Telling the Story of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Writer: Michael Morain
Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is famous for producing stories. In 2020, a new story began about the workshop itself.

A team of Iowa City filmmakers is producing a documentary about the University of Iowa’s legendary writing program, focusing their lens on a dozen students who arrived this fall. The cameras will follow their daily lives until they graduate in 2022.

“I hope [audiences] see there’s something very special happening here, and they see the challenges of living a creative life,” says workshop director Lan Samantha Chang.

Filmmaker Andrew Sherburne hopes to feature these discoveries, too. With help from a recent Produce Iowa Greenlight Grant, he launched the project because he was drawn to the workshop’s insular mystery. Even as a local, he knew little about what actually happens there.

“That’s part of its charm, its allure,” he says. “The people who have passed through the doors of this building and through this program in its many locations have been incredibly influential in the world of literature.”

He and his co-director, Tommy Haines, previously worked together on “Saving Brinton,” the 2017 documentary about a Washington man who discovered a stash of rare film reels from the early 20th century. That film made the rounds of international festivals and was short-listed for an Oscar in 2019.

That was proof, Sherburne says, “that Midwest storytellers can bring Midwest stories to the big screen.”

The filmmakers may stage some scenes from the workshop participants’ own fiction and poetry, but most of the film will rely on observational footage of the writers’ routines in Iowa City. The best bits will be distilled into a few connecting storylines.

“We shoot people doing research, running, cooking, at the store because these are the things, actually, that make the writers. The workshop is a place where we get to see the writer’s mind, within the work, but the mind has to be developed outside of the place,” says Matthew B. Kelley, a recent workshop alumnus who was hired to help with the project. (The Atlanta native recalled his first visit to the workshop, during a snowy April: “This is the Hogwarts that I’ve always wanted in my life!”)

Sherburne, the producer, received a $50,000 Greenlight Grant this summer from Produce Iowa, the state office of film and media production. The funds helped him hire a crew to produce a proof-of-concept package to attract larger investors. His ultimate goal is a feature film.

Chang, the workshop director, hopes the film shows what makes the place unique.

“People in Iowa are very supportive of writers,” she says. “People in Iowa understand the need for people to live sort of quiet lives, and, really, writers are people who live quiet lives. It’s possible to do that here.”

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