Teaching Creative Nonfiction in Pandemic

Three weeks into my own, two week's into my daughter's isolation, I am teaching a class on Creative Nonfiction. We are nine weeks into the semester. Over Spring Break, everything in the world changed. The students "returned" tonight.

I have been teaching in class in Zoom basically since I was told about Zoom. For me, it was the perfect solution to what then were my life's problems. I hated traffic. Zoom. I am deaf and require hearing aids, and listening in rooms of people is impossible. Zoom. I like to teach without interruptions. Zoom. Also, because I live in the mountains of Western North Carolina, often some students can't make it to class. They would Zoom. Some nights, none of us could come to class. We Zoomed. All of us. And that was the end of teaching in a classroom.

I still carried the slight stigma of being an "online professor." It held a similar stink that "online dating" used to before everybody did it. It wasn't a "real" date. It wasn't a "real" relationship if it lacked that origin of meet-cute in a cafe where the waiter switched your orders so you giggled over a danish. This week, everybody's online. Zoom.

Everything has also changed about the Creative Nonfiction book we use, aptly titled You Can't Make This Stuff Up, by Lee Gutkind. For the past 8 weeks, we have been moving this excellent text. We have talked about what we need to know in order to write good CNF. And what the challenges are. The main question used to be (used to=week before last) how do write about something that matters to you but that might be of little or no interest to anyone else?

This evening's lesson plan was simple. Take ten minutes. Go through the book and find a lesson we have learned and share with the group how the pandemic impacts that lesson.

Our class includes a retired surgeon who now teaches medicine at University of Iowa's esteemed School of Medicine; an actor and poet who inherited 300 acres of family land and is learning to be a farmer; a lactation specialist; two recent graduates of university; an editor; and an EMT. This cross-section of a world provided beautiful reflections on how the pandemic impacts everything about writing Creative Nonfiction.

The value of scene is, as always, at a premium as we move past "seeing" into "witness" in everything we view.

Finding the universal in the particular isn't such a challenge now that the universal is particular now. Nothing is outside of this. See also: relevance. Everything is relevant, from the most particular detail of one student's seeing a man load up three enormous military backpacks in a bread aisle at the grocery store to another's having to explain to person without symptoms why he can't bring them in the ambulance to the hospital to a doctor's message citing the increase from two to all patients in the ER being Covid patience, and how they don't need 100% oxygen but entirely new sets of lungs. We are in tears by the end of the exercise. I explain no one teaches teachers how to teach through such things. We just teach and fall apart as we need to, with the students.

As with writing Creative Nonfiction, nothing, not even the teacher, is outside of this.

My students are writing to a prompt from Poets and Writers magazine:

When asked the question, “What kind of writing is possible in a time of crisis?” by the Guardian, author Bhanu Kapil responded, “That is a question that people have been answering with their bodies all over the world for a very long time. But here we are. Let’s see what unfolds. What is a page for? What is a sentence for?” This week, open up a new page. Take a deep breath. Ask yourself what this page can be, for you, right now. What will your first sentence offer? What about the next? Allow a story to pour or trickle out until your page is full. Perhaps you will be surprised with what there is to say

This is my page.


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