Monday, December 19, 2005

Cyber Relationships, or the Art of Intimate Anonymity

What I love most about the Internet is that I can get things done without having to interact with another human being in person or on the phone.

I’ve always been an anxious phone caller. As a kid, I’d beg my mother to call the doctor, dentist, or teacher for me. And I dreaded having to do errands at the corner candy store. Buying cigarettes for my mom (legal at the time) embarrassed me no end. These days, although I can log hours talking to friends on the phone, I retain a residue of my early anxiety when I have to make a business call. And I still hesitate before entering a store with a request.

It’s so much neater and cleaner to handle things on the web. Literally. No newsprint all over my fingers when I read newspapers online, plus I can access news from around the world. With my son Alex in London this past semester, I regularly read the London Times, the Guardian, even the Financial Times. When riots started in France, I read Le Monde in (weird but entertaining) translation. And no more crossed-out, illegible crossword puzzles for me. Doing them online is so much more satisfying.

A couple of years ago, while looking for a writing workshop to join, I discovered the world of online classes. I found a terrific memoir-writing class, with lectures and discussions directly on the web, plus email access to all the class members. The best part—it was 24/7. I could check in any time I felt like it. The class also featured a weekly live chat online, which turned out to be its weakest aspect—with the opportunity to enter into discussion any time, meeting in real time wasn’t especially appealing to the group. After the first week, live chats were poorly attended. Another great feature of the class—members were from all over the world, from London, Malta, and Hong Kong, as well as various states.

After that first class, I “attended” several more online workshops. I relished the anonymity. I could let people “see” as much of me as I wanted, but not necessarily all of me. And when participating in discussions, I could edit my comments until they expressed exactly what I wanted to say before submitting them to the group. No more wishing I could take back some stupid observation. Now I just edited it out. I’d never felt so articulate in a class before.

As in any live class, in my online classes I gravitated toward particular individuals and found some real kindred spirits. One person in a fiction class asked if I wanted to keep exchanging short stories after the ten-week class officially ended. Although I liked her and admired her work, I felt leery of embarking on a one-to-one relationship. It seemed like I’d lose my precious anonymity—she’d get to know me too well.

But during a subsequent class, this one on writing poetry, I was again approached (via email) by a class member whom I’d gotten to like and whose work I enjoyed reading. She proposed that she and I, along with a third person in the class, continue to workshop our poems independently. We could keep up the helpful structure of deadlines and writing critiques, she said, but we wouldn’t have to pay. An excellent point. We agreed to submit poems only once a month, rather than weekly as we’d done in class, and I signed on.

My cyber poetry buddies were far flung, Bonnie from Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula and Cheryl from the Jersey shore. We knew nothing about one another other than what we revealed in our poems. It was fantastic—poetry in a pure vacuum. Over time, bits and pieces about our lives did emerge. Cheryl emailed to apologize for a delay in her critique, saying she'd been on vacation. Bonnie wrote a poem about the death of a young girl’s father, then revealed (in responding to our comments) that her daughter’s ex-husband had been killed in a car crash. From that I gleaned also that Bonnie was a grandmother.

Still, it was all very sketchy. We continued in this liberating anonymous vein for almost a year. Then Cheryl sent a fateful email. She reflected how amazing it was that we’d maintained our cyber relationship for months, yet knew so little about one another. She wondered in her email what would happen if we shared more information about ourselves. While I was mulling that one over, Bonnie took the bull by the horns and sent a lengthy email telling us her life story.

There it was. The genie was out of the bottle, no turning back. Almost before I could press send/receive, Cheryl responded with her story, and a photo! Instead of a wispy brunette, as I’d imagined, she was a big, brassy, blond! With growing trepidation, I typed out the story of my life and sent it into the ether, complete with the most flattering photograph I could find.

Self-consciousness had entered my cyber world. Now I worried about looking good for these ladies. They knew who I was! And maybe they’d want us to meet. Not a cyber meeting, but a real one, at the continental divide or some other poetically symbolic locale. I told myself to stop being irrational, that nothing had really changed. But everything had.

After the flurry of email autobiographies and photographs, things quieted down and seemed to return to normal. We sent off our poems to one another on the first of the month and our critiques within the next couple of weeks. But then Cheryl emailed us with the good news that she’d sold her house. After all, we now knew all about the house she’d been renovating with her husband, so of course we’d want to know that she'd sold it. And I confided my fears about Alex being in London after the bombings there last July. Why not? We were friends, weren’t we?

But our poems were suffering. That month, Cheryl submitted an older one, not having had time (in a month) to write something new. And Bonnie told us she was working hard on a novel, with little time left over for poetry. As for me, I eked out a poem, but it was uninspired. The muse had deserted me.

Just last week, as our little group's year anniversary approached, I emailed Bonnie and Cheryl, confessing that my heart wasn’t in writing poetry anymore, and wondering how they each felt. I was grateful when Bonnie responded, agreeing that our workshop was “winding down,” and saying she hoped we’d stay in touch but perhaps the time had come to end our formal relationship. We’ve not heard yet from Cheryl, except an email saying her computer crashed and she’ll get to our emails soon.

I expect she’ll be disappointed. After all, it was she who brought our little group together. But it was also she who initiated our self-revelations. For me at least, anonymity set me free to write intimately revealing poems. The loss of anonymity was fatal to that endeavor.

But I haven't given up hope. For one thing, I've started this blog. Here I can communicate with my imagined audience without ever having to make eye contact. Furthermore, I'm thinking of taking another class online. There's a universe of people out there who know nothing about me!


Anonymous said...

Barbara, you are a masterful writer of making the inadequities we all feel about ourselves okay because you describe them in such an artful way. What I liked about this blog was how anonymity gives us freedom to express ourselves openly
and honestly. It's the ability to talk to ourselves and enjoy our own thoughts and feelings without interruption or distraction.

I love the way you write. It is entertaining and provocative at the ame time.

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