At the beginning of the pandemic, like many people in New York City, I was adjusting to a sudden lockdown and constant sirens, plus news that all of my cousin’s family members in Los Angeles were sick with COVID—one person on a ventilator. Partly to take my mind off the waiting (when someone’s in an induced coma from COVID, there’s not much you can do) I was writing a reported essay for the Los Angeles Times on how South Korea had its first COVID case the same day as the United States did but had already—unbelievably—controlled the virus. I was interviewing a friend who lives in Korea, the novelist and professor Krys Lee, about what that felt like. We decided to catch up more thoroughly after I filed the piece, so she and I planned on a Zoom. While we were at it, she said, why not do some writing?
In thirty-odd years of daily writing, I have never written with people. I know many people who do, but being solitary in my habits, I always felt constitutionally unable to join these real-time “writing dates.” But that March everything turned strange—not only was my extended family in peril, but my son with disabilities was suddenly not in school and we were receiving scary texts from the city urging us not to call 911 as it was overloaded because of COVID, while on the news Trump supporters were gleefully refusing to wear masks in public. If everything was going to be strange, I would be too: I told Krys yes. She suggested we each bring a friend.
One friend demurred, being too busy. I brought my friend Curtis Chin. Funny, almost three decades ago, we’d spent our twenties creating the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Krys brought her friend Leland Cheuk, whose novel I had reviewed (favorably) earlier in the year, and suddenly we were four Asian American writers workshopping again.
Workshopping, actually, is not quite the right word. That suggests work and goals. It was much more organic. Every Saturday we would log on at 6:30 PM Eastern for me and Leland, 3:30 PM for Curtis in L.A., and 7:30 AM for Krys in Korea. I ran the Zoom but would typically be the last to join, trying to jam in cooking dinner for my son.
We came up with a minimal structure that allowed for maximal silliness: themed and timed writing prompts. Titles of movies, for example, or colors—someone would call out a color, we would write for eight or ten or twelve minutes, the grid on the screen going quiet as we wrote in our notebooks or typed at the computer, cameras on. We’d stop when the timer went off, then call out another prompt—“Chartreuse!”—laugh, start again.
Sometimes, if the clock permitted, we’d do a lightning round of three or four minutes. The prompts often reflected things that were going on, like the election. We rewrote iconic movie scenes from other characters’ views. We wrote about what life felt like at different ages. Of places we’d like to go. Most recently we wrote on the theme of the seven deadly sins with Curtis tossing in that each sin could be represented by a character on Gilligan’s Island. We could be as silly, weird, or inept as we wanted on the page because we didn’t share any of what we produced.
Still, the first sessions tested my commitment issues. Two books in production, a medically fragile child, plus a teaching job still in full swing—forget sourdough breadmaking—COVID lockdown actually meant I had less time than before.
And I felt self-conscious just staring into the silence after a prompt had been thrown out. Singapore? I have never been there! The ten minutes seemed forever as I pushed myself just to put random words down on the page. Once, I was totally stumped and took the prompt as an occasion to revisit a scene from my novel.
Next week, I told myself, I’ll quit if I don’t like it. Everyone knows my time pressures with my son and my job. They’ll understand I can’t spare one to two hours just noodling around every week, especially when I have so many other Zooms for work. But I didn’t. The discomfort meant at least I could feel something, right? Also, everyone seemed to be writing. Once a wonky internet connection during a writing session meant that I, the unofficial timekeeper and Zoom runner, had to e-mail or text everyone a new log-in link. But people kept writing and writing and writing, oblivious to the broken Zoom link long after the ten minutes was up. I was envious of their absorption.
Then one Saturday the marimba chime from my phone’s timer made me almost fall out of my chair. Where was I? Wait—how could ten minutes be up? Preposterous! Despite myself, I had achieved that strange steady-flow state in which everything in the background fades away.
In my normal working life, my office door is closed, my schedule cleared, my phone off; I have everything set up to achieve that flow state—and stay there. Long stretches of uninterrupted time is a necessity for my work, and I’d thus been mourning the cancellation of two residencies, one that was supposed to start in March, the same week New York’s lockdown began. With my writers group, then, I found it a little weird to write intensely, then move on. What did it mean to turn the faucet on and off like some demented toddler, going from prompts such as “Star Wars” to “Psycho”?
I was surprised, too, to look back on the scene I had rewritten that Saturday. Even though the prompt had nothing to do with any of the themes in my novel, I really liked a few sentences and ended up incorporating them into my manuscript.
We kept meeting. Soon the engine of our days seemed to catch, like gears, and the group became part of not just my writing life, but my COVID life. Meeting weekly helped me make sense of COVID time, which had turned past-present-future into some kind of formless ectoplasm. Saturday came again, and again—a concrete reminder that time was passing. While waiting to hear about my cousin’s husband (he survived, after twenty-one days on a ventilator), our group was something to look forward to, weekly proof that even though our worlds had shrunk to our various apartments, the wider world was still there. One night Krys recounted how tired she was after going out with friends in Seoul and she couldn’t understand why we had all gone silent until Curtis explained that it was hard to process the rest of her story. We were all still stuck on the idea of being able to go out freely, knowing the virus is more or less controlled, with almost everyone masked and following protocol—her quotidian life was just science fiction fantasy for the rest of the group in the United States.
In the absence of going to readings, conferences, in-person workshops, and residencies, the group has become how we create memories that mark the time we share with our friends and colleagues. With so many spontaneous opportunities for cross-pollination and fellowship gone, the group fills a large intellectual and creative deficit in my life. I used to love working my brains out all day at a residency, then “reuniting” at dinner with my artistic companions, and I am definitely feeling that lack now.
Also, so much of writing depends on observation of the world. I love New York City because it’s one of the best places for eavesdropping. Since this is now mostly impossible—I have not been on the subway since March 14, 2020—our weekly stories of our micro-existences are like birds bringing bright things back to the nest to share. Writers group is also my mental time away from my family, my time to play, not be a parent.
While much has been made of the importance of play for children’s brain development, recent research has suggested that adult brains need it too. In fact, the National Institute for Play suggests the sharp falloff in play for adults may even be dangerous for our mental health and urges us to make time for turn-taking play such as board games, mimicking the space where children develop not just their creative brains, but also their social brains.
It occurred to me that our writers group’s format is an adult version of neighborhood kickball, except that instead of going to one another’s houses and asking people to come play, we put it in our Google calendars and meet on Zoom. After, we pack up our stuff, fondly say goodbye, and rush off to our respective time zones until we meet again.
What we know about the brain and creativity also suggests that our anti-productivity group just might be extremely productive. Sticking to our usual writing habits or ways of being productive can actually put us in a rut. Kendra Bryant, PhD, a neuropsychologist at Neuropsychology and Concussion Management Associates and the past president of the Maine Psychological Association, puts it as, “There’s a pathway in our brain that is responsible for carrying out loops, and aspects of whatever kind of work we do can become repetitive and routine, a kind of autopilot, even if we think we are ‘thinking’ about the tasks,” which can, she posits, lead to things like writer’s block. And finding a way to focus during the pandemic sometimes feels impossible. Writer David Wondrich tweeted that writing during COVID was “like writing with a head full of molasses and fireflies.” Distractions and flickers of ideas.
So what if you had a place to dump all these ideas without worrying about where they were going, like Julia Cameron’s famous recommendation to free-write three “morning pages” every day? Bryant agrees that such an arrangement might look like our group: “Allowing ‘not thinking’ and drifting mentally in a more free-form way can invite ultimately a more active/creative aspect of brain function to kick in.... Neurocognitively, letting thoughts wander without purpose allows for discovery.”
A few months in, Curtis revealed that he was finishing up a manuscript and asked for feedback. We were eager to help. A workplace efficiency expert would probably suggest using one of our normal Saturday sessions, but we instinctively sequestered anything redolent of “work for publication” far, far away. We held a separate session, our professional writer selves ready to critique. Curtis’s work turned out to be so good (he’d used a lot of the prompts, he told me, to experiment with voices), I asked my group-mates if anyone else was “sneaking” things out from our scribble sessions into the professional space.
Krys said she’d found seeds of short stories in her work. Leland said that since he was deep into revising a project for publication, the exercises allowed him to be generative outside of his big project, and he, too, had written a few short stories inspired by the prompts. For me, doing this writing has ironically led to the capacity for more writing. While looking for a blank notebook for the group, I found one that contained the beginning of a short story I’d discarded—and suddenly found the motivation to finish it. I finished my novel revision, wrote two more COVID-related pieces on deadline, and started a new novel. This fall I actually started doing the daily morning pages as well. Perhaps constantly writing made that first plunge into the empty page that much less intimidating.
After our session writing about the seven deadly sins, I learned that ancient Christians considered there to be an eighth deadly sin: an “anxious heart,” as translated from the Greek. A monk is especially susceptible to the sin when spending time sequestered in a monastery. According to the monk John Cassian’s fifth-century text The Institutes, as translated by Boniface Ramsey, the anxious heart “does not allow him to stay still” yet makes one “immobile in the face of all the work to be done.” This particular sin was moralized into a shameful spiritual pollution that needed to be kept from the normally industrious population. It makes me wonder if our American Protestant work ethic—#grindmode and #hustle—similarly causes paralysis simply via the expectations that anyone who hasn’t written King Lear while mastering sourdough starter and a second or third language is just not making good use of COVID “downtime.” Early on in the pandemic, when I was packing mask liners for friends who work in hospitals, I definitely had moments when I’d wonder if my chosen career of making up imaginary worlds called into question not the how but the why of writing.
Much of the “anxious heart” stems from confronting what we cannot individually control. We wear masks to care for others, but if a large segment of the population does the opposite, all that individual work is lost. Many of our institutions are letting us down, or maybe the pandemic is revealing they never really cared about us in the first place. Our writers group then is a chosen space, chosen people with whom we spend minutes of what Mary Oliver called our “wild and precious life.” And just as wild and precious as ever is our deliberate expression of care. Because we’re not family, we feel an extra sense of responsibility and commitment to one another for deliberately choosing to be our group of four, to care for one another as writers and friends. Often our pre-workshop catch-ups revolve around what we are eating, are planning to eat. For Krys it’s breakfast. Curtis is dinner. Leland and I may have already been done with food for the day. We reminisce about old meals, dream about future ones. We have decided when the lockdown ends to go eat pasta in Italy together.
Just as much of writing is showing up every day to do the work, this practice is about showing up every week for others. I’ve been in other groups where members run out of gas, are flaky, or don’t pull their weight. But our group has offered fun and fellowship, as well as a reminder of why we write. Krys says the group helped her recommit, realize that writing matters, and still matters. The group has also become her writing retreat, her writing church of the “same people every week,” and, she says, amid the bleak global pandemic news, “gives me back some joy” in writing and in fellowship.
Similarly I’ve spent a lot of time staring at the things in my office because when I can’t come up with a prompt, I use objects around me. I have my childhood typewriter, the one that made me want to become a writer at age nine, and the eight-minute scribbles remind me of how all I needed was a ream of blank paper and a fresh ribbon to be happy, sometimes just typing aimlessly to hear the sound of the metal keys hitting the platen. As an adult, through the high-tech of my laptop, the invisible atoms that connect my face and voice to my friends allow me to slip back into this “beginner’s mind” and recall the freedom and joy of why I wanted to write in the first place. This includes the early days of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, before any of us became professional writers, when we gathered just to be with other like-minded people, not to become “famous writers.” One of the gifts of the pandemic is revisiting that time.
Going into Saturdays with no expectations, no hierarchies, and no professionalism is the accidental engine, I think, that makes our group work. The uncertainty and unknowingness of creation is compounded by the uncertainty of what news each day will bring.
The group, then, is a calming and unswerving punctuation of the week, as I watch the pages of my notebook (now my third) fill. It’s as satisfying as nurturing plants, baking bread, and the other creative things people are newly doing to pass the time during COVID. No doubt, being able to meet each week to do “nothing” is an absolute privilege. But another week that we’re here again, healthy and safe, is not something to be ashamed of but to celebrate.
I still am that person who doesn’t like writing spontaneously with other people. And one for whom a weekly commitment is something my rational planning mind screams I’m too busy for. I am all this while Saturdays keep coming, and it reminds me, like my daily practice of trying to write my next book, that this is just one chapter, there is another out there, waiting, as yet unwritten.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee is an acclaimed Korean American writer and author of the young adult novel Finding my Voice, thought to be one of the first contemporary-set Asian American YA novels. She is one of a handful of American journalists who have been granted a visa to North Korea since the Korean War. She was the first Fulbright Scholar to Korea in creative writing and has received many honors for her work, including an O. Henry honorable mention, the Best Book Award from the Friends of American Writers, and a New York Foundation for the Arts fiction fellowship. Her stories and essays have been published in the Atlantic, the New York Times, Slate, Salon, Guernica, the Paris Review, the Nation, and the Guardian, among others. Marie is a founder of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and teaches creative writing at Columbia. She lives in New York City with her family.