As a writer and unabashed collector of words, there are frequent moments in which I hear or see certain words that I immediately archive into my personal lexicon for future use; words I like the sound of, connotations of, or both. On the contrary, I’ve felt the opposite occur recently with words such as “unprecedented,” “quarantine,” or, of course, “coronavirus.”
Being a student and a writer during these unprecedented times has resulted in more self-reflections — both mental and written — than I think I’ve ever experienced before, especially at the hands of taking Dr. Mick Cochrane’s excellent Introduction to Creative Writing course.
Dr. Cochrane has been teaching at Canisius College for 35 years, and this is the first time throughout his remarkable career that he’s had to engage his students solely remotely. In addition to being a professor of English, Cochrane serves as the chair of the English department and this year, while Professor Eric Gansworth is on leave, he serves once again as director of the creative writing program that he founded 20 years ago.
“For me, teaching is a human relationship — being a teacher is like being a dad, brother or friend,” said Cochrane. “I’d much rather do it in person. I so miss physical presence. Robert Frost said ‘poetry’ is what gets lost in translation, and I worry about what gets lost in the translation to online learning: spontaneity, perhaps, the improvisational jazz of the best conversation, the unexpected humor and insights. That said, we know that if we are creative, we can still connect in meaningful ways even at a distance. Even virtually, you can have a serious and illuminating talk about a piece of writing. I love paper and ink and physical books — probably too much — but of course a student’s poem or story that I’m reading on my screen these days still has the power to surprise and delight me.”
While writing is undoubtedly typically a solitary process, there are certain aspects to the craft and the class that involve crucial engagement with others. However, there are silver linings that exist within our current circumstances surrounding the collaborative nature of writing, and Cochrane explained that his approach to teaching — although vastly different than previous years — has also garnered unexpected, positive attributes.
“I think it’s good for me to be a beginner, even to be bad at something, and to learn new things,” Cochrane said. “I am getting better with a lot of help from my friends at some basic D2L functions. I am still trying to teach as generously as I can, to give my students a great course, to share with them in 15 weeks everything I know about writing. Because I communicate now less by talking and more in writing, it’s forcing me to clarify my thinking: to find the just-right words.”
Nevertheless, Cochrane feels that his students are crucial to the process of maintaining an underlying sense of stability and normalcy in teaching a writing course remotely.
“The greatest positive for any writing teacher is seeing the growth and development of their students,” Cochrane said. “I am still seeing that — the brilliant detail, the beautiful phrase, a fresh description of something that’s brand new to me. Just because I am reading it in a little box on my MacBook doesn’t make it any less worthy of celebration. It’s tough teaching online, but I think it’s probably tougher learning online, and yet my students are working hard, being kind and supportive to each other, and probably more respectful and attentive to me than I deserve. They inspire me.”
As a current student of Cochrane’s, I can wholeheartedly concur that he continues to ensure the conveyance of personal touches of encouragement and advice to his students virtually, as well as having us partake in Zoom workshops with one another to discuss each other’s pieces — alongside his crucial guidance.
“Our country and our Canisius community is full of turbulence and confusion, and I am struggling like everyone else,” Cochrane admits. “I am still at my desk every morning at 5 a.m., but these days I’m not working on the great American novel — not even the pretty good American novel! I am writing emails, required reports and memos, online lessons and responses to student work. I guess I am inspired by the responsibility I feel to others in my orbit and by my profound belief in language, in well-chosen words and carefully constructed sentences, to help and heal and give strength and comfort.”
Outside of the typical classroom-setting; however, changes have undeniably occurred. When asked how he feels the creative writing realm as a whole will be changed as a result of the virus Cochrane reflected on the core elements of writing that he envisions will be impacted.
“I am sure many changes are coming in all aspects of life, some small and some profound. More people will work from home in comfortable clothes; editors and agents will collaborate with writers over Zoom, and bookstores will host virtual events,” Cochrane said. “Beyond that, I think we are going to see more engaged writing, fewer stories, in the words of Colson Whitehead, about ‘middle class white people who feel sad sometimes,’ and more writing that focuses on inequality, racism, the health of the planet — and of our democracy.”
Thus, going forward it’s a given that change will be a prominent factor in every aspect of our daily lives, but it’s also a given that many of us will experience moments of hopelessness and dejectedness that may occur when we least expect.
I asked Cochrane if he had any advice for those of us struggling to find inspiration during these rather unstable and simply unsettling times, and his answer holds as much artistic merit as it does genuine human empathy — a concept I think the world can only benefit from possessing.
“I am wary of giving advice, but there are some things I tell myself: to engage in what I believe Oprah calls ‘self-care:’ I go for a 5-mile walk almost every day. I try to minimize my doom-scrolling. I listen to dharma talks and interviews with wise souls. I eat a plant-based diet. I read a poem every day, first thing in the morning, and get up from my desk from time to time and play tug with my goofy Labrador Alfred, who, wondrously, is always glad to see me. I stay connected to people I love: my sister in Minneapolis has stage IV cancer, and we talk and text every day. Once a week, I call my best friend from college. I am in a socially distanced, monthly book club with a couple of young guys I’m quite fond of. All this helps. And when I fail, as I invariably do, when I am inpatient or inattentive, when I procrastinate, I forgive myself for being human.”
Perhaps realizing there is no definitively correct answer to reacting and handling our surroundings as writers, collaborators, and human beings is only one, individual step of many to grasping all we’re presently being thrown, but nonetheless an extremely important one.
“I am a writer still, every day, every time I put words together, even though I am not always working in literary forms, crafting a poem, say,” Cochrane said. “I can still use words to connect with people, and if I find the right words, to give them something of value, to do some good. I can offer some consolation and solidarity to a confused and lonely friend in an email. I can make some colleagues laugh with a joke in a group text. I can protest an injustice or advocate for someone being pushed around or neglected by a powerful institution. In a comment on a student’s paper, I can help them see their gifts more clearly. Who is to say that kind of writing is less worthy than a sonnet? I am inspired by the responsibility I feel to others in my orbit and by my profound belief in language, in well-chosen words and carefully constructed sentences, to help and heal and give strength and comfort.”