Thursday, September 30, 2021


The other night my graduate creative nonfiction writing workshop met to discus Alexander Chee's essay "Girl" and an excerpt from Margot Jefferson's Negroland. The conversation was lively and thoughtful, and for the first time since students and teachers returned to face-to-face meetings after more than a year of meeting remotely, our discussion transcended the imposition of mask-wearing. My seven students this semester are diverse, serious, and sharply intelligent and, as we discussed the essays, the physical space we were in seemed to widen outward; there were some charges of narrow perspective and some defense of camp, talk of the value of satire and the limits of the personal-as-political, reckoning with a delayed first-person pronoun via the first-person plural, with writing personally versus autobiographically, with Halloween as a metaphor, with the essayist opening up the fiction writer's toolbox. The conversation was mature and respectful, and renewed itself effortlessly. Best of all, I realized pretty early on that I was going to have to take a back seat, learning as my students held forth smartly and seriously about their lives, as they deflected off of the essays into valuable explorations of their own experiences, sometimes humorously, sometimes contentiously. As the hour-plus moved along, the conversation mimicked, in many ways, the unpredictability, fluidity, and surprises of the essay itself.

In the second half of the class we turned to two of the students' drafts, the ideas and issues of the first half leaning their shadows over the workshop in the best of ways. We were all wearing masks, our glasses fogged, our countenances neutralized, but for the first time this semester I barely noticed. This was in large part due to my students' seriousness and enthusiasm. But I was blessed with serious and enthusiastic students in virtual settings, too, yet conversations via Zoom are often hemmed in by the remote—in all senses of that word—flatness and the inherent disconnection among the participants. A physical room to where we are obligated to trudge and gather and will ourselves to speak really matters, the proximity of bodies its own charged language. I'm looking at you too, my favorite local dive bar. (Recently in the Chicago Tribune, Alison Brown wrote about the emotional toll of a year of enduring half-hidden faces.) Thank you science, but here's hoping that soon we'll be feeling unmasked not because we're comfortable being open while covered, but because masks themselves will be a thing of the past.

Top image via The Conversation

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