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Classroom Blues

Teaching creative writing in lockdown

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

During lockdown there was a lot of concern about how the restrictions were affecting musicians, actors and dancers — would they be able to cope without practising their craft together in person? Sharing ideas, improvising, giving feedback, and feeding off each other’s creative energy were recognised as essential components of their creative process. Writing, meanwhile, continued to be viewed as a solitary occupation; after all, what else does a writer need but a laptop and somewhere to balance it? Indeed, many thought that lockdown provided the ideal circumstances to finally write that novel — publishers and agents were deluged with submissions.

I was very relieved when we moved to teaching online at my university in 2020. It meant I wouldn’t have to use public transport and teach face-to-face at the height of the pandemic; neither would I miss spending four hours a day commuting to and from work. However, as time went on, online teaching only served to emphasise just how important it was for creative writing students to practise their craft and collaborate in the same physical space. It was particularly hard on first-year students, who’d just been getting used to the freedom that life at university brings when their world suddenly shrank in March, and they ended up glued to their laptops and mobiles for even longer.

Many students chose to return to their family home rather than stay on in the increasingly forlorn campus, but it wasn’t always easy to write surrounded by family. One student wrote in their car, the only place they were guaranteed privacy, others in their bedrooms or their parents’ kitchens; one in a cupboard under the stairs. Many international students simply couldn’t afford to go home: one told me that in her accommodation block, which normally housed forty-two students, there were only eight left. She slept through most of the day, and in the evening – which was morning back in her home country – she rang and messaged family and friends until the early hours, before finally settling down to work. As classes were recorded and made available online, students could choose when to access them, and morning classes were very poorly attended.

As the communal experience became an atomised one, students quickly grew more withdrawn and passive. In a typical class of twenty-five to thirty just one or two turned on their cameras. Faced with an array of grey circles, blank apart from their initials, I often felt as if I was trapped in a short story by Kafka. Some days not a single student turned on their microphone and spoke in seminars. I found it very disconcerting not being able to see my students’ faces or hear their voices, it’s such an integral part of teaching. I was left with few clues as to how well or poorly my classes had gone. How you dealt with the long silences in an online class became a hot topic of conversation amongst staff. Did you allow the uncomfortable silence to stretch out, or cave in and tell them the answer? They say a few seconds of silence on the radio can feel like an eternity — the same applies to an online seminar.

After a few weeks the students began to contribute a little more via chat, though I was so desperate to keep the exchanges flowing I found it stressful trying to speak at the same time as responding to the comments and questions popping up in the corner of my screen. Classes were also made difficult because of the inevitable technological problems that resulted from so many universities using the same platform. Frozen screens, long delays when trying to upload and share content and students suddenly disappearing because of poor internet connections were all frequent problems. It didn’t make for an environment conducive to creativity.

However, the chat rapidly increased when I put the students into breakout rooms to discuss their work in progress. I was dismayed they were using chat instead of turning on their microphones and actually speaking to each other, but consoled myself with the thought that at least they were working collaboratively. Tutors can monitor what students say or write to each other in breakout rooms. Although I found the idea a bit creepy, when I put my misgivings aside I discovered that most of it consisted of banter and checking up on how everyone was. This really saddened me — I took it as indication of how isolated they’d become, and let it go on for a while, before finally stepping in and reminding them that they were supposed to be working, and that feedback was an essential part of the writing process.

When teaching face-to-face I like to move around the room and speak to students individually, read their work and discuss the craft of writing with them. We often go outside so as not to disturb others, and I discover a side of them they may not present to their classmates and get to know them much better. But online teaching was sedentary, the students shrunk to the size of a postage stamp on the screen. After several hours without a break I’d feel the nervous energy building up. My movements became jerkier, my leg began to twitch. I was desperate to get up and move, escape my confinement and talk to people in real life instead of staring at a screen. I was lucky to live close to a beautiful wood and a large park.

Before lockdown I would meet up with a couple of friends, who also wrote and taught creative writing, to work in a café, but once restrictions began we’d switched to online writing sessions. Before long, though, we abandoned these – we just couldn’t face spending more time near a screen – and instead met up to go walking, sometimes clocking up seven or eight miles, so desperate were we to escape those four walls. Once I began walking it was rarely long before the solution to some seemingly intractable writing problem popped into my head, as if from nowhere. If I’m stationary for too long my writing gets stuck; when I get outside and move, it flows. When I returned to my desk I felt inspired.

When we eventually returned to face-to-face teaching in September 2021, the students brought a renewed commitment and enthusiasm and attendances shot up. The atmosphere was buoyant, and the questions, suggestions and debates that punctuated seminars made teaching a real pleasure once again. There’s nothing like seeing a group of twenty or thirty people thoroughly engrossed in the act of writing, all of them submerged in their own world, yet sharing the same space with others in their world. You can feel the positive energy, that sprinkle of fairy dust in the air. What happens in face-to-face teaching is so powerful yet so difficult to define, it feels like alchemy. The hum of excitement is infectious. I treasure those wonderful moments in class when everything gelled — I felt I was doing something worthwhile and deeply human, that I was privileged to have such a job. Creative writing classes allow us to experience some of the interactive thrill of the performing arts and, crucially, feel part of a writing community, the thing that students have consistently said they value most of all year after year.

Lockdown made me realise that, just like the students, I too need to feel part of a writing community to flourish. There’s growing evidence from neuroscientists that our brains function better when we’re interacting with others and experiencing that precious feeling of togetherness. It’s been an absolute joy to meet up with my writing buddies in cafés again and, whenever possible, to combine that with a walk beforehand where we gossip, make each other laugh, share our woes, swap ideas and reading recommendations. By the time we reach the café, we’re buzzing and raring to write. Writing is not a solitary occupation: a quick look through the acknowledgements at the end of most books is enough to dispel that illusion. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a writing community to produce a book. Writers need something more than just a laptop and somewhere to balance it. We need each other too.

Ray French is the co-editor of I Wouldn’t Start from Here: The Second Generation Irish in Britain, and End Notes: Ten Stories About Loss, Mourning and Commemoration. He’s also the author of All This Is Mine, Going Under and The Red Jag and Other Stories.

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