OK, Zoomer: How to get the most out of an online or virtual writing workshop — Áine Greaney
Growing up, we had no household telephone. Instead, in our rural Irish village, we had one of those street-side payphones. You know the ones: They were cream with a green trim. Inside, you had to turn a black handle to dial the operator. Then, you told the operator that you wanted to place a call to a certain number and you let your coins clink through to get connected.
Incoming calls? We didn’t really get any. Sometimes there was an emergency or quasi-emergency, and the post-office lady came to our door or called out over the backyard wall. Then, we raced to that street-side coin box to lift up that huge black phone receiver to get the news.
In 1987, just after I had emigrated from Ireland to America, my parents decided to install their very first household phone.
Now that I think about it, was there a cause (immigrant daughter) and effect (a white, Mrs. Bouquet-style phone) at play here? I don’t know. I only know that, during my early years in America, my transatlantic phone bills often rivaled my monthly rent.
Fast forward to this year, 2020, our COVID year, when many of our group events and classes have either been canceled or moved online-including creative writers workshops and author events.
These days, as I accept another Zoom invite, it feels like I have time-traveled across the light years to this place where we can write and drink tea and even eat dinner and toast life milestones together-all while sitting separately at home in our pajamas.
Now, let’s put this in context. As families are COVID bereaved, as our healthcare workers deal with unimaginable stresses and vicarious trauma, the privilege of attending a virtual creative writing workshop or author reading is just that — a privilege.
Still, as we all struggle with the pandemic’s ravages and uncertainties, we also struggle to preserve a few of life’s trusted pleasures. And for many of us, that includes connecting with other writers.
Doing what I love: Leading creative writing workshops
For well over 20 years, I’ve been designing and leading writing workshops. No, scratch that. I’ve been honored, thrilled, tickled pink, jazzed up, snazzed up, revved up and rearing to go when it’s time to lead a writing workshop.
I don’t know what it is. I just know that a really happy and high-performing version of myself arrives in that (in-person) writing classroom.
Last spring, 2020, I was scheduled to conduct an expressive or wellness writing workshop for a local cancer recovery group. Then, here came our COVID lockdown, and the workshop had to be moved to Zoom.
Worried? Suffice to say that this phone-averse kid was petrified.
I mean, digital logistics aside, where would that workshop energy go? How well (or not) would the human interactions and camaraderie transmit across a WiFi connection? What about the peer-to-peer reviews and knowledge sharing? What about those unplanned and often rich conversations that happen between sessions or during the break?
Oh, and speaking of “the break,” what about the free tea and snacks?
That first Zoom workshop went well-in large part because I had an excellent and gracious host. This summer, two other instructional Zoom workshops followed. Yes, I had a lot to learn, but each session was warm and fun and, I hope, instructional.
Those who teach, learn
Then it was time for me to play student, not teacher. I joined two wonderful Friday Freewrite sessions at the International Women’s Writers Guild. I took a poetry-writing class on Commune. I gleefully joined a second poetry class with The Poet’s House in New York City. With the Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop, where I serve on the faculty, I joined a session on how to lead Zoom-based writing workshops. I also took a class on authors and social media with Creative Nonfiction.
Not bad, eh? In retrospect, being a virtual writing student taught me as much (or more) about teaching online workshops than any instructor’s manual could ever have.
How to get the most out of an online writing workshop: 5 tips
- Prepare for your class: I recommend signing in at least 15 minutes (or more) before the posted class time. This gives you time to check your video quality, clean up your space, check your sound and your headphones. Also, keep your notebook, your pens, your head phones and your water glass ready and within reach. Being prepared makes for a much better class for you and the other participants.
- Interaction and engagement: In smaller workshop groups, simply raise your hand and ask a question or contribute to the on-screen discussion. Or your leader may create small-group break-out “rooms.” Or you can participate in the comments — either one-on-one or with the whole group. Be careful not to inadvertently send a one-to-one or private message to the entire group.
- Dedicate this learning time: Like thousands of Americans, I lost my salaried job this past spring. So amid all the worry about next steps and finding new work, I really treasured this scheduled creative time. So if you register for a virtual writers workshop, silence your other electronic devices and try not to multi-task or catch up on the day job while also learning to write.
- Put any techno glitches behind you: Like so many other aspects of our lives, it’s easy to let one faux pas eclipse the larger experience. You may have trouble signing in or getting connected with your class. Or your audio won’t work the first time. Once you get going, put these behind you to fully engage with your instructor and peers. The technical mishaps have happened to all of us. Just re-connect and prepare to enjoy.
- It’s the Internet. So how much should we really share in class? On Zoom or another internet-based teaching platforms, some of the traditional paradigms change. Is the host recording the session? What steps will your workshop leader take to moderate for mutual respect and lively but egalitarian discussions? Before you register or pay for an online writing class, ask about these issues-particularly the recording question. Make your final registration decision based on the answer(s).
For some writers and learners, virtual learning and author events are a dream come true. For others, they are, at best, a prosthetic version of the real thing. As a student and a teacher, I’ve learned that in-person and virtual learning models each have their benefits and their challenges.
So until we can gather together for those free, break-time treats and tea, let’s keep an open mind and be prepared to enjoy.