Writing in 2020: Multimodal writing and the pandemic | The Open College of the Arts
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Writing in 2020: Multimodal writing and the pandemic

I wonder how much the coronavirus pandemic has affected our writing and our reading; and equally our learning and teaching. Of course as OCA Creative Writers (tutors and students) we are used to the idea of distance and absence of contact. I suspect the visual arts and musicians have been more affected: visual artists obviously because of the need to look and display in communal situations, and although composers of music may be no worse hit than writers of stories and poems, those both composing for performance or theatre will be suffering equally. Apparently singing quietly or playing a wind instrument in itself may not increase the risk of infection, but singing at the top of your voice or playing your trumpet fortissimo may increase the risk of contagious droplets being passed on.

Of course the other area of difficulty has been assessment, where visual artists have had to submit their work online whereas writers have been using email anyway for submitting to their tutors so it has not been a huge step to extend it to submission for assessment as well; the resulting impact will have been far less worrying.

Lockdown, quarantine and self-isolation will probably have had less harming effects on OCA students and tutors than on their friends and colleagues in traditional universities where meeting face to face will have been part of everyday studying and teaching. But have there been silver linings as well? People have reported enjoying the quiet of gardens and parks, hearing birds that had formerly been frightened away or drowned out by traffic and noisy pedestrians. That might have its advantages for some artists and writers. And as writers some of us may have had time for doing more reading and more writing but there is always the danger that more time does not always equal more successful outcomes. Some people find working under pressure more helpful, though writers who have been cooped up in flats with school-age children will not have welcomed those pressures even if the pressure of deadlines can sometimes be useful.

But maybe other things are going on which might be useful, particularly for writers. The Higher Education Committee of the National Association of Writers in Education is working on the next edition of Writing in Practice, its journal for tutors and students of writing in HE, which they are dedicating to multimodal writing. This subject was planned long before the arrival of coronavirus because it was recognised that writing systems had been changing at an extraordinary rate.

I can remember a similar co-incidence of pandemic and writing development occurring in the late eighties, early nineties, when the first cases of HIV appeared at roughly the same time as the spread of computers in educational institutions. “So HIV will affect the content of your stories and poems”, I warned my students, “and computers (and later the internet) will affect your modes of writing and publication.” And as I said those words I was packing an enormous school computer into my boot to take home over the weekend so I could start experimenting with those new modes.

A good example of how Aids affected the subject matter of poetry is to be found in the poems of Mark Doty, the American poet, who wrote two poetry books based on his gay relationship with his partner who had Aids and subsequently died:  My Alexandria (1989: University of Illinois ) and Atlantis (1994: Harper Collins). These were followed by prose memoirs as well but more recently in online interviews Doty has referred to the similarity of the impact of Aids and Coronovirus on the writing of poetry. In one interview Doty tells the story of how, while he was out on a permitted walk with his dog the other day, he was passing the Aids Memorial in New York, and at the same time he noticed an enormous white truck taking the bodies of Covid 19 victims from the nearby hospital. As far as I know his comments do not refer directly to multimodal writing but the implications are there in references to the reading and writing of poetry compared with other art forms. In another recent interview Doty said: “The dominant art forms of our day—film, video, architecture—are collaborative arts; they require a team of makers. Poems are always made alone, somewhere out on the edge of things, and if they succeed they are saturated with the texture of the uniquely felt life.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mark-doty  

The influence of Coronvirus on the writing of poetry has also been noticed by American doctor and poet, Rafael Campo. In a Harvard University publication he wrote: “Writing poetry, and reading poetry, is a kind of antidote to the loneliness that both docs and patients experience, a way of surmounting those barriers to connection. That kind of keeps me going. Even when we feel our most dispirited, and are at our most beleaguered, poetry and the arts offer a way of recharging. I think that’s why so many artists feel called to respond to these kinds of crises.” He goes on to encourage us to be makers of art as a way of dealing with isolation and loneliness. https://harvardmagazine.com/2020/04/poet-and-physician-rafael-campo-on-connection-and-empathy-in-caregiving-during-the-pandemic

One way we can use the present situation is to think about multimodality and capitalise on what technical possibilities are now available. So zoom is not only a way of keeping in touch and actually meeting more writers and critics than before, as, for instance, the online availability of workshops and literature festivals which we would not formerly have been able to attend in person, at a time when we didn’t even know what the word lockdown meant. It can also offer writers scope for new kinds of writing and performance, for example the video Staged where Michael Sheen and David Tennant play around with the possibilities of zoom as theatre/video, and Judi Dench does a follow up with them.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpdCVAmt5C8   

It’s also interesting to note that recent NatWest TV adverts have each of their members of staff addressing viewers from a zoom window, and then each of them giving a goodbye wave in a mock-up of a zoom screen; and Specsavers is using zoom phrases such as:  “ Hello, hello, anyone there? Oh, your’re muted” as spoken copy on Classic FM in its adverts for hearing aids.

Multimodality writing may offer new possibilities for publication but also the dangers  of entrapment in the offers, some free, some to be paid for, on sites such as Facebook, and then the attraction of the amazing number of likes and hits you can get on Instagram and Tiktok. There are master classes on offer from poets like Billy Collins and novelist Neil Gaiman; but there are also rather doubtful offers from so-called mentors and coaches referring to the awesome healing power of writing and the possibility of building an awesome six-figure business project. I’m not sure in the end what is more awesome (and healing), the writing or the six figures. 

As a writer, I’m trying things out myself, but even more, as a tutor, I’m looking forward to reading all those lockdown/zoom stories, poems and scripts written by students.


Image: Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

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Posted by author: Liz Cashdan
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One thought on “Writing in 2020: Multimodal writing and the pandemic

  • Thanks Liz for that gentle prompt to review my writing in lockdown. It is hugely different. For the first two months my age group were told to stay home and were liable to be stopped by the police if we didn’t. At first this felt like prison – but how bad can living on your rooftop terrace in a Spanish mountain town be? I wrote about what I could see up there, trying to forget about what I couldn’t. After four years of writing about Spanish/Catalan politics – a broad brush approach – I was writing about minutiae. I discovered bird life, cloud spotting , weather predicting, my neighbours… I noticed a pet rabbit on the opposite balcony who played football. It was like giving up embroidering the Bayeux tapestry and taking up petit point instead.
    As for reading, to escape the news now and then I plug in to an audiobook. It’s easier on the eyes. I’m impressed by the variety of my reading matter and the sheer number of books. It’s all been a bit of a revelation.

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