Connie Brothers: The Heart of the Heart of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
Isabel Henderson on the Career of a Beloved Literary Figure
To find Connie Brothers you must enter Dey House, home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, on the northernmost edge of the University of Iowa’s campus. (Dey is pronounced as the opposite of “live”; if you linger in Iowa City long enough, you’ll be alarmed to hear young people with ink-stained tote bags say to one another, “Are you going to die? I’m going to die,” before realizing that they are talking about the building.)
Dey House is a beigey Italianate-Victorian house with green-and-red trim. Although a large, glassy addition was added to the back of the house in 2006, the original section retains its residential charm: high ceilings, floor-length windows, pocket doors. The first room to the left is the “lounge,” with springy couches and a wooden card catalog; each drawer bears the name of a current student. Sometimes you open your so-called cubby to find printed memos about Workshop events; other times, a friend might leave a poem or pen or chocolate. Sam Chang, the Workshop’s director, leaves everyone a valentine in their cubby each February.
Continuing down the hallway, there’s the office where administrators Deb West, Jan Zenisek, and undergraduate assistants work at busy desks. On Jan’s sits a small box, where students leave copies of their stories and poems for workshop, pages trembling with adrenaline.
The next office to the left is Connie’s. The most commanding aspect of the room is a dark fireplace, above which is an ornate mirror that extends to the ceiling. Her desk sits in front of it, laden with books and papers and notes. The walls are covered with art, letters, and photographs (of both former students and family members). Roughly 50 new students enter the Workshop each year, meaning that over her 45 years here, Connie has played a part in the lives of roughly 2,000 of them.
Whenever I’m in Connie’s office I want to look at her collection, but not too closely, out of respect for her privacy; her office is a small museum, of both herself and the Workshop. She is its institutional memory.
Her official title was program administrator, which in practice meant she was the Workshop’s central nervous system. You went to her with questions about graduation requirements and fellowships, to coordinate readings, to complain about your workshop assignment. There are aspects of the Workshop’s history and function that exist entirely within Connie’s head. There are rumors and stories that graduate students have passed down, which only Connie could confirm, if someone dared to ask her.
She officially retired on October 15. On the weekend of October 5th, the University held a celebration in her honor. Hundreds of alumni, from all stages of life and infamy, returned to Iowa to attend several events. The first was a reception, where speakers included Jim Galvin, Chris Adrian, Marilynne Robinson, and Francine Prose. Far-away alumni also sent in videos; the one that got the biggest laugh was from Jane Smiley, who could not figure out how to flip her webcam. At the reception a poem dedicated to Connie, written by Brenda Hillman, was read by Elizabeth Willis and distributed to the crowd as a broadside. The reception was followed by a dinner in a limestone and glass-block building across the river, where former students raised glasses and gave speeches. A late-night reunion at a bar downtown was followed by bleary morning bagels at Dey.
At the center of all this mingling, murmuring, and champagne was Connie. She is slight and soft-spoken, which makes her quick wit all the more disarming; she has been a vegetarian for decades, and loves cats and art. Born in upstate New York, she received a master’s degree at Berkeley and has lived in Germany and Italy. She was present for the tenures of Workshop directors John Leggett, Frank Conroy, and now Sam Chang. You can find her name in the dedication and acknowledgments sections of dozens, if not hundreds, of books. At the Workshop’s annual poetry-versus-fiction softball game two years ago, the fiction team was called “Connie By Your Name” (we won).
Unlike many of the writers who come through the Workshop, writing autobiographical fiction and thinly veiled stories about each other, Connie is a private person. When I asked whether she’d had any part in planning the retirement festivities, she joked that her one suggestion was, “Don’t do it.” Writing about her is tricky in this respect—much as I would love to tell everything (all good), I want to respect her privacy. Writing about her necessarily means writing about the Workshop, then—the institution whose day-to-day operations, as well as its loftier ideals, mission, and ethos, she curated and guided.
The Workshop is famously analog, distributing information via letters and packets and flyers posted around Dey. Once, after missing the deadline for a contest I wouldn’t have won, I asked Sam why everything was advertised by paper, rather than emailed out. “It’s so students will actually come to Dey,” she laughed. “Especially in the winter.”
Although she was mostly joking, the announcement system shapes the pace and function of the Workshop, and of Dey House in particular. Because the things you need exist only on paper, you will trudge there, say hello to Deb and Jan and Connie and Sasha, and maybe see a friend. You might spend a few hours there, pick up some packets, raid the fridge for hummus leftover from workshop. The homey nature of Dey House emphasizes its separation from the rest of the university; there are Workshop students who claim that it is the only campus building they’ve ever set foot in.
I was introduced to Connie, and the Workshop’s methods of organization, about a month after I accepted my place at Iowa. I hadn’t heard anything from the Workshop about classes, even though the University of Iowa website said that registration was open. Increasingly nervous, I decided to call Connie.
She answered with a quiet hello, and I explained who I was. When I asked about registering for classes, she said, “Oh. Well, you can worry about all of that when you get here.”
I asked if there were certain academic requirements. “You’ll take your workshop, then two other classes. Whatever you want. They just have to be graduate-level,” she said. “Most students take Workshop seminars, though.”
I asked if those were online. “No. But we’ll have printouts in the Workshop house. We’ll have a meeting about it.”
When? I asked. “The first day of classes.”
And on the first day of classes there was, in fact, the “organizational meeting,” where all current students meet in the gleaming (and greenhouse-hot) Frank Conroy Reading Room, part of the glassy addition at the back of Dey. Sam gives a speech, introduces all the instructors, and hands out a sheet of paper where you list which workshop you’d like to be in. Later that day, the results are posted outside the lounge—and photographed, and shared via group texts.Connie is the Workshop’s center in that she holds much of its power and information, but also in that she is a fixed point in its shifting universe.
The process of deciding the workshop groups is much-discussed by Workshop students—but Connie certainly has some hand in it. At the celebration dinner, two alums talked about how Connie put them in the same workshop each semester; when they confronted her, she apparently said, “I just thought you’d make a cute couple.” They’ve been married for 17 years.
Although the Workshop is analog in many ways, it is also ever-changing—each fall brings new students, each semester new visiting professors; many of the permanent faculty are on fall- or spring-only schedules. Connie is the Workshop’s center in that she holds much of its power and information, but also in that she is a fixed point in its shifting universe. There are aspects to her position and tenure that no one else is privy to, things that belong to Connie rather than the Workshop. “Secrets” is too sinister a term; rather, I imagine decisions that were made about readings and invitations and professors, about the way the Workshop ought to run, about students whose careers were shaped thanks to her support. An entire culture of creativity and writing, which she would characteristically deny a hand in fostering.
Recently she’s been assisted by Sasha Khmelnik, herself a Workshop graduate, who will take over as program administrator. Little changes have been taking place already—current students can now access a Workshop information page online, which has links to readings and graduation requirements and teaching tips.
This past summer, two years after I’d made that nervous phone call about classes, only to be reassured that it would all be worked out on a sheet of paper, Connie called me. She’d heard from a friend that I had experience babysitting, to ask if I’d like to help look after her visiting grandchildren.
I took the job because I enjoy working with children, but mostly because I wanted a chance to get to know Connie. As a student, most of my interactions with her were in passing, like saying hello at Dey House. Sometimes my roommates and I agreed to host afterparties for visiting writers, which entailed picking up little yellow slips from Connie, which could be used at the local co-op. (We took particular pride in hitting the permitted dollar amount almost exactly, like blackjack—calculating the ratio of crackers to spreads, one of us leaving the checkout line to pick up the sparkling water that would place us just one cent below the limit.) As a student I didn’t want to monopolize her time, certain she had to deal with more pressing matters, with famous and important people on the phone.
She gave me the details, and directions to her house outside of town. Visitors sometimes say that Iowa City “doesn’t feel like Iowa,” meaning there are more vegan restaurants and fewer cornfields than they anticipated. Drive ten minutes in any direction and the land opens up to farms, fields of soy and hay and, inevitably, corn. This is where Connie lives, down a dirt road, in a beautiful bright house full of art and books, surrounded by vegetable gardens and orchards. It is pastoral but elegant, classic and modern.
Over the course of a few weeks I got to know Connie’s grandchildren and, to my delight, Connie. Babysitting can be a liminal experience, placing you intimately within and also strictly outside a family; often you feel a great desire to be accepted as their member, or envy for aspects of their dynamics, wealth, or status. With Connie and her family, it was hard not to want to be one of them. We swam in the saltwater pool (built by Connie’s husband), caught toads and put out food for feral cats, made bracelets until my thumbs were raw from bending wire. I was usually sent home with spoils from Connie’s gardens, melons and pears and gorgeously pleated heirloom tomatoes.
Although I graduated from the Workshop this past May, I’ve stuck around Iowa City this year, thanks to a postgraduate fellowship, as a so-called “third year”; this option, which can constitute various teaching gigs and fellowships, is a popular choice for students who want more time here. Third-years turn into fourth-years and then nth-years; alumni become “lifers,” putting their roots down in Iowa City.
Occasionally I give Connie a ride between her home and Dey House; over the twenty-minute drive we talk about writing, cooking, and cats. She’s shared snippets of Workshop lore (each more salacious and shocking than you could imagine), which I have sworn to keep. (Surely hundreds of people must fear that she will someday write a memoir.) The other day I brought my newly adopted kitten along, so Connie could meet him; the next day, she called me just to talk about him.
In many ways the Workshop saved me. It gave me the time, money, and education I needed to become a better writer; it steered me away from writing as mere fantasy-fulfilment or a way to make myself seem interesting; and it provided me with the resources I needed to become a healthy person. There are aspects of the Workshop I would change. But Connie’s presence is one thing I can cherish unreservedly.
Sometimes after I drop her off I pull my truck over, get out, and try to photograph a particularly glorious swath of fields, which blow in hypnotic rolling waves. But the scale is too great, the vastness too skewing of perspective. There is some anxiety behind this ritual—as if I will never come down this road again, as if it will disappear if not captured in an overexposed photo, as if I will lose it on the map. I have to trust that this place will still be here; even if it disappears, it will appear more beautiful in memory.
When I think of Iowa I’ll think of the time the sky and earth went absolutely pink and everyone wandered out onto the street, as if in a post-apocalyptic dream; of the Polar Vortex, when my roommates and I threw boiling water in the air to watch it freeze; of the time City Park flooded into a sea of mirrored trees, and I watched fish swim across the baseball field. I’ll think of Charlie D’Ambrosio leaping out of his chair with enthusiasm during workshop; of my classmates’ generous letters, of their happy crying, of their careful edits; of parties where we danced until even the windows dripped with sweat. And I’ll think of the shimmering hayfields, saltwater, the smell of cantaloupe ripening in my backseat. I’ll think of Connie.