Tie Me to the Mast (Metaphorically Speaking): Social Writing in the Age of the Pandemic7 min read

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It’s 5:30 AM in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The only reason I know this is because Patty Templeton, hair spiked high in a ponytail, coffee mug at the ready, is smiling sleepily at me over Zoom and asking, “So, whatcha working on today?”

Inevitably, I’m working on goblins. Or necromancers. Or houses that are people. Patty Templeton might be working on Halloween towns, or honky-tonks run by tiny mermaids, or a blog about poetry and the Cold War for the Los Alamos National Library, where she’s a digital archivist. Whatever she’s up to each morning, I can guaran-damn-tee it’s the most interesting thing happening in Santa Fe at 5:30 AM.

This makes me love Santa Fe, where I’ve never been. It also makes me love Zoom, which has been so great and so frustrating and so great for the last almost two years. Morning writing with Patty Templeton has given me a reason to wake up in the morning—though not, I admit, as early as Patty is waking up. For me, getting my butt in the chair (“SITZFLEISCH!” shouts my husband, Carlos Hernandez, at the top of his lungs) to write by 7:30 AM EST means setting at least three alarms. I choose the sound of ocean waves to wake me so I don’t cuss a blue streak, like I do whenever an infernal BEEP BEEP BEEP cattle-prods me upright. Instead, I start the process at 6:00 AM, and gently shadow-box my way up to consciousness from there.

A combination of these lapping ocean waves, my first cup of PG Tips, and a chance to write with Patty Templeton four mornings a week, and I’ve been waking up (after my three alarms) spry as a toddler on cartoon Saturday. For joy.

Joy has been … difficult. Not just the past two years, but for perhaps the past seven or so. Not impossible, but a moving target. There’s burn-out. Imposter syndrome. That good ol’ what’s the point of it all? My fiction felt both futile and frivolous, lacking relevance, lacking connection to the Zeitgeist. Even my doubts had doubt! And, of course, there were the revision blues; the cost of finishing what you start (some projects going back more than a decade) is not being able to start something new. Not for a very long time. And that, especially as I grow older and my writing slows down, gets very, very old.

And then, on top of all those usual writerly feels, there was the pandemic.

I’ve never been a lonely one. Not really. Not when I was alone, anyway. Historically, whenever I’ve felt at my loneliest, it was always in crowds. It took three years of living alone before I started to feel remotely like I could learn to be lonely, someday, in the distant future. But almost as soon as I began feeling that way, I started living with roommates again, so it never really had a chance to develop. Until early this year.

After our 2020 of isolating and avoiding, of staycations and face-swaddling, of inventing virtual life hacks and learning new virtual social platforms, of engaging from a distance, I began to feel, yes, lonely. Gray and lonely. Believe you me, I’ve read all those New York Times articles about languishing versus flourishing. Might as well have had a big red “IT ME” meme plastered on my forehead. My self-motivation was spalling beneath me like an old sidewalk. Most of 2020, I had deadlines and projects and enough moving parts to keep me going. But by January of 2021, I had joined the disheartened throngs. I grew dull and lackadaisical. Dragging my lone ass to my writing desk felt cruel, punishing. Like cutting concrete with my teeth.

And I had it easy, by comparison.

So this new feeling? This feeling of looking forward to my mornings? Waking with joy and (eventually, after three alarms) ease? This “O happy day; I get to write with a friend!” feeling? What price this treasure, this effervescence?

My whole writing life these days seems to revolve around whom I can catch to write with me in Zoom rooms. In my youth, I was very much a lone-wolf writer, with maybe the occasional one-on-one writing date. Then I met Carlos Hernandez and married him, and for the first two years of our marriage, we were pretty much writing together all the time. He had this big Disney Hyperion contract and the most intense deadlines of his life. Me, I wasn’t under any contract or deadline at the time. But I did take advantage of him being under enormous amounts of pressure to write with him. It helped him stay focused, and I got a lot of writing done. Ah, the laser-focus and feral good cheer of someone else’s deadline! I became much more of a writing-date writer (because any time he and I are together, even if we’re working, it feels like a date) than a lone-wolf writer. We kept each other accountable.

But just as Carlos had completed his two Sal and Gabi books, my contracts and deadlines started coming in. Now the pressure had shifted. (Not so fun when it’s your deadline, is it, Cooney?). The heat was turned up. But the pandemic chilled everything. Cast its wet pall over me. I was lucky if I made it to my desk for an hour. Writing a few paragraphs seemed to take the same amount of energy as a twelve-hour workday.

Enter Zoom. And with Zoom, my virtual writing groups: the Silent Writers Shift and the Virtual Gumbo Cafe. I won’t say they saved my life, but they infused me with energy, helped me make my deadlines, and improved the quality of my life. Joy, focus, progress, triumph, companionship, accountability: these are things that can take a person from languishing to flourishing—or at least they did that for me.

The Silent Writers Shift “is a virtual version of the floating week-long silent playwrights retreats (originally Writers Army) created by Anne Washburn and Madeleine George that met periodically in New York City.” When Covid hit, the retreat expanded virtually. It was not just one week; it was every week. It was not just playwrights; all writers were invited.

Every day of every week, I get an email from the Silent Writers Shift with a Zoom link. These writers don’t care if I show up snarled, saggy, drooling, and in my PJs, so long as I’m on time and writing. Everyone in the Silent Writers Shift comes into the Zoom room already muted. There are no interactions in the chat. At 9 AM EST precisely, the waiting room closes, we turn our cameras on, look up at each other, smile, and wave good morning. At 12 PM EST precisely, those who stayed for the whole shift look up and wave goodbye, still smiling, and the Zoom room snaps shut. In the interim, we write. Together, but silent. From all over the country, from all different time zones.

The Virtual Gumbo Cafe (formerly the “Positive Peer Pressure Writing Group”) is a far more flexible Zoom space: more social, less silent. It’s run by some friends of mine in Chicago, so the Facebook group and all the events they host are in Central Standard Time—a time zone that requires of me hilarious, even heroic efforts of recall and conversion, even though Chicago’s just an hour behind me and I used to live there.

The cafe is an offshoot of the Gumbo Fiction Salon: a monthly open mic composed of genre writers (of all genres) and the occasional musician. It’s a password-protected Zoom haven (a Zaven?) where writers can hop on at any time of the day or night to meet a friend for a writing date, or just find themselves in the company of other writers. I admit, I sometimes sign in when no one’s there, because the sight of “C. S. E. Cooney” in a Zoom room, even with my camera and mic off, incites in me a sort of Pavlovian “now I must write!” reaction. Like Joseph Mallord William Turner, I lash myself to the (virtual) mast for the sake of my art—not there to see the storm; to be the storm. Be the storm, Cooney!

Another useful thing about the Virtual Gumbo Cafe is that at designated times throughout the week, it offers timed writing sprints, hosted by cheerful volunteers. Our hosts allow fifteen minutes at the top of the hour to talk about writing and life. Then they start the clock for forty-five minutes of sprinting. Comes the top of the hour, rinse, repeat. It’s different from the strictures of the Silent Writers Shift but just as effective.

In fact, I’m in the Virtual Gumbo Cafe right now, as I write this. J9 Vaughn is sharing my Zoom room at present. We texted each other to meet here. They are dressed in witchy black, writing their grief memoir. Kittens are crawling all over them. J9 has been my very close friend ever since college, where we both majored in Fiction and minored in Theatre (they, in Directing; me, in Acting). J9 and I haven’t lived in the same state for ten years. But here we are today, writing together.

That’s what these generous virtual spaces gave to me—and gave back to me. A place to write. Friends to write with. A chance to experience joy-in-work that has been in woefully short supply for the last almost two years. I can’t tell you what this means to me.

I hope that you, too, are discovering or creating new gathering places, with limits and freedoms that work for you. The virtual havens I’ve written of today have been nothing but welcoming to strangers. I’ve introduced many friends, from many parts of the country, into their folds. The thought that these spaces are helping others the way they’ve helped me is a tender green spike of hope in the present bleakness. Because like Charlotte Gray says: “There must be something to set against all this.”

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