Writing Retreat

The pandemic has affected everyone, but not everyone has been impacted equally. Data suggests that women academics have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic (Gewin 2020). Women faculty have disproportionately experienced increased caring loads across many parts of life (home-schooling being the most obvious, perhaps; but also through gendered expectations of who undertakes elder care, cares within a local community; and/or who undertakes the often largely invisible work of student care). It is becoming apparent the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women’s mental health (Ahmed 2020).

One particular concern that cropped up for me and several colleagues was that major writing tasks (of the sort that are imperative for an academic career, but also for job satisfaction and fulfillment) were sidelined. We simply didn’t have time to dedicate to important writing tasks. In addition, many of us were worn down by months of caring for others (resulting in a lack of mental energy to write) as well as often lacking an appropriate physical location in which to concentrate deeply on an often challenging task.

In response to this, I led a Geography department application for a Writing Retreat, aimed at those most impacted by the pandemic. The Writing Retreat was strongly supported by our Head of Department, and gained departmental funding. It took place in September 2021. It proved very successful across two measures: an increase in productivity (articles completed, grants written, etc.) but also importantly in terms of supporting staff wellbeing. Participant feedback was extremely positive.

'It was the guilt-free working through until dinner time on day one and not having to down pens in a panic for the school run that was a particular revelation. A productive time of day that I had forgotten or forfeited for so long. The walks, fresh food, and fire pit were important too. I turned up to the retreat absolutely exhausted but left feeling refreshed and optimistic.' Writing workshop participant

Since I posted about it the Writing Retreat on Twitter, several academics have approached me for information, wanting to run something similar in their own departments or institutes. I’ve posted the following information in response. I hope it is useful.

Event: A 2-day/1-overnight intensive writing retreat. The retreat started at 10.30 on day 1 and ran until 17.00 on day 2. This was the maximum time away that many participants could manage (e.g. around caring responsibilities).

Participants: The retreat was ‘intended for people who have been particularly impacted by the pandemic, and who have struggled to find the time, space or energy to think and write’. This statement was deliberately written without reference to gender or status (e.g. as a parent), and neither was this data collected, so participants could self-identify themselves for inclusion without having to justify their need or circumstances.

Location: A lot of potential locations were fully booked, as the opening up post-pandemic encouraged many postponed events to be rescheduled. A tip-off for the Clayhill Arts Centre, Somerset resulted in a fantastic space. There were several criteria for a location, including:

  1. Not too far from participants (so that those who needed to could fit it within caring responsibilities, and to maximise time away to writing tasks)
  2. An open, a well-ventilated writing space with natural light
  3. Easy access to outside space for active/walking breaks within the retreat schedule
  4. Catering options to maximise time for writing

Covid precautions: This was a participant cohort who had likely been especially cautious around covid risks to protect themselves and/or vulnerable others. Considerations here included:

  1. Single-occupancy bedrooms (except where participants volunteered to share)
  2. A well-ventilated writing space to maximise airflow and minimise the potential for aerosol transmission
  3. A location close enough to allow for travel by car to be feasible (there was concern around travel by public transport)
  4. An anonymous vote by all participants on mask-wearing policy (when writing, meal/coffee times, restricted airflow areas e.g. toilets and kitchen, outside) where the ‘lowest risk-taking behaviour won out’ (i.e. if one person wanted masks some/everywhere, that is what we did)
  5. A negative Lateral Flow Test required on the morning of joining the retreat

Aim and activities: The aim of the retreat was to use dedicated writing time to progress a writing project in a supportive, non-surveillance environment.

The workshop was brilliantly facilitated by Geography’s Nicola Thomas, who has undertaken Rowena Murray Retreat Facilitator Training. Facilitation was essential in order to maximise the time available and progress our tasks productively. Most of the time was used for writing, with all participants working at an individual desk but in the same space. Brief discussions between writing sessions were used to generate solutions to writing problems, develop drafts, lead to research-oriented conversations and to provide feedback on writing-in-progress. All writing sessions were quiet, with agreement not to access internet during the writing time. Many staff made use of out-of-office email notifications so they could fully commit to writing with no distractions during the retreat.

The evening meal and downtime afterwards were an important part of the event for participants to share experiences, support each other and reconnect after 18+ months of working almost exclusively online.

Participants catching up around the firepit as the sun sets.