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The Searchers: Finding the Story in the World; Shaping the World Through Words

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

When: Friday, October 26th, 6:00pm-7:30pm

Saturday, October 27th, 9:30am-3:30pm (Lunch break at noon)

Sunday, October 28th, 9:30am-3:30pm (Lunch break at noon)

Where:  Iowa Writers' House, 332 East Davenport St

Cost: $265


In “The Searchers,” author and publisher Robert James Russell will not only work through what it means to be a storyteller, but how to find the story worth telling—keeping ourselves and our readers engaged. As writers, it’s easy to forget that we are storytellers—take away social media and publication fanfare, and what we’re left with, at a most basic level, is our desire to tell a story we feel is important and necessary. But how do we know what makes a good story? Whether the material is better suited for a poem or vignette? Whether you’ve stitched together the right pieces to yield the most effective whole?    

In this course, Russell will address these questions, helping writers determine when to identify when a story or manuscript is too light on detail or when it’s overwritten; he will give advice on shaping a piece—from initial brainstorming through final edits—including how we carve stories out of our lives and create meaningful narratives; additionally, writers will, through various exercises, craft stories not only from their own experiences, but from the world around them, with an eye toward publication, ultimately asking: What is the story we’re trying to tell? Who is it we’re trying to reach?

Writers will leave this workshop with a renewed sense of vigor in their craft and confidence in their ability to suss out when a piece is working or not—when, and how, the story’s worth telling. In addition, we will discuss important resources for writers, examples of fiction and nonfiction that instruct and move us, and resources to get pieces published. This workshop is designed for writers of all levels and backgrounds.

Robert James Russell headshot2.jpeg


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 seven times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net, and he was awarded an artist residency with the University Musical Society for the 2014-2015 performance season. In 2016, his essay, “She Lit a Fire,” won  runner-up for the Passages North Waasnode Fiction Prize.  Robert is the co-founder 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 of 500 words or less. Robert has presented at conferences and workshops across the country and has taught creative writing and literature classes at 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 more, including a complete list of publications, on his website:


People, but especially writers, are storytellers above all. Every day in a life is fodder, and when we sit down to the blank page, we winnow and sculpt what we know, what we’ve seen, feel, believe from the wide world to craft a narrative worth sharing with others. Our words linger long after we’re gone—they inspire and instruct and enlighten. They form the fabric of society’s story and history. They are critical in every corner of the world.

But how do we do it? How do we discern what is story? What to tell? What to leave out?

Sarah Manguso once wrote: “Details aren’t automatically interesting.” In writing, we make deliberate decisions at every turn: what form to use to express our ideas, what words to choose to paint the picture in our minds for others to see. And while there isn’t one single way to be a writer, there are different things we must consider if our goal is to be published: not every idea is a novel or even a short story; sometimes, an idea is a vignette, and other times, an idea, as much as we might love it, is nothing but an anecdote we keep to ourselves.

What makes a good story, and how do we know when a story is worth telling and, ultimately, worth publishing? 

I am thrilled to teach this workshop to get to the heart of these questions. With my many years of publishing and editing experience at national literary magazines, and reading thousands of submissions annually, I will help participants analyze pieces. Together, we will search for what makes a story, and how it’s best served in the telling. 

I am an avid believer in leaving pedigrees at the door, to take what we have around us, our personal histories and moments of discovery of the world itself, to craft breathtaking work that inspires and engages. Sometimes we get so hyper-focused on everything else—social media, publication, agents, conferences—that we forget the most important part: the story itself. I love helping writers get back to this street-level view of the craft, starting over at the auspicious beginning: Are we clinging to a story idea that really does work, or are we afraid to let it go because we may not find anything else?

I’m thrilled to return to the Iowa Writers’ House to tackle these questions alongside other writers and work on strategies to find the stories in the world, identify what’s working and what’s not in our work, and produce true and beautiful writing that is not only emotionally effective, but ripe for publication.


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.