In a Facebook post, poet Allison Joseph shared a writing exercise that she had her students do. It seems like the kind of assignment that could work well across a variety of classes (even some non-English classes):"so this exercise was given in my undergraduate workshop today: pick two numbers from 1 to 15. Set aside. Write 2 lists of 15 items each. First list: people or characters (living or dead) you want to have a conversation with. Second list: things that are bugging/obsessing you about 2020. Then find corresponding numbers on each list and write epistle. Use the items on second list to tell your character about 2020 in letter format. For example, my epistle turned out to be a letter to Peter Pan, where I tell him about Zoom."
It's a great way of having students think about writing letters, why we write letters, what's important enough to record. It gives them some pathways to creative insights that they might not have if the assignment was to write a letter to their loved one.
I've done something along the same lines by having students imagine their 80 year old selves and then having their 80 year old selves write a letter to their current selves. It takes more imagination than having them write letters to their past selves, which I also have them do. But it can lead to much more profound insights.
Lately I've been feeling some sadness about the cool classes that I used to teach, about all the classes that I will likely never teach again. Of course, I'm remembering the fun parts, the actual teaching, not the endless grading.
Part of my sadness is triggered by finding some old teaching materials when I cleaned out some boxes, materials from almost 20 years ago now, back when I was first teaching creative writing. I cut out all sorts of pictures of humans from magazines, mainly from ads. Each student took a picture from the envelope--some terms I let them look at the pictures, while in others it was done blind. Then I asked a series of questions to help people think about the picture as a character. Then I walked them through the character's deepest desires in a way to help them think about plot.
I kept the pictures because I thought I might want to do the exercise some day--but I've never had any trouble creating characters. Plus, there was always the chance I might teach creative writing again.
I also had a huge interoffice mail envelope full of words that I used for a sestina exercise. First we read a sestina and tried to ascertain the pattern. Then I had them choose six words and put them in the end of each line in the correct order. Then I gave them some writing time to see what happened. Did we create brilliant sestinas? Rarely. But it was great fun.
I realize that even if I had gotten the kind of teaching job where I used these teaching materials all the time, I still might arrive at a time when I needed to decide whether or not to keep them. Sandra Beasley has a poignant blog post about the closing of an MFA program, and I think we're just seeing the beginning of lots of program closures of all kinds.
My grief is not that kind of sharp grief, but more the mid-life kind, the kind where I stumble across an artifact and think about where I thought I was headed and where I am right now. I realize it's not where I've ended up--that could still change, although many of my options look a bit less bright now than they once did. But finding those artifacts is like getting a letter from my past self, in a way. What would my future self observe?