Zoom: Humanistic or Robotic

Zoom: Humanistic or Robotic

The virtual meeting platform Zoom has boomed since the onset of Covid. The Guardian, a British newspaper, states that its revenue has more than doubled from the same time the year before. Many users love the site; others abhor it. Reasons for both opinions abound and often overlap: convenience, no commuting to work, viewing all participants; inconvenience of technology, lack of personal interaction at the water-cooler, viewing all participants.

During a Zoom class about George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the host asked all participants to disable the microphone and video option to lessen the distraction quotient. Who doesn’t check out each other’s Hollywood Squares-ish windows? Wasn’t he wearing that same shirt yesterday? I didn’t know she had blonde hair. All these people look bored and tired. And, of course, we check out our own images. Oh, my God, is that a zit?!

Most participants followed directions and blacked out, but some — probably out of Zoom illiteracy — had not. When only a few videos play on an otherwise darkened screen, those individuals’ head turns, sitting position, eating and drinking, ad nauseam, do indeed distract. Yet sometimes we get a close-up of a life: A man rubs under his dog’s chin. A woman with short grey hair, styled a la Joan of Arc, bows her head, (maybe searching for how to turn off her video) when a blue-jeaned older man shows up behind her, leans over and kisses the top of her head, then moves out of camera’s view. Another person shoos a child from the room.

This summer I had tuned in to a virtual writing workshop, which did not use Zoom but in its stead a platform called Whova. (Anti-ad: Stay away from Whova.) I’m not sure if the poet running the workshop chose to, but we could only see him; once in a while the co-host’s image would pop up when she spoke. For a viewer, this resulted in a very disjointed, impersonal experience, a headless, voiceless one. At least on the Middlemarch Zoom, we could read names and know that a person existed behind the tiny exed-out microphones. During real in-person workshops the human body in all its permutations adds to the writing being discussed. I recall a gifted poet in my graduate program who read his work in a gentle voice and rhythmic cadence; he gesticulated with his right hand, forming a circle with his middle finger and thumb; he paused slightly at each line-break. It was hypnotic yet also liberating, if that makes sense. The rest of us wanted him to read our poems.

Zoom poses some important social questions. Do we secretly love the voyeurs within us? Will Zoom change forever the nature of group communication? How does it affect our focus with its standard forty minute play; is it just another bit of technology that shortens our attention span? And, finally, how does it determine our social personae? These issues need to be examined, because with no end to Covid and its variants in sight, Zoom is here to stay.

Reading as a Writer

Once during my undergraduate days, a professor assigned the class to write an essay about our group, utilizing the collective pronoun “we”. She asked us what attributes the class shared and wrote them on the board. At the time I was reading John Updike’s Rabbit novels, whose main protagonist is Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a WASPy, middle class suburbanite, whose attributes were not unlike those of our class. Updike often utilized third-person plural, especially in meditative passages about the lives of those who peopled Rabbit’s world. Here are a couple examples: “We were all brought up to want things and maybe the world isn’t big enough for all that wanting.” And another from a ruminating section: “How sad, how strange we make companions out of air and hurt them, so they will defy us, completing creation.” Both of these quotes are from Rabbit Redux, a sequel to his Rabbit, Run.

Many of my fellow students were also mothers (I attended an all-female college.) I opened my essay with sentences that went something like this: “We navigated our way through the stops and starts of carpools. We selected red, foulard ties to go with our husbands’ s grey suits. We rushed to the market before the 3 o’clock bell tolled at our children’s schools.” Without realizing it, I had learned from Updike.

Francine Prose, novelist and author of Reading Like a Writer, says “After I’ve written an essay in which I’ve quoted at length from great writers, so that I’ve had to copy long passages from their work, I’ve noticed that my own work becomes, however briefly, just a little more fluent.”

Try this for yourself. Take whatever it is you are currently reading (or a book you’ve already read and that you especially like) and underline some passages that struck you as particularly memorable. You can even copy them out, as Prose did. Wait a day. Then reread what you underlined or copied out, several times. The next day write anything for 20 minutes, and assess your work. I’d be surprised if you don’t detect a change in your writing.

Follow the spark.

Whenever an idea, phrase, even just a word, comes to you, write it down. (You would be surprised how even a jotted word brings about a stream of writing.) There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to remember a thought that you didn’t record. Sometimes something comes to me as I am falling asleep, at which point I grab a notebook from my nightstand and mark it down. When I’m out and about, napkins, paper scraps, store receipts suffice. (Careful with the receipts as often they resist writing; I guess they are treated with some kind of preservative!) Most importantly, always have a pen or pencil with you, and if you’re really organized — which I’m not — carry a small notebook.

I recall driving to the beach with my teen-age son and dictating to him some thoughts. Also the recording option on a phone is useful but I prefer actual writing; for me the sound of a pen or the feel of a pencil on paper somehow propels my mind; the manual drives the cerebral. To stir inspiration, William Wordsworth would walk for hours in England’s Lake District. American poet Wallace Stevens, too, found walking an inspiring method. He walked to and fro his job at the Hartford insurance company, using paper scraps he carried in his pockets. Edgar Allan Poe created scrolls for his writing by connecting his pages end-to-end with sealing wax.

Many writers have written inspiration on as many surfaces. Because of his failing eyesight, James Joyce wrote on large pieces of cardboard using a bright red crayon. Famously, at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, Hemingway scribbled on a napkin his six-word story: For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn. Faulkner outlined one of his books on a wall.

Whether you write on napkins or receipts, don’t let them pile up on your desk or remain in your pocket or purse. Follow the spark.