Summer of Our Discontent: Writing in a Virtual Place

Written by Meg Petersen, Professor of English & Director of the National Writing Project in New Hampshire at Plymouth State University

This has been a hard summer for so many of us—a summer of uncertainty and fear—a summer in which things fell apart over and over again, in which we were orphaned by those charged with leading us, left to our devices, a summer in which the inequities, injustices and contradictions, the racism at the heart of our nation that had always been there, was brought to more starkly to light.

In this summer of discontent, NWPNH was part of Write Across America,  a series of virtual writing marathons sponsored by the National Writing Project.  The idea of this series of virtual events was to move the Writing Marathon, a staple activity at many writing project sites, into a virtual format. Each participating site created a story map highlighting different features of their state, city or region, often containing invitations to write. You can see a list with links to the story maps on the Write Across America site.

Many aspects of the marathon remain familiar: participants go to a place to write, share their writing in small groups (in breakout rooms), have their writing received without commentary apart from a simple “Thank you.” The difference is that all of the traveling is done through the computer and the visits to places are virtual. Each site along the way did its own take on the way it presented its state, city or region.

The New Hampshire event was late in the summer, on August 4th, which turned out to be the day of one of the most major storms of the summer, which threatened our internet connections and added drama.  But the marathon, thanks to the “dream team” of NWPNH teacher consultants who created it, and the organizing team of site leaders who supported all of the marathons, went off fairly seamlessly. Some lovely writing was created. I open with Ashley Nicol’s response to the stop which focused on the Old Man of the Mountain because it speaks so eloquently to loss and connects so beautifully to the kind of invitation the virtual marathon can provide. You can view our full map here as I share some of the other writing produced on this virtual journey through our state.  If you scroll to the bottom of the opening page of the map, you can view a list of the stops.

In response to the Portsmouth African Burying Ground, Lea Warren of Hemphill High School in Hemphill, Texas wrote:


It’s 6,500 square feet.
Strangers only found it recently,
but today more come.
They come to see,
they come to feel,
they come to connect,
but mainly they come.

They have a right to peace.
They have a right to dignity,
And they have a right to compassion.

Some were free,
others were indentured,
while the rest were enslaved.
Most back then forgot a fact,
they were also human.

The misshapen boxes littered the area
Without the rhyme and reason
That other European places had been given.
These were the dead that lay littered
With separation and permanence beneath
A land not their own.

Today the world watches
Today the world burns for compassion
Today the world looks for humanity
Today the world needs ubuntu.

U·bun·tu [/ˌo͝oˈbo͝on(t)o͞o/]  noun SOUTH AFRICAN  =>a quality that includes the essential human virtues; compassion and humanity.

In response to the Harriet Wilson Memorial, Hector Santana of Politécnico Madre Rafaela Ybarra in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, wrote:

A song to Frado
A leaf in the hands strongly close
From no name tree
Always leaf left in the forest
In the chimney as a cold rock falling down

Jean Minnick, of Bellefontaine, Ohio, and the Ohio Writing Project wrote this piece, inspired by the story of the loons:


As our lives shut down last spring, the life of Mother Nature awakened. Animals crept into empty cities, crossed roads without fear, took back some of the land that was taken from them. The shut-down of spring 2020 was a time when so many people opened their hearts to the things that have been around them all along. Things that cringed at the side of our former lives speeding by at 75 miles per hour. Suddenly, families ate meals together. Essential workers were praised. People said teachers should be paid a million a year for what they do. People said – let’s not forget the things we have discovered during this bump in the road of our lives. But people have already roared on – even though they are driving over the rumble strips of warning of Covid 19. People have so quickly tossed those lessons to the wind and drive recklessly forward.

This poem by Lea Warren was inspired by the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center:

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The writing marathon in a virtual space has proven to be an incredibly versatile tool. NWPNH teachers enrolled in a course this summer on teaching writing remotely created virtual marathons for their students.  Here are a few examples:  The North Country by Molly Carr, Our Town by Lin Illingworth based on Thornton Wilder’s work and set in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and this map of Plymouth which may remind you of our in person marathons at the summer institute. The National Writing Project has provided a guide to creating your own marathons, which you might find useful if you are interested in using this idea in your classrooms. Best wishes as we all face an uncertain year. Let’s all keep writing.