[WRITING] Samantha Chang - For Iowa Writers' Workshop, a New Pedagogy
- For Writers' Program, a New Pedagogy
By DINITIA SMITH
The New York Times
Published: April 18, 2005
SOMERVILLE, Mass., April 13 - The first thing to know about Lan
Samantha Chang, who has been named the new director of the Iowa
Writers' Workshop, is that she has strong ideas about teaching.
For one thing, workshops should not be therapy sessions. "I don't
think they should advocate one aesthetic over another," Ms. Chang
said firmly during an interview last week in a restaurant near her
apartment here. "I don't believe in singling out particular people or
destroying them in public, though I make my opinions known."
Ms. Chang, 40, is a well-praised novelist and short-story writer
herself. She will become director next January, with an annual salary
of $115,500. She succeeds Frank Conroy, who died this month, and who
during his 18 years as director made Iowa one of the nation's most
prestigious training grounds for writers. Ms. Chang, now a Briggs-
Copeland lecturer in creative writing at Harvard, was among four
finalists for the job. She will be the first woman and the first
Asian-American to hold the position, school officials say.
Ms. Chang will teach a graduate fiction workshop, choose students for
the fiction program (poetry students are chosen by the poetry
faculty) and will consult on hiring, among other duties. The two-year
program, which leads to a master's in fine arts, has no specific
academic course requirements. The fiction workshop, which became a
full-fledged program in 1936, receives 750 applications for 25
places, and there are 450 poetry applications for 25 places. Tuition
for out-of-state students is about $17,000 a year and for in-state
students about $6,500 a year.
One of her goals, Ms. Chang said, is to raise money from individuals
and foundations to provide full tuition scholarship to all workshop
students. Now some of them get aid through scholarships and teaching
The novelist Marilynne Robinson, who was on the seven-member search
committee said, "We felt we couldn't go wrong choosing any of the
candidates." The others were Jim Shepard, Ben Marcus and Richard
But she noted of Ms. Chang that "her career is on the upswing, which
makes her a valuable presence as an active writer," and added: "She's
very devoted to the program," where she studied in the early 1990's,
and where she has been a visiting faculty member.
James Alan McPherson, acting director of the workshop and another
member of the search committee, said he expected no major changes in
the program. "They have comparable sensibilities," he said of Mr.
Conroy and Ms. Chang. Like Mr. Conroy, he said, Ms. Chang is
comfortable with people from varying backgrounds. In Mr. Conroy's
time, the workshop produced writers with as varied an aesthetic as T.
C. Boyle, Jane Smiley and Allan Gurganus, all in the same class at
Iowa in the 1970's, all taught by John Cheever, a writer with his own
Mr. McPherson added: "She will be closer to the experience of young
writers than I was or Frank was."
He said the workshop expects from Ms. Chang, as it did from Mr.
Conroy, "a sense of community, a commitment to develop students, and
the encouragement of financial help."
Ms. Chang is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who left China in
1949 and moved to Appleton, Wis. Her father, Nai-Lin Chang, is a
retired professor of engineering affiliated with Lawrence University
there; her mother, Helen Chung-Hung Hsiang, teaches piano. Ms. Chang,
one of four sisters, graduated from Yale, where she was managing
editor of The Yale Daily News. She was also an intern in a program at
The New York Times aimed at minorities.
After Yale, she went to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
to study public administration. "I thought I would get a job where I
would have to wear pantyhose to work," she said.
Then she began taking writing courses at the Cambridge Center for
Adult Education and was accepted at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She
studied with Ms. Robinson, Mr. McPherson and Mr. Conroy. Just as she
was leaving, she learned that one of her short stories had been
accepted by The Atlantic Monthly. It became part of her first
collection, "Hunger," published in 1998.
Ms. Chang said she was disappointed to learn that The Atlantic
Monthly had recently announced it would cease publishing fiction
regularly in its pages. "Our country is currently in sore need of
fiction," she said. "Our country is hung up on what's quantifiable,
on spreadsheets and cost-benefit analysis, the things I learned at
the Kennedy School. Even the most honest economist says there are
things that can't be explained by numbers."
She has not turned her back, however, on what she learned about
public administration at the Kennedy School. "I took two classes on
leadership and authority," she said. "I found them fascinating."
"I think I will use them," she added with a smile. In 2004 Ms. Chang
married Robert Caputo, a landscape painter and art teacher, and
published her first novel, "Inheritance," about two sisters, Junan
and Yinan, in China during the turmoil of the 1930's and 40's who
fall in love with the same man.
The novel is narrated by Hong, Junan's daughter, who lives in New
York in the 1990's. "My subject is time," Ms. Chang said. "The
immigrant experience throws a powerful light on the way time affects
us and our families," she added. "Moving to another country creates a
gap between the generations, emphasizes the bridges and dislocations
across and between the generations."
Today, she said, "the publishing industry is focusing on writers as
entertainment personalities," and for that reason, Iowa is especially
valuable because it is "one of the few havens where a developing
writer is given the opportunity to focus on work alone."
Correction: April 19, 2005, Tuesday:
An article in The Arts yesterday about the new director of the Iowa
Writers' Workshop, Lan Samantha Chang, misidentified the workshop's
director in the 1970's, when T. C. Boyle, Jane Smiley and Allan
Gurganus were all in the same class. He was John Leggett; Frank
Conroy arrived in 1987.