CRAFT: For Instructors – Workshop Dynamics in the Zoom Room by Michelle Levy

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Does anyone else freshen their breath before a Zoom meeting? I do. I won’t lie and say I wear slacks below my blazer—cotton leggings have grown on me like a second skin in 2020—however, arriving freshly groomed to a virtual meeting conveys that I treat our time together as important. How I feel inside transmits through the computer. I know because I’ve been a participant as often as I’ve been a facilitator. I’m here to explore the facets of online creative workshops that can help or hinder the creative process and our writing craft and share perspectives from several leaders in their fields who’ve jumped from in-person teaching to virtual learning platforms.

I’ve been teaching creative writing workshops since 2011—mostly in person, but, prior to the pandemic, I’d hosted a Zoom salon called “Windcatchers” for almost two years, where I interviewed a different creative entrepreneur each week to learn their techniques for getting into the productive flow; and, as of writing this, I’ve hosted a weekly Zoom meditation and writing workshop called “Night Pages” for six months. I’ve also attended a ton of Zoom sessions since March, because: lockdowns. Long-held aspirations to explore obscure topics, learn new skills, and do some writing were finally given oxygen. For better or worse, lockdowns continue, and Zoom classes will, too.

Community Building Techniques

I interviewed fellow writing teachers (and a psychotherapist friend who runs a bi-weekly Zoom support group) about rituals, practices, and technology they use to promote community and connection in the virtual space. Debbie Hagan, Visiting Lecturer at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, says when she teaches for three hours, she allows a 30-minute break so participants can be off camera. Every teacher I spoke with said students love sharing their original contributions with the group. Debbie said that being vulnerable builds community. When it comes to breakout rooms, her students will interact for 45 minutes and exchange work. A key method for building camaraderie, she says, is switching up the groups so students can get to know various classmates, and read different styles of writing.

S Stephanie, a teacher at the Institute of Art & Design at New England College, limits her students’ time in breakout rooms to 20-30 minutes since she observed that longer times could let students get sidetracked. However, she thinks breakout rooms enable students to feel like they’re part of a “real” class. “This is where they get their sense of belonging.” There is a strong case for breakout rooms, especially when class size is adequately large. It seems that trios or quads are more engaging than an intimate pair, which can feel kind of inescapable for the time if the two in a room don’t jibe.

Allison K. Williams taught a 5-day intensive with Dinty Moore. They opened the sessions with “café time,” where attendees could converse freely. They also left the Zoom space open during lunchtime. Feedback confirmed that participants were surprised and happy that they’d bonded so much with classmates.

More than one instructor emphasized the importance of nurturing individual rapport and connecting one-to-one—saying hello to each individual who enters the Zoom room, for instance—in addition to fostering group cohesion. Leigh Camacho Rourks, Assistant Professor of English and Humanities at Beacon College, agrees that personally greeting people when the session begins helps set the arena for community building. “Then,” she says, “we do a lot of thumbs upping (or downing) and a lot of polls when we aren’t in workshop, so everyone always feels involved (invested) in the class.” She introduces skill-building games and invites conversation in the chatbox. “No one feels like just a name on the screen, even if their camera is off. With community at the forefront of every class, workshop goes really well.” I like how she sets community building as the priority, as opposed to it being incidental.

For added depth to my informal study of workshop dynamics in the Zoom room, I talked with Cynthia Chase, a psychotherapist, who has been offering telehealth sessions since the pandemic struck. She also started a bi-weekly support group via Zoom to help her clients feel less isolated and to promote intimacy and connection. She starts meetings with body movement to trigger a release of self-consciousness and inhibitions. Cynthia exudes warmth, and you just want to mirror her smile when she smiles at you.

I was fascinated by her eye-gazing experiment. While the tantric practice of eye-gazing dates back thousands of years, you may also have heard of The World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment that took place in 2016 (depicted in this moving video—especially moving right now, since human contact is strictly limited—World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment). Cynthia says, “Looking at a flat screen challenges our ability to connect on the deep level we all long for.” For eight participants in attendance, she pairs people and instructs them to “pin the video” of their partner. This is distinct from a breakout room but enables two people to take turns looking into their cameras and experience gazing into one another’s eyes. It’s not exactly simultaneous, but the intense, nonverbal exchange invites intimacy and can trigger raw emotion to surface. We don’t have to do much to feel connected, but we do need to courageously overcome insecurities in order to receive the benefits of engaged participation. “With eyes wide open, we open a portal to be seen.” What you put in, you get out, when it comes to Zoom workshops.

The Impact of Reading Work Aloud

In the Zoom room as in life, what students write differs when they believe they’ll be reading aloud. My Sunday night sessions are only 30 minutes, with a 9-minute writing practice (and students are invited to continue and expand on what they began writing in session, later). This means no one gets to read aloud. One evening, the prompt was:

What if you went on a rampage? What would that look like? What would you do, and how would that feel? Indulge a terrible fantasy, in writing. You can tear it up and burn it if you like.

This was inspired by a quote from Goldmining the Shadows by Pixie Lighthorse: “We each contain all of the weapons of violence imaginable, right inside of us. This can be a frightening thought, yet it promises to re-empower us to grow beyond harming ourselves and others.”

Afterward, I asked, “What did it feel like, writing the worst possible damage you could be capable of? If your writing didn’t go over the top, why were you restrained? Explore what makes you withhold, or stop short of revealing the full monty in your private writing.” Each week, I invite participants to email me samples of 250 words or less for feedback, and what I receive reveals trauma and heartache in graphic detail. My students say they wouldn’t read aloud or publish these snippets. I help them restore their spirits and consider how the kernel of their story might be valuable to share, with or without exposing the personal facts.

Certainly, writing in a room of one’s own while online with others who are also confined to cubes is distinct from warm bodies sharing physical space. The Tuesday group I attend as a participant delivers a prompt via Meetup at 6:00, then convenes via Zoom at 7:00. Sharing aloud is the mode. In this case, the writing is more audience-aware; snappy punchlines and contemporary cultural references are more likely. I’ve observed that the pandemic as an influence will feature more prominently in writing that is to be read aloud; the accompanying commentary, like the preambles writers give before they read their work aloud, more often than not emphasizes the current state of affairs. Since there is a demand in the writer’s market for submissions related to lockdown life, these topics get polished and submitted. As an editor, I’m seeing a surge in demand for literary development across the genres (fiction, nonfiction, reportage)—writing as a pursuit is seeing a heyday during 2020.

Dirty Zoom Secrets

For fun, I invited fellow teachers to confess their dirty Zoom secrets, and here is what I learned:

  • Sharon wears sweatpants and slippers while wearing a strand of pearls with a fancy top.
  • Jessica bought a ring light, wears concealer, eyeliner, earrings, a good blouse… and bike shorts or yoga pants. She pauses recording when students go into breakout rooms so she can coo and cuddle with her cat.
  • Steph rarely brushes her hair. Her go-tos are a good lipstick and dry shampoo. Earrings only on days when she feels extra put together and fancy. She also endorses the use of a good concealer.
  • Mary whispers, “Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream goes well with coffee. Just saying.” Mary confides, “I put the cat in Time Out, or there will be no peace. Unless I’m not in the mood, then I let him TA.” Haha. I have cat assistants, as well, and they ignore me all day until I have to teach via Zoom!
  • Michelle says, “Showering highly optional. If all tops are black (or a single color), students have no way of knowing how often you change them. (Can alternate necklaces/scarves/earrings if you want students to think you change clothes.) Zoom touch-up-my-appearance function obviates the need for actual makeup; bright lipstick makes you look fancy.”

Additional Reading

Meet the Contributor

Michelle levyMichelle Levy, MA, has been teaching creative writing in New York for a decade and has been a development editor at various publishing companies and for private clientele for two decades. She won Condé Nast/Fairchild Books Editor of the Year Award in 2008. She is currently a fiction development editor at Level 4 Press. Her essays have appeared in Hippocampus, Saltfront, Humans and Nature, and more. Learn more about her at michellesydneylevy.com.

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