This self-isolation business is playing right into my hands. From the time I started thinking of myself as a writer, some forty years ago now, I knew my main talent for the job lay in my ability to cut myself off from other people. In fact, it seemed to be the whole point of the endeavour.
So, yes, the solitude of the writing life has come naturally to me. In university, I never showed up in the library to work with classmates on my latest assignment; instead, I rushed home to do it. Now, I don’t get it when colleagues insist they’re at their most creative in cafés. They’re not writing, I mutter to myself, they’re schmoozing.
I’m a second-generation loner and freelancer. My father, a sign-painter, worked in the basement of our suburban bungalow. I write in the basement of my home in NDG. I have a running joke that dates back to my first days typing away at stories I was convinced no one would ever want, let alone pay for: you can’t beat the commute, I assured worried family and friends.
Or the dress code, which is to say there isn’t one. I confess I used to be embarrassed answering the door in my work clothes (a.k.a. pyjamas) whenever a delivery person, say, showed up in the middle of a weekday afternoon. I never signed for anything without lying about how I was taking a sick day. But there’s nothing to be embarrassed about any more. No need to lie either. Now, everyone just leaves the package on the porch and disappears. It’s perfect. There’s no one around to judge.
Of course, it can get lonely facing the blank page every day. That explains why I’ve jumped at every chance to speak at a school or a book club or take on the closest thing I’ve ever had to a real job—teaching. My steadiest gig thus far has been leading a workshop for QWF. The workshop, which focuses on the art of the memoir, has a lot to recommend it—from encouraging new writers to hearing myself talk about my favourite subject (me). Most of all, it gets me out of the basement each spring for eight consecutive weeks.
This spring, due to a devastating virus, the job, via Zoom, has come to my basement and so far so good. Still, when I was first presented with the chance and the choice to meet with my students online, I admit I was skeptical.
Teaching memoir not only tends to but is intended to inspire writers to share their most personal stories. This means getting to know the people around you fast and learning to trust them even faster. And while I’ve seen this kind of thing happen regularly at QWF workshops, it has happened at close quarters, twelve of us, just about shoulder to shoulder, around a circular table. I couldn’t imagine a virtual workshop would be as well-suited to such an intimate undertaking.
Rick Moody, a novelist and creative writing professor at Brown University, also acknowledged his doubts in a recent New Yorker essay on teaching in the time of the pandemic. “The literary arts are more about a human in the room feeling something,” he writes, “expressing it, and the other humans listening and ideally feeling similarly.”
But it turns out that ideal of “feeling similarly” comes naturally to humans even when they’re popping up on a computer screen, self-isolated in a variety of locations across the city. I should have known that what has happened so often before when my fellow writers and I were in the same room together would happen now that we’re all on Zoom. We’ve reached consensus about the things that matter most—what makes a story work, what makes it touch us and teach us about ourselves and one another.
A writer’s main job, I tell my Zoom-mates, is to pay attention, and this workshop has made me pay attention to how human it is to crave consensus and not just here in my virtual classroom but everywhere these days. We’re routinely and graciously doing things that would have seemed silly or aggravating just a couple of months ago—staying six feet apart, wearing masks and gloves, scrubbing down our groceries.
In another New Yorker essay about the pandemic, novelist Karen Russell writes, “This physical separation belies what is happening on another plane; people are responding to the crisis with a surprising unity.”
But is it a surprise? Even for a writer like me, who started out wanting nothing more than to keep his distance, I always suspected that wasn’t really my plan. The plan was to connect and, this strange spring, for two hours every week, thanks to QWF and my talented, patient Zoom-mates, that’s what I’m doing. What we’re all doing, together.
Joel Yanofsky is the author of the memoir Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.
Photo credit: Cynthia Davis (headshot)