Novelist and Master Teacher Elizabeth Stark Discusses The Pros and Cons of Online Creative Writing Classes
Mary Mackey: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Elizabeth. It’s a pleasure to have you here to talk about online Creative Writing classes, a topic that’s of increasing interest to anyone who is teaching creative writing or considering taking a creative writing class. Could you please start by telling us about your background? For example, how long have you been teaching creative writing online?
Elizabeth Stark: I actually taught an online memoir class for the New York Gotham Writers Workshop around 1999/2000. Online teaching was not a familiar format at the time, and the course was conducted without video or audio—just posting. It turned out to be powerfully moving and surprisingly intimate. The group was very diverse. We had a WWII vet and a teenager, and we all felt that learning this way flipped the anonymity of New York City inside out. Seven years ago when I started coaching and editing writers again after my kids were born, my partner Angie set me up online, and she and I been evolving our course as the technology evolves But that surprising intimacy remains.
Mary: What on-line creative writing courses are you currently teaching?
Elizabeth: This term I am teaching a Book-in-a-Year course where students are writing all the key scenes in the structure of a story—for memoir or fiction–using published models such as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Americanah, and memoirs such as Wild.
I also just wrapped up a year-long revision course called Book Launch: Revision where we read one person’s entire manuscript each month and met via video to discuss it at length. This structure creates a powerful community of readers and writers.
Mary: What do you have coming up in the future?
Elizabeth: I’ll be starting another Book Launch: Revision course in the fall which will be a workshop for entire manuscripts. I’ll also be teaching another Writing Studio where students actually write in class.
Mary: Have you ever taught creative courses in a face-to-face setting?
Elizabeth: I have taught at colleges and universities and in living rooms and coffee shops. I love this kind of teaching, too—but the two forms of teaching are less different than you’d think. Right now, I drive weekly to Berkeley to teach an ongoing class whose students are very attached (as am I) to our in-person meetings.
Mary: What advantages are there to teaching online vs teaching face-to-face?
Elizabeth: Online classes allow people to enroll who would otherwise not be able to work with me because they live far away or have young children in the home or for some other reason. Teaching online also cuts out the commute for everyone. You are getting direct support, inspiration and mentorship right at your writing desk. How dreamy is that? You open to the blank page, and there is a published author calling you by name and telling you that you can do this. I think it is important for students to feel part of a community of fellow writers who want them to succeed. I am able to record each and every class, so if students have to miss, they can make it up. That’s something that at present real time face-to-face teaching can’t offer.
Mary: What disadvantages are there to teaching online courses?
Elizabeth: With the current technology—and I know it’s changing all the time—there isn’t a way to pair people up to read to each other or do other small group exercises. And there isn’t the same chance for before- and after-class socializing. In my classes, I try to address this by encouraging online conversations outside of class. My students get to know one another, sometimes traveling long distances to meet in person.
Mary: What technologies do you use to teach your online courses?
Elizabeth: Currently we use Google Hangouts, Facebook, our own web site and email.
Mary: What happens in an on-line creative writing course? What should students expect?
Elizabeth: It’s pretty similar to face-to-face in that everybody can see everybody else. Whoever is speaking pops up on the big screen, and the rest of us appear in little Brady-Bunch squares below. Individuals may always mute themselves so we cannot hear if kids are crying or phones are ringing. They can even turn off the camera. In short, there’s a lot of flexibility.
In my classes, we start with a check in and a short, focused coaching session for each writer. So many issues overlap: finding time to write, making decisions about the structure of a scene or a whole book, tackling revision, finding the heart and time to submit. We celebrate rejections, because the students most successfully published are often those with the most rejections to report. Rejection means you are on the path to getting published.
Mary: What happens in your craft classes?
Elizabeth In the craft classes after check in, we write using as inspiration examples I cull from a wide range of published work. Everyone has the chance to read what they have written aloud and receive encouragement and direction. Students often post their praise of each other in the course “chat section.”
Mary: How about Workshop classes? What happens in them?
Elizabeth: An online Workshop class functions much as it does in person. It is a a casual but rigorous conversation about the manuscript at hand, which we’ve all read carefully ahead of time. We start with praise and end with praise. Over the years, my students and I have noticed that the writer can forget the work has any redeeming value if the constructive criticism isn’t accompanied by a specific reminder of what works. The writer waits to speak until the end.
Later, we’ll each email our notes to the writer. I email my notes to everyone, as there is much to be gained from seeing the detailed edit of a work you’ve read closely. I also create a checklist of lessons that students can apply to their own writing, because it’s often easier to see these lessons when they are taken from another person’s manuscript rather than one’s own.
We conclude all our classes by setting public writing goals to spur us on. I keep my online classes very small and participatory. Six students, eight students. They run like seminars.
Mary: What do you enjoy most about teaching these online creative writing classes?
Elizabeth: I love the quality of students who’ve been drawn to them. They are almost invariably really talented, serious writers who are also warm, mutually supportive, and encouraging. The conversations are smart and invigorating. Personally, I love the community that we’ve all built together.
Mary: Do you think online classes will ever replace face-to-face classes? Should they?
Elizabeth: In the not too distant past, there was a big panic about e-books replacing print, and that seems to be leveling off. This is not an exact parallel, but I do think that e-learning and in-person learning can and should co-exist. It’s wonderful to be in a room full of writers, but it can be a miracle to look up from childcare, house-cleaning, a desk job or just the isolation of the page, and find a row of smiling faces waiting in your computer to discuss your work, cheer you on, and urge you to write.
Mary: What tips can you give someone who is planning to teach creative writing online? For example, is there an ideal class size?
Elizabeth: I prefer small class sizes because I want to hear from everybody, every time. From a sheer business/ profit stand point, this may not be the most effective model, but I am first a reader, a writer and a teacher, and the intimacy and connection forged in a small class is invaluable. An online platform can serve as a lecture hall as easily as it can serve as a close circle, but personal accountability and a chance to know one another individually helps us all stay on track.
That said, one could teach through Google Hangouts and YouTube to a very wide audience. For example, Angie and I are launching a podcast that we record through Google Hangouts with an audience of our students watching on YouTube, and they love that, too. There are many possibilities.
Mary: What should a student look for when considering an online creative writing course?
Elizabeth: My big concern about online teaching is that a lot of the teachers are no more qualified than their students to be at the helm of the class. Look for teachers who have publications and degrees. Then look to the student community—do they love the world of the online course? Are they finding success and creative productivity and joy? My own students are writing strong work and publishing it. I find that tremendously exciting, because it means that what we are doing together is working.
Mary: I know you do both videos and podcasts of your classes. Could you please leave us with some urls so we can take a look at them?
Elizabeth: At present the videos of most of the classes are only for the current students, but the podcast of conversations with writers and other story creatives and industry professionals will be available after June 15. I’ll give you the link to update then if I may. I also offer a free course on professionally editing your own work, called Fearless and Finished, which is available at http://BookWritingWorld.com. And if you get on my mailing list, I’ll send you inspiration, tips and other information about free courses. Finally, Angie and I will be launching a more independent Book-in-a-Year online course later this year.
Mary: Thank you for telling all of this valuable information, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth: Thank you so much, Mary! You are wonderful!!
Elizabeth Stark (aka Elizabeth Stark Powers) is the author of the novel Shy Girl (FSG, Seal Press) and co-director and co-writer of several short films, including FtF: Female to Femme and Little Mutinies (both distributed by Frameline Film Distribution). She has an M.F.A. from Columbia University in Creative Writing. Currently the lead coach and teacher at the Book Writing World, she’s taught writing and literature at UCSC, Pratt Institute, the Peralta Colleges and Hobart & William Smith Colleges. In fall 2010, she was the Distinguished Fiction Writer at St. Mary’s College in Orinda. She ’ s developing an online course to complete a masterfully crafted book in a year at http://BookinaYear.com
For writing advice; course syllabi; resources for Women’s Studies, Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Film, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Advanced Composition and more free information about writing and teaching, you are invited to visit my Educators Page.