Tag: pandemic

What Seems Inevitable?

 Ian Hays, Writing Consultant

   A couple months ago I was playing poker at my friend’s new apartment. He and his girlfriend met at Vanderbilt, and we were celebrating because she’d just passed the bar. As the evening grew thin and wine continued to flow, our thoughts and the topics of conversation grew broader and more existential. Eventually we found our way to higher education, with my friend ruminating “what if we’re the last generation who will have the conventional university experience?” 

His concern is fair. If COVID has done one thing, it’s shown that in the internet age, there’s no good reason why most types of work must prescriptively happen in an ordained location. If you have the connection, it really doesn’t matter where you’re doing what you’re supposed to.

On its face, this sort of development seems entirely positive. Frankly, being able to do my Writing Center work from wherever I am has allowed me much more time to attend to the things that I should, if I’m being healthy and moral, attend to; things like my family, or my mental health. 

But this development—this untethering from the workplace—has also forced a magnifying glass upon the necessity of many institutional conventions integral to the generation of wealth. Last semester, for example, my brother was forced, abruptly, to leave Cuba, where he was studying abroad. For months all he could talk about was how excited he was to go, and when he arrived messages poured in about the therapeutic nature of being in a place like that; one where (in spite of a looming material circumstance we would qualify as massively underprivileged) there is social cohesion; one where even “the enemy” doesn’t need to worry about healthcare. 

When the disease struck he was ripped home, and spent the remainder of the semester negotiating with his, admittedly reputable, university. All told, he ended up receiving a 10% refund. A 10% refund for a full semester’s tuition, one spent in a place where higher education is free. 

That 10% number carried over to this year, because, still, all of his and his peers’ classwork has been forced online. Speaking with my father, he posited: “I guess this is how much [my brother’s school] actually values getting to use its facilities, or being within handshake proximity to all the ‘experts’ they employ.”

What my father and my friend were getting at is clear: if tuition has nothing to do with the physical experience of university—if that part of the equation, for example, is valued at 10% of a figure higher than a year’s average household income—and if literally all learning can take place online, then what the hell are we paying for? 

But this reevaluation—this disturbing reification of that arbitrary nature of institutional life—doesn’t stop at university. If you really think about it, superfluous structures meant to generate wealth are everywhere, and—it seems—they’re always one crisis away from being dispensed with. 

Thus, it can seem very sensible to believe that constant dissolution is inevitable. For those of us within the humanities, this kind of thinking is par for the course. 

Almost daily I wonder about why it is I’ve decided to go down this path, to learn about expression, and the infinite variability of the human experience. What the United States values at the monetary level is clear; we want products you can hold in your hand, we want to improve material comfort, because comfort is easy to measure and because everyone wants it. We “care” about exploring the human condition, but if you can’t illustrate on a graph how it is you’ve contributed to capitalist wellbeing—or if that wellbeing, and how much you’ve contributed to it, varies from person to person—you’re not going to get paid. 

It’s been said before that the great sin of putting earring-potential first is that what motivates action is superseded. Institutions can no longer put their primary purpose first. University, for example, is about learning, it’s about helping students learn how to think about the world; but as long as students pay for college—and as long as that money is integral to administrative functioning—the real goal of the institution has to be to keep students paying. Now COVID has made this process seem all the more untenable. 

But I want to suggest something. 

Years ago I was listening to a debate between Steven Pinker and Alain De Botton on progress. As is usual, Pinker’s argument centered around the notion of material progress, and he had numerous metrics to illustrate how far we’ve come. But he made another, more philosophical point, one meant to be divorced from any such graph. He spoke about nuclear weapons, and about how, for 80 years, it has seemed we’re always one mistake away from nuclear winter. “This is true,” he said, “but yet, still, even after the cold war—even after mass nuclear proliferation—no more weapons like that have been used against people. It’s seemed inevitable, but it’s never happened.”

The other day in class my professor spoke about how, while there is upheaval within the humanities, the discipline soldiers on; that this upheaval is actually a wellspring of creativity, an  important decoupling from the rigidity seen elsewhere. My professor is right. We were discussing New Criticism, attacking the prescriptiveness of what I perceive to be call for a more methodological approach to criticism; one meant to insulate the humanities from the march of capitalist progress which would—according to their camp—inevitably render the humanities a hobby in the face of harder subjects like physics and biology. 

But that’s never happened—years ago it seemed inevitable, but it hasn’t. Even as philosophical schools written expressly in opposition to codified rule sets—in opposition to things like objectivity, and truth—have become more mainstream, the humanities have not dissolved. 

Now is a moment of immense unsureness for millions. It’s a moment where nothing is certain, where it seems every pillar we might attach ourselves to is crumbling at its base. But when we look upward from our screens, we see that many things which will inevitably fail, haven’t, and at the practical level really won’t. Last year, for example, consumption of “traditional” media was higher than its been in years; now that’s a discipline everyone has been sure will die any minute now.

In the Writing Center this fear, for me, has been pronounced. I’ve found it hard, often, to really allow myself to get “into” the work. I love what we do, but I’m afraid that if I permit my passion to swell, that if I lose my peripheral vision, the next time I look up it’ll be because the cart I’ve been riding in has lost the momentum to move. It’ll be too late when I realize what we do is fading away. 

But that’s simply paranoia speaking, and nothing more. Last semester I walked into a room, for the first time, covered with art, and a poster at the front with a picture of the whole space packed with people diligently working on their craft. I’ve never seen such a thing, and I’ve worried that’ll never take place again. But then I look at the figures—about how we’ve actually had a pretty good year in spite of everything—or at the fact that even within a capitalist machine, the confluence I spoke about earlier—between institutional purpose and practical goals—is alive and well in the Writing Center.

Patience and Productivity: What I’ve Learned About Writing and Working During the Pandemic

Spenser Secrest, Writing Consultant

Everyone knows that writing is difficult. And writing, especially creative writing, has become quite difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. Writing during the pandemic has posed several different challenges, and this still feels unusual to me. Every aspect of our lives has seemingly been interrupted or altered due to the outbreak of COVID-19, so why should writing be any different? For me, writing during the pandemic has become more difficult because there is no end in sight and every related action becomes increasingly polarized in the news each week. Writing is the last thing I can think about right now, and access to support networks is gone. While the pandemic has posed a unique challenge, it also offers us the opportunity to help us grow, hopefully both as writers and as people.

Although the act of writing is usually thought of as being done in solitude, which can, obviously, be done during the pandemic, this still feels as though certain aspects of the writing process are being left out. I have always viewed getting feedback as a vital part of writing – from friends, colleagues, and peers,for any piece of writing that I do, whether that is a piece of academic or creative writing.  While emails, texts and other forms of long distance communication have been beneficial, this is still not a substitute for discussions of the piece as a whole in person with someone whose thoughts and opinions I value. Even this very blog post, I intend to have someone proofread.

            The COVID-19 pandemic has affected other aspects of writing as well. It is now much more difficult to write with anyone and in any public space. Although these difficulties are the result of measurements taken for our safety, knowledge of this fact does not make these challenges any less difficult to work with. In fact, knowing that some people have openly violated such measurements has, for me, at times, made focusing on the prospect of writing all the more difficult. When thinking about how the pandemic has disrupted life and how long it has lasted, to see or hear of someone openly not care about precautions for one’s own safety, as well as the safety of those around them, can add another topic of distraction from any activity, including writing of any kind.

            Creative writing can also function as a therapeutic act. However, as the pandemic has continued, with no end in sight due to the U.S. government’s current administration’s lack of leadership on this issue, this raises the question as to what writing during the pandemic can accomplish, as the pandemic is still ongoing and all of the trials and tribulations will continue, even after one has finished writing something. If writing can be seen as a potential way to come to terms with something or to make sense of something, what can be accomplished when the circumstances keep changing due to the pandemic?Ideally, any act of creative writing would provide some form of catharsis, even if the difficult circumstances under which that writing was produced continue for the foreseeable future.

            Working as a Writing Center consultant for the first time, I have found that, despite any technological issues and doubts that the writers have had with their writings, they still desire feedback from the consultants. This has shown, to me, that all writers value feedback, even if this feedback is for assignments and academic writing. Something that I had not expected was that working with other writers, from a variety of different areas, and in different stages of drafting, has improved my own academic writing skills.  I’ve found that working with other writers can be beneficial to both the writer and the consultant. As a consultant works with a writer to improve their draft, so too does the consultant’s understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of writing.

            Finally, since I have been in graduate school, I have found patience to be the greatest asset to writing during the pandemic. Whether this be patience with technology working or patience in waiting for inspiration in writing, the pandemic has shown that patience is an incredibly valuable character trait to have during this time. The pandemic has led to us all making adaptations in our work and patience is a necessary component when learning something in an environment that is new to everyone. Additionally, developing more patience is something that would seem to be only to one’s benefit. Hopefully, everyone has developed more patience since the outbreak of COVID-19.

On Distance and Embodied Writing

Amanda Dolan, Writing Consultant

Prior to the pandemic, I wasn’t very attentive to the body’s role in writing. Because of my background in both visual and performing art, I largely saw the world as impressionistic. This perspective carried over into my literature studies and ultimately led me to consider writing a predominantly mental discipline. I found myself not only fixating on ephemera and reminiscence within my research, but also only writing to articulate, recreate, and relive the past. Worst of all, I idolized and sought —always unsuccessfully— an incorrect/reductive/harmful conception of the notorious, transient “flow state”. 

I realized just how skewed my perception of the flow state was shortly after lockdown began. Time drastically slowed down, but that effortless focus never occurred and I almost entirely lost the urge to write (certainly academically). For years I had written about and through nostalgia, but strangely I could not put pen to paper during the first several weeks of lockdown even though these were so filled with nostalgic feelings. 

I now think this initial inability to write stemmed from confronting the fact that, contrary to my long-held belief, the space/time separating our memories from the events in our lives is perhaps the least tragic form of distance. Many, even those of us who previously felt loved ones were reassuringly distant, started to wish for nearness. Naturally, this physical distance and the resulting virtual interactions made embodied experiences much more important for a significant percentage of the population —myself included. Like many others, I started spending more time exercising, cooking, and residing outdoors. These healthy habits, however, were joined by the new (to me) practice of doomscrolling. Even though this latter habit is often ultra destructive and the former are generally quite beneficial, I noticed a commonality between all of them: immediacy. While doomscrolling isn’t as directly an embodied process (although the anxiety it frequently creates can definitely pull you back into your body), it is certainly similar to one as it’s also a matter of immediacy —instead of distance. 

Because the libraries were closed, I started going through my backlog of owned books. One of the books I finally (“finally” as in “the English version was published in 2009”; this was one of my first quarantine reads) got around to reading was Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The book discusses the reciprocal relationship between running and writing, and, although I am not much of a runner, it provided a lot of insight about distance versus immediacy and embodied writing. I realized after this read that because writing was, for me, so much about processing impressionistic, past information, it naturally became difficult to write during a time when (because of uncertainty) all most of us could do was preserve information in a largely unprocessed state. I think this inclination to preserve the feeling of ideas before we understand them contributed to the increased interest in Twitter (and, consequently, doomscrolling) during this time. Of course some —or even most— of this pull to social media was a result of needing incessant communication for the sake of connection, but I think the immediacy of semi-unprocessed information was oddly comforting during a period marked by physical distance. 

In closing, I just want to share what this shift away from distance and pure mental processes and towards immediacy and physicality forced me —with the help of Murakami’s book— to recognize about writing. Firstly (though these points are very much related), it relies on both the body and the mind, and it benefits from being fortified through physical activity/patterns just as much as mental. I actually achieved a proper (refer to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for this) “flow state” after developing small habits —like snacking, stretching, and playing very familiar music or white noise— that establish a physical, sensory space for writing. Secondly, the process is located in both physical and temporal spaces, whether immediate or distant. Although my interest in memory has returned since school has resumed, my academic writing/processed information can now be suddenly immediate —just as my prose/semi-unprocessed feelings can be distant. Together these two discoveries have, during a time of uncertainty and physical insulation, helped me value writing other futures —everywhere and all the time.