When the pandemic was young, and not the endless slog we’ve endured, I opened an email announcing a call for “positive and hopeful, perhaps even humorous” reflections on a world with coronavirus for a printed anthology. July was the submission deadline for the Decorah Community Writing Project sponsored by Luther’s Center for Ethics and Public Engagement. If selected, authors would receive a free copy of the self-published book. Profits would be donated to a local charity.
The word “humorous” was refreshing. I was hooked.
I wrote about my morning routine of checking British Broadcasting news on-line to see whether 94-year-old Queen Elizabeth II (Great Britain’s longest reigning monarch) was still alive. If she could carry her purse around Windsor Castle, I was good for the day.
Although the call for submissions said nothing about seeking assistance, I queried co-editors/Luther professors Sören Steding and Victoria Christman about volunteering. My qualifications: too much free time, my mantra “specifics are a writer’s friend,” and my conviction that wrestling, in prose, with an uncontrollable foe helps people cope with surreal reality.
Sören and Victoria said yes.
What I Did on My Summer Vacation
We divvied up production tasks, decided what to do in-person or on-line, and were understanding about altering plans. An overarching goal was that each piece of prose and poetry in the anthology be able to stand solo and contribute well to the chorus of voices.
Sören and I content-edited de-isolation: Voices from a small town in the early days of Covid. Typically, I did a first sweep of on-paper editing in my home office. Then came the joy of wearing a handmade mask on my front porch, socially distancing, and exchanging ideas with Sören who had ridden his bike across town. Back home again, he looked over my suggestions, added his edits, and emailed our suggestions to the authors for consideration. After each piece was at its best, our team decided on the table of contents and re-proofread before the team published, through an Amazon platform, the 120-page paperback of 30 contributions.
Through personal, local reflections de-isolation gives voice to universal struggles and happiness during Covid-19, and offers readers the message “you’re not alone.”
de-isolation in a Q1 Mirrored Dance Studio and Q2 on Zoom
Assisting with the Decorah Community Writing Project reminded me beautifully of why I’ve dedicated my professional life to college students’ true stories: listening for the unsaid to better guide them to discover and develop what they want to say, urging them to look inside and outside of themselves. To take risks. Build confidence and discover effectiveness on the page whether writing about personal experience or a challenging text. Working together, my classroom companions and I gain empathy, try on other people’s lives, better understand what it means to be human.
During fall the de-isolation anthology proved an excellent resource in Literary Ventures: Life Stories (Quarter 1) and Creative Writing: Nonfiction (Quarter 2). Each course has its unique focus, yet incorporates reading and writing about true life experiences. Because the students and I were in the grips of uncertainty, tangled emotions, and topsy-turvy change, I assigned a first-person pandemic essay.
(Our classroom was, after all, a mirrored dance studio. Or a screen.)
Their task was to explore an aspect of themselves during the pandemic. Questions to get them thinking: How has your life changed? In what ways does the pandemic alter or reaffirm what you think about yourself? What makes you get up in the morning?
To introduce the tweaked-for-each-course assignment, I read aloud Kim Chham’s essay, “Malta, Covid, and My Place in the World.” The nonfiction essay’s structure is a dialog between the author’s inner voice and the advice–real and imagined–of those around her. Kim, the narrator, is a Luther international student studying abroad on Luther’s Spring 2020 Malta program which ends early because of Covid-19. While other participants quickly scramble to their home countries, Kim is in limbo, trapped in an airport first, later in Switzerland, temporarily unable to return to Decorah or home in Cambodia, due to visa problems.
Writing well includes revision. Students electronically shared their rough drafts within small-groups. They sent comments to each other in response to my instructions.
“It’s great! Don’t change anything” was not an option.
The finished essays deepened my understanding of the sorrow, resilience, and unexpected joy caused by an out-of-control virus. Funerals. Standing by science though your family doesn’t agree. Buying a wristwatch. My life is enriched as young scholars share their hearts and minds, entrusting me with their words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and essays.
As it turned out, my Covid-19 world resulted in three anthologies, only one published, but each of them de-isolating.
de-isolation: Voices from a small town in the early days of Covid is available at the Luther College Book Shop and Amazon.