Daniel Torday is Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College. His most recent novel, BOOMER1 is out in paperback from Picador. Daniel is the recipient of the 2017 Choice Award from the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for The Last Flight of Poxl West.
Bidding farewell to 2020, we asked Daniel to share insights from his experience teaching creative writing during the pandemic, as well as thoughts on the outlook for the future.
SRP: What was it like, teaching creative writing during this current crisis?
DT: Well the most disruptive aspect, to be honest, was just that there was no time to prep. My wife is an MD/MPH and I'm an inveterate worrier, so I was pretty certain in early March, with the students' spring break approaching, that we weren't coming back after the holiday. So I said to my students, the week before: Let's just act as if we won't be seeing each other again for a while. And... they thought I was crazy. I know this because a couple weeks into teaching over Zoom, they said, We thought you were crazy. But then a number of them said, Even so, they brought laptops and passports home with them with my words in the back of their heads. Which is to say: the realists always win.
SRP: How do you envision the future of creative writing instruction moving forward?
DT: I think we're very very lucky in our discipline that so much of what we can, and should, do is done outside the classroom. In quiet spaces, with essentially no hindrances, alone. I've always been a strong believer that 98% of our work as creative writing teachers is to create as much space for reading and writing for our students as possible. In COVID times: that solves itself. Beyond that, there's surely something lost in having workshops and discussions over Zoom. I've been reading Marshall McLuhan's UNDERSTANDING MEDIA this summer, just to fully comprehend what "the medium is the message" really means beyond the pithy phrase. And part of what it means is just calling the benefits and foibles of a medium by their name, aloud, all the time.
So with Zoom: I find the screen-sharing function to be a remarkable tool. I hate projecting words on a screen in class. But on the app, there are lots of new ways to edit, and close-read, together. I find it's hard to really get the flow of natural conversation together, so I've been finding ways of dividing our time up, maybe not having all students onscreen all at once. I'm so self-critical I always assume everything is my fault. So sometimes I'll just say, Hey, I'm gonna turn my video off, and just listen. And leave it to them. I also like in-class writing, and I think the possibilities are endless-- to be able to say, Hey, let's all go write, or read, for 15 minutes and then come back together. I might even send a new Zoom invite for 15 minutes later.
SRP: Have you noticed any trends emerging in the work of your students? In your own work?
DT: Well there's a lot more virus in it! Not totally kidding. For me, I'd actually been working on a novella for a couple years about an alternative now in which people are all stuck in their homes all the time in the city, while in the wealthy suburbs they're having goods delivered by drones and armored cars. So if anything I'm trying to tone it down. And I did just finish a story about a character who's fighting with anti-Semites on Twitter, and then he gets in his car to confront them in person. So.
For my students, my hope is just that they write what they were gonna write. I love to have us read Virginia Woolf and be able to talk about how as she was witnessing Luftewaffe bombs dropping on London, she was writing about a moth dying, or after the horror of trenches and mustard gas she was like, Here's a novel about some people painting and going to a see a lighthouse. That said, I was teaching a writing for radio and podcasting class in the spring when this all went down, and watching students shift their projects to accommodate the pandemic was remarkable. Talk about a class teaching itself.
SRP: Is there anything beneficial you learned from teaching creative writing during this time that you hope can continue even after we hopefully emerge from these challenging times?
DT: Yes! All of it. I think the idea of trying to bring together students in person, but also on remote technologies, is very exciting. In one of my classes in the spring I had students in Mumbai, California, Barcelona, just down the road here in Philly. The presence of international students in my classes has always been so exciting, and while it's always better for us to share a physical space, should the xenophobia and erroneous approach of our governments continue to hinder us as humans, I sure hope we can use technology to keep in a room, even if it's in those silly Brady Bunch squares.