Writing is lonely work. Even when you are writing in a library surrounded by people it can feel like you are alone with your memories, your ideas and your vulnerabilities. For new writers, especially so. Working on a book-length manuscript for the first time, I didn’t have a feel for the craft. I didn’t know my own voice yet. I didn’t know how to edit. For a thousand reasons I wanted to quit. What was a writer to do when the world was closed, tensions were high and getting out of bed took all the strength she had?
Like everything in pandemic life, Zoom is my answer for writing too.
Where I live in Boston, there is a wonderful writing school called GrubStreet. And among the classes there are incubators: year-long intensive classes made of small groups. In the Memoir Incubator, students draft a full manuscript of a memoir. I’d been admiring from afar the memoir incubator class that met at the end of the hall every Monday night. I was there for a two-day workshop here, a ten-week class there. They intimidated me. I could hear laughter when I stood near their classroom, waiting on line for the bathroom. I saw the Incubees in the kitchen during break times. They made coffee, chatted about book tours, interviews and events I knew nothing about. The Memoir Incubees were a community. They got published. They were the elite of GrubStreet, real writers. I could never be like that, I thought.
When COVID-19 turned life on its head, I sat in front of my computer to write, and nothing came out. I thought, I have so much to write about. I have the time to write it. But nothing came out. I couldn’t write. I was too tired, but I wasn’t sleeping. I was too busy, but I was unproductive.
For the self-care everyone said I needed, I signed up for a yoga challenge. I got up every morning to log in. I moved my desk out of the way to make space for my mat. My yoga practice got great. But I didn’t write. Then my kids, both elementary school aged, parked themselves in my office. Of course, I couldn’t write. They were on noisy Zooms; they read books aloud. They interrupted me, peering over my shoulder, tapping my screen, my keyboard. “Whacha writin’, Mama?” Then, I refused to write. I shopped on Amazon for headphones, for Chromebooks, for kid desks. I set them up in their rooms and had my space back. But back in my reclaimed office, I still couldn’t write.
Instead, I did the thing that made the least amount of sense for someone who wasn’t able to write: I applied to the Memoir Incubator. And I was accepted. I applied for a fellowship thinking I had nothing to lose. I got it. I was thrilled.
The first thing we had to do was generate a draft of our manuscript. I’d only had 50 pages written, which meant I had about 200 pages to develop before my first workshop. But how was I going to generate 200 pages? I sat at my computer, paralyzed.
My new classmates and I got an email from our instructor: Join our COVID Writing Cafe! Zoom link here!
Last year’s class was still underway when the pandemic hijacked our lives. Students had to start meeting on Zoom. They too were struggling with output. Someone had the brilliant idea of working together. The instructor opened the café on Zoom weekdays from 9:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. There was a break until 2:30 and then it went again until 5:30. Anyone affiliated with the Memoir Incubator could join.
Meekly, I popped in one morning. I knew no one. It was a small group, mostly women I recognized from that room at the end of the hall at GrubStreet. I’d stood alongside them waiting for the bathroom or the coffee maker. I was intimidated to be there. But immediately my chat button started to light up. The instructor typed, “Welcome Aimee!” Then in chorus: “Welcome Aimee!” one person echoed. “Hi Aimee! So glad you made it,” typed another. “Nice to see you here!” from a third. Every time someone logged in, it was like a Japanese restaurant in which everyone shrieks “Irasshaimase!” (Welcome!) every time the front door opens. I loved it. So, I stayed.
But still, I didn’t write. First, I organized my desk. Then, my writing folders. I paid bills. I made lists. I updated my resume. I cleaned out my inbox, collected sourdough recipes and messaged old friends. No one judged. Even when we unmuted every session to talk about our work and I said, “I’m organizing my pages,” no one said I should leave. No one said I wasn’t a writer. So, I stayed. And then, miraculously, I wrote. And wrote and wrote.
Soon I was working full-time again, so I couldn’t attend most days. I started my own writing café in the evenings after yoga, after work, after kid bedtime. Logging in is like closing a door on the world, like silencing all distractions. Me and my Zoom pals log in and we are quiet and we are together. And we write.