When the quarantine began in Colorado, I forced myself to find one small silver lining—now I would have time to take a memoir and essay writing class that I’d been wanting to take for years.
I work as a playwright and director in theater, and usually rehearsals and performances keep me busy. Now, of course, theater is shut down. My life as I have known it—just like everyone else’s—is shut down. It seems like my industry might be one of the last to return.
I’ve been looking for joy wherever I can find it…and I’ve found it in a surprising turn of events in this writing class.
The class meets every Thursday night on Zoom. We are a group of 12 strangers. Most of us live in Colorado, though one joins us all the way from Bermuda.
During our first class, many people shared that they were like me–the only reason they were able to take this class was because of the quarantine, and because, for the first time ever, it was being offered online. Every week we share our work, often opening up with stories and experiences that are so intimate that we haven’t even shared them with the people in our lives.
It’s like being given permission to read someone else’s diary, which is a dream if you’re nosy like me. One woman wrote about her husband asking her for an open marriage. Another wrote about how her parents left her at an orphanage when she was a toddler in the 1940s. We offer critique on each other’s work, and receive critique on our own work.
We are an eclectic group of people, including Marcy, who is probably in her late seventies, and Todd, who is probably a little bit older. Marcy is funny and feisty. She can only make the audio on her Zoom work about a third of the time. She also doesn’t understand the “chat” feature, so when she has something to say, she writes it down on a piece of paper and holds it up to the camera for us to read. It’s like watching a hostage situation.
Todd is my favorite to offer critique. He has a way of making you feel like the world is a beautiful place, and we are lucky to be alive in it. He makes you feel like you are an incredibly special person for writing what you’ve written. He’s made me cry more than once.
The first couple of weeks of class, I noticed that Todd and Marcy were making awfully friendly comments about each other’s writing. As I watched it unfold, I wondered, “Wait a minute. Are these two…flirting?!”
As the weeks go on, I’ve come to depend on this class as a kind of lifeline. Like Todd, Marcy, and several in the class, I live alone. While I have set up a social schedule of weekly Zoom happy hours and game nights with various friends, they are “theater people” like me.
Much of our conversation circles around the pandemic. How we are all doing with it? What show of ours has been cancelled? What will theater look like on the other side of this? How long is our industry, and our art form, done for? Months? Years? Is it just…done?
Somehow in the essay class, none of us are writing about the pandemic. Marcy sent us an essay about her travels in Asia in the 1970s, with beautiful descriptions of all the architecture and plants she’d seen. When we offered the critique that we wanted more of her in the essay, she sassily replied, “I know you want more of me. You’re not going to get it.”
Todd piped up, “Well, she already knows that I love this piece. We’ve been emailing all week.”
We comment, sometimes, on how unusual it seems that a group of memoir writers would be intentionally ignoring such a big event in our lives. However, to write about the pandemic now feels almost like describing a painting while your nose is pressed up against it.
“Um…it’s red? It’s a bear? It’s the ocean? It’s my life falling apart?” I think in a few years when we can step back and see the whole picture, there will be a plethora of work describing the experience we’re in now.
But at this juncture, there is something refreshing about coming together once a week and reading about the joy, pain, heartache, and resiliency of the human spirit—from our lives before–in the form of these 12 strangers.
A man wrote about all the odd events of his childhood that he couldn’t make sense of, until he discovered late in life that his father was an alcoholic. A woman wrote of breaking both of her legs two days before having to evacuate her home in the California fires.
Todd and Marcy secretively blew each other a kiss on that Zoom call—which is not secretive at all, of course, unless you are wearing the blinders of young love and have eyes only for one specific box in the Hollywood Squares. This pandemic is just one more thing to overcome for this representative subset of the human race, who have already proven that they can overcome very, very hard things.
About six weeks in, Todd and Marcy announced to the class that they are now dating. Of everything that has been bringing me life and joy and hope in this class, this brought the most.
Even though there are terrible and frightening things happening in the world, Marcy and Todd found each other in a Zoom writing class–and neither of them would have been there if it weren’t for the pandemic. And I found a community I didn’t know I needed. It reminded me that beautiful things are still happening in the world, too.
And it’s our job to write about them.
Jenny Stafford is an author, lyricist, playwright and instructor who splits her time between Denver and New York City.