Tuesday, 19 January 2016
More than words on a page - the inaugural RED Writing Retreat (Jason Murphy)
The retreat was a three-day intensive writing event that took place from 25–27 November 2015, at the home of the Graduate Research School (GRS) at Melbourne Campus.
The retreat was in some ways the capstone of La Trobe’s Academic Writing Month (#LTUacwrimo).
As a PhD candidate, I was one of about 45 participants from diverse backgrounds. We all came from a wide range of disciplines, career stages and campus locations. There were graduate research candidates, and Early and Mid Career academics all present at the event.
As a staff member of the Graduate Research School (my day job), I knew that momentum for a writing retreat had been building for a while. There was huge demand and much curiosity about how this event would work, and the signs from boot-camps hosted by ANU and Melbourne University already indicated they'd be highly productive and constructive ventures.
It eventuated that the La Trobe Writing Retreat was less boot-camp and more blended, with options for both a pomodoro-based format and hardcore, uninterrupted writing time.
The key to the event was your writing goal. We were all invited by the event facilitator, Jeanette Fyffe (Manager, RED team) to state an event goal and a daily goal.
My own goal complemented my Academic Writing Month goal, which was to complete a full draft of my methodology chapter. It was ambitious (as I work full-time) but, by being clear about what I wanted to achieve early in the month, I was able to prepare myself by engaging in very specific readings, and doing research and taking notes on the structure of the chapter.
The event was basically a take-over of the entire John Scott Meeting House. There was a room devoted to uninterrupted writing, a pomodoro room, a chill-out and grazing room, and a room for neck and shoulder massage and reading up on writing resources. This worked really well as it catered for different styles of writing, and allowed me to take a break when I needed to for a caffeine refuel (which was thankfully flowing in abundance).
There was one optional workshop each day, two focused on writing techniques and a third devoted to mindfulness stretching and breathing techniques. These were excellent, and I found the stretching session particularly helpful as it gave me some strategies for releasing the tension that inevitably builds up when you spend a lot of time in front of a computer.
Overall, the event was incredibly valuable to me for several reasons.
As a social writing activity, it was necessary to stick to task. I’d made the commitment and knew others had, too, so there was a compulsion to see things through and stay with the writing. At this stage, it would have been very unlikely that I could have otherwise worked on a chapter solidly for three days. Despite my preparation, the periods when I ran into a brick wall and became really frustrated would have forced me to stop. Because of the social element at the retreat, I persevered and, rather than giving up, worked around the issue and moved on to something else.
I met lots of like-minded people, heard about what they were working on, and we shared the challenges we were facing. Believe me, this may seem trivial, but the PhD experience can be very isolating and, coupled with the intensity of the journey at times, being reminded that others are facing similar things is incredibly supportive. It’s remarkable how much others can add to our journey, something we can forget when we become so close to a particular area and almost can’t see the wood for the trees!
Finally, I met my goal! It may not be the most eloquent draft in the history of drafts – in fact, I’m certain it's not – but it's a full draft and it covered the main sections of the chapter. The process has helped me remember how necessary the act of writing is to cultivate one's own understanding of a project's concepts and arguments. It clarified for me what I was clear about, and what I still needed to grasp. Without writing it out, it's hard to know where you are on the journey, and what your research gaps and weaknesses are. In this way, writing feels like sculpting with words, where we start with a block of words and gradually refine and add detail to realise the final form. Without this block in the first place, it would never happen.
The writing retreat was indispensable for me. Particularly as a part-time candidate, getting to spend three writing-focused days immersed in my research project was incredibly rewarding.
Time is a big factor with research. It takes time to span the literature, take it in, consider it and apply it to your topic. Then there's gathering your data and considering it in relation to the literature. It's not possible to fast-track this layered, deep gaining of knowledge and reflection during intense writing days but, at the same time, a series of these retreats at certain points of candidature would help to progress anyone's thesis and overcome feelings of isolation.
I strongly encourage you to attend a writing retreat if you have the opportunity.