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Our Available Wilderness: Using Personal Experiences and Memories to Elevate Fiction and Nonfiction

  • Iowa Writer's House 332 East Davenport Street Iowa City, IA, 52245 United States (map)

When: Friday, December 1st, 6:00pm-7:30pm

Saturday, December 2nd, 9:30am-3:30pm (Lunch break at noon)

Sunday, December 3rd, 9:30am-3:30pm (Lunch break at noon)

Where:  Iowa Writers' House, 332 East Davenport St

Cost: $265 ($235 early bird pricing through September 1st)


In Our Available Wilderness, author and publisher Robert James Russell will examine how we can strengthen our writing, both fiction and nonfiction, using our own memories and experiences, as well as all of our senses, to elevate our work to a publishable level. 

The Midwestern states are often called “flyover country”—people tell us our homes, our landscapes, do not matter. But, of course, they do. We all have a story. Stuart Dybek once said, “Each of our lives are beautiful,” and that is the basis of this workshop: How can we strengthen our writing using what has happened to us, what we’ve seen? What elevates a story or essay, the pieces you read in books or online? Good fiction is populated with truths from our lives, and astute authors call upon their memories to round out the emotional landscape of the characters and illustrate events, resulting in writing that is more real and lived in, drawing us further into the fold. It’s the details, colored in with personal experiences, that push the work to a higher level and stay with readers, inspiring—or unsettling—for years to come. 

Russell will address the adage of “Write what you know”—often erroneously called restrictive—discussing how it’s anything but, how our lives are a gift, how no one can write just like you. We each have a sea inside us, mountain ranges where stories and visuals and important conversations reside. Our goal is to look deep, dive in, scale up, and harvest these moments. 

Russell will teach writers how to tap into memories and physical senses, why physical and place-setting details are essential to good writing, and how our own histories are rich with stories worth telling, no matter the genre. Writers will leave this workshop with a renewed sense of pride in their personal experiences. In addition, Russell will discuss important resources for writers, examples of fiction and nonfiction that instruct and move us, and resources for getting pieces published. This workshop is designed for writers of all levels and backgrounds. 


Robert James Russell is the author of two novellas, Mesilla (Dock Street Press, 2015) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing, 2012), as well as the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press, 2015). His work has been featured in numerous journals, print and online; has been nominated five times for the Pushcart Prize; and was awarded an artist residency with the University Musical Society for the 2014-2015 performance season. In 2016, he was the runner-up for the Passages North Waasnode Fiction Prize, and his essay “Lord of the Lake” was a finalist for the Parks and Points Fall Essay Contest. Robert is the cofounder and managing editor of the literary journal Midwestern Gothic, which aims to catalog the very best fiction of the Midwestern United States, as well as the independent book publisher MG Press. In 2013, he launched the online literary journal CHEAP POP, which publishes micro-fiction, 500 words or less. Robert has presented and taught at conferences and workshops across the country and has been teaching creative writing and literature classes for seven years at such institutions as the University of Michigan, Saint Mary’s College, and Indiana University South Bend, among others. He is currently represented by Abby Saul of The Lark Group. You can find out more about him, including a complete list of publications, on his website:


As a writer who did not get an MFA, I found the whole foundation of publishing and the writing community itself incredibly intimidating at first. But what I’ve learned over the years is that there isn’t one single way to be a writer; if you’re writing and reading and reading and writing some more, working on your craft, that is, at the end of the day, what it takes. 

I’m thrilled to teach this workshop to help writers break down the seemingly impenetrable walls—to teach that every story is important, each life is full of stories worth telling (or using as inspiration), and our personal moments can be used to create breathtaking prose. I am an avid believer in leaving pedigrees at the door, taking what we have around us, our personal landscapes, and being true to that, who we are, in order to write effectively. These walls we put up, that we imagine box us in, can be so detrimental, and I love helping writers break them down, bring things to a street-level view: What are you trying to accomplish with your writing? How are we feeling it through your words and details? How can we push you and your writing to go further without overthinking what you’re doing and while crafting something extraordinarily true and beautiful? 

I’m so excited to be coming to the Iowa Writers’ House to tackle these questions alongside other writers and work on strategies to avoid becoming overwhelmed while utilizing our own memories and experiences—the first step to letting the words flow and getting our work out


Everyone has a story to tell. If you are financially unable to attend this workshop, scholarships are available through our generous partners and donors. Apply here.


Helping another person attend a workshop is helping them achieve their dreams. Thank you for making our world a better place.


All course information is sent to participants upon registering including confirmation of workshop times, location, and materials. Our workshop cancellation policy can be found here: