Attempting to watch…writing instead

by Elizabeth Lutyens, Editor in Chief

Writers applauding fellow writers at a 2010 Great Smokies Review event

Four months ago, December 10, 2019, was the deadline for submissions to this issue of The Great Smokies Review. The publication, our twenty-second, was ready to view at its online site on April 20, 2020. (If all went as planned at the time of this writing.)

Four months ago, as we gathered the submitted stories, essays, and poems, we also secured a date at Malaprop’s Bookstore and Café in downtown Asheville for our semi-annual publication celebration. June 14, that was to have been, a time for gathering, not distancing. (See photo above, of writers on the first row of a packed house, listening to readings at a past Malaprop’s event.) How and when are we to celebrate now? There may be ways, born of what recent adjustments have taught us…

Four months ago, I and other faculty of the Great Smokies Writing Program, were preparing for spring semester classes, typically held around a large table at an area school or institution. We enjoyed thinking of ourselves as gathering around a campfire, à la E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, except we fancied ourselves more like Forster himself, in our skills and insights, than like his page-turning, plot-hungry savages. We were all together in a writerly bubble, breathing the same fine air. By association, in proximity, we inspired each other.

One month ago, we received a message from the UNC Asheville Chancellor’s Office: “Given the ongoing situation regarding COVID-19, remote instruction has been extended through the end of the semester.” Bubble deflated, we doused our campfire and set our dimmed sights on distance; in our case, on Zoom. At the appointed day and hour, we stared at a screen filled with a grid of squares, each containing a face, reminiscent of The Brady Bunch opening credits. When a person began to speak, the frame around the square lit up, just like the Hollywood variety. At some point, we discovered the create-your-virtual-background option, and Lisa disappeared from her living room to emerge on Seven Mile Beach in Jamaica; Janet remained dry in front of a waterfall on the border of Brazil and Argentina.

We discussed our way through a craft session and two workshops, business as usual, but when class was over, nobody got up and left. “I don’t want to go,” someone said, and no one did until I finally located the End Meeting button. The screen went black. I later recalled seeing another button—“Record”— and with it arose a possibility. If June comes and we are still in isolation, we can celebrate this issue onscreen and share it with an even larger audience than those at Malaprop’s.

Four months ago, the twenty-one writers of the stories, essays, and poems appearing in this issue uploaded their work and hit send. What might be on their minds now as they see their work in the light (or dark) of a pandemic? How will it affect the writing they do next? I’ve heard at least one writer say that for now, he can’t do it at all. Some will take the opposite tack and follow J. Farley Upjohn’s lead. See below her author’s note at the end of her poem, “Chernobyl Harvest”:

Attempting to watch the TV series, Chernobyl, but unable to stomach either the memories of crawling from school to home through a highway culvert and tripping over the bomb shelter chimney tube in a friend’s backyard, or the anger toward some humans’ willingness toward inhumanity, I instead wrote this poem.

Elizabeth Lutyens teaches the Prose Master Class in the Great Smokies Writing Program. For more about her, go to