A friend recently shared on social media an article called "How to Make Writing in the Humanities Less Lonely." In it, the author shares her experiences leading a grad student/faculty writing group where writers gather twice a week to set goals, write, and celebrate accomplishments. She rightly points out that such groups offer structure, accountability, and also build community among writers who may often feel isolated in their work. Having participated in several different kinds of writing groups over the past twenty-five years (some but not all devoted specifically to scholarly writing), the successes she describes really resonate with me. As my grad student advisees well know, I'm very much of the "make writing a part of your daily life," "even thirty minutes a day will get a dissertation written" camp. And I try to embody that approach in my daily work, where every day ideally includes some writing/research tucked in alongside my teaching, mentoring, and administrative duties. But there's value to other ways of working as well. And this article got me thinking about all the various ways that I have approached the ongoing task of figuring out how best to arrange my writing life.
Writing Groups: Some of these groups were ongoing, while others were more ad hoc. Some, including several on my campus, involved meeting to workshop a draft manuscript or fellowship application. These kinds of groups offer opportunities to connect with fellow writers and researchers and get valuable feedback on work in progress. But some of my favorite writing group experiences have been more like those this article describes: a group of writers gathers together at a designated time in the same physical space to write in the company of one another. This can be as simple as meeting at a friend's house and writing together for a couple of hours to the more complex task of putting nearly 30 writers in campus conference rooms for a daylong "writing marathon," as a colleague and I did a couple of years ago. I've even done a virtual version of this where a small group of writers living in different states convenes on a Google Hangout to connect before going off on our own to write; a few hours later, we reconnect (literally) to talk about what we accomplished during that time. No matter how you do it, there's really nothing like the intellectual buzz of sitting in a room where other writers are doing their thing. Seeing how engaged others are in their work helps me to stay engaged with mine.
Writing Retreats: Group retreats provide all of the benefits I talked about above, but offer the added bonus of being able to build momentum across several days and combine writing with other activities. I have traveled to lovely out-of-town places to meet friends to write for a few days, and once helped to lead a retreat that combined writing with yoga. Some of these experiences had more structure than others, but the key to success for me is that they alternated sustained periods of being able to work on my own stuff with socializing, exercising, and eating good food. I know of several colleagues in my field who regularly get together with friends for weekends at a retreat center, or a cheap cabin in the woods, or at someone's house. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it does need to give you a chance to get away from the regular duties of daily life and pound out some writing that might not as quickly or enjoyably come in other ways.
Solo Writing Retreats: This is my newest writing practice, and I've found that I really enjoy it. Last fall I spent a week learning about 19th century photography practices at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, and then joined colleagues at a conference at Syracuse University. But there was a gap of about five days between the workshop and the conference, and it made no sense to travel all the way back to Illinois just to turn around and head back again. So I decided to find a place to hole up and write. I ended up renting a small vacation house in the country that had everything I needed. It was in a quiet location, offered comfortable spaces for writing, had wifi, and was situated on a few acres of land that were perfect for long walk breaks in the middle of the day. (It even came with a resident cat who came by the patio to visit and lie in the sunshine every afternoon at four o'clock.) I spent three full days writing, reading, and walking. I woke up when I felt like it and went to sleep when I felt like it. I ate and drank what and when I wanted. And although I talked on the phone several times to my spouse, I went three days without speaking in person to another human being. To be honest, I wasn't sure I would like this kind of writing retreat. I feed on interaction with others, and didn't know how I might react to being left to my own devices for several days. But it ended up being a really wonderful thing and I'm so glad I did it. (So glad, in fact, that I've planned another, shorter one that's coming up soon.) Let me be clear: not everyone has the time, money, or circumstance to do this kind of retreat. This year I've had a fellowship to work on a book project. That, coupled with a family context that makes this kind of thing occasionally possible, has made all the difference. But once the fellowship is over and I return to a more regular work context, I still want to keep an eye out for other options for solo writing adventures. Maybe it's that I am solidly ensconced in middle age now, but whatever the reason, it turns out that I really like having time alone to think stuff worth writing about.
(photo above from my solo retreat in New York last fall)
Research news, commentary on visual politics, and a few old blog posts given new life.