Mediabistro instructor Erika Mailman may never meet her students in person, but on the first day of each new course, she always greets her new students by telling them: “I’ll match your enthusiasm!” Using the Internet as her primary form of communication, Erika strives to create a learning environment where people will feel comfortable conversing, sharing ideas, offering feedback, and receiving criticism, despite the less personal nature of a computer filter.
Erika, a novelist and freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in English and an MFA in poetry, had never been in an online chat room before she began teaching in one. Now, she conducts two online classes through Mediabistro, a comprehensive website that posts job opportunities, hosts networking events, and offers classes and workshops for people interested in the publishing and entertainment industries. Erika currently teaches “Novel Writing” and the more advanced “Novel Writing: Editing Your Draft.” She stresses how important it is for her to set the tone from the start, encouraging both enthusiasm and engagement during the 12-week course, while also helping first-time writers learn the basics of novel writing and the importance of collaboration.
Each week, Erika posts lectures on a discussion forum, allowing students to log in and make comments at their own pace before the weekly chat room on Wednesdays. During each weekly discussion, a few students submit writing samples to the group for peer evaluation. Once the discussion is underway, everyone begins typing and offering feedback. “It’s wonderfully chaotic,” says Erika. For many, this is their first opportunity to share their writing, an activity that can be both terrifying and rewarding at the same time.
Online classes offer the opportunity for people of all ages to expand their skillset. The rise in the number of online classes available has been fostered, in part, by the convenience of technology. Whether working toward a degree, advancing a career, or pursuing a newfound hobby, students of online classes enjoy the educational experience from the comforts of home. It was this convenience that led Lisa Beazley to take both of Erika’s writing classes.
Four years ago, Lisa left her public relations job in New York City and moved with her husband and two children to Singapore. With the move, Lisa found herself working freelance and ready to take on a new challenge. Writing a novel had always been in the back of Lisa’s mind, but while she was juggling a family and a full time career, it never seemed like a practical option for her. “The first word of fiction I wrote was for Erika’s class,” says Lisa. “I went into this so unprepared. I went from zero to 100 in a number of weeks!”
While Mediabistro screens each applicant, Erika says that her class usually attracts a wide variety of students, most of whom have very little creative writing experience. Some students may be in the United States while others could be in Sweden, Germany, or Dubai. The class offers flexibility for aspiring writers while still proposing attainable deadlines to keep students on track.
While Lisa needed the flexibility the class offered, she also appreciated the deadlines and sense of accountability Erika maintained. “There are so many other things that come up, and when you have commitments to your family, it can feel frivolous to spend time writing a novel. But with the structure of a class, it feels less frivolous,” Lisa explains.
For many first-time writers, receiving criticism might seem daunting, but Lisa credits her thick skin and supportive classmates. “I have to say, we were really lucky in the class I was in. I found everyone was very diplomatic and positive with each other. It was an atmosphere of support.”
Creating a supportive environment is important to Erika. Most writers are shy and reserved by nature. The act of writing itself is a solitary activity. “It’s a positive experience for people who are shy. You might not feel so fearful about sharing your work,” Erika says. An online forum is a great tool for first-time writers to test the water and share their work in a relaxed environment.
“When you first read someone’s book, that’s a very personal thing. I do feel close to these people because I’m reading what comes out of their head,” says Erika. “There’s something vulnerable about sharing your work with people. It’s an act of faith and bravery to post your work.”
The act of sharing and feeling of vulnerability are things that Erika knows all too well herself. An accomplished novelist, Erika is the author of The Witch’s Trinity, a Bram Stoker Awards finalist, and a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book. She has also been a Yaddo fellow, a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards, and a Pushcart Press Editor’s Book Award nominee.
Now Erika is encouraging her former students to promote their finished work. After completing both of Erika’s classes, Lisa has finished her first novel, one that she describes as the story of two sisters living apart and working to maintain their relationship over long distance. In the final stages of revisions, Lisa hopes to begin looking for literary representation in the next couple of months. Lisa still keeps in touch with Erika and credits her former teacher with helping her get this far.
“Erika set a really supportive tone and was kind of a cheerleader. She encouraged everyone to keep going and to produce something by the end of the class.”
Feature photo: Erika Mailman.
When she is not writing, reading, or climbing the corporate ladder at her publishing job, you can find Erin scouring her Brooklyn neighborhood for good food and unique finds.