It was Jan. 8, 2020, the first day of class for the University of Michigan’s winter semester. Around 1 p.m., I was on my way to my literary journalism class without a clue of what sort of hardships the year would bring or the journey I was about to embark upon.
The course was not your typical journalism class — it was the first of a three-part series concocted by Molly Beer, an award-winning creative nonfiction writer, called the Great Lakes Writers Corps. 2020 was the year of the program’s introduction, and we were the first cohort of writers to participate. The first part would teach the craft of literary journalism and focus around planning a project. That summer, we would independently research our chosen topic on an environmental or social issue within the Great Lakes community. For the program’s final term in the fall, our time would be spent creating nonfiction stories about our experiences for publication.
At least, that was the plan. Nothing worked out the way we expected, of course. Instead of a journey into a community, we were forced to journey deeper into ourselves. And despite the difficulties 2020 presented to the course’s students, we each found something worthwhile in the program. To explore what made our immersion writing experience worthwhile despite the pandemic, I chatted with other members of the GLWC.
I spoke over Zoom with Engineering junior Kianna Marquez, former Daily opinion columnist, about her expectations for GLWC. We laughed together about how our goals were thwarted, something funny for us in retrospect now that the anxieties around our projects were gone.
“I expected immersion into a community,” Marquez said. “I expected it to be hard because I’d never done that (immersion journalism) before. But it became harder in a different way because that physical experience was never going to happen.”
LSA senior Miriam Saperstein felt similarly, as they had never done any journalism before.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” they explained to me over the phone.
And in walked Beer, who, little did we know at the time, would be our guide to navigating whatever experiences 2020 chose to throw in our paths. Beer took her role as professor and transformed it into a mentorship, turning our personal experiences into meaningful stories.
LSA senior Madison Murdoch joined the GLWC because of Beer. I had a long conversation with her over Zoom, in which she confided to me about her feelings surrounding the course.
“The first semester set up this idea of immersion journalism, to go somewhere and stay there. I thought, ‘Why am I here? I’m not a writer,’” she said. “But it’s something I’m interested in, and I’d had Molly as an instructor before and loved her.”
Murdoch planned to stay at her parents’ cottage in Canada, researching the concept of borders. Saperstein was interested in looking into how the University deals with ecological problems. Marquez hoped to investigate water quality or soil conditions either in the Huron River Watershed or in one of the larger bodies of the Great Lakes. My plan for the summer was to research wolves and moose on Isle Royale in Lake Superior, backpacking across the island.
But by March, the pandemic had disrupted all of our immersive research plans for the summer, forcing us to stay at home or find socially-distanced ways to be immersed.
“Molly established early on that everything would be changing, what the experience was going to be,” Marquez said. Instead of immersion into communities, we would have to pursue our research interests in a safe, socially-distanced format.
I was frustrated and disillusioned, forced to find an environmental topic that could be researched from my own backyard. I ended up staying home all summer, packing my schedule with online courses —17 credits worth — and writing on my porch with a view of Ford Lake shining in the sunlight before me. I ended up using my General Ecology and Botany independent field courses to guide my investigation of the environment around me, utilizing the freedom of the program to explore various research interests.
“We have Molly to thank for making it open-ended for what we wanted to write about,” Marquez said.
Saperstein shared a similar sentiment, saying, “(Beer) provided a lot of structure during a stressful time. She helped me make sense of something that doesn’t make sense.”
Beer provided encouragement in pursuing remote internships and taking road trips to locations of interest. She also gave us reflection tasks meant to generate material and hone in on our topic.
Murdoch expanded on how Beer’s flexible teaching style helped us adapt to the circumstances: “We had an artful, symbiotic relationship in our community and that was very much a byproduct of Molly’s willingness to be open. She was always there in a way that not all instructors are — always accessible and always excited about whatever we were interested in and researching. She would present a lot of truths, and say, ‘This works for me. It might not work for you. Pick what works for you.’”
So we did.
Marquez started researching the collapse of two dams in Midland, Mich.
“I was always interested in renewable energy,” she said. “I ended up going with my passion.”
While we were given freedom to write about what we wanted, for each of us, the circumstances of the pandemic largely shaped the stories we wrote.
Because Murdoch couldn’t travel to Canada after the shut-down, she took a more personal route with her project, writing about her personal experiences with class differences rather than physical borders.
For Saperstein, their project also became deeply introspective.
“I ended up writing more about COVID than the Great Lakes,” they told me. “I wasn’t close to any of the Great Lakes. I was trying to deal with my current circumstances. I ended up working on a farm and had ambitious plans, but it was hectic and I ended up moving a lot. So I ended up writing more about the internal experience.”
We each were forced to find a story in what we were living through to reflect and create meaning, whether through a personal story like Saperstein’s or a research-based piece like Marquez’s.
My own story drew from the research avenues I explored as well as my surroundings, becoming very much a personal as well as environmental narrative.
After having to leave my dorm in March, I moved into my boyfriend’s apartment in Ypsilanti, Mich. I learned that the lake behind his apartment, Ford Lake, was actually artificially created from the Huron River. In learning about the Huron River Watershed, I made personal connections with it. Because the Huron River flows past where my mother lived, past the University and finally past my boyfriend’s apartment, I began to see the river as a timeline for my life. I kayaked on the river. I spent hours identifying and watching the plants and animals. As I did water quality research for my General Ecology class and studied environmental threats to river ecosystems, I began to fear where that path would lead. The fact that the Huron River eventually flows into Lake Erie, the most polluted Great Lake, filled me with dread. What resulted from my reflections were two deeply personal pieces of writing: one about my connection to and love for the environment, the other on my fear for its future.
But taking these experiences and turning them into stories wouldn’t have worked if we hadn’t had a supportive workshop environment.
“When we were workshopping, I was struck by how easy it was to talk to each other,” Saperstein said. “I felt proud of the work of my classmates. We managed to build a community in the midst of chaos.”
The bond between our small cohort of writers, the way we worked with each other, was what made this year of working together through the pandemic so successful.
“I’ve never read or written as often as I do now, and that’s a byproduct of this program,” Murdoch said. “Writing is an artistic process, a process of meaning-making. A way of finding meaning in the world around you. We didn’t get to experience a lot of the immersion we were supposed to do, but feeling like what I was learning in class was really connected to my life … that was successful.”
Even though Marquez’s writing in the program wasn’t as introspective as her peers, she told me, “I remember I started crying the moment after I submitted my final portfolio.”
Murdoch was similarly moved by her experience in the program.
“I was in my little car, and I was thinking about Molly and about the Corps,” Murdoch said, near the end of our hour-long reminiscing session. “And I started crying. I don’t think I would have liked college if I hadn’t done this program.”
Being a member of the GLWC has been perhaps the most nurturing experience for me as a writer that I have yet had, and I know I am not alone in this sentiment. The GLWC presented an opportunity to express ourselves and reflect on what matters to us, which is a rare and precious experience for students, and especially valuable given the difficult times in which we find ourselves. I hope that such opportunities will continue to be available to college writers in the future. And in the years to come, I think I will look back on the Great Lakes Writers Corps as a reminder of the writer that I have become, and the writer I strive to be.
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