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The Connie Brothers Era: 45 Years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

In this episode, alumni and staff from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop join Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to honor the retirement of the unmatched Connie Brothers, the Workshop’s administrator for 45 years. Our guests recall their days as students, and the many times Connie provided guidance, encouragement, and compassion to emerging and established writers.

To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (make sure to include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below.

Guests

Chris Adrian · Josh Barkan · Marcus Burke · Lan Samantha Chang · Tameka Cage Conley · Danielle Evans · Tom Grimes · Diane Louie · Deb West · Antoine Wilson and many more

Readings for the Episode:

Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes · The Workshop: Seven Decades of the Iowa Writers Workshop by Tom Grimes

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 From the episode:
Part I: Conversations with alumni

Scott Anderson, Author of Lawrence in Arabia:

When I applied to the workshop, I’d never gone to college and I was so clueless about about how higher education worked. I didn’t even really understand what a master’s program meant. Anyway, I applied, and I got in, but because I’d never gone to undergraduate school, I came as an undergraduate freshman. My first year at Iowa I was in the program, but I was an undergraduate freshman. I got a teaching writing fellowship for the second year and Connie, I think it was like a little game for her. She knew I wasn’t qualified to get the fellowship, but she waited until halfway through the fall semester, where I was already teaching classes.

I mean, I’m teaching a junior level class and I’m a sophomore undergraduate. At that point, while I was halfway through, she goes to the administration and goes, “Hey look, we’ve got an undergraduate sophomore, teaching a 300-level class. We’ve got to make the guy a graduate student.” That’s how I got into graduate school. I don’t know if they’d ever done this before, but my first year didn’t count. I ended up being here for three years, and so now I have, courtesy of Connie, I have a master’s degree with no undergrad. I can tell with Connie, I mean, she liked me and everything, but it was seeing what she could get away with on the system. What she could pull off.

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Marcus Burke, Author of Team Seven:

I guess it was my “Welcome to Iowa” moment. I remember I got here and I thought it was going to be like the crucible of writing or something, you know? You hear all these rumors about Iowa. Well, it wasn’t that. It was very good, but it didn’t live up to the horror stories I’d heard. I remember I called Connie. I was a full fellow, so I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I called her and I was like, “Connie, like, am I missing any classes?” You know, “What do I do?” She was just like, “Well, honey, have you set up your direct deposit?” And I was like, “Yeah.” And she was like, “I don’t know, do you like to swim or bike? You should maybe go take a walk or go write or you should read.” And then I started to understand. They really give you the freedom to do whatever it is that you need to do to contribute to your art. No judgment.

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Deb West, Program Secretary:

Whitney Terrell: I’m here with the famed Deb West, who is program secretary at the Iowa Writers Workshop. And I know that she has worked with Connie for many years, and I wanted to talk to you, Deb, because we’re gonna have a lot of writers on to talk about their relationship with Connie, but you’re on the other side of that equation. What it’s like to be somebody who’s working with the writers? And I wonder if you could just talk about that job and its particular demands or rewards or irritations and what made Connie good at it in your view.

That is what Connie has meant to the Writers’ Workshop over all the decades: she’s provided refuge and safety and vision for so many of us who have needed it.

Deb West: I think Connie’s always been really good at it because she’s like your typical Jewish mother. And  she really was. I mean, she always wanted to feed you and she wanted to help you in some way or other. It’s gonna be really sad to have her go. I’m gonna miss her a lot. I worked with her for 31 years . . . When I went over to interview for the job, I remember I was all decked out in a skirt and a jacket and high heels. And when I came in, Frank was sitting at his desk smoking a cigarette, and Connie was there, and also Marvin Bell was there, because he also interviewed me. And I remember Frank asking me why I wanted to leave my other job on the other side of the river. And I said, “Because the medical students are dicks.” You know?

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Diane Louie, Author of Fractal Shores:

I was in both workshops—and in fiction, you were asked to list your preference in order for the workshop section. And I had been put in my third choice. So I walked into Connie’s office and I said, “But I want to work with the only woman here.” Which was Hilma Wolitzer. And Connie . . . I don’t really remember what Connie said, but she made no promises, I’m sure. And she also told me that my third choice was a very good teacher as well. And I would learn a lot. I was much calmed down. And, of course, Connie, doing what Connie does, I was then switched to Hilma’s workshop.

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Antoine Wilson, Author of Panorama City:

Back in the day, a couple of years after I graduated, I was in town for some reason or other. And of course, I had to make my walk through the Dey House and maybe see Jim McPherson and a few other things. And I said hi to everybody and so on and so forth. And then I was walking out and I was on the walkway halfway to the sidewalk when the door to the house bursts open behind me and I hear, “Antoine!” and it’s Connie and she comes running out onto the walking path. And she takes my hands and says to me, “Keep writing. You’re really good.” And that was just a very special moment for me. I mean, as you can imagine.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: Our podcast listeners can’t see this, but I am verklempt at this story. I love that she encouraged all of us.

Antoine Wilson: Well, that’s when I began to wonder, maybe she said it to everybody. And then I thought, even if she does, that’s fine, too.

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Chris Adrian, Author of The New World:

The things that were invisible to me in a way when I was a student weren’t so invisible anymore when I came back to teach. One of my students was having trouble and stopped coming to class. Or sort of came sometimes, but was caught up in something that I didn’t know much about and didn’t understand. And I didn’t think I didn’t know what I didn’t understand. And so what I saw was somebody who wasn’t working hard, right? And who felt like roll with it what what they were asking for what was being proposed what’s going to be unfair compared to the other students. And just when I was about to pull the trigger on punishing her and away Connie took me aside quietly, without saying, you know, you was more or less like your appeal. You’re the you’re the teacher. You can do whatever you want, but here’s some things that you should understand about what’s been going on. Where you make your decision? And it changed everything. And I was like, Oh, this is the person who takes care of everybody.

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Josh Barkan, Author of Mexico: Stories:
Connie has given love in a very genuine way . . . peace and love in the best of ways. Within a very structured environment, Connie has been able to give that.

Whenever I would see her coming around for readings, it was always immediately to love life, marriage, whatever it was—always that was the thing when you get in the car with Connie after you’ve done a reading. I always felt like she almost cared more about my partners than me. And that was the gossip side that people were talking [about] today, which is, you know, it’s sweet. It’s again very genuine because I think she understood that if that side of things wasn’t going well then other things wouldn’t be going well.

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Lan Samantha Chang, Workshop Director, Author of All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost:

 It was February 1991, and I received a phone call at my landline at the time, because we didn’t have cells. Connie said, “Hello, this is Connie Brothers from the Iowa Writers Workshop.” And what she basically told me was that the workshop wanted to admit me, and they wanted it give me a TA, but they needed me to fill out a form that I had not filled out. And the reason I had not filled out this financial aid form was that it was really hard. It was questions like, “What languages do you know? What subject matters can you teach?” It was just so intimidating. And the process of applying for an MFA had been very intimidating for me, and I just could not do it.

So I sent in my application without the form. And what I’ve always been grateful for is that she never made me feel bad that I didn’t fill out the form. She wanted me to fill it out so that they could give me aid. And I understood at that moment that writing was the most important thing to her, and that they wanted me as a writer, not me as a person who could fill out this form or even someone who had exciting things to teach. They wanted me because I was going to be a writer.

I didn’t find out a lot of Connie’s background until I was director, but I can tell you, I knew her in three ways. First, I knew her as a student. Then I knew her when I came back to teach as a visiting faculty member, six years later. And then I knew her when I took this job as director when I was 40. And I would say that in the last 14 years that I’ve been director, there were maybe a dozen years when I spoke to Connie, hours a day, five times a week more than I talked to anybody else in my life. And that really it was one of the most wonderful and lucky things that ever happened to me. I feel that Connie is the mentor of my adult life. And I can’t think of a more compassionate, more meaningful person to have had so many conversations with. I learned a lot of things from her.

I’m very much the kind of person who wants an answer and wants to know what it is, but Connie is very much not. She’s a very much “go with the flow” kind of person. And so as director, one of the things she taught me was to go with the flow. “Yes. Here’s the problem, but we can’t solve it right away. We don’t have enough information. We haven’t talked to people.” The interesting thing is that talking to people is what solves the problem, but I came to the directorship with fairly poor problem-solving skills in that area. The most important thing about being an administrator is to learn to listen, and I did not understand that until I started this job. And Connie is a sort of brilliant listener. She always makes the person talking feel heard and valued. And then she has a special mojo that I can’t duplicate, which is that she manages to reach through their head, and finds this special thing that they need, or need to have understood about themselves, and she understands it. I don’t know how she does that.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: How did she end up at the workshop?

Lan Samantha Chang: I heard two stories. The first story I heard was from Connie. She said she was hired by Jack Leggett in 1974. And I knew Jack through the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, until close to his death when he was 97 years old. And he and I talked a lot about the workshop, and what it was like when he had been there. Jack had been there from 1970 to 1987. And a few years after he arrived, he hired Connie. Connie was working at the time as a kindergarten teacher at a very small private school in Iowa City.

There’s sort of a porous membrane between the workshop and the community. And I think it was more so at the time, people would just come to parties, workshop parties, and Connie was there one night, and then she met Jack. And then a little bit later, he ran into her at the New Pioneer Co-op, which was also at that point very new, and said, “So would you be interested in a job?” He tells me this story a few years ago when he was in his 90s, saying, “That was the smartest hire I ever made.” And this is a man who hired some amazing people and who let in some of the most famous writers who’ve been through the workshop, including Michael Cunningham, Jane Smiley, etc.

He said Connie was the best hire he ever made. And I told Connie about this because she loves Jack. And she said, “You know why he hired me? He hired me because we were at a party, and he saw me walking around with this writer who had had too much to drink, walking and back and forth and back and forth. And he knew that I would be good at working with this population.”

VVG: I think that the first moment when I began to feel very emotional last night was when you said, Connie stuck up for women at the workshop.

LSC: Connie was an advocate for people’s manuscripts. She would, according to office lore, bring piles of manuscripts back to certain people and say re-read this. I mean, that is the level at which she was able to bring women more closely into this program and its experience. She has always been an advocate for me. For example, when I was a new mother, she encouraged me to bring my daughter to work. She had a little bassinet and I could nurse her whenever I wanted. And she was just around all the time until she went to preschool. Yeah, my office is still full of children’s toys.

VVG: As a student, I felt that the workshop was a space in which women teachers and classmates also advocated for me, and that there was this interesting, almost invisible lineage of mentorship. And to realize that Connie was the source of that!

LSC: She was the support of it and the source of it. She really knew how to support people. Connie has also been a huge ally of mine in my efforts to open the program to wider populations to attract and matriculate more students from various diverse backgrounds. And she’s always been 100 percent behind me with that.

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Tameka Cage Conley, Fiction writer and librettist:

So I remember being very stressed last summer about balancing family with being a fiction writer, and being a person who was really trying to make a significant mark, with my work as a poet, as a fiction writer, as a playwright. And I just felt that that wasn’t enough of anything. I didn’t feel like that was enough of me. I didn’t feel like there was enough time. I was concerned about resources. I sort of had a breakdown in Connie’s office that I didn’t see coming at all. I just collapsed in her chair because I think at the time I was just waiting for a number of different things to come in. I was just in what felt like a holding space . . .  I think I was just exhausted, you know, as a mother, also teaching, also writing. It was just pressure from every side. And Connie said, you know what the problem is? It’s that you think you can do everything because you can do everything. And you look good while you’re doing everything. But you have to accept that you can’t do everything.

And the fact that she spoke that clearly and that effectively and that accurately. And the fact that she saw that deeply into me. At a time when I did feel like I was doing everything. I did feel like I could do everything. But ultimately, I couldn’t. And the fact that she saw that amidst the hundreds, literally the hundred people in the workshop, and the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds outside Iowa city, who continue to still call upon her to still reach out to her who still feel deeply connected to her. But in that moment, she saw me and it was, it was very much that that burden was lifted because she saw me and she gave me refuge. And I think that that is what Connie has meant to the Writers’ Workshop over all the decades she’s been here is that she’s provided refuge and safety and vision for so many of us who have needed it right at the precise moment that we’ve needed it and we felt more seen and more loved and more humane.

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Gallaudet Howard, Fiction writer and teacher:

She gave me the best advice I got, because when I came, I went and talked to her and I was five months pregnant. And I knew I was going to have a baby in the beginning of the second semester of my first year and I said, “I’m a nurse practitioner and I don’t want to lose my skills. I want to look for a job around here, maybe just per diem or something.” And Connie looked to me and she said, “You are going to have four months in a workshop before you have a baby. And you are never going to have this time again. And you should take these four months and just write. Somebody has told you, you should take four months out of your life and write. And you should do that.” And I did, and I’ve always been so grateful to her for saying—Stop. Just do this. Have the baby. Bring it to workshops with you. It’s fine. But don’t try to have two careers at once. She was very wise.

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Eileen Pollack, Novelist, The Professor of Immortality:

I was close friends with Gish Jen when we were in the workshop. This was just a long time ago, in the early 80s, but Gish and I were in her kitchen, in her apartment and she sneezed and she said when she went into the workshop the next day, Connie asked her how her cold was. So that was basically how we all felt about Connie. She knew all.

In my second year in the workshop, I had a terrible experience with one of my workshop leaders, and I just felt destroyed and I left the workshop. I wasn’t going to come back. I missed two weeks. And then I thought, “No, why am I letting this happen?” And I came back and the first thing I did was go into Connie’s office and tell her everything that had happened. And I said, “I don’t know what to do. How do we make this right?” And Connie went around and made everything right for me, so that I could come back to the workshop and not have the awful feelings that had built up influence the rest of my time in the workshop. And I’ll always be grateful to her for that.

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Danielle Evans, Author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self:

When I came to the Workshop I was 20, and Connie was appalled. And I was also convinced that it was a mistake. And so I would have recurring nightmares that it was Connie’s job to tell me that I wasn’t actually supposed to be here. She always had a green piece of paper and in my dream she was chasing me around with this green piece of paper and somehow if I didn’t get the paper from her I wouldn’t have to leave. But if Connie was able to give me the paper then I would have to go home.

And I feel like Connie was nothing but kind to me and in fact would regularly call me to check on me. To the point that I thought that she did that for everybody. And then after years and years, other people would be like, oh, Connie would call me and give me jobs; Connie would send me to bring food to people; Connie would tell me to give someone a ride. And I realized at that point that actually in fact, I was just one of the people Connie sent other people to check on. That’s how I learned.

Everyone knew they could go to Connie. She was the emotional heart and spine of the workshop.

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Part II: Tom Grimes

Whitney Terrell: There have not been that many directors of the workshop.

Tom Grimes: Correct.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: But there’s only one Connie.

WT: Right but Connie’s been there for 40 years. And one of the things that was interesting to me—

VVG: Forty-five, I think.

WT: In all the recollections of the 300 or so writers who were up there . . . everyone talked about her warmth, her concern. They are all terms that are very, very different than Frank—not so different than Sam, who was a classmate of mine. I feel like maybe we should not be talking about the Leggett workshop or the Frank Conroy workshop, but it’s really been the Connie Brothers workshop all along, that sort of warmth in organization and caring that happened underneath the scenes was actually more important than what the director was doing in some ways. What do you think about that?

TG: Frank was this larger-than-life figure in so many ways, but Connie got things done. Connie knew everything and if you walked past her door, which was always open, she would be like, come in here and she would like whisper and pull you inside. She would either ask what was wrong, or what happened or could she help? The workshop could not have existed without Connie Brothers, period. It would have collapsed, I believe, probably back in the 70s. Everybody knew if they had a problem, go talk to Connie.

WT: So, it wasn’t just caring for people’s emotions, she was actually a pretty decent political fixer with the university.

TG: She knew where all the bodies were buried. She has files and files that go back years that some people, I think, probably would like to read. Connie was like an air-traffic controller because she had a big laptop on her desk with this huge screen, and she would have hundreds of emails on the screen and they would keep coming in. She would also wear headphones so she could talk on the phone while she’s talking to you. She was constantly talking to everyone. Some of us would laugh. I don’t know if you guys did it, but usually everyone says I need to thank Connie Brothers, put it in our acknowledgments. I loved Connie and of course still do. . . . She was amazing at detecting our vulnerabilities and our anxiety. One of the main things she did was alleviate that.

There were almost two workshops when I was there. Frank’s workshop, which is one workshop and Frank was the king and everybody was terrified of him and what he would say in workshop. And there was Connie, not just making sure all the wheels turned, but keeping everyone sane. Everyone knew they could go to Connie. She was the emotional heart and spine of the workshop. Her warmth contrasted Frank’s cold in a way that Frank’s tenure as director would have really changed had he not had Connie. One thing she did say to me when she read the manuscript of “Mentor.” I had written, “Frank was due back in August and Connie had cleaned his office.” She called me and said, “No, I ‘neatened,’ his office.” She didn’t want to be the cleaning woman.

Of course I changed the word and used Connie’s word. I knew I’d written a good book with mentoring, because I was asking Connie to read it as I went along, every hundred pages or so. She called me, it was a Sunday morning, and she was like, “Tom, it’s Connie.” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “I just finished Mentor.” She said, “It’s different than the way I read it in pieces.” I knew she was telling me how good it was. She wouldn’t have called otherwise. She would have sent me an email and I thought if Connie knows it’s good, it’s good.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai and condensed and edited by Chloe Seim and V.V. Ganeshananthan.

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