I like watching the group enter the room, shake off their travel dust, and find their favorite spots around the table. The crackle of an in-person workshop thrills me. I like how the writers’ voices grow stronger as they read and their cheeks flush as one of us offers a big or small idea that makes them want to hurry home and revise. I like to be close enough to provide a tissue or a hug at the end of the session if they’ve written or responded to something close to the bone. I like the way their stories and poems wrap themselves around us like silk.
I didn’t want to mess with this alchemy by the intrusion of a lens, and I didn’t want the distraction of my own mug looking out at me. I loathe seeing myself in photos, not a quality I’m proud of. When the governor shut down our schools, though, I faced the grim reality that we either had to take a rain check or hold the class online. I had to suck it up; we are in the middle of a pandemic. With the guidance of two neighbors, including a real-life rocket scientist, and my college-aged daughter, I set up my first virtual meeting.
To prep for the class, I caffeinated, dressed in one of my dozen black shirts, concealed the purple moons under my eyes with some coverup, and applied lipstick. I put on my dangly, good luck, chamsa earrings, but they didn’t calm me. My jitters began to disappear as one by one our writers started popping up on the screen, the corners of our designated boxes touching, but not really. We waved to each other, situated ourselves in quiet rooms in our homes, and steeped our tea. We also helped each other troubleshoot our audio and video glitches.
Was this really going to work? We were so far apart.
In the beginning, I avoided making eye contact with myself (what a concept). But now, I also felt oddly aware of everyone else looking at me, something that I typically only notice when I’m mid hot-flash. Was this weird self-consciousness going to last for the whole two and a half hours? Oy.
As soon as we dove into the first piece, I forgot all about my treasured alchemy, my concern over being seen, by myself and others, and even the potential toxicity of the grocery cart I’d touched hours before. I joined the group in deep listening. Soon we were oohing and aahing over language that sizzled, pitch-perfect voices, and imagery that left us breathless. We nodded in recognition when one of us spotted a minute, telling detail that made our worlds feel bigger and smaller at the same time. We asked questions about what confused us and pointed out excess words. We sniffed out the stories emerging from the drafts. We posed the big therapy and creative writing question: why are you telling us this now?
Twenty minutes into the call, I caught a glimpse of myself. This person in the box with the dangly earrings and lipstick, well, she was okay. No Zoom lens was going to extinguish the flame of enthusiasm for today’s work which was funny and bold and vulnerable. I felt gratitude for the kinship of people who will geek out over the use of dialect in dialogue or the work of the authors who call us to write: Toni Morrison, Stuart Dybek, Ross Gay, Tara Ison, and Michael Ondaatje to name a few.
At the end of the workshop, a few of the writers asked if we could Zoom again before our next scheduled gathering. We will. This pandemic can’t stop hope, curiosity, and compassion from vibrating through cyber space and penetrating the walls of our houses, cars, and our hearts. We can still shake off our travel dust and find our favorite spots around our virtual table. And we can crackle.
Michelle Brafman is the author of the novel Washing the Dead and Bertrand Court, a collection of linked stories. She is on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing program and teaches private and pro bono workshops throughout the Washington, D.C. area
Image By: Michelle Brafman