The Cradle of Great Stories

How a book about imaginative writing in Iowa was born in the city of daydreams

Las Vegas isn’t the sort of town where people make a lot of stuff that can be stamped with a “made in” or “hecho en” and shipped off to somewhere else. Rather it’s the sort of town where people think up things—weird things, grand things, absurd things. But it’s tough to stamp a “dreamed up in” on a brainstorm. Still, maybe we should have tried a “concocted in Las Vegas” stamp on the just-released We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (Skyhorse, $17), since it was.

And while I won’t argue that the book, which I wrote with Glenn Schaeffer, could only have been dreamed up in Las Vegas, or Vegas at that particular time—that is, with the economy already fraying at the edges and Dubya’s smartest guys in the room assuring us it’s just a little “correction”—being in Vegas at that moment certainly didn’t hurt.

Glenn and I were sitting on the balcony of his condo, enveloped in a cloud of cigar smoke, when the idea for the book came to us. At the time, Glenn was president of Fontainebleau Resorts, and his balcony overlooked the construction site of what was to have been the beautiful new Fontainebleau Las Vegas, all blue glass and voluptuous curves.

We were working on a novel Glenn had started 30-plus years ago at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City, where we’d first met. He was scribbling. I was editing. The manuscript, titled Holy Shaker, was about a tent-show evangelist in Texas and Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. The first 60 pages of it had comprised Glenn’s MFA thesis at Iowa, and he hadn’t written a page of it since.

Now Glenn had resolved to revise and finish the novel. It had been bugging him for years, ever since he’d found out that all MFA theses were stored in the University of Iowa Library, where anyone could get at them. What if someone were to read the thing? That wouldn’t do.

How it is a guy with an MFA in imaginative writing ended up in the casino business is something Glenn addressed on these pages in the May 20, 2010, issue (, so I will only repeat his point that there’s little difference between creativity in business and in the arts. The urge is the urge.

So while the dust rose from the construction site and cigar smoke swirled around us, Glenn and I fiddled with the opening scene, which takes place at dawn on a dusty street in West Texas. “A bloated sun was inching up from the horizon, mauve through a scrim of dust,” Glenn had written, and, well, I had issues. “Mauve?” I asked. “Mauve?”

“Of course, mauve,” he retorted. “My character can see it.”

“I’m going to circle that particular word.”

“Feel free,” he said. “It’s mauve.” And then it happened: Glenn and I looked at each other and we knew we were both thinking exactly the same thing: What the hell? I mean, just below us, the first floors of the Fontainebleau were already encased in glass, and when it was done it would generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year and here we were, belaboring a novel, which even should it be a best-seller would generate chump change by comparison. But then the basic human urge to tell stories trumps common sense any day.

“We can’t help ourselves, can we?” Glenn said.

There it was, the idea: Planted. But it took a phone call to Doug Unger to bring the idea into focus. Doug had been with us at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop 30 years earlier, and now he was chair of the Department of English at UNLV, where he co-founded the university’s graduate creative writing program, which Atlantic Monthly had ranked among the nation’s five most innovative programs. We asked Doug what possessed him. A sort of illness, you think? No question, he agreed. “The first book that made me think about being a writer was A Fine Madness by Elliott Baker,” Doug said, “but mainly because I identified closely with the marginalized existence of the crazy writer he describes.”

I mention the three of us batting around a vague idea to make the point that creative endeavors don’t occur in isolation; they thrive in community. Or as another of our former classmates, novelist Sandra Cisneros, would put it when we called her next, “As writers, we’re required to write alone. But I like to use the metaphor of writing being like cutting your own hair; there’s only so much you can do yourself, then you need someone to help you with the back. So you don’t walk out with a bad haircut, so someone doesn’t say, Damn, where’d you get that bad haircut?”

“Think about how art happens,” says Doug. “You have two or three writers or artists on the same wavelength sharing an energy, and they’re jazzing back and forth and come up with a great idea. Of course, the trick then is to do it.”

After Doug and Sandra, we started calling other old classmates, such as Jane Smiley, T.C. Boyle, Jayne Anne Phillips and Allan Gurganus. We asked them all sorts of questions about what possessed them, and questions about the creative process and the lit biz and why Iowa and what they learned there or didn’t learn but wished they had, and plenty more besides. Before long, we had interviews with nearly 30 of our old classmates plus a few of our teachers, including John Irving, who back then was working on a first draft of Garp, and who could be seen on warm afternoons jogging along the banks of the Iowa River wearing nothing but a red Speedo and running shoes.

Glenn, meanwhile, was plugging away at the rewrite of Holy Shaker, complete with that mauve sun, and Fontainebleau was going up a floor a week and then the smartest guys in the room blew up our economy. And Bank of America—sitting on $48 billion in taxpayer-funded bailout largesse—decided to ignore its contractual obligations to Fontainebleau and pulled the loan needed to complete the project, throwing some 3,000 construction workers off the job, with Vegas’ economy circling the drain.

In Art and Anarchy, the art historian Edgar Wind tells us “a certain amount of turmoil and confusion is likely to call forth creative energies. … Dissatisfaction and discontent, far from being inimical to the arts, have often been their tutelary genius.” He goes on to say that “the political disintegration of Greece occurred while Greek art reached its highest refinement” (he was talking about the Greece of Plato and Aristotle, of course, not the default-prone Greek basket-case of today), and that “the Italian Renaissance … was attended by political disintegration.” Had Wind been writing today rather than 50 years ago, he might have included post-crash Vegas as another example of artistic flowering amid economic and political disarray. One advantage of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has always been its location: smack in the middle of zillions of acres of cornfields. You’re literally lost in America out there on the steppes. What else were young writers to do but hang out with other writers and talk about writing and read one another’s work and throw out ideas and encourage one another and drink and maybe now then even write? Such close proximity in isolation helped create just the sort of community a young writer needs.

We might all wish things were back to being irrationally exuberant in Vegas like they were before the bubble burst, but if the economic collapse has had an upside, it could be that chaos and disarray, like cornfields, tend to concentrate and strengthen community.

The beef about Vegas’ literary or artistic culture has always been that it’s too spread out and too transient. But when it comes to transience, Las Vegas and Iowa City aren’t so different; young writers come to Iowa City for a couple years to be part of a community anchored around the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and then they’re gone and more young writers arrive. Indeed, it’s this constant infusion of youthful energy that has kept the Workshop vital after 75 years.

Likewise we have here in Vegas the creative writing program at UNLV that serves as an anchor for community of young writers who come and learn and write … and then? Adios, or most of them. Meanwhile, there’s Black Mountain Institute, which hosts regular readings and lectures, and there’s the annual Vegas Valley Book Festival, which provides regular infusions of energy by spotlighting local writers and bringing in a few Big Names for a bit of pizzazz. And plenty of fine writers do stick around, including Doug, as well as H. Lee Barnes, Matt O’ Brien and Maile Chapman (whose first novel, Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto, was runner-up for the Guardian Prize this year).

Much of the concentration of creative energy going on now seems to be taking place around downtown. Even before the crash, downtown was experiencing an artistic renaissance, what with all the galleries and First Fridays and readings. “But there’s a youthful energy downtown, now,” Unger says. “Kids are moving into older buildings and doing art. There are readings at The Beat, and we’ve got readings once a month that our MFA students started up on their own, so there’s a lot more community interaction than we ever had in our day. Now all these kids are busy writing out of the landscape and atmosphere of Sin City—and what better place to observe characters and varieties of life?”

So, it turns out Las Vegans are building the same kind of community that Glenn and I enjoyed all those years ago, among the cornfields. And, some day, two old Las Vegas writing friends may be sitting over a manuscript just like us, debating the color of the sky.

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Tucked away in the alley behind the bar, the local “gypsy jazz band” with a Latin vibe had the crowd moving their hips to songs off their album, Summer Score. Their performance was part of the two-day Las Vegas Unplugged Music Festival, and it was certainly the most exotic of the weekend. Pepe Jimenez thumped away on the box-shaped Peruvian percussion instrument called a cajón, while vocalist Noybel Gorgoy’s beautiful Cuban voice was spine-chilling. By 1 a.m., the funky five-piece had everyone on their feet clapping and dancing.