On Monday June 11th we ‘met’ via our computers for a trial run using ‘Flashmeeting’, the online meeting tool we would be using for an ‘experimental online writing retreat’. Martin Sedgley from Bradford University, Tracey White from Middlesex, Joe Allison from Plymouth and me. After introductions we agreed some very basic groundrules (whilst experimenting with the smiley, sad, surprised/shocked etc ‘voting’ options you can use whilst others are speaking!). We then shared our writing goals and did a kind informal contract with each other about what we hoped to achieve and which segments of the three-day retreat period we would be able to work. That done, we agreed the times for four ‘check-in’ slots on each of the days and I shared my favourite version of a ‘freewriting’ exercise (see below).
Day one was Thursday 14th June. We’d agreed to work between 9am – 8pm and it was a full-on day! I only managed to write about 300 ‘good’ words that day – interspersed with lots of pacing about, talking to myself, head-scratching and textbook browsing … but then I was at the start of my journey with a particular assignment – a paper outlining the research question and methodological underpinning for my EdD thesis. Martin, working on a professional development writing task made much more progress than I in terms of number of words but, of course, Tracey (working on a literature review) reminded us, it is not a race or a competition! By the end of the day there had been admissions of lapses (a snooze after lunch in (ahem) one case, a lawn-mowing interval in another, and an early glass of wine in yet another) but, soothed by our mutual confessions we all had a redemptive little glow and agreed we’d not done badly!
Day Two, Friday 15th June: Joe was able to join us for the first time. Like me, he’s working on his EdD thesis proposal. Tracey had some down-time attending to other business but we all achieved well. The brief regular check-ins were motivational and effective in helping us articulate where we were up to and what we needed to do next. Martin reported that he was now almost two-thirds of the way through his Senior HEA Fellowship application. My own progress was slow but steady – but my ideas seemed to be coming into sharper focus after two days of concentration on the same set of issues. Suitably buoyed, I went to the pub and enjoyed a beer …
Saturday was my most productive day, word–wise and I ended up with over 2000 ‘good’ or usable words. I was sorry to say cheerio to the others at the finish. We gave each other well-deserved virtual pats on the back and we all said we’d like to do more of the same in future!
I approached the writing retreat with a self-discipline I have not found throughout my doctoral study. From the word go I felt very much a part of a community of practice of like-minded people. All of the struggles I had faced were not unusual and although I had told myself this time over……now I was hearing first hand from others. Each of us had specific tasks which we wanted to achieve and therefore I had a responsibility to both myself and to them to just get on with it. This I did and in immersing myself into the task I found not only did I manage to get back into a study regime I had not experienced since my UG degree, I was enjoying it. The regular ‘touchpoints’ provided a light relief and spurred me on to the next point. Had to say I was disappointed when it ended and I have not been as productive with my writing since!
I have been on live retreats but this for me is the way forwards…comfort of your own home, all your books at hand, no pressure and the ability to develop a community of practice from your armchair and which you can continue through technology on a group or one to one basis. As a companion to doctoral study……..just what the doctor ordered!
I have never warmed to the idea of writing retreats, mainly because I have just not felt that I’d be productive under those sorts of conditions – strange environment and perhaps people, a given amount of time, and expecting to be in the right ‘place’ to write! However, when I first heard of the virtual writing retreat, I was more interested, I thought it might be different despite some of my concerns still being applicable, I felt that being in my space, where I write best, might outweigh these. So I committed to it. I can’t deny that there were times leading up to it where I was looking for a reason not to be able to do it, but I resisted, and despite some availability limitations, through work and family, participated as much as I could. The speed at which our community seemed to form, despite not knowing some people previously, was alarming and very pleasing. Starting the days off with setting ourselves targets, helped to rationalise and commit to our own agendas, and the fairly regular catch-ups made sure we didn’t stray too far from them. If progress was made it was good to air and share this, if it wasn’t then talking through what had gotten in the way was also very helpful, in part to make sure this didn’t continue or repeat itself. The level of support provided through this was incredibly beneficial, and did a great deal to keep momentum up, a sense of togetherness was very apparent, despite the different tasks we were attempting. Whilst productivity ebbed and flowed, just as usual, time seemed to pass very quickly, and
I only wish I had been able to take part in all three days instead of just the two. I might have been able to write more had I not been participating but I don’t think it would have been nearly so enjoyable or rewarding. One of the things about writing is that it can be lonely, this can go both ways, but just being able to chat briefly with people in a similar position throughout the day makes sure you have the best of both worlds. Overall I was really surprised at how much I got from this and will be very keen to take part again. I will just try to make sure that the time is as clear as possible, for, just adding a couple of things in, such as picking up the kids and popping to the shop, did make one day a bit too fragmented with the catch-ups as well.
A five minute writing exercise (thanks to Peter Elbow for the basic idea)
1. spend a few minutes locating and reminding yourself of any writing in-progress or other notes or texts relevant to your current task.
2. take 2 minutes to identify a key question, theme, issue or problem. You will use this as a ‘trigger’ or stimulus for your writing
3. take a fresh piece of paper or open a new document on your computer and clear away any distracting books, papers and litter from your work area
4. equip yourself with a timer or use your mobile phone alarm to signal when 5 minutes have elapsed
5. convince yourself that you will follow the rules below and not be distracted!!
• Write your ‘trigger’ phrase as a title
• At the signal to begin, write the first thing that comes into your head in response to your trigger
• If nothing comes to mind, just write the trigger phrase itself – again and again – until something new comes to you
• DO NOT STOP WRITING AT ANY TIME until the time is up!
• Try to write complete sentences rather than notes
• Grammar, spelling, punctuation and sense are not important. Repetition is fine. No particular structure is necessary.
• You decide what to do next. No-one else need see this writing unless you want to show it to others.