Frank Conroy

Iowa, Frank Conroy, and the Secret to Writing Fiction

Like all good mythological beasts, I have a ghostwriter. Although that is his official title, I noticed some time ago that he lacks very many ghostly qualities. In fact, he smells faintly of cheeseburgers, despite the fact that apparitions, as far as I can tell, maintain strictly herbivorous diets.

At any rate, my ghostwriter (in the flesh or otherwise) recommends an essay anthology called MFA vs. NYC, edited by N+1 founder Chad Harbach. The book investigates the premise that today’s literary world has become distinctly bilateral, one hemisphere being the academic and the other being the urban landscape of the Big Apple.

In an essay titled “The Pyramid Scheme,” former MFA’er and Frank Conroy student Eric Bennett provides a healthy criticism of the oldest and most venerable of creative writing programs, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Of Conroy, Bennett claims that he hated “the ‘cute stuff'” and advocated a metaphorical view of the short story that could be described thusly:

[Conroy] wanted literary craft to be a pyramid. He drew a pyramid on the blackboard and divided it with horizontal lines. The long stratum at the base was grammar and syntax, which he called ‘Meaning, Sense, Clarity.’ The next layer, shorter and higher, comprised the senses that prose evoked: what you tasted, touched, heard, smelled, and saw. Then came character, then metaphor… I can’t remember the pyramid exactly, and maybe Conroy changed it every time. What I remember for sure is that everything above metaphor Conroy referred to as ‘the fancy stuff.’ At the top was symbolism, the fanciest of all. You worked from the broad and basic to the rarified and abstract.

Fascinating. I think I understand. Let me see if I can reproduce this famous author’s proposed diagram. Shouldn’t be too difficult. I am a visual learner, after all. Is this what he meant?

conroys pyramid

My ghostwriter is nodding. It seems I’ve grasped Conroy’s secrets quite quickly.

If you or your colleagues hail from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and would like to recruit me for an open-ended teaching contract, you may email me at chetsasquatch@humanoid.net or twit me @City_Sasquatch.