YourWords STL

Words in the Time of COVID

By Lydia Paar, Summer Creative Writing Workshop Leader

It’s been awhile since I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic epidemic novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, but what I recall about it is distance: correspondence over letters–words which keep two lovers in contact over years of circumstantial separation. I think of that book often now, in my own moment of history, in my own pandemic, and not as a lover, but as a professional. I am lucky enough to live with my husband and my dog and even see a few friends from time to time across six-feet gaps in our backyard. But all the work I do, now, for pay or as a volunteer, is online. I tutor grammar online. I teach a robot to learn English idioms online. I build an arts platform online. And by far, recently, the most emotionally important work: I led creative writing workshops over Zoom with the young men of Drury House, part of the Margygrove foster care program run through the Archdiocese of Saint Louis. The residents, age 16-20, have been quarantined there together since March.

My bosses, Anna and Steve, decided to rise to the challenge of our organization’s new-mandated distance, continuing to foster the freedom and emotional connectivity enabled by creative writing among the Drury residents online. Zoom links accompanied notebooks this summer: all equipment was dropped at the door, per now-standard contagion-controlling protocol.

I am far from the only person in the world to acknowledge the challenges of forging meaningful emotional and intellectual connections with other human beings in the best of these busy contemporary times, and I am certainly far from the only person bemoaning this newer heightened struggle, across increased distance under COVID.

Further, I am far from the only teacher to gape, wide-eyed and intimidated, at the sudden (urgent) need to shift developmentally-important instruction into virtual modes: many colleagues of mine have made far greater adjustments than I have, retrofitting entire semesters’ worth of lesson plans suddenly into online platforms and then helping their students, mid-live-stream, to learn to use it all effectively. Their students work at home alone, keeping their brains and emotions engaged with each other through ethernet and wifi connections. They keep community in small squares on zoom screens, a pattern of home backgrounds stacked up together in larger cubes.

Drury House, with their class instruction for high school also occurring now solely online, is only slightly unique from this common standard in its setup: because the young men at Marygrove had been quarantined together, and resources at the center are also not unlimited, participants in our workshops do not have individual laptops from which to join in each Zoom session. There are no standard-sized tiling of many squares, easy views of faces, or crisp, individually-mic’ed voices. Rather, all our participants sit together in a classroom and watch my face broadcast onto a single big tv screen.  I see them all, distantly, from one single laptop camera device. Sometimes the camera hasn’t been able to contain them all, and I’ve had to ask them to scoot closer together from the room’s outer edges. Each session, from the grainy pixelation of the camera’s longer-range (and more desperate) reaches, I’ve had to embarrassedly ask students whose work I began to know and admire, faces sometimes hidden under masks, for their names again: re-draw my daily seating charts. Our technical difficulties became at least half the battle of every workshop we shared, from basic internet connection issues to figuring out how to hear each other clearly across the necessary spaces for safety. 

However, what impressed me despite these difficulties, all throughout the summer, was the ability of these young and ready human minds, to roll with these tough changes and adapt. 

We ordered an extra speaker. We repeated ourselves again and again, re-learning to enunciate. We practiced patience.

And we found that despite the frustrations of COVID’s lurking presence, the restless world of quarantining procedures, and strange new channels for sharing information and time, words still mattered: once we settled into prompt-writing and discussion, the interest in how thoughts and experience channel into writing was still as strong as ever. 

After our discussion on poetic devices, I was impressed by how intuitively the young men employed well-worn methods of alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm in new ways to bring the emotional music of their feelings alive. 

How sensory details brought the reader/listener (each other/me) closer into understanding the perspectives of each narrator. 

How storyboarding decisions about character, desire, fear, and plot obstacles led fictional characters into tales of change and growth. 

How we can make characters of ourselves to lead ourselves forward through mystery. 

The voices of the students were strong, eager, and willing, despite the circumstances that led them to enter Drury House, despite being quarantined, and despite having to come to the front of the classroom to read each vulnerable piece they wished to share into the laptop’s table-top extension microphone. On the final day of workshop, we had an end-of-summer celebration reading, and one classmate, Dante, even stepped forward to help another, Dalon, finish presenting his piece when Dalon grew shy.

I was humbled by their enthusiasm. Their openness. And perhaps most crucially: their camaraderie in supporting one another to write and share aloud their thoughts. Their words, their willing and supportive self-expression, seemed to me their very own kind of inoculation against the trauma and turmoil this time has added to our lives.

This era, as we know, is unprecedented in history: we who live it will talk, for the rest of our living, about how we learned, now, just how vulnerable we are in shared crisis. When we all live in fear of sneaking sickness, of losing loved ones. When many of us lose our jobs, then maybe our homes. When we can’t go to school, to church, to sports or community club activities: can’t gather together for comfort or even hug those outside our households.

But we’ve had opportunities to learn, I suspect, and will forever also know how possible it is to let ourselves draw meaning out from our fear. 

If we are as open, willing, adaptable, and supportive to each other as the recent Drury House summer workshop participants were, we certainly can. 

If we use our words well and earnestly, we can show other people how to, too.

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Lydia Paar holds an MFA from Washington University and an MA from Northern Arizona University. Her work was selected by Alexander Chee as the winner of North American Review’s 2020 Terry Tempest Williams Creative Nonfiction Prize. She is a former recipient of a Frederick and Frances Sommer Foundation Fellowship and a Millay Colony for the Arts Residency. Previous work has appeared in Essay Daily, Alligator Juniper, Five:2:One, and Manzano Mountain Review, and more essays are forthcoming in The Missouri Review and The New England Review. She can be reached at www.lydiapaar.com.

Michelle Haberberger

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