Writers' Block

Austin wordsmiths meet up for unique virtual sessions to ‘sit down, shut up, and write’

Austin wordsmiths meet virtually to ‘sit down, shut up, and write’

Dog with laptop dog looking at laptop computer
Having trouble getting started on that manuscript? Try this: Sit Down, Shut Up, and Write! Photo courtesy of Pixlr

Welcome to the 2020s. Zoom fatigue is a thing. This miracle technology is wearing us thin with obligation. Still, writers from around the world are signing up for one online work group where they don’t have to feign attention during meetings, just for a quick chat with near strangers and the comfort of working together — with cameras and microphones off.

The Austin-based Meetup group forcefully named Sit Down, Shut Up, and Write! offers its more than 2,500 members a way to stay in touch and stay accountable, even when they can’t meet in their usual coffee shops. Despite the odd limitation of getting together to work completely separately, it really works.

Member Catherine Summers writes in via email about her trial-and-error process of finding the right accountability method before this group, listing various online groups and courses.

“I had to spend an inordinate amount of time on thoughtful critiques, which became just another excuse not to write. I think it’s like going to the gym or running or yoga. Just the fact that other people show up gets you moving,” she says.

The lack of obligation to the rest of the group is the low barrier of entry that brings writers in to try the group, and what protects their productivity when cameras are off. Work time is completely each writer’s own, with unstructured conversation limited to a chunk at the beginning and end.

Most days, with meetings at least twice a day, a handful of writers log on with a host and state their goals for the session. They express apprehension perhaps, with the resignation of those who know they’re about to put in the work, regardless of whether they know how to tackle it.

“I consider myself an introvert. I don’t really enjoy being forced to talk in those types of situations,” says group founder Suzanne Link. “There’s something motivating about [someone choosing] to take an hour and 20 minutes out of your day to join me. Knowing there are other people out there — either suffering or making progress in their projects — helps me.”

Link, a screenwriter, started the Meetup group 11 years ago when she was in another collective that issued writing prompts. She’d heard of write-ins and decided to create her own group, where the freer format could be more central. She and her co-organizers, especially science fiction writer Mike Walker, had tossed around the idea of online meetings but never adopted them until the pandemic kept writers at home. Both organizers are working from home, having left non-writing jobs in the past few years to focus on making things happen on the page.

At one 7 am session, Link held space for writers to vent about work and shared some research she did on a type of perfume someone had previously written about. Someone copied and pasted a call for submissions to a literary magazine into the chat in case anyone wanted to try it. Multiple generations of women discussed living in New York, as if having an offhand early morning subway chat.

Link says the time frame for earlier sessions works because the rest of the house is sleeping and it’s too early to do most daytime chores. It’s a quiet time for working on less pressing matters. When it’s time to write, the cameras and mikes go off and the simplicity of doing what we said we would just minutes ago lingers.

As a participant in this session, this CultureMap reporter admits the following: I could have used my time more wisely. The format lends itself to the Eat the Frog school of productivity that focuses on completing the day’s single most daunting task as soon as it starts. Instead of writing for an hour, I sent some emails, did some research, and planned my week. It was helpful, although I didn’t knock out any big chunks of writing.

In the two sessions I attended, when the cameras flipped back on, everyone seemed pleasantly surprised at what they’d accomplished, the pre-meeting resignation replaced with a sense of achievement. When they came back frustrated, they had an opportunity to spell it out to the group and potentially notice a pattern in doing so.

“I pride myself on doing what I say I’m going to do if I’m saying it to somebody else,” says Link. “If I’m just saying it to me, I blow myself off all the time. And also, I really enjoy listening to what other people are working on. When they report back, ‘I typed 800 words’... or, ‘I’m just much closer on my dissertation,’ that excites me and motivates me to work on my projects more diligently.”

Walker’s afternoon session was livelier, either with more awake or more forceful personalities. Conversation turned to the delta variant, politics, and favorite British sitcoms. Somewhat apologetically, Walker explained that most of the group knows each other well enough to have a healthy debate. He pointed out that in-person groups offer more opportunities for splitting off into side conversations.

For attendees, there is some apparent value in sitting in on conversations outside each person’s regular interests or comfort zones. It’s what could inspire good writing or break someone unexpectedly out of a rut. For a writing group, there were few technical conversations about writing. For a social group, there is a lot of sitting quietly and alone. This is inherent in the “Shut Up” portion of the group, and surprisingly valuable, even at a distance.

“I think people have got a good imagination,” Walker says. “Obviously there’s nothing tangible, but people can feel that they’re not alone.”