Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don’t want you to miss.
Autumn is creeping around the corner, temperatures are shifting, and students and teachers alike are preparing for their new coursework. But the usual symbols of returning to school are no longer here. Pencils, textbooks, new shoes, and artfully decorated classrooms have largely been replaced by tablets, Zoom calls, new sweatpants, and make-shift home offices. We are hunkering down for the colder part of year, but change is still unfurling and pushing at us from every angle.
This month, I found creative voices who aren’t afraid to play and explore within this changing atmosphere.
Three Centuries of Distance Learning, Livia Gershon (@LiviaGershon), JSTOR Daily
Faced with uncertainty in an online learning environment, Gershon brought out the history books. Gershon tracks the history of online learning: from mailing in coursework in the 1700s, to televised classrooms in the 1970s, to primitive versions of “e-learning” in the 1990s. This is a short, fun, and educational essay that would be a great conversation starter for students on the first day of class, or just a fun read for your family.
Watching King Lear On Zoom, Lesley Jenike (@ThusTweetsKeats), Ploughshares
In this beautifully intelligent essay, Jenike describes her experience watching a Zoom production of King Lear, performed by Richfield, Ohio’s Western Reserve Playhouse. She posits this dramatic experiment as a symbol for the changing function of language in our new, virtual world.
Language is a technology too, and not without its own erratic, dissociating quirks. If King Lear is (among other things) about miscommunication—those moments when language fails, the delay or gap that occurs between utterance and transmission, between transmission and comprehension, between object and its symbolic representation—then the play takes on a new immediacy in the context of a 2020 Zoom call.
Jenike talks with some of the actors who performed in this Zoom-friendly version of King Lear, and found that, although challenging, the platform allowed for new interpretations of language, adding layers to the connotations of “seeing”, “viewing” and “bearing witness”. Jenike wonders, does this layered meaning of sight add to something we’ve likely all experienced recently: “Zoom fatigue”?
While “Zoom fatigue” isn’t Shakespearian “madness,” it does suggest we’re reacting physically to a situation that feels, as Shakespeare might say, “unnatural.” Many of us, as psychologist Marissa Shuffler suggests, feel exhausted by attempting to manage the blips and gaps in virtual interactions; verbal nuances are lost and body language is hard to read.
Jenike notes that we all “perform” to a certain degree online, just like the actors of King Lear. There is a danger here, she notes. Perhaps we’re all on a Shakespearean Zoom call.
Technology (whether we mean social networking, video conferencing, virtual reality, or even language itself) can be both perilous and liberating, an architect of intimacy and an architect of loneliness too.
Like a Shakespearean tragedy, our new online environment leads us through many different emotions. What I love about Jenike’s essay is that she explains, explicitly and through metaphor, why the “versions” of our online selves can simultaneously feel “just right” and also “not true at all”. For me, her essay was a literary-framed reminder that we need grace in this new learning environment.
Rethinking Freewriting in the Age of COVID, Christina Larocco, Brevity’s Blog
Larocco has had a solid freewriting routine for years. It’s not working anymore, and she is very honest about why:
I’ve been furloughed from work for the past several months, and without a reason to wake up I’ve fallen into an ever-worsening cycle of staying up until 3 or 4 a.m. worrying about the world, sleeping until noon, and then napping again in the afternoon just to get out of my own head. The pandemic has exacerbated my depression-induced bad habits. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.
She’s absolutely not alone. All habits of life: from eating to sleeping, to cooking and parenting, to reading and writing, have changed for many people. To tap into her creative depths, she’s changed her style.
In The Writer’s Process, Anne Janzer lays out her seven-step writing process. In her chapter on research, she describes the importance of “inner research” or “writing for discovery”: once the writer has assembled, compiled, and read over their research for a particular section, they put the notes aside to discover their own thoughts on the subject. I’m trained as an academic, so it’s especially important for me to step away from my formal research. Gathering information is easy for me, but my writing will not be interesting or creative unless I take the time to figure out what an event, memory, or theme in my own or someone else’s life really means.
Instead of routine-driven, her freewriting habits have formed into something more process-driven. The result is that she’s been able to chew on big questions for longer. To learn more about Janzer’s writing method, check out her book here.
Breathing to Write, Jennifer Sinor, The Writer’s Notebook
Sinor begins this essay with several powerful and heartbreaking anecdotes about previous students of hers. Then, she dives into the truth of the matter:
I have been teaching creative nonfiction for close to twenty years at Utah State University. In those two decades, I have witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of students who suffer from anxiety and depression. I don’t need the newspapers or the latest studies (one in five college students, one third of college students, one-fourth of the state) to tell me that anxiety/depression is the number one health concern facing young people today. I see it in their writing. Every semester.
Her creative nonfiction courses inherently ask students to be vulnerable about their lives. To create a welcoming space, and to honor the stories and feelings that will be shared in her classroom, she asks students to breathe.
I breathe with intention at the start of every class. Whether five students or five hundred. It feels awkward at first—we rarely close our eyes in public, so it can be vulnerable—but it sets the space in which to learn, to risk, to share, to grow. Breathing creates a community, one that breathes together, the bedrock of the workshop. It establishes a pause, before starting class, signifying that we are about to enter collectively into a genre, a conversation, into art. It gives our students, and quite frankly ourselves, a way to help still both mind and body so that we can address the work in our lives and the work immediately before us.
Sinor doesn’t mention how this might translate to an online classroom, but I feel that it is still possible to carry these moments of breathing into the online world. Earlier, Jenike was right to point out that certain things are lost or muddled on Zoom. But Sinor’s practice of holding space for her students seems more important than ever. As Sinor points out, silence and the sound of your own breath can be a wonderful gateway to creativity.
Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we’d love to hear your input!