by Rebecca Kilroy, 2020 Summer Creative Writing Intensive Coordinator
In an ordinary world, I would’ve gotten up Monday morning, put on my Summer Intensive t-shirt (after two years as a student and three as an intern, I have a rainbow to choose from), and driven to Drew University in Madison, NJ. There, in the over-air conditioned office, I would have set up the printer, arranged the bulletin board, and laid out individually labeled swag bags. As the Program Coordinator, it’s my job to make sure the Intensive runs smoothly through any unexpected challenges that might arise. Little did I know that “unexpected challenge” would encompass this entire calendar year.
In the real world, I got up Monday morning, put on my t-shirt, and logged onto Zoom. (I’ll give the pandemic this: I had a much shorter commute.) On that first day, I was feeling confident about the classes. We had an incredible group of instructors, many of whom had been teaching virtual classes since March. However, I wondered about the less tangible but equally valuable parts of the Intensive like the chance to connect with other young writers.
My first summer as a student with The Writers Circle, I was shocked to meet so many writers my age. I’d thought I was the only one quietly writing fantasy stories in the back of her math notebook. Connecting with other writers made me feel like I’d found a home for this part of myself, even if I was only there for a few weeks out of the year. As I’ve come to realize more over the years, there are some things that only writers understand. The agonies of comma placement and the best place to research medieval castle building were common lunchtime topics every year. And of course, our daily Frisbee games fueled inside jokes and friendly rivalries (Team Wildcats forever!) Soon, the Summer Intensive became an integral part of my summer.
I assumed our joking and camaraderie would become a casualty of virtual life. But, as always, the Intensive took me by surprise. While we no longer had Frisbee, we still had lunchtime gatherings. In Week 1, a self-proclaimed theater nerd group came together to discuss their favorite Broadway shows. Soon, they were whirling their webcams around their rooms to show each other posters and Playbill collections. (I’m told these are sacred artifacts to theater people.)
We were also still able to form connections over those things that only writers appreciate. During Week 2, in one of Michelle’s fiction classes, a student’s piece mentioned the smell of rain and multiple students chimed in to say, “There’s a word for that; it’s called petrichor.” So began the Week 2 compendium of unusual words. Every morning, students would drop their favorite words into the Zoom chat. We also encouraged everyone to rename themselves on Zoom with a word or phrase that best describes them. I grandly chose Raconteur Rebecca.
The week became a treasure hunt through dictionaries, books, and Pinterest. My personal favorite: monachopsis: the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place. In a world where creative writing is rarely taught in schools, I think many young writers have felt their own monachopsis. But in a space of all writers, we found a place for ourselves, even if that space was just boxes on a screen.
By the end of Week 2, I was thinking “this isn’t so bad.” After months of planning, Zoom meetings, and sending emails, the Intensive was running smoothly. I was ready to triumphantly write this blog post about our incredible achievements. Of course, at this point in 2020, I should know better than to think things like that.
We were just finishing up morning classes on our final Tuesday when Hurricane Isaias hit our part of New Jersey. The power went out. We waited half-hopefully for it to come back on but ended up having to end the session early. By Wednesday morning, enough of our students and instructors had regained power for us to hold the program, but I was still in the dark. I tried logging onto Zoom through my phone’s data only to lose the call after a few flickering seconds.
Fortunately, Michelle had power at her house and graciously invited me to spend the day working at a safe social-distance in her backyard. So, in the middle of the third week, I finally found myself driving those familiar roads that would have taken me toward Drew University and its surrounding towns everyday. Of course, those roads were now covered in downed trees. I couldn’t recreate the route I took to get there if I tried. A normally twenty-minute trip took an hour. I recognize that, at some point, a reasonable person would have given up and gone home. But I’m a writer. Where other people use reason, I get creative.
When I think about it, creativity has been the driving force behind this entire crazy, unimaginable summer. If anyone ever again tries to tell me that creative writing isn’t a useful life skill, I will point out that we can’t adapt without creativity. This summer, I’ve run field trips over Google Earth, turned a picnic table into my temporary office, and taught myself more IT knowledge than I learned in twelve years of school. None of it would have been possible if I didn’t have a fiction writer’s brain that always thinks in impossibilities.
Our students, interns, and instructors are just as resourcefully creative. During one of our weekly readings, two students put on a one-act play. For our Wednesday events, the interns created writing prompts for every Wonder of the World. While I miss the Frisbee games and the Starbucks runs and the bus trips into New York, all the crucial, best-loved parts of the Intensive survived because, as creatives, we can make the best of anything. A summer camp in the middle of the apocalypse? Sounds like a great writing prompt.