Writers Near and Far: Shared Prompts and Tic-Tac-Toe Boxes
May 22, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Megan Vered and Jennifer Lang
Part One: Creating Community by Megan Vered
I open the link to our scheduled Monday evening meeting and, one by one, mini faces appear in virtual boxes. How happy I am to see the women from my weekly writer’s group! We’ve been meeting in my home for the past two years and during that time have written about everything from first kisses to heart heavy losses. Within five minutes of being online together I sense the disconnect. We are an intimate ensemble that, under normal circumstances, huddles around my dining room table drinking ginger tea and eating lovingly assembled snacks, while listening to the sound of each other’s fingers on the keyboards. I look at their strained faces in the gallery view and it occurs to me—traditional prompt writing may only contribute to the feeling of isolation we are all experiencing. I wonder how I might add a personal touch to our now depersonalized gatherings, and it comes to me. “Let’s change things up this week. How about, rather than writing separately, we work together on a collective document based on the same prompt?” I feel their bodies relax. They are all on board.
It takes us a few weeks to polish the process that now looks like this: at the end of each two-hour session, I give a prompt. Person #1 responds and emails her response to Person #2. Person #2 responds to a theme or a phrase in Person #1’s writing and emails her response to Person #3. This continues until the final person has responded. I am cced on each version and collate a master document. Each week, we take turns being Person #1.
My spontaneous tag-you’re-it relay offers no road map, so we’ve had some false starts. Person #1 held up the flow by sitting on the prompt for too long. Person #3 forwarded to the wrong person. I reassure the group—we are not seeking perfection but safety.
The following Monday, I email everyone the assembled document. We do a read through without comments, each writer reading her own words out loud. We then do a second more critical read through. Each reader tells us what it was about the previous writer’s piece that motivated her. And then begins the fun: noticing, questioning, encouraging, word-shifting, deepening, reframing. Working on one document as a group in real time has brought us even closer and is improving everybody’s grasp of first person writing.
In the past month we’ve explored the topic of reckoning during these unprecedented times, how our experience of home has shifted, and this week we are writing desperation humor based on being cooped up. What has changed for them? They have shifted from being solitary writers to becoming a writer’s collective. What has changed for me? I have a new identity in the group as fellow writer who receives feedback on her work, just like the rest of them. And, in the process, I’ve become a bad ass pandemic prompt queen.
Part Two: Crossing Boundaries by Jennifer Lang
I beamed at the two dozen plus people popping up in tic-tac-toe boxes across my screen. A handful of my writing students in Israel. A couple of handfuls of my writing friends from my greater grad school community in the U.S. And a handful of writers from my friend Megan’s classes and community in my native northern California.
When I first approached her with my idea to co-lead a free workshop, on Zoom, she immediately accepted. The idea was we invite students and fellow writers, as well as our mates from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Despite the 7,422 miles and 10-hour time difference between us, Megan and I volleyed WhatsApps and emails, both of us brimming with ideas, until finalizing the details. She came up with Stepping Through to the Other Side: A Virtual Writing Workshop; I scheduled the session and created the event; we blasted it on Facebook. That first meeting, late March, after group introductions, Megan and I each offered a prompt and women from across the globe wrote together in silence. At the 10-minutes left ZOOM warning, I messaged her, and we decided to forgo reading, wrap up, and gauge future interest: thumbs up, nods, un-muted yesses.
Ever since Megan and I started teaching in our opposite corners of the world after graduation, we have often shared prompts, methodologies and resources. In this new, unmapped territory, where I wanted to write but couldn’t focus and wondered why anyone would care about my memoir in progress, Megan was my perfect partner. At our second session, we listened to those who volunteered to read for three minutes and ended with a prompt for the next meeting. And so on and so on. Every Wednesday, we alternate leading the session and offer a mutually-agreed-upon prompt at the end to work on for the following week. As the weeks pass and we get to know and trust each other more, our stories are becoming more vulnerable and intimate as we tackle subjects like isolation, loss, rediscovered joys, simple pleasures. We see each other wiping eyes during readings. We clap. We send messages in the chat box with words of encouragement or calls for submissions.
A month in, Megan and I have named our group Writers Near & Far. We’re fluid with faces coming and going and no limits on numbers. The only rule is to keep your heart open, to feel safe in the space. During these uncertain times, as we hunker down and turn inward in a way that even feels intense for a memoir writer, maybe listening to each other read and creating connection is just what we need.
Megan Vered is an essayist whose first-person writing focuses on family, friendship, faith, and the fantasia of her youth. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the San Francisco Chronicle, Silk Road Review, and the Coachella Review, among others. Megan holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her husband and West Highland White Terrier in Marin County, California, where she serves on the board of Heyday Books and leads writing workshops.
Born and bred in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives and writes in Tel Aviv. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, the Brevity blog, and 1966: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction, among other venues. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, Lang earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as an Assistant Editor for Brevity. Find her at israelwriterstudio.com and follow her @JenLangWrites.