Saturday, April 24, 2021


The more my creative nonfiction students detail their essays with pop culture references, the more things stay the same. Recently, a student wrote about her propensity to escape into her active imagination when she was a child, daydreaming about Percy Jackson fantasy novels, and later Harry Potter, gathering sticks in the backyard and playground as magic wands under the tutelage of Hogwarts, while in the same era swinging on a swing set she helped her grandfather build as she lost herself in songs on her iPod, dreaming of ancient myths. Sound familiar? Substitute any generation's favorite novel or movie (or television) series for Percy Jackson/Harry Potter, or imagine a clunky Discman or, earlier, a Walkman or, going back even earlier, a boombox or radio for the iPod, and what's revealed is a silhouette of adolescence—though the transparencies laid on top change with the era, the tableau is eternal. Dreaming on the edge of young adulthood, escaping from the politics of family and friends are gestures as old as time. The details and technology may change, but try to rub away the outlines left by those posters on your bedroom wall.

The other day, my students in ENGL 200 presented their final projects to the class (via Zoom, of course, as I taught the course remotely). Borrowing a prompt that my wife Amy created and uses in her class, I asked my students to react in any media of their choice to a text or texts that inspired, moved, or challenged them in any way. Unsurprisingly, their projects delighted me in their range and creativity: one student wrote an original song responding to the emotional challenges faced by many of the characters and figures in the fiction and autobiography we read; another created an abstract video using found imagery and ambient noise to reflect on those same issues; a few students created Instagram accounts that they imagined a character might have; some curated Spotify playlists responding to a story or a novel. One woman painted the point-of-view of The Awakening's Edna Pontellier as she strode toward the beach on her final morning alive; another created a digital illustration of Luke Ripley from Andre Dubus's "A Father's Story," rendering visually his internal and external conflicts; another presented a Powerpoint of the actors she'd cast in an imagined film adaptation of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; another wrote a screenplay for an imagined five-episode mini series adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides.

One student felt inspired to write a poem in response to Kiese Laymon's memoir Heavy; as the deadline neared she challenged herself to come up with something more creative, and wrote a rap that she posted on her TikTok account. Later that night, I tweeted the video at Laymon, who loved it ("mercy," he wrote simply) and pinned it to his account, opening the door to thousands upon thousands of views, likes, and comments, unanimously positive. The video earned like acclaim on Facebook and Instagram. I was thrilled for my student, and struck by the enormous power of social media when used for praising a person's poignant and powerful response to race, family, and body positivity. Such a cultural impact would've been impossible for a student of mine to have had a couple decades back, and yet this woman's imaginative response to literature—reading, I am moved; moved, I respond in kind—is one that I've been fortunate enough to witness in, and receive as a gift from, my students down the years. Technology morphs its models and discards its skins virtually every week; responding to art is everlasting.

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