Editor’s note: We would like to thank Todd Campbell, Assistant Director of the Writing Center and Writing in the Disciplines at the American University of Beirut for providing this piece. For more information about the writing center at AUB, visit: https://www.aub.edu.lb/fas/writing_center/Pages/default.aspx. For events at the writing center, check out: https://aub.edu.lb/fas/writing_center/Pages/Series-&-Workshops.aspx
The AUB campus
No matter how wide our range of activity, the traditional role of most writing centers endures as a space for individual tutoring. But in the face of Lebanon’s recent massive social upheaval and a catastrophic national economic collapse only further compounded by the global pandemic, our writing center at the American University of Beirut has expanded that role. Understanding the writing center as a collaborative, generative core akin to Stephen North’s vision of a “physical locus” (1994, p. 17) for writers and writing, we have extended our reach beyond one-to-one tutoring and into the virtual realm through guided support gatherings to write, share and talk about writing in an expanding local-to-global online community.
In early fall 2019—barely a month before a popular revolution saw our coastal Beirut campus effectively closed along with most of Lebanon—collaborative talk among tutors sought to move our conversation about writing into the wider community, through open-door “write-ins” on campus and readings in neighborhood bookstores. With the October revolution’s forced closures, that outward movement soon got channeled online and into the streets, where tutors regularly joined million-strong protests calling for economic justice and social reform. I myself engaged in impromptu writing consultations mid-sit-in, where conversations about impassioned blog drafts led to web postings on the spot. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the whole world online in March 2020, our writing center had already begun moving toward that wider sphere.
By summer, a tutor-conceived thesis support group, online since spring, grew into parallel online writing and interactive workshop series. After the August 4th port blast ripped across Lebanon, our graduate administrator, Tamara Sleiman, and I further shaped these online series to offer openings for needed expression and exchange. Tutors also developed a related online event, “To Talk, To Listen, To Write,” offering peers a safe, multi-platform space to write and share together (and this article its focalizing title, with gratitude to Dana Bekdash, Maya Dobeissy and Joanna El Khoury).
Our writing center’s expansion into these communal writing initiatives has met with an energized response from both local and global participants, including composition colleagues from Champaign-Urbana to Cape Town. Whether joining our writing series from Beirut or abroad, many who write with us do so often, vocally appreciative of the shared time and space for writing together online. And just as often, faithful weekly attendees and first timers alike find their way to vibrant, essential writing which brings to vivid life their experience, even when challenged with loss and grief.
The Writing Center Space
Fall 2020, my first day back on AUB campus after the Beirut port explosion, from the Housing Office to the Health and Fitness Center, everyone had an August 4th story to tell. At the gym—where he had just walked me through shattered glass memories of his own August 4th experience there—a young colleague nodded toward his officemate. “She lost someone that day.” Meeting her silent gaze, I heard myself say, “You might want to talk to someone about that. You may even want to write it down.” As I spoke, I realized, that someone might be me; that latent writing maybe waiting to be supported by our writing center team. Before leaving the gym, I urged them both to make appointments with us for individual tutoring sessions. I also invited them, as I had all who told me their stories, to join our writing series.
Taking its lead from David Kessler’s expansion of his and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief beyond acceptance to include “find[ing] meaning in it” (Berinato, 2020), our writing series helps participants move through such traumatic events by making space for meaningful personal expression beyond the time-worn paradigm of “Lebanese resilience” and the overly facile local metaphor of the phoenix rising from the flames. And with Lebanon’s own unique set of traumatizing current crises and war-scarred history further freighted by a worldwide pandemic and its attendant global trauma, the writing series responds to our clear need to find meaning in the face of trauma by optimizing even the online situation itself as a means of expression and renewed connection.
The Writing Center Team
In an unexpected by-product of our crisis-driven move online, that connection now extends well beyond our campus in Beirut, as students and colleagues from Lebanon and around the world write together and share work in response to short readings and prompts centered around writing (and life) issues, from “Fear” and “Motivation” to “Obstacles” and “Inspiration.” Further support comes in thematically connected follow-up workshops, such as “Creating A Safe Space To Write,” after a writing session on “Addiction,” and “Writing As A Way Of Healing,” after writing about “Loss.”
Our one hour writing session on “Loss,” supported by Kessler’s suggestions for working with grief, offers a closer look at how we at AUB’s writing center help guide writers through urgently needed expression of their experience. The practices Kessler advocates—“com[ing] into the present,” “naming . . . grief” and using our senses to feel our experience, in the body (Berinato, 2020)—align with our own for writing together. And as we move from an initial list of what Natalie Goldberg privileges as vital “first thoughts” (1986, p. 8) into freely expressive, sense image-based prose, that group writing draws on Goldberg’s foundational tenets for writing practice, themselves grounded in Peter Elbow’s seminal ideas on freewriting.
Streamlined here, the main steps in our guided writing session follow below as bulleted directives, which we share in the online chat box while guiding writers through the process. For this session on “Loss,” we also offer framing suggestions from Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and quotes from Kessler’s March 2020 Harvard Business Review interview on pandemic-driven grief. Some of those are included here, along with our own spoken instructions and notes:
- Write a letter to a beloved, lost. Maybe a loved one; or a beloved place, or activity, gone.
- “First Thoughts:” Make a quick list of people, places and things loved … and lost. (2 minutes)
- Choose one about which feelings linger, and write a letter directly to them. (15-20 minutes)
You might consider:
-things you loved or miss most about them;
-things you still want to say to them;
-things you learned from them.
- Be specific. Use sense images, in the body, to render your memories and feelings.
Kessler urges us to “come into the present” and “use [our] senses and think about what they feel. The desk is hard. The blanket is soft. I can feel the breath coming into my nose” (Berinato, 2020).
As you write, re-enter the memory in the same way—what do you see? hear? feel?
Let’s write our letters, from in the body’s 5 senses, to what we have loved and lost.
We’ll write for about 20 minutes.
[N.B. Leave 15+ minutes at end—5 to wrap up writing & re-read, 10+ to share & close].
- Re-read your writing. Note where you hear energy—where you feel something when reading.
My teacher at the University of Kentucky, James Baker Hall, always urged us to “grab the live wire” in our writing. Continuing that call in our online writing series at AUB, we invite writers to share “live wire” phrases and passages—places which evoke tangible feeling—in the chat window. And as time and writers’ inclination allow, we hear some read aloud, and discuss where we hear energy, and what the writing does—for the experience re-entered, and for writers and readers.
As Kessler notes, and we share with writers at the end of this session on “Loss,” “There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us . . . When you name it, you feel it, and it moves through you” (Berinato, 2020). As we at AUB have further seen in writing and talking about writing together with an ever-widening online community, when we “name” and “feel” our core experience in concrete images while writing alongside others open to hearing and sharing, that movement—of the feeling through us, and us through it—becomes all the more possible, and potentially more powerful still.
I hope this brief description of our Beirut writing center’s recent work with writers in support of their most vital expression may serve to inspire more of the same as it lays out readily applicable ways the writing center may grow into a local and even global cornerstone for the composition of writing that needs to be written, and a hub for community in which that writing may be heard. Always glad to hear more, we welcome participation in our own online events, with information available via our AUB writing center web page.
Berinato, S. (2020, March). That discomfort you’re feeling is grief. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 30 March 30, 2021, from hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief
Goldberg, N. (1986). Writing down the bones: Freeing the writer within. Shambala.
North, S. (1994). Revisiting “The idea of a writing center.” The Writing Center Journal, 15(1), 7-19.
About the author Todd Hunter Campbell serves as Assistant Director of the Writing Center and Writing in the Disciplines at the American University of Beirut. He holds a BA in English from Emory University, an MA in English from the University of Kentucky and an MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University. His research and teaching interests include “talk and writing” in tutoring pedagogy; the creative process; and writing as a way of healing and understanding one’s experience. He teaches writing-related courses, and explores travel and identity in his own creative non-fiction and poetry.