'How Writers Write' shifts focus to fiction

After a successful summer engaging poets near and far, the University of Iowa International Writing Program (IWP) will launch its second Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), How Writers Write Fiction, on Friday, Sept. 26.

The course, taught entirely on the Internet through the use of recorded video lectures, is designed to reach an unlimited number of participants. The first UI MOOC, How Writers Write Poetry, had just over 4,500 participants by the end of the course; the fiction MOOC should easily surpass that number.

“The International Writing Program has developed the University of Iowa’s first MOOCs, and the university has chosen to host those MOOCs itself: every aspect of creation, production, and operation, from course design to site design, happens here,” says Chris Merrill, IWP director and co-instructor of the MOOCs.

Merrill discussed the success of the UI’s first MOOC and the excitement around the next one. (The fiction MOOC is accepting registrants, if you’re interested. It’s free.)

The most recent MOOC, "How Writers Write Poetry," had phenomenal participation. Did that response surprise you? What's it like dealing with a group that large?

It’s an amazing experience. The number did surprise us. We hoped that many people would find the opportunity to discuss and practice the craft of writing poetry exciting; we hoped that many people would find it even more exciting to do so as part of a community that included people from all over the world. But we really had no idea what to expect.

Before the MOOC opened, we watched enrollment rise, and it was so exciting to see that thousands of people wanted to talk about poetry with us and one another. As the course began, we saw those people watching the videos over and over, sharing their work, offering feedback and encouragement to one another, and engaging so deeply with the teaching team in discussion of the craft of writing, and watching that happen was profoundly rewarding.

What worked well?

We’re very proud to say that our core course design, with regard to both content and delivery, worked very well. How Writers Write Poetry (HWWP) presented a collection of video talks from contributing poets, each of whom presented a new perspective on the craft of writing poetry. Our two co-instructors—myself and poet and Black Rainbow Editions editor Mary Hickman—presented those talks and offered writing assignments to the HWWP participants. A moderator team of 10 poets, all Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduates with substantial teaching experience, supported us. Mary and the moderator team engaged with the participants in the HWWP discussion forum around the clock to discuss the talks and the writing assignments and to lead a series of workshops of selected participants’ work.

Sign up for How Writers Write Fiction

The second UI MOOC in the How Writers Write: Talks on Craft and Commitment series, How Writers Write Fiction, opens Sept. 26 and runs through Nov. 21. Sign up:courses.writinguniversity.org/course/how-writers-write-fiction

We were excited about this structure, but a little apprehensive: could a collection of video talks, each of which presents an entirely unique perspective on writing poetry, be brought together to form a course that would facilitate progressive learning for the participants? Could a teaching team of only 11 people engage meaningfully with thousands of participants? Could we create a productive, supportive workshop experience through online, text-based discussion? And the answer to all of those questions was yes.

It certainly wasn’t a flawless experience, for us or for the participants—no one had ever tried to teach creative writing in MOOC format before we attempted it with How Writers Write Poetry, and so we really felt that we were inventing and testing a new pedagogy as we went along. But both our users and our teaching team responded to the course design with overwhelming positivity.

You had a number of big names involved in the course.

The poets who contributed to How Writers Write Poetry did so with such generosity and commitment. For our first class, Robert Hass sat down and recorded a video of extraordinary depth that inspired thousands of participants to immediately start writing and posting new poetry—the response was incredible. Kate Greenstreet welcomed the participants right into the heart of her process as she described her transformation of fragments of thought and memory into poetry. Marvin Bell gave such a captivating talk on the workshop process that we created an entire social media campaign around it. Sridala Swami and Alexandria Peary recorded talks that we put together to create a class session titled “Mindful Writing,” and that class became the most popular of the course. Daniel Khalastchi gave a talk on building a poem that inspired one of our participants to write an ode in his honor.

When we stood back and looked at all the craft talks together, we were amazed by the beauty and the value of the collection.

The fiction MOOC starts in late September. What can you tell us about this particular course?

How Writers Write Fiction is our second MOOC in the series How Writers Write: Talks on Craft and Commitment. It will open Sept. 26 and close Nov. 21. It will present video lectures from the following authors:

  • Amber Dermont—Grab the reader by the hand—or the throat
  • Andrew Sean Greer—Storytelling requires distance
  • Mahsa Mohebali—Your character is like an iceberg
  • Michelle Huneven—Writing is a form of play
  • Marcus Burke—The grander goal is emotional truth
  • Margot Livesey—Dialogue is the jewel in the crown

Many others are participating: Jonathan Lethem, Chandrahas Choudhury, Mona Simpson, Shandana Minhas, Anthony Marra, Susanna Daniel, and Kevin Brockmeier. The course will be taught by myself and novelist R. Clifton Spargo (professor of Creative Writing, Wittenburg University). A team of fiction moderators will lead live discussion of the weekly video classes and writing assignments and will host a small number of live online workshops.

Those who register will be able to participate in How Writers Write Fiction 24 hours per day, seven days per week, as it suits their schedules. Our course moderators will lead discussion in the forum around the clock: no matter where an aspiring writer lives, he/she will be able to interact in real time with the teaching team and his/her fellow fiction writers. We encourage our participants to read their fellow writers' work and offer their feedback; the success of this critique process will depend entirely on the commitments made by the community of writers who choose to invest in it.

How Writers Write Fiction will offer a diversity of answers to the question of how a writer develops and refines the lifelong practice of his/her craft. Enrollment is free and unlimited; all are welcome to join us.

What's the target audience for this course, or any MOOC, for that matter?

For How Writers Write Fiction, our target audience is anyone and everyone who would like to learn more about what goes into the creation of fiction: what craft decisions, what practices, what attitudes. We’ve tried to design our How Writers Write MOOC series to provide value for writers of all levels: people who’ve never tried to write before and people who’ve been writing all their lives. One of our funding partners is the State Department’s Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs, so we have an ongoing commitment to the promotion of international cultural exchange. It’s very important to us to welcome and support aspiring writers all over the world, particularly writers who may not have access to many opportunities for creative writing study.

And because we’re also funded by the University of Iowa, and these are the University of Iowa’s first MOOCs, it’s very important to us to welcome Iowans into this experience and to offer a chance for the university community to engage with international participants. We see the How Writers Write MOOCs as an opportunity to create a space for new communities to form, and we want to welcome everyone who’d like to be part of an international conversation about the joys and struggles inherent in the writing process.

Behind each MOOC is a design team with a unique vision of the audience they hope to reach. But all MOOC teams are likely to be imagining that their target audiences are composed of people who are excited, committed, and welcoming. Excited to engage with new material; committed to working with the teaching team in discussion of the material; and welcoming of the diversity of views and experiences offered by their fellow users.

Above all, the ideal audience is community-minded: it’s extraordinary what can be accomplished when the course participants truly enjoy working together.

Upcoming Readings

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