One consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is that, for many people, every day feels the same as the last. With no friends around and no direct collaboration with work colleagues, it's easy to feel creatively exhausted.
That's partly why Daniels Faculty assistant professor Mitchell Akiyama created "Under the Dog Star," a new website that invites visitors to stretch their imaginations by quickly responding to creative writing prompts. (The name is a reference to a passage in The Rings of Saturn, a novel by W.G. Sebald.)
When a user loads Under the Dog Star in their web browser, they're presented with a creative writing prompt. It may ask them to transcribe a quote from an imaginary conversation, or to invent a voice for an inanimate object. Users are given only five minutes to write. After five minutes have passed, the website automatically sends them a new writing prompt.
Akiyama uses similar prompts in the classes he teaches as part of the Master of Visual Studies program at the Daniels Faculty. "These prompts are something I've been doing for a while now," he says. "The idea is to come up with prompts that make it very difficult to write in a standard voice. I want to get people to explore ways of expressing themselves that they would not usually have available to them."
All of a user's responses to Under the Dog Star's writing prompts are saved, anonymously, in a database. Once the website accumulates a large enough repository of writing, Akiyama hopes to analyze the text for patterns.
"The exercise is to make writing strange in a way that calls attention to what it is to write," Akiyama says. "On another level, this project is trying to do something similar with data collection and analysis. What kinds of representations of this material can you make that are interesting, and that speak to the very idea of data collection? What does doing an analysis on creative writing entail?"
Under the Dog Star's development was funded with a grant from the University of Toronto's School of Cities. Akiyama worked with Matthew Nish-Lapidus, a Master of Visual Studies student at the Daniels Faculty, to design the website.