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Reflections on a writing retreat
One of the to-dos on my sabbatical bucket list is to submit a particular grant proposal I have been slowly working on with two colleagues. We all work at different institutions and it seemed like a great idea to find an opportunity to get our ideas down on paper – preferably whilst we were co-located and away from our usual places of work.
Earlier this year I discovered that Maureen Michael from Room For Writing was leading a writing retreat to be held in May. I asked my two colleagues if they would be interested in going. I thought the structure provided by the retreat would give us the best chance of getting it done as we would be forced not to spend the whole day talking! A few weeks later we were all booked to go.
We scheduled a skype call a couple of weeks ahead of the retreat to refresh our memories and make sure that we still agreed on what we wanted to do. Our planning included breaking down the writing of the proposal into discrete chunks and scheduling them each for a particular time slot.
The day of the retreat arrived. Two of us arrived in Glasgow early and spent the morning talking about the ideas we had for the project.
By lunchtime the three of us were together and some more chat ensued. At 3pm we were met by a taxi and 3 other retreaters for the journey to the Black Bull Hotel in Gartmore, about an hour outside of Glasgow.
After tea and coffee, and introductions, twelve people sat down to start a 5 minute free writing task in which we had to write in full sentences (but without editing) and answer 2 questions: for the writing task we were going to focus on, what had we already written for it and what did we want to achieve by the end of day 3, the end of day 2, and the end of the coming 60 minute session?
We then formed pairs and talked for 5 minutes each about what we were going to write. We were instructed to ask questions to help the other person to articulate a very clear goal. Sixty minutes later we had completed our first writing slot and we had written three work-packages. We were rewarded with a fantastic three course dinner.
The Black Bull Hotel in Gartmore is a really charming place, with humorous staff and an amazing cook. Breakfast consisted of fruit, cereal, porridge, and everything you would expect from a full Scottish breakfast. Elevenses were freshly baked scones or gorgeous fluffy pancakes served with jam, cream and maple syrup. Lunch on day 2 was salad and jacket potatoes with tuna and prawns. And on day 3 was fajitas and salad and quiche. There was also afternoon tea on all three days that included things like this delicious and beautiful “cake object”.
The retreat was structured to include 8 writing sessions that each lasted 60-90 minutes. The morning and afternoon breaks lasted 30 minutes and lunchtime was 90 minutes that included strong encouragement to take a walk or go for a run.
Over the course of the three days we completed 10.5 hours of focused writing, went on 5 walks, and were very well looked after. I have come away from this experience feeling incredibly productive (and consequently a bit tired!) but also cared for, and reminded of a slower way of working. Maureen is very skilled at creating an atmosphere in which being focused and productive feels easy. She also carefully guides you through re-evaluating your goals so that, at the end of the process, you focus on your successes and achievements and have insight into how to set realistic goals for writing.
So how did it go? We we wrote a grant proposal! We have about 9000 new words that have been revised by each of us several times so they’re of reasonably high quality. To be completely honest we have achieved more than I had dared to believe was possible in the time.
We used the breaks to relax but also to chat about progress and to share ideas about how to develop the ideas in our proposal. That meant that, compared to other participants at the retreat, we probably “worked” through the breaks rather than using them entirely for recovery.
That said, the process didn’t feel frantic or like we were under pressure but felt relaxed and was quite unlike my usual working days. I don’t usually take breaks when I’m working and sometime even miss out on lunch. I know it’s not good for me but somewhere between being immersed in my work and under pressure to get lots of things done it’s been an easy habit to develop. I’m going to try to change that and see if I can schedule substantial breaks in my day. I’m interested to see how that impacts my work and wellbeing (though perhaps I will eat less cake than when in Gartmore!).
If you’re interested to know more about structured writing retreats like the one I attended then you can read Rowena Murray & Mary Newton’s paper here.
You can find more information about Room For Writing on their website.