Lan Samantha Chang teaching a class at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
What is your overall philosophy for teaching writing? What advice do you have for writers of all ages and experience?
It’s been helpful for me to look at each student and each manuscript as unique. To that end, I tell my workshops that there is no “Chang Workshop” and that each of its members will have a different workshop experience. During class discussions, I try to keep students aware of a story’s unique elements – in perspective, structure, etc. – and to consider how these choices work with or against what the story is trying to be about. Over time, I’ve become more and more interested in the questions of who is telling a story, from when it’s being told, and from what emotional distance. I’ve begun to frame these questions together what I call “point of telling.” It’s often helpful for students, when drafting a story or novel, or when shaping a revision, to understand the story’s point of telling, because this can help them see how to best craft a story’s voice and structure.
I have no advice, except to point out that writers of all ages and backgrounds have struggled hard to write beautiful and persuasive fiction, and that the ones who succeed are not always the ones who have the easiest time of it.
What have been some great works that you have read recently – a book of fiction and / or a book of poetry?
In the last few years, I’ve been interested in writers whose work gives me the feeling that I’m being submerged deeply into a human consciousness. I found Roberto Bolano’s By Night in Chile one of the most powerful works I’ve ever read. This year I was also lucky to read, in manuscript, a debut novel by a new American writer, Bennett Sims. In his novel, A Questionable Shape, Sims, a 27-year-old, has written a haunting, meditative narrative about undeath that stands up to some of the best fiction I’ve read.
What has been the best part of being the Director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop continues to attract the most exciting writers in the world, and my favorite part of directing the program has been the opportunity to meet and work with them. Our student body has become increasingly international – we’ve recently had students from New Zealand, Bangladesh, South Africa, and Thailand – and it’s also filled with writers from every part of the United States. I love my students and one of my favorite things to do is to visit with them in the Workshop library or in my office. I find it thrilling to read their work and watch their development.
I also love admissions season. We receive over a thousand manuscripts each year, and I look at all of them. I will read dozens of manuscripts, then begin a short story or novel and suddenly feel the human being on the other end, reaching out to me from the page. My reaction is often physical – my fingers grow cold, my scalp prickles. It’s a wonderful feeling and I never get tired of it.