Writer in residence builds website, creates catharsis during remote learning
As Jen McClanaghan, associate professor and writer in residence in the Department of English, Communications and Media and director of the Newport MFA, walked into her Intro to Creative Writing classroom on the Thursday, March 12, before students left for spring break, she learned things were about to drastically change in unpredictable ways due to the coronavirus pandemic that was spreading through the country.
Her students had just found out they’d have a two-week spring break. Devastated, they spoke to McClanaghan about the deep disappointment over their extended spring break and the loss of the last week of school. It was already surreal.
But then that extended two-week spring break turned into two months of remote learning for the rest of the semester. Students wouldn’t be coming back. Period. As the news broke to students over their holiday, McClanaghan knew that they would feel disoriented by this completely unprecedented new reality.
“They’re going to be even more stunned, because everything is more upended than they already thought,” said McClanaghan. “I was just trying to figure out … what’s the best way to frame what’s going on, and how can I best take care of those students?”
An online creative writing website for Salve Regina students
McClanaghan wanted to create something optimistic and unique to bring her students together. Through brainstorming and a little admittedly anxious energy, McClanaghan decided that the best thing to do was build a website to house her students’ writing during this time of remote learning.
The website, called The Poetry Shed, was developed through the help of her husband, who is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina and a web designer.
“I wanted it to be a place that’s almost like a time capsule for this particular period,” said McClanaghan. “A place where they can come back a couple years from now and see how they were processing.”
The website offers a few articles through a Reading section that McClanaghan has collected from across the internet to help reflect the time everyone is currently living through – informational as well as humorous pieces that bring inspiration and reflection. It also archives her students’ assigned work through the Writing section, which now houses a growing collection of creative writing assignments by undergraduate and graduate students.
McClanaghan teaches an Intro to Creative Writing and an Advanced Creative Writing class at the undergraduate levels, and she decided that her assignments in both classes were going to reflect the historic moment that students were living through. She’s offered several light-hearted assignments to her students to help them find a little humor—such as the Handwashing assignment, where students were encouraged to write out lyrics to a hand-washing graphic that students can print out for their rooms at home, or Shelter in Place, an assignment that re-imagines the timeline of one’s day pre- to post-pandemic.
One of the most meaningful assignments for students so far, however, has been the Letter from the Future writing prompt, where McClanaghan asked her students to write a letter from the present self who is dealing with the pandemic to the past self who was enjoying the summer of 2019. McClanaghan also offered the Letter from the Future writing prompt to her graduate students who are part of the Newport MFA and have been struggling to continue writing during such a tremendous upheaval.
Both undergraduate and graduate students have produced compelling writing that has been touching for the reader and cathartic for the writer — which is probably the best kind of accomplishment for creative writing during a time of so many up and down emotions.
“They did such a good job with it,” said McClanaghan.
Find a few excerpts of the letters below with quotes from students on the impact of creative writing in general or how this assignment in particular is helping them cope with life during a pandemic.
Letter from the Future writing excerpts
Juliana Verrelli ’21, English literature major with film studies and creative writing minors
Verrelli’s Letter from the Future
Read the rest of Verrelli’s letter and others at The Poetry Shed.
Amanda Iacampo ’15, ’21 (M) current writer in the Newport MFA
Iacampo’s Letter from the Future
Read the rest of Iacampo’s letter and others at The Poetry Shed.
Letter from Sarah Salemy ’21, double major in secondary education and creative writing
Read the rest of Salemy’s letter and others at The Poetry Shed.
Thomas Cowen ’21 (M), current writer in the Newport MFA
Read the rest of Cowen’s letter and others at The Poetry Shed.
An invitation to share writing or experiences
If anyone would like to share their own writing or something that reflects this time in quarantine, there will be a new section on The Poetry Shed website called View From Here.
This can be a place for faculty, staff, students and alumni to share writing, art, favorite quotes, recipes or pictures. Multiple submissions will be accepted, so simply email all submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. The subject of the email should be “view.”
This is open to everyone in the Salve Regina community, so help spread the word!
Check out stories every Tuesday that showcase the world of academics at Salve Regina and how faculty, programs and students are innovating with remote living and learning during Virtual Salve. #academictuesdays #salvesgotthis