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A Sea Of Unknown Faces

Joining an online writing group

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

When life locked down in March 2020 and so much of the day-to-day went online we all had to adapt. We created offices in our bedrooms or recording studios in our cupboards. Meetings took place at kitchen tables, along with maths lessons and science experiments. As I’ve pretty much always worked from home, this part of my lifestyle didn’t change much. I understood the importance of getting dressed, that going out for a walk was a vital part of the day, and that daytime telly is a big black hole. I am usually quite regimented with my time; if I’m not at my desk and working by 10am I get itchy feet. But now I was home schooling a six-year-old and there was no time to write.

After nearly a year of home schooling at the kitchen table I was struggling to find the head space to focus on any concentrated writing. Days slipped into weeks and I found I had done nothing other than stare out of the window once home school shut for the day and I had a couple of precious hours to work. A writer friend suggested I try the London Writers’ Salon Writing Hour: a space for writers to come together online and write, undisturbed. It was working for her as she really missed working in cafés and being around other people.

I shuddered.

I hate working in cafés, I told her, but she continued. ‘It’s really good for focus,’ she said. ‘If you find yourself gazing out of the window, you’re soon aware of a sea of faces staring back at you from the screen and quickly get back to work.’

I didn’t like the sound of that sea of faces at all.

Even before we were plunged into a world of social distancing, long before the new rules and restrictions that kept us apart and turned high streets into ghost towns, I hated crowds of people. If a café looks too busy, I simply walk on by without stopping to check if there is a free table. I am probably happier on a lonely street in a quiet town on a cold Tuesday in February than a bustling hub of strangers on a Saturday afternoon in July. I do love socialising and our house is always open to family and friends, it is just something about that mass of unknown faces that sets me on edge.

It’s the same with my writing. I am very private when working on something new. I don’t want to talk about it to anyone and I definitely don’t like people reading it. I don’t want comments or feedback until I’m happy with a draft. I keep it hidden away, out of sight, away from the crowds. Also, I look insane when I write. I talk to characters; I talk to myself. I make endless cups of tea (often chain drinking my way through several cups an hour). I swear at my screen and frown constantly. I could not possibly join an online writers’ group and behave like that, could I?

The idea of joining an online session terrified me, but I needed to do something. I was getting nowhere and had deadlines looming, so I decided to sign up to a lunchtime writer’s hour, hosted on Zoom by the London Writers’ Salon.

The first time I joined I was completely unnerved by all those strangers’ faces, all waving and smiling and saying hello like old friends. I didn’t have the courage to switch my camera on. When the host said cameras needed to be on for some accountability I quickly scarpered. Oh no, this was not for me.

But I felt deflated. The people looked nice. The host was friendly and welcoming. It felt like gazing at an exquisite window display of the most delicious cakes but not venturing inside to buy because the café was too noisy. I was not going to be defeated and so, a couple of weeks later, I tried again. This time I joined with my camera on and lasted a minute or so, adamant, on departure, that this was definitely not a café I was going to frequent — it was far too busy for my liking.

My change of heart came after attending a training course to coincide with setting up a Reading Round group for the Royal Literary Fund. Rather than a face-to-face gathering the entire course took place on Zoom. I knew no one, but finally felt at ease with the sea of faces before me. We were separated into different groups over the three days and I became a lot more comfortable about being an active member, talking and raising issues and joining the discussion. The entire experience was incredibly supportive, and it turned out that I was not the only one who was more than a little nervous at the start.

Spurred on by this experience I determined to get over my fear and join the writers’ hour. I set myself a challenge — to stay for one session and if I still hated it by the end, I would draw a line under the entire venture. This time, as I joined the group, I spotted someone I vaguely knew, which instantly reassured me. At first the muted silence unnerved me, but I went with it. I stayed and started writing, working on notes at first. To my surprise, I got a lot done. I rarely looked up at the screen of unknown faces to my right, but it was a weird sort of comfort to know they were there.

I was curious to find out if other writers had embraced the online world for support or training during lockdown so I tweeted about online writing groups, asking if many other writers used them. The response was incredible. So many writers contacted me saying they found online writing groups supportive and welcoming. People who might not have been able to join a group in person, for whatever reason, were able to take part from the comfort of their own home. Writer Tom Wentworth has had ‘the most wonderful experience during lockdown with four other fabulous writers, only missing one week during the whole pandemic.’ Previously they tried and failed to meet multiple times, but Zoom has made it possible. Other writers have similar positive views of the online experience. The novelist and creative writing tutor Anstey Harris moved her entire operation online during lockdown and she tells me it is unlikely she’ll go back to face-to-face courses, even after social distancing restrictions are lifted. Her weekly sessions have gone from being local to national and even international during lockdown. One writer, based in Australia, gets up at 3am to write with the group once a week.

The writers’ hour I attended has that same global feel. With so much of a writer’s working life spent alone it’s a joy to feel part of a worldwide writing community, even if it is online. I must confess I’m now a total convert.

I now join sessions a few times a week and when I don’t make it, I miss the concentrated writing time with no distractions, but more than anything I miss my fellow writers all typing away in their own homes. I’ll use the hour to edit or plan new ideas. In fact, I’m editing this article with a sea of unknown faces just to the right of my screen. Of course, this is not for everyone, but it’s a supportive resource that can be adapted to suit individual needs. I’m still ridiculously private about my work, rarely giving much away about what I’m working on in the chat box, while others openly share. We don’t all need to embrace this online writing community, but if you’re having a particularly tough time focusing on something, I urge you to try it. You may be surprised at what or who you find among the sea of faces. I’ve trained myself not to talk aloud during these en masse writing hours. However, it is a comfort to look up occasionally and see all those little rectangles of unknown faces chatting away to themselves.

Rhiannon Tise is an award-winning writer for theatre, television and radio. Her ten-part adaptation of The Mill on The Floss won the VLV Award for Best Radio Drama 2020 and is available via BBC Sounds.

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