I can barely lead this morning’s writing class. A sudden migraine hit only a few minutes before students began to show up on Zoom. It’s a bad one — pain and nausea plus vivid wavy lines distorting my vision. I take some restorative slow breaths, drink a glass of water, then welcome everyone to the class.
I love teaching. I’m particularly mesmerized by the way community writing classes effortlessly build connections between strangers. Over weeks of reading and discussing their writing, people can’t help but get to know one another. Ordinary conversations, even between close friends, tend to fritter time away on surface topics. But in writing class we skip weather and family updates, going directly to deeper topics. It’s entirely natural to bond after sharing universal experiences like fear, regret, grief, embarrassment, triumph, and joy. I suspect we carry one another’s poems and stories with us long after the class is over. I certainly do. Many friendships built in writing class persist and several former classes of mine continue to meet independently as writing groups. Writing together has a magic all its own.
But this morning I am in trouble. I can’t easily focus on the screen and can barely see my notes. Worst of all, I have trouble explaining concepts due to migraine-imposed brain fog, In this session I introduce persona poems. I explain, falteringly, how persona poems free us to write from the perspective of a soup bowl, a tree, an astronomer, a virus. I point out persona poems can help to stretch us. After all, if we’re writing in the voice of a dolphin or the voice of Donald Trump, we are writing our way toward understanding those lives more completely. I note that some people insist all poems are persona poems because the “I” in the poem is still a persona the poet choose to present. I’m not sure how much I get across because I feel like a balloon floating over the class.
We go on to the first writing exercise after reading and discussing Lisa Bellamy’s sharply humorous poem “Black-Eyed Susan.” As Bellamy did, I ask the class to write from a non-human perspective and to include at least one example of being misunderstood. I close my eyes while participants write until they are ready to read freshly written poems told from viewpoints such as a cat, coffee mug, and sunrise.
Then we read and discuss another example of persona poetry before going on to the next exercise, one I learned from Rosemerry Whatola Trommer. In it, participants are asked to create an alter ego. Whatever they personally want to do but don’t let themselves do, the alter ego does. Whatever they’re afraid of, the alter ego loves. The alter ego relishes what they can’t imagine facing. This is such a freeing exercise that everyone is brimming with ideas. We notice, as they read their work aloud, how each other’s alter egos are witty, tender, and wildly hopeful. Some alter egos get revenge, others take lovers, and one woman’s alter ego finishes writing her novel for her. The warmth and laughter shared across Zoom screens lifts more of my migraine’s misery. By the time I explain their homework, I am able to see and read clearly. I tell the class I’m grateful.
My migraines rarely improve so quickly. I can only think it has to do with the transformative power of creative connection. I don’t advise teaching while unwell, but if you must, don’t be surprised that writing’s healing magic still exists on Zoom. Now I’m off to take a walk. Maybe I’ll let my alter ego come along too.