Romantic Remediations: A Creative Writing Assignment
Visiting Assistant Professor, Five Colleges
“If one of the British Romantics were alive today, how would he or she craft a literary response to life in the twenty-first century? So even though Jane Austen, say, has been dead for almost two hundred years, imagine how she might react to the present day. Compose a poem or prose narrative that addresses our contemporary moment in the voice and characteristic literary style of a Romantic writer from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.” With this speculative exercise, I send students on a willfully anachronistic journey back to the future. Taking advantage of my position within a non-traditional humanities department, which does not define its literature courses by their period focus, I have offered two different versions of the assignment. For my Fall 2014 seminar on “Media Overload,” I invited students to reinvent Romantic-era writing via contemporary social media. Alternatively, my Spring 2014 course on “Affect in the Age of Terror” challenged students to respond to the Global War on Terror from a Romantic-era perspective. At least initially, some students were flummoxed by the challenge of jumping between the Romantic and the contemporary. Yet in both classes, I found that the assignment sparked an explosion of creativity from my first- and second-year undergraduates.
At its core, the prompt relies on the work of remediation to open up new creative possibilities. To introduce my key term, I assign excerpts from Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin’s Remediation: Understanding New Media (MIT Press, 1999). In that book, Bolter and Grusin define remediation as “a complex kind of borrowing in which one medium is itself incorporated or represented in another medium.” The task, as I present it to students, involves transposing Romantic literature into a new presentational format while simultaneously translating our present perspectives into a historical literary form.
The resulting writing exercise encourages students
- To put their close reading skills into practice by emulating a historical literary style;
- To introduce creative writing into the toolbox of skills that they can use to engage with literary texts as well as their historical contexts;
- To embrace anachronism, and by extension, the construct of “history”;
- To make Romanticism doubly contemporary, which is to say characteristic of the present and simultaneous with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century;
- To justify their coursework by attempting to explain why it’s necessary to study Romanticism now.
To prepare students for their end-of-semester projects, I assign a warm-up exercise that emphasizes the traditional skill of close reading: “Select a passage that best represents the Romantic-era writer you plan on addressing for the final creative project. Then use your close reading skills to identify the defining formal features of your chosen writer’s literary craft. Formulate a thesis that explains how the author synthesizes his or her preferred techniques into a unique voice.” If students are going to succeed at channeling the voice of a Romantic-era writer, they first need to be clear about what makes Wordsworth’s poetry recognizable. The answer has less to do with Wordsworth’s choice of subject matter than it does with the formal techniques he uses to express himself. So while many Romantics describe a love of nature, the choice to channel that interest into the form of a lyrical ballad is specific to Wordsworth (and Coleridge). As a side benefit, my preliminary assignment gets students working with a passage that can serve as a template for their own creative writing. Conjuring Austen’s voice ex nihilo is quite difficult; emulating the diction, syntax, rhetoric, imagery, etc. of a particular paragraph is, by contrast, a more manageable task. To reinforce the point, I devote class time to peer review workshops and ask students to revise their final creative projects in light of the feedback they receive.
In my experience, the results are overwhelmingly positive. Most recently, I offered my assignment to a seminar on “Media Overload: Digital-Age Reflections on the Explosion of Print” (Fall 2014), which examined the ways in which print culture of the long eighteenth century affords a historical perspective on our digital lives. Situated at the intersection of literary history and media history, the course asked students to consider how the internet has reignited old anxieties about writing's capacity to change who we are and how we relate to others. After a semester’s worth of readings that range from Locke to Stoker, my question was this: how would one of the writers on the syllabus participate in contemporary social media? To make the work of remediation tangible and concrete, I encouraged students to present their efforts on social media (i.e. Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, Wordpress, etc.). So rather than have students attempt to conceptualize the transformative effects of digitizing eighteenth-century print culture, my goal was to have everyone learn by doing. If anything, the assignment finally clicked when the class began to play around with disseminating their work online.
In response to the assignment, students produced a range of thought-provoking projects that transported a long eighteenth-century archive of texts into the realm of net art. Among the many impressive projects I received, several stand out: one student recreated the Songs of Innocence and of Experience in the style of ASCII art, surrounding her “Screen Songs” with images aggregated from individual keyboard characters. Another student, also working on Blake, turned “London” into an e-zine, which walked a fine line between channeling Blake’s voice and transforming the medium in which he wrote. The pièce de résistance was an adaptation of Keats “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which converted the poem into a meditation on our digital lives: “Living offline is sweet, but online life / Is sweeter; therefore, mute dreamer, type on.” In passages like this one, the writer lets Keats’s famous cadence shine through even as she opens up the poetry to a twenty-first-century context that Keats never could have imagined. Even in those moments when the writing verges on becoming a parody, these projects achieve a vibrancy and vitality through the work of remediation, bringing Romantic literary forms into conversation with our contemporary media practices.
By comparison, my seminar on “Affect in the Age of Terror” (Spring 2014) sought to achieve different goals with the same assignment. In brief, the course drew on British Romantic literature as a medium for reflecting on our emotional life in the present. So instead of asking what makes the twenty-first-century experience of terror new, I posed a different question: namely, where have we already seen our own range of moods and structures of feeling before? Toward this end, I led the class through a series of texts – among them, Radcliffe’s Udolpho, Godwin’s Caleb Williams, and Austen’s Persuasion – that are fascinated by the ways in which impersonal historical forces condition one’s moods, sentiments, and visceral sensations. These readings serve, in turn, as the occasion to put British anxieties about the French “Reign of Terror” and subsequent Napoleonic Wars into dialogue with America’s cultural response to 9/11 and the so-called “War on Terror.”
Given these aims, my final assignment asked students to addresses the legacy of 9/11 in the style of a Romantic-era writer. In this way, the assignment challenged them to translate their contemporary experiences into a historical literary form and in doing so break with the generic conventions for representing our “now.” The result was a range of memorable projects. One student used Radcliffe’s technique of the “explained supernatural” to dramatize the anxious experience of encountering an unattended bag at the airport. Another offered a Radcliffean meditation on the medium of television news, whose war coverage evokes the melancholy presence of a lost love one. A third student drew upon Godwin’s Caleb Williams to describe the mix of curiosity and paranoia that plagues a Navy sailor charged with watching over the shrouded corpse of Osama bin Laden.
In all of these cases, students rely on Romantic literature to channel their own affective response to recent events. Such an approach suits today’s undergraduates, who were only in first or second grade when the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks occurred. Experiencing 9/11 and its aftermath from a child’s perspective afford an intuitive grasp of the visceral yet inchoate force of history that eludes complete comprehension. Along these lines, the assignment’s creative writing component lets students follow Wordsworth’s or Austen’s example by tapping into the affective registers of historical consciousness that cannot quite be put into words. By asking students to transpose their present perspectives into a historical literary form, the prompt furthermore provides a framework for talking about the present in an altered key, as it were. The dissonance between form and content is, in fact, an indispensible tool for making one’s affective environment newly palpable as an object of analysis. The resulting exercise enables students to map their evolving mood since 9/11.
My experience in the classroom thus leads me to conclude that the work of remediation spurs students to open up new creative possibilities and thereby activate their engagement with British Romantic literature… if only we embrace the heresy of anachronism! The resulting projects demonstrate that first- and second-year undergraduates can make surprising yet compelling connections between the Romantic and the contemporary. For more information, see the appendix describing my sequence of assignments. Exemplary student work on Blake, Godwin, Keats, and Radcliffe is also appended.
Thank you to Joselyn Almeida-Beveridge, Andrew Burkett, and Manu Chander for their input and to my students for embracing a non-traditional assignment with such gusto. In particular, I would like to recognize Sarah Demarest, Teddy Miller, Dominic Poropat, and Natalie Roll, whose exemplary work is featured here. I am also grateful to Kate Singer for organizing NASSR’s yearly pedagogy panel.
Warm-up Exercise: Stylistic Analysis
Prompt: Select a passage that best represents the Romantic-era writer you plan on addressing for the final creative project. Then use your close reading skills to identify the defining formal features of your chosen writer’s literary craft. How does the writer use diction, meter, pace, pitch, punctuation, rhythm, rhyme, structure, syntax, tone, or visual layout, etc. to create a signature style? Formulate a thesis that explains how the author synthesizes his or her preferred techniques into a unique voice.
Length: 5-6 pages
Draft of Romantic Remediation
Prompt: If one of the British Romantics were alive today, how would he or she craft a literary response to life in the twenty-first century? So even though Jane Austen has been dead for almost two hundred years, imagine how she might react to the present day. Compose a poem or prose narrative that addresses our contemporary moment in the voice and characteristic literary style of a Romantic writer from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Bear in mind that while your piece should be written in a historical literary form, the content or subject matter should speak to the present. In order to better emulate your chosen author’s voice, work closely with a representative passage, which can serve as an exemplar or template for your efforts.
Based on the feedback you received during your peer review session, it is now time to revise the draft of your Romantic remediation. In evaluating your work, consider these three key questions:
- How can you better emulate your chosen author’s voice or characteristic literary style?
- How can you sharpen the connection between the Romantic and the contemporary?
- How might you adapt the historical form of Romantic literature to facilitate its presentation on contemporary social media?
Length: No less than 40 lines of poetry or 8 pages of prose
Below is a sampling of work by students in PDF format:
An E-zine Reinterpretation of William Blake | Sarah Demarest
A Remediation of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho | Dominic Poropat