Last night was the half-way point of ‘Wish You Were Here’, the creative writing project I’m doing in Boston (Lincolnshire). Commissioned by Writing East Midlands and Transported, it had been planned for April and May last year, when it would indeed have taken place in Lincolnshire’s historic port, on the edge of fen and marsh. Now, although the participants are there, or nearby, I am in France and it would be dangerous and unlawful for us all to sit around the same table. So we are doing our best with Zoom and, as these things going, that best is pretty good.
A commission means that you never know who will be at the first session. Although ten people had signed up, just one appeared in Zoom’s virtual waiting room. Thankfully, he was a gifted writer and had brought an evocative piece that responded to the project’s theme, and since local writer Sonya Hundal was there too, we spent a productive couple of hours. The following week, after some efforts by Writing East Midlands and Transported, we had five writers, and that’s where we’ve stayed since. They’re older people – that’s the brief – and have experience of writing, but their styles and interests are nicely varied. Much of each session is taken up with hearing and discussing their writing on an idea set the previous week. Inspiration has ranged from a wartime documentary about Boston to recently published lockdown writing. Last night I read a few pages about my father from Talking Until Nightfall, in preparation for a task to write about someone they miss. I’ve started to look forward to the texts that will come in over the next few days. Each writer’s distinctive voice is always clear, but I’m often surprised by the angle and creativity of their approach.
It’s the first time I’ve done creative workshops over Zoom, and I’m still learning how to handle it. There are a lot of good things, the most obvious being simply that we can do this at all, each of us from home. We’ve had connection problems. One person could only join in via the chat function for her first workshop, but is now managing fine with a phone; another, calling in from the countryside, has had to restart his modem more than once. But we’re managing, not just with the technology, but with the different social codes that come with it. There’s a nice atmosphere and a good deal of laughter, as well as some serious moments.
And Zoom has some benefits too. With just six or seven people on the screen we can all see each other (without feeling we’re staring). It’s not difficult to ensure that everyone is included in the conversation. At the same time, it’s harder for any voice to dominate the way they sometimes do in a room. And on a practical basis, I’m grateful not to be making a weekly four-hour round trip to Boston; I think most of the group are also glad not to be going out on a cold February night to some under-heated hall in town.
We’re getting to know each other, though we’ve only met in this digital space, like pen pals or radio hams. Physical presence remains missing for now. I’m also aware that this is working because everyone involved is already a writer, and keen to develop. We’ve found a comfortable space in which to talk about the strengths and weakness of each person’s style, and ways of improving their texts. I’m used to needing my energy to encourage and build confidence; that isn’t necessary here, and I wonder how successfully I could do it over Zoom. This platform is fine if people are already motivated, but it’s hard to see how you could use it to gather strangers for a community art project.
Zoom is tiring, but I’m still not sure why. It may be to do with the concentration required by seeing everyone at once. My Leicester project was also built around two-hour sessions, but we wrote during that time – rather than between the workshops as we do now. I was often speaking to people individually, and that one-to-one intimacy is impossible in a Zoom call. Talking about your work in front of everyone is not the same as a one-to-one conversation. Again, that works because of the experience of the people I’m now working with.
Before the first workshop, I wrote out a timetable for the session to share with Sonya, partly because she and I had not worked together before, but mostly because I was anxious about whether I could do this remote working. That timetable ran to two pages. I did a shorter version for the second workshop but I haven’t done one since. It’s a bit like taking the training wheels of a child’s bike. I don’t need them anymore because I’ve learned to ride the Zoom bicycle. And that, typically, is when you fall off.