A Virtual Tinker Mountain?

I’ll admit my first thought when our governor shut down our state and closed public schools and colleges (state and private) was that I would miss my annual trip to Hollins University in Roanoke for Tinker Mountain Writers Workshops and Retreats. Yeah, writers can be selfish dicks sometimes.

Indeed, a few days after the shutdown came the email from Hollins announcing the in-person workshops and retreats were cancelled; however, if we wanted a virtual workshop, go vote in the poll. I did, and a few weeks after that, Tinker Mountain went virtual. (All hail the mighty cyber goddess, ZOOM.)

So What, You Say?

I’ve written before about what this annual workshop means to me, how the instructors I’ve had the luck to learn from honed my focus on my writing, how any small success I’ve had would have been no success without this workshop. Two years ago I got sick while I was there and had to leave early; that was devastating.

And, yes, the instructors, their topics, and the professionalism of the workshop are top-notch, but the main thing that’s sent me back year after year for nine years is my cadre of writer friends I’ve met there. While on campus there are endless opportunities during and between meals and at the dorms to simply engage with other writers; to hash out plot holes; to commiserate over rejections; to celebrate successes; to imbibe a bit too much liquor. (Hey, we’re overage; it’s allowed.)

Though my Tinker Mountain writer friends and I are connected on social media, this once-a-year reunion becomes so important to us all. In a virtual workshop, we’d get to “see” each other, but on one level it wouldn’t be the same. The loss of those impromptu get-togethers would be deeply felt, and that was exactly the case. The workshop session would end for the day, and there I was alone in my house with me for company and no one to talk to.

No other writers to hash over the workshop with. No one to complain about the cafeteria food with. No conversations to be had at meals with instructors you weren’t workshopping with. Sometimes, however, you make the best of what you can get.

We All Learned to ZOOM

Shortly before I retired from federal service, I had a boss who was into the latest tech. We had twice weekly staff meetings with close to thirty people from around the country, and we were doing that on speaker phone. But the boss wanted to see people, read their body language, so he tasked me and another branch manager to spec a video conferencing set up. I worked with our IT folks and a couple of smaller offices who were already using video conferencing, and we got a system that met his needs, though the IT people did complain about how much bandwidth we ate up. This was ten-plus years ago, and the system we had to have a couple of stand-alone computers to operate, I could now do on my phone. Still, it was ten years ago, so my knowledge of how to video-conference (see, even the term is outdated), was woefully behind.

I was lucky to have been using ZOOM for nearly two years with an online writer’s group. Since the pandemic, another writers group and my book club had been ZOOMing open mic night and our book discussion respectively. At the end of March, a weekend writer’s retreat I’d been scheduled for switched from in-person to a ZOOM meeting and worked well. So, I had decent familiarity with ZOOM, but extra training never hurts.

Hollins administrators took us through a brief training session for ZOOM on ZOOM, and I was convinced this would work. Given the administrative staff who organize the in-person workshops, I knew this would be another success.

Personally, I felt they could have emphasized “ZOOM Etiquette” a bit more. Though we didn’t have any spouses “crashing” a session in their underwear, we did have cats walking on keyboards and dogs barking off-screen. Adorable, yes, but also distracting because, cuteness. And then there were the ones who answered phone calls and conducted conversations while unmuted.

But it’s a strange new world for some, this ZOOM meeting concept.

The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same

The interaction in my workshop, “Writing for the Ear,” led by Pinckney Benedict, didn’t change much. Benedict himself has been a pioneer in using audio and video with his undergrad and grad students at Southern Illinois University, not to mention conducting classes for several months via ZOOM. So, we were in good hands.

We could all see each other, and ZOOM has a private chat feature where you can engage with another member of the group and not load the open chat with a private conversation. People who tend to dominate discussions in person did so without missing a beat on ZOOM.

The Share Screen feature replaced the white boards in the Hollins classrooms we’ve used, and we had our one-on-one meetings with the instructor in a private, two-person ZOOM session.

My introverted writer friends were delighted. They could attend the workshop without “peopling.” As for me, I learned how to improve my podcast and take it wide (as in beyond this website), I got to write a little and get feedback, but I didn’t get to “people” with my writer peeps. (Though we’re planning on setting up ZOOM meet-ups to rectify that, it’s still not the same. For me.)

Many attendees liked the virtual workshop so much, they’re hoping we do it again next year or have a hybrid version: some people at Hollins in the classroom, others joining in via ZOOM.

Either way, at least we’ll still have Tinker Mountain.