don’t know about Lan Samantha Chang, esteemed director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is that she’s hilarious. Granted, sometimes it isn’t on purpose – i.e. her scrutiny-face when she turns around at a reading to see who is and isn’t there – but usually it’s intentional. God, she kills. I miss getting to watch Sam be funny, which is why, last year, when visiting Iowa City, I enticed Dini (Parayitam!) to sneak with me into a meeting for second-years who were soon, like us, to be graduates.
To be clear: we were not supposed to be there.
Here are my notes, anyway.
(We insert ourselves amidst the clamoring crowd. As two mid-twenties women in casual dresses, we fit in quite well – we suspect we will be able to attend unnoticed, especially since Sam just last year peered around a workshop I wasn’t enrolled in and went, “Where’s Jessie?” So many people come through Iowa every year that temporality is not really an issue for them. When you get in, your file stays on file til you die, and probably after. Do we want to be noticed, or don’t we? We can’t tell.)
Minute 1: (Sam has not noticed, and neither, we think, has anyone else. Dini and I are aquiver with delight. It is as if we never left! The dream is real!)
She says, “I called this meeting because people told me they were worried about what to do after graduation.”
(We are wrong. Everyone who knows us has noticed us, and is laughing. Alice’s giggles are a delight. Stephen Markley seems most amused.)
“When I was a second-year,” Sam continues, “I was extremely anxious. It doesn’t seem to make people feel better if they’ve achieved great things.” (My marginalia: good advice)
“(As a writer), to establish a way of creating stability in your life is good.” She passes out a list of fellowships and residencies. (Marginalia: I knew I came here for a reason! I have just graduated and have zero idea what to do with my life beyond waving my degree around triumphantly at every possible opportunity.)
“Regarding the financial aid portion of these applications,” Sam says, “they probably want you to tell how or why you’re broke.” (Laughter, a lot of murmuring about the bar.) “Nobody gets the Stegner. A lot of people say, well, I’ve just made my annual contribution to Stanford University…” (Knowing laughter.)
Minute 8: Off-topic question regarding MFA exam, literally the one academic essay we have to write in our entire career, and results thereof, and when they will be announced. “Well, I know it is possible to fail it,” Sam says dreamily. “Someone did three times once, you know.”
(General gasp of shock.)
From the corner, Ethan Canin, quite cheerily: “It’s someone you wouldn’t expect it to be!”
Sam: “But it is possible to publish it, you know. Tony (Tulathimutte, of Private Citizens fame) got his in The American Reader.”
(Crowd does not know what to think.)
Minute 11: Sam just called Noel out on his tendency to insert extra spaces between paragraphs. “But you said double-spaced,” he says.
“Yes, well. Not like you. You have a way of putting an extra space in between paragraphs? It’s lengthened your work considerably…”
(Probably too much laughter)
Minute 13: Dini and I realize that Liz Weiss, who also has, hello, graduated already, is here, and thus we are no longer original. Dini writes, “She wins.”
Sam is talking about the academic job market. She seems stumped. She says, “Well, one other person who might know about the academic job market is…” (Loooong pause, pleased expression.) “Well: me! For one thing.”
Segue to fellowship talk: “What we also give out is – we also give out cash?”
Minute 14: Sam mentions the New Zealand fellowship, which I have just returned from, but does not mention me, so that’s all right.
Minute 15: Dini is sure Connie Brothers has definitely noticed us.
Will Jameson, from the back: “Can you talk more about the cash?”
Minute 20: Panicked realization, on my part, that I have not written any thank-you letters for any fellowships I have received ever.
Sam, talking about workshop donors: “They do come here and we are nice to them. We try to show them our most presentable side.” (Question from audience: Like who? Like, which of us is the most presentable side?) “They tend to be people who…” (searches ceiling for example) “… look at how other people do their hair?”
Minute 21: Inexplicable drawing of a dinosaur saying, “so lonely”
Minute 30: Sam to student, whose name is lost to time: “Do you have a question?” Student: “Oh, no. I’m just, like, listening really hard.”
Minute 32: “You know, what you can do is, you can get a… job?” (Tone: as if it’s a crazy suggestion.) “Right, like there’s this one student who graduated last year, and she’s doing amazingly, she’s working at a law firm, and I was totally willing to write her a letter of recommendation, because structure, you know, it can work so well for some people.” (She stares around the room, her eyes saying GET A JOB, while Dini and I look at each other in glee, realizing that she’s talking about our beloved eternal roomie Jeri, who is now ensconced in Sam’s mind as a shining example of employability.)
Minute 40: (eagerly) “I know you guys are really stressed out! Do you wanna talk about stress??”
Minute 42: Someone asks about the PhD. Sam says, “After a certain point, being in school makes you old.” (Laughter.) “How does being in school make you old? Because time passes when you’re in school, and you are older when you graduate than when you started.” (Audience seems unable to decide if this is really Zen or really stupid. Is resolved with following metaphor.) “It’s like being a sailor who comes back from sea to find that your sweetheart has married someone else…” (Audience sits back in appreciation)
Minute 45: Someone says, “Well, you could always move to Spain or Uruguay. You know, somewhere cheap.” And Sam nods her approval. Meeting concludes on tone of general geniality – we all feel as if we know more and less than when we started. As Dini and I stand, Connie Brothers makes a beeline for us through the crowd, ready to laugh at the fact that we were there.