Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Writing all of Saturday? Yes, please! (Julia Dehm)

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It’s the end of another long week and the promise of a lazy Saturday pottering in the garden beckons.

Instead, I pack my laptop and books and head towards the CBD to #MelbWriteUp for an intensive writing day.

I’m not alone.

There’s always a packed room of academic writers of various levels: PhD students with submission deadlines looming, early career researchers struggling to find time to write amidst teaching commitments, and more established academics (as well as aspiring creative writers) plugging away on novels and books.

Every Saturday between 10am – 5pm, #MelbWriteUp provides a space for researchers of all levels of experience to come together and focus on their research in a collegial and distraction-free environment.


During that time, the assembled writers power through ten pomodoros, interspersed with necessary breaks for coffee, sugar and a longer lunch break to explore nearby food places.

The initiative was started by La Trobe PhD candidate Jason Murphy and is “founded on the power of writing socially”. What started as a group of friends meeting once a month to work on their various projects gradually expanded to informal weekly writing session, and has now become a more formalised once-a-week writing retreat, open and welcoming to everyone (although you do need to register!). Everyone is encouraged to bring some food to share for the snack table and the breaks between writing blocks provide space for the sharing of stresses, dilemmas, support and advice.

So, why do so many find #MelbWriteUp such a productive and valuable way to spend a Saturday?

For many, it's about carving out and dedicating time and one’s full attention to a writing task. One participant reflected that "it's a great opportunity to have a consolidated day of writing in a supportive, friendly atmosphere. It has the essential ingredients of time, space, snacks and like-minded people to get writing done". #MelbWriteUp and other writing retreats provide a space away from the other demands on our time that are often in our lives. These include from our partners, kids or pets, the incessant beeping of new emails, various administrative tasks or marking obligations.

But it’s not just about having the space and time to write: for many there is something special about the quality of the environment that is produced when people meet to write together. The simple act of coming together to write socially often produces a more productive working environment.

A participant reflected: "I come to these session because it actually forces me to sit down and write. I always find I am more productive coming to these sessions than staying at home". This sentiment is echoed and endorsed by others. Another shared this perspective:
I love #MelbWriteUp because setting aside a whole day to write, and being with others doing the same, makes me push myself just that bit harder. Feeling like I’m accountable to someone encourages me to keep going even when it gets tough. I’m always more productive at #MelbWriteUp than I otherwise would be. 
For me, going to #MelbWriteUp has often been what made it possible to meet an upcoming deadline and to put in that final, concerted sprint to get something done.

The process of writing socially can also have longer-term benefits. Other participants reflected that writing with others in a structured environment can help cultivate good writing habits and develop forms of discipline. One participant said:
I come because I can’t write at home. Not because of dogs or kids or any of the other normal life distractions. I have a lifetime of bad writing habits at home – books and TV and computer games and other distractions. I leave all that behind when I come to #MelbWriteUp. I become the strong-willed, self-directed scholar I long to be (mostly!).
The process of writing is invariably hard. As thinkers and writers, we constantly need to grapple with intellectual problems and with our ideas. We need to work out alone - in our head and on paper - the best way to frame an issue, how to ethically and comprehensively present information, how to draw compelling analysis from our materials or how to most boldly articulate our conclusions.

Writing alongside others doesn’t necessarily make this any easier. We live and work in a contemporary academic environment that is increasingly characterised by precarity and casualisation, and the ever-increasing competitive pressures to "publish or perish". Gathering with other colleagues, then, is something particularly valuable, as is our building of environments and forms of sociability that support each other in doing this difficult (but often very rewarding) work.

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Julia Dehm is a Lecturer at the La Trobe Law School. Her research addresses international climate change law and regulation, transnational carbon markets and the governance of natural resources as well as human rights issues. 

Julia is a Steering Committee Member of the International Legal Research Studies Group (ILSRG) in the Law School, the Managing Editor of the Journal of Human Rights and the Environment and a member of the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment. 

She tweets from @juliadehm.

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