“What do you do, sit around writing poetry and novels?” When I say I’m running a writing retreat, most people assume it’s a kind of self-expression fest, paid for by the University. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I’m in my sixth month here as Deputy Head of ASK, enjoying the new role. In my previous job at Queen Mary, UoL, I’d run writing retreats for staff and PhD students on a regular basis. This was something I wanted to initiate here at Portsmouth. I’m pleased to say that I’ve just finished running my fourth writing retreat at the University. Hopefully this marks the beginning of regular retreats at Portsmouth and they’ll become part of the fabric.
These retreats are urban rather than residential – in other words we don’t head off and stay in a boutique hotel in the South Downs, but work in a large room on campus and then go home. The plan is to run off-campus one- and two-day retreats for staff and PhD students once I’ve found a good venue. (Being elsewhere does make a difference. As does having a decent lunch that you don’t have to prepare.)
The format of the retreats draws on Rowena Murray’s work, which over the years I’ve developed and refined. Highly structured, intense and very productive, we sit around a large boardroom-style table; we then set a goal or task for the first hour-long writing session, discuss it briefly with a colleague and then begin writing. When the hour is up we talk to our colleague about how it went, set another goal and carry on. To help re-focus, we also do short generative writing activities, such as freewriting. After lunch we spend half an hour peer reviewing someone else’s work, and then carry on writing in one-hour blocks. Sometimes the format varies, depending on time and location. Typically, there are between 12–15 participants from across the faculties – although the boundaries between staff and PhD students are sometimes blurred.
Having run retreats for the last eight years, I know they work. There are lots of reasons why, but key is that they get writing done. Staff workloads, multiple demands, and the general culture in many universities, mean that despite increasing pressure to publish, there is little time allocated or energy left to make time to write. So staff write in their holidays or at weekends. Providing a dedicated time and place, away from everyday demands, email or internet distractions, creates a shared ethos and valued space to do something that is in theory an essential dimension of who we are as teachers, practitioners, researchers, academics…
Building research writing cultures takes time. Writing retreats provide a powerful way to connect staff and PhD students with each other, their research, their thinking and practices, and help build a community of writers. The conversations that take place throughout the day are full of insights (there’s no such thing as a finished writer), so sharing the frustrations, trying something new or learning from others can give direction, confidence and motivation.
Or at least that’s what participants say about writing retreats. Above all they are productive: a frequent comment is that they’ve written more in the day than they’ve written in the last two months. On occasions, the freewriting activities can result in light bulb moments and help move thinking on. At the end of the day we’re tired but most people would like more.
I’m determined that writing retreats will continue at the University and, if we get a good location and good food, they will get better.
If you’d like to take part in a writing retreat, be added to the mailing list, or would like to discuss how they could be tailored to your faculty or students, then please get in touch: Julian Ingle, Deputy Head of ASK, (email@example.com).
Here’s a photo of us hard at work at the first retreat.