Creative Writing for Social Workers

Write at Iowa

28th Annual Creative Writing Seminar for Social Workers

July 19-22, 2019 - Iowa City, Iowa  


The University of Iowa is known nationally as "The Writing University," and our institution boasts a rich tradition of great writing and an early and enduring commitment to the creative arts. Iowa’s tradition of writing has been guided by the principle that, though writing is a solitary practice, it’s one significantly enriched by the presence of other writers. There has also been a growing focus in recent years on how writing and language are critical in so many other professions and pursuits beyond the purely literary. 

It's fitting, then, that we continue to offer an annual opportunity for social workers and other helping professionals to gather in a workshop space for an intensive experience to work on their writing craft and learn how it can be leveraged, both in practice and in reflective self-care.

The seminar meets 6 hours daily, Friday through Monday on The University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. Each day includes a mixture of presentations from invited guests, writing instruction and practice, and peer critiques of participants’ work. Several hours are reserved for individual coaching sessions with the lead instructor. Participants may be beginners or experienced--and sometimes even published--writers. Most participants have not previously attended a writing workshop, or even thought of themselves as writers. Diversity of experience, and an active interest and curiosity about the possibilities inherent in creative writing, are the essential ingredients for a fresh and exciting workshop experience.

The learning objectives are:
    — Improve creative writing skill in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essays, blogs etc.
    — Understand how writing can be used as a professional tool in human services work as counselors, educators, advocates, researchers and practitioners.

Ellen Szabo, M.Ed. is the primary writing instructor for the course. She is the founder of Write Now, promoting the use of creative writing for personal investigation, enrichment and social change. She earned her B.A. from Harvard College, with a concentration in English and American Literature, and her M.Ed. from Columbia University Teacher’s College, in Counseling Psychology.  She writes and teaches with focus on how innovation and creativity can illuminate, inspire and advocate compassionate transformation.

Guest speakers will share experiences with projects related to creative writing for social change,  journaling for personal growth, and/or the written word as a tool for enhancing social justice.

The seminar is coordinated by Mercedes Bern-Klug, PhD, MSW, MA.  Dr. Bern-Klug is on the faculty in the School of Social Work and is Director of  Aging & Longevity Studies Program. For more information, contact Jen Knights at 319-335-3750 or email

For information about lodging available in Iowa City, visit or get in touch with us for personal recommendations. For those wanting to truly immerse in Iowa City's writing life, consider staying at the Iowa Writers House, which is just a few blocks away from North Hall, where our workshop takes place!



Creative Writing Master Class for Social Workers

July 23-24, 2019 - Iowa City, IA (CLICK HERE TO REGISTER.)


Master Class will build upon the principles and instruction from the four-day Creative Writing for Social Work seminar. This workshop will illuminate and explore various techniques for discovering and amplifying the spirit and purpose of each participant’s writing, with emphasis on how creative expression can facilitate personal transformation.

The focus will be on exploration, experimentation and discovery of each person’s unique writing voice. In a supportive, stimulating atmosphere, participants will have an opportunity to build upon their creative writing skills with additional instruction, writing prompts and facilitated discussion of participant work.

Prerequisite: Completion of the four day Creative Writing for Social Work workshop


National Poetry Contest for Social Workers                                            

Accepting poem submissions between October 26, 2018 and January 31, 2019.


The University of Iowa School of Social Work conducts an annual, nationwide poetry contest to acknowledge the creative talent of social workers and to draw attention to social work as a profession. “Hosting the national poetry contest here in Iowa City is a natural extension of what the School of Social Work has been doing for decades," says faculty member Mercedes Bern-Klug, one of the contest's founders. "We have a 28-year track record of offering a Creative Writing Seminar for social workers--and the University of Iowa is known as "The Writing University." In Iowa City--recognized internationally as a UNESCO City of Literature--writing is the air we breathe."

Rules for submission

  1. Only students, faculty, or alumni from United States CSWE-accredited social work programs may participate in the contest.

  2. There is no cost to enter.

  3. Only one submission is allowed per person.

  4. A poem in its entirety must be an original work by the person entering the contest.

  5. All entries will be judged by a panel consisting of social workers, writers, and poets based on poetic technique, effectiveness, style, and creativity, as well as accessibility and suitability for public display before a general audience.

  6. The deadline for submissions is January 31st, 2019, by 5:00 pm CST. 

  7. The poem must be no more than 15 lines (the title does NOT count as one of the 15) and can be either an existing work or new. 

  8. An excerpt from a longer poem will be considered if it can stand alone.

  9. If reprint permissions are required, please get permission prior to submitting your work.

  10. Poems must be submitted online. No paper or email submissions will be accepted.


The top three submissions will be awarded cash prizes and will be published in The New Social Worker magazine. Submissions that meet the contest criteria may be published on the University of Iowa School of Social Work website and/or social media.

First Prize: $100 and half-price admission to the annual Creative Writing Seminar at the University of Iowa School of Social Work in Iowa City.
Second Prize: $75
Third Prize: $50

Questions? Write to or call 319-335-3750.


Congratulations to our 2019 contest winners!         



First Prize:

“Where Fury Finds Itself” by Aisha Naseem, Chicago, IL


Second Prize:

“Daughter (Dis)Connected” by Kristin Bartley Lenz, Royal Oak, MI


Third Prize:

“Notes from a Funeral” by Elizabeth Weiss, Chicago, IL


Previous winners: 


  • Anna Forbes, Bryn Mawr College
  • Sara Staggs, University of Houston
  • Mary Ann Getse, Washington University, St. Louis


  • Jonathan Knight Palley, University of California- Berkeley, 1975
  • Sarah Pettit Dawson, University of South Carolina, 1999
  • Catherine Crandall, University of Georgia, 2013


  • Marjorie Thomsen, The Catholic University of America, 1995
  • Nahomi Martinez, University of Texas at El Paso, 2014
  • Joel Izlar, University of Georgia, 2012


  • Sarah Trotta-University of Pennsylvania, 2013
  • Patrick Scott Feagans-George Mason University, 2017
  • Jessica Greenbaum-New York University, 2014

​ 2016     

  • Leslie Olson, University of Iowa, 2018
  • Rebecca Thieman, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2018
  • Christopher Joseph, University of Michigan, 2008


  • Christopher Joseph, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2008
  • Angela Chaney, Indiana University, 2012
  • Brittany Humphrey, Arizona State University, 2018