The most generic writing writing prompt of all time? It’s probably this: “How did you spend your summer vacation?”
Elementary teachers far and wide have relied on this question to elicit student writing. Less creative high school and college instructors, too. What comes of such a question? Long, detailed descriptions of vacations to Disney World. Tragic stories of dead cats. Swimming pools and and ice cream cones and whatnot. And that’s in school districts with socio-cultural privilege. I taught in school districts where the writing was more gloomy. We got evicted. Somebody shot somebody. That sort of thing.
I’m a fan of more specific writing. More specific writing usually requires more specific questions. This is true of thinking, as well. More specific questions come from more specific conversations. Honest dialogue where teachers and students learn about each other and figure what they actually want to spend their time thinking and writing about. Give me a writing conference over a lecture about a prompt any day of the week. Weekend too.
Forgive me. I’ve given a lecture on writing. A preachy one, at that. From a guy who usually misses at least six typos and seven grammatical errors in these blogs. Talk about a Pharisee! Speaking of Pharisees: I’ve already used versions of “how are you spending your Covid-Pocalypse?” with my college students. It’s hard to get all that specific on Zoom. All that honest. So I relied on the old standard. Some of our conversations were shallow. Some got dark. I nearly burst into tears last Tuesday as a girl described how overwrought she was by all of this. I’m terrible at reading people over Zoom, but I knew this girl well enough to know she was sincerely devastated by this pandemic. Lots of folks are.
Anyway. We’re five weeks into one of the strangest experiences of my life. Covid-Pocalypse. I’m sure there’s a question burning in the minds of elementary teachers wide and far. “How did you spend your Covid-Pocalypse?”
I did a really silly thing.
My friend Ben and I wrote a play. Well, it’s kind of a play. It’s more like 75 pages of improv.
I wrote about this project a few weeks ago. Ben was a former student of mine. Now he’s an actor. We’ve been writing together for years. We have, and I don’t exaggerate, hundreds of pages of material. He writes a scene. I write a scene. It’s improv. We say “yes, and” to each other and something very strange emerges. This strange thing always makes us laugh. But we never really shared it with people before. Until this covid-pocalypse.
We started a new piece a few weeks ago. He took a turn. I took a turn. 75 pages later, the whole thing took a turn. We had thirty-four scenes. And an epilogue. Did it makes sense? In an improvisational way. We built a universe. Stuff and nonsense. We howled with laughter. We raged about pandemics. Improv!
We went one step further this time. We invited about fifteen actors from across the country to record a reading of the play. Well, we called it a Cyber Play. We gave it the title of “Pandemic!” These recordings happened as we wrote. People who were far too talented to be reading our play agreed to read out play. What else did they have to do? We’re in a covid-pocalypse!
Talented actors showed up in Zoom. I shared my screen and we read. Broadway actors. Improvisers. Friends from long ago. I don’t know about the quality of our content, but I can tell you that we howled with laughter as we recorded the work. Especially by the end. Like a good improv scene, the more madness that emerged, the harder it was to keep a straight face. If you’re brave enough to watch the whole play, you’ll find Ben and I struggling to stifle our laughter in the final scenes.
So what did I do over my Covid-Pocalypse? Well, lots of stuff. And quarantine isn’t even close to being done yet. So I’ll do more stuff, too. But here’s one specific thing I did: I wrote a Cyber Play with my friend Ben.
Here’s the blog Ben and I started. We’re still in the process of uploading videos one at a time.
Here’s the Youtube channel Ben and I made. We’re still in the process of uploading videos one at a time.
You can follow us on Instagram at: ben_and_sam_story_hour.
And you know what? We’re going to do a Facebook live writing session tonight. At 8:00 EST. Follow us on Facebook to watch.
Should you engage any of this stuff? Beats me. I laugh when I read it. When I see it. When I listen to the actors read. It might not be your cup of tea.
We wrote and filmed 34 scenes. That’s an accomplishment. Especially when you imagine all the other sorts of things a professor on the tenure-track has been up to during this Covid-Pocalypse. A father of two. A husband. A man in quarantines. Our next steps? Well, friend, we’re going to splice the scenes together to make a full-length Cyber Play. Have a viewing party of sorts. Invite friends and enemies to watch it with us. Still have to figure that out. Neither of us know much about marketing or producing digital content. And that isn’t really what this project is about. It’s about doing something that is silly, ridiculous, dumb, fun, and joyful with others.
And we’ll probably keep writing because that’s what we do. I need creative projects like this. Something where the madness spills out in vital ways. That’s what this project was. An explosion of vitality.
And that, my friend, is one way I am spending my Covid-Pocalypse.
How are you spending yours?