#WriteAcrossAmerica: A Virtual Writing Marathon

After a spring full of COVID-19 lockdowns and remote teaching, amid Black Lives Matter protest movements sweeping through the nation after the killing of George Floyd, a group of National Writing Project site leaders collaborated in the summer of 2020 on a virtual writing marathon program called #WriteAcrossAmerica. Led by the fabulous Kelly Sassi, Director of the Red River Valley Writing Project, facilitators from Wisconsin, Arizona, Mississippi, Minnesota, North Dakota, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New York, and Louisiana created weekly virtual writing marathon events that drew hundreds of writers from around the country.

None of us were sure that we could create the beloved marathon “magic” on Zoom, but we gave it our best shot, using all of our best National Writing Project instincts. To everyone’s delight, it worked. The magic was there. And, it was there just at a time when we needed it the most.

The beautiful and engaging StoryMaps created for these events remain available on the #WriteAcrossAmerica website. They include local maps, photos, links to websites, quotes from literature, and writing ideas, available for any teacher or writer to explore and use.

These are some excerpts from my writing on three different virtual marathon stops. I would like to express my gratitude to all of the hosts for the 2020 #WriteAcrossAmerica Virtual Writing Marathon, for the community and writing inspiration during a a momentous and challenging summer.

Writing Across America with George, Mary, Zoom, and Loons

At the George Floyd Mural in Minneapolis with the Minnesota Writing Project, July 28, 2020

Especially after grounding together with so many writers, the George Floyd mural takes my breath away. I have seen it so many times, but somehow seeing it here, now, with 70 other people, some of whom have seen this mural with their own eyes, some of whom live where this mural lives, gives the bold lines and colors a new power. 

Robyn asked us to consider the relationship between space and healing. I am considering it. I am especially considering the space of healing available within this strange virtual space of Zoom, where so many writers have gathered, seven times now, over the course of the summer.  

The idea of holding space had gained some ground in recent years. We hold space for one another here. Zoom holds space for us in its brilliant code. The University of Minnesota holds space for us somewhere on its blinking servers. Each of our own little laptops holds space in its humming processor. 

What is it to hold space, though? And what is it to hold space and not just to have space, not just to make space? 

Can I hold space for you like I hold your hand, in times of trouble or joy, gently, for hours or squeezed in a flash we knew was coming but still hurt so much?

Can I hold space like for you like I hold open the heavy door, seeing your masked face coming up behind me in the glass?

Can I hold space like I hold the line, standing in my heart with a wall of moms in bright yellow shirts while clouds of tear gas glow under streetlights?

Can I hold space like I hold your memory in my mind, keeping it crisp and not letting it fade, even when the dust gathers on the pile of photos next to the velvet box?

At the Loon Preservation Center with the New Hampshire Writing Project, August 4, 2020

I am moved by Mary Oliver’s heart-stopping poem, “Lead,” which includes this line: “The next morning that loon, speckled and iridescent, and with a plan to fly home to some hidden lake, was dead on the shore.”

Damn you, Mary Oliver,

and bless you, 

for always catching me right in the throat,

right where you crack my heart open

with your tight words and your 

brazen address, 

speaking right to me,

with your own heart cracked open right there

under the water on the shore next to the loon,

with your pleading call beating the world drum–

rocks and water shining, wet, in the sun.

In New Orleans with the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project, August 11, 2020

I’m moved by the words of my fellow writers today, parsing the power and the problems of writing. Whose voices should we hear? Whose are being silenced?  Whose can we amplify? How can writing bend the arc of the moral universe more steeply toward justice? 

This summer, I was on the biggest Zoom call of my life. More than 10,000 people showed up for a training session by Vote Save America on political organizing. It made me a little weepy, to be honest, sitting there alone on my couch, my screen full strangers’ faces in rectangles while the chat window gushed in a river of words. I was terrified to be hopeful. Terrified to even try.

The facilitators told us that one of the most powerful tools in persuading and turning out voters is story–articulating our own stories, honing them, owning them, and being able to share them. And so, I am here now thinking about the marathon’s magical power to help people sit with their stories, to hone them, own them, and share them.

Here we go.

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