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Education

How Christopher Merrill created University of Iowa's 'United Nations of writers'

Christopher Merrill is director if the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa. (Photo from University of Iowa)
Christopher Merrill is director if the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa. (Photo from University of Iowa)

IOWA CITY — Nearly two decades ago in his home state of Massachusetts, Christopher Merrill found himself in the “really sweet position” of distinguished writer-in-residence on the manicured campus of the College of the Holy Cross, where he held the William H. Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters.

He was negotiating a deal that would keep him in Worcester for the long-term. “I wasn’t looking for another job,” Merrill, 62, said,

But another job was looking for him — 1,110 miles away in Iowa, a state he’d only driven through. A phone call from the University of Iowa piqued his interest in directing the then-struggling International Writing Program.

“It seemed like too good a challenge to pass up,” he said.

So Merrill — a widely published author and poet who espoused writing as a journey — opened himself up to another adventure and applied.

He got the job and never looked back.

“I was born in Massachusetts, raised in New Jersey, my family moved to North Carolina,” he said. “I lived everywhere, East Coast, West Coast, except in the Midwest. Now I’ve lived in Iowa longer than any other place that I’ve lived in my life.”

But the transition wasn’t seamless. When he arrived in 2000, the program was at risk of closing — victim to “a combination of fiscal, programming and diplomatic mismanagement.”

“The rot was pretty deep,” Merrill said.

Before he became president of the UI, David Skorton at the time was serving as vice president for research and had oversight of the program. Skorton provided “so much wise counsel as we tried to deal with the many problems that I inherited. The one thing I discovered is if you make moves in a positive direction, people will come to your side,” Merrill said.

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“ ... With David’s guidance, we were able make the kinds of moves that brought the program back to life,” he said. “And I like to think it’s gotten better as the years have gone on.”

The International Writing Program now offers an array of institutes and initiatives — from its Fall Residency program, which since 1967 has brought to campus more than 1,500 writers from more than 150 countries, to its new Summer Institute, an immersive two-week writing and cultural exchange program inviting to Iowa City 18- to 22-year-olds from Pakistan, India and the United States.

Among other initiatives, the writing program has engaged in distance education through digital platforms in the form of Massive Open Online Courses, popularly called MOOCs. Having hosted 12 so far, the program’s MOOCs average 10,000 students each.

It’s that global reach that typifies the writing program’s mission.

“The interesting thing is that for all of our differences — in terms of culture, geography, age, whatever it might be — much more unites writers than divides them,” Merrill said. “We all have the same problem when facing the blank page or the blank screen. We’re all eager to figure out how to turn an idea or an image or even just a sound into a piece of writing.”

Those inside the International Writing Program refer to the 11-week fall residency program that brings in 30 to 35 writers from around the world as “The United Nations of writers.”

“We almost always have an Israeli and a Palestinian writer in residence together,” Merrill said. “In the last few years we’ve had Russian and Ukrainian writers in residence together. We’ve had writers from mainland China and Taiwan and Hong Kong. So writers from all different parts of the world engaging in what we hope is a productive and stimulating and literary conversation.”

Connecting authors from conflicting countries isn’t an explicit goal of the program, according to Merrill. But it fits the mission exquisitely.

“The most important thing is to bring the best writers that we can, working in the most diverse range of styles and forms, coming from a broadest set of different places as possible,” he said.

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Even before taking the reins of Iowa’s International Writing Program, Merrill lived its globe-trotting mission — teaching at the University of Sarajevo, participating in a group of artists and writers from Eastern and Central Europe, translating numerous works from that region and launching a forgotten language tour — among other things.

Speaking with The Gazette in April from his hotel room in Baghdad, which he was visiting at the invitation of the mayor of that Iraqi city for the Annual International Flower Festival and to give lectures and creative writing workshops, Merrill spoke about his newest venture.

“I was surprised and I was thrilled,” he said. “It’s a great honor.”

In April, Merrill was announced as one of 168 winners of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation’s 2019 fellowships, out of nearly 3,000 applicants.

Every year for a quarter century, Merrill has written three to four letters of recommendation for others seeking a Guggenheim fellowship.

“A friend suggested that it was time for me to apply,” Merrill said. “So we went and found some people to write letters, and I guess they liked the proposal.”

Merrill laid out his plans to write a book, “The Trials of Roger Williams: A biography,” to be published by W.W. Norton & Co. Williams was a 17th century Puritan minister who advocated for religious freedom, separation of church and state and collaboration with American Indians and also founded the Colony of Rhode Island.

And he happens to be Merrill’s first ancestor in the New World, a fact Merrill discovered a decade ago when his father produced documents of their family’s genealogy.

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His award provides 12 months of funding to support his work, and Merrill was clear that he won’t be taking all that time away from the writing program.

“I have a pretty big job as it is, so I have to figure out how I’m going to do it,” he said. “But I hope to take a few months off here and there.”

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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