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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

What you can learn at a writing retreat

Recently, I attended a writing retreat for faculty at my university. It was a three-day weekend break from email, grading, and meetings. A dozen academic writers from a variety of disciplines gathered under the roof of a spacious rental home near a lake to talk about their projects, share strategies and concerns, and write for long stretches at a time. In between the writing, there were short facilitated sessions on grant and book proposals, sabbatical applications, productivity strategies, and peer coaching, punctuated by catered food (tailored to a variety of preferences) and bring-your-own beverages.

We all had our own projects: articles and book manuscripts, proposals, book reviews, conference abstracts, and even book jacket copy. Drafts were emailed back and forth, laptops were passed around, and small groups went out onto the sunny patio to confer and drink strong coffee.

We began the workshop by discussing our personal writing practices and challenges, a discussion one participant described as “a Vagina Monologues of academic writing.” We talked about the difficulties of finding time to write (it’s 7:02 AM as I write this now, midway through a second cup of coffee). We talked about the need for deadlines, about the importance of balancing a personal life and a writing life, about setting word and time limits for writing, and about thinking through career and life goals.

As we began, someone suggested making an inventory of all the different types of writing we actually do, and we discovered that we actually write a lot of things that we may not consider: syllabi and course proposals, letters of recommendation, peer reviews, colleague evaluations, annual plans and reports, memo and emails—some of us even blog and tweet. We realized—and reveled in the fact that—these are all opportunities to hone our craft, and I for one, am thinking about such everyday writing in a new way.

Photo by The Climate Reality Project via Unsplash.

We talked about the physical toll of writing in the short term (stiff backs and sore butts) and the long term (repetitive motion risks). We talked about what we enjoyed about academic writing (the opportunity to engage with peers and the connection of writing with teaching) and what we didn’t like (the limited audience, pressure to publish). And we talked about what we liked about writing in general (discovery, problem solving, sharing, occasional notoriety) and what we didn’t (facing the blank screen, revising, proofreading). Friendly disagreements ensued.

We also discussed the finer points of writing, from the macro (how do we establish enough context to interest readers in a topic), to the micro (do I need a comma here, will people understand that this question is a rhetorical?), to fine points of diction (what exactly does mainstream mean?).
We made new connections as well, learning what colleagues were working on. We found common interests in forms of writing, such as incorporating alternating narratives or perspectives, and particular rhetorical strategies, such as writing for multiple audiences. It was energizing to see the engagement of so many colleagues in their scholarship, even when I didn’t understand the details!

Several participants committed to establishing a regular writing group throughout the year (I saw one the other day, off to her three-hour block of time on a Friday morning, hoping to put those last thousand words into a long essay on epistemology). Others opted to continue their solitary personal writing practice, in a comfy chair with music playing, at 7 AM for larks or 11 PM for owls. Either way, everyone was excited about getting together next year, expanding the circle with new participants.

So, if you are looking for a New Year’s writing resolution, try to organize a writing retreat on your campus or in your writing community. It may change the way you work and the way you think about writing.

Featured image: “Campfire” by webhamster. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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