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  • Carrie Etter

The Silences, or Teaching University in a Pandemic

Every so often since my last post, I've thought, I should write a new post--I should say something. I should fill the silence. But I have nothing to say, I supposed--I'm just surviving.

I began teaching online at my university during the first UK-wide lockdown in March 2020 and have been doing so ever since, with a brief break in the summer, shortened by numerous students wanting extra support for assessments they were submitting belatedly in August given the circumstances. As I have no children at home, I haven't had to worry about homeschooling; I've been focused on caring for myself, my husband, and our cats, one of whom has been through a nightmare of diagnoses and conditions since last summer--but that's another story.

Creatively, I had one thing going for me as the pandemic spread at the beginning of 2020: I had a project already underway, two series of prose poems on youth and violence, the first focused on Czech surrealist Toyen's line drawings, The Shooting Gallery (1939-40), the second on US school and university shootings since Columbine High School in 1999. The work was well underway, I had a deadline to get the manuscript to the publisher in the summer, and I had a very concrete sense of what I needed to do to provide a manuscript I would be satisfied with in the time I had. That meant that when I had time for my writing, I was focused and productive.

I submitted the manuscript for The Shooting Gallery in the summer, it was published in the autumn, and I did several online readings to launch it and try to sell copies. Quite a few reviews have appeared in a good number of online venues already and have been overwhelmingly positive, which has been especially heartening at the moment.

Every time I submit a manuscript, pamphlet/chapbook or book, I experience a creative lull afterwards and have come to accept it. Yet this time I'm isolated from family and friends, I've had little social interaction for eleven months, and I want to write. I am writing, occasionally, aimlessly, and struggle to focus. I am finding achieving any degree of focus on my writing difficult when it seems so many others are bearing so much more hardship than I can perhaps even imagine, but the awareness of others' greater burdens doesn't alleviate my day to day frustration and dissatisfaction, even as I suppose that broader perspective should.

I have had quite a few periods in my life--because of my health, because of deaths and grief, because of work, and so on--when I've accepted (or had to accept) that surviving is enough. Because it's been a while since I've had to think in such a way, it's harder to concede this time; it's harder to accept mere survival when I crave writing and thriving and and and. Tomorrow, though, I'm going to try to lower the bar a little. If I'm lucky, I'll write something. If I'm lucky, I won't judge it, not yet.

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