November 2018 has been academic writing month with many institutions in the UK running activities to support academic writing. Demarcating days, weeks, months, years with a particular theme or activity is not exactly a novel idea. The month of November is more popularly associated with growing moustaches rather than academic writing. For many who work in universities November is not the most obvious month to promote the craft of writing. In northern hemisphere universities November is the time when the pressures of academic life for both staff and students start to bite. Start of semester or term energies are dissipating and the Christmas break is too far off with deadlines looming before the end of term. The logic of Writefest being in November is that it is the month when little academic writing gets down, so through facilitating writing through structured activities, November can become the time for writing, as well as growing moustaches.
In my university the main, though not exclusive, activity organised for Writefest is structured writing retreats. The ideal of a writer taking themselves off to a place of seclusion to write is also not a novel idea. But in recent years writing retreats have become an important feature of the academic calendar. The pressure to publish or perish has intensified with the metricization of research and finding the time to write is one of the main challenges facing academics. Structured writing retreats do not necessarily offer bucolic seclusion, but they do provide a space free of distraction to focus on the craft of writing.
This November I signed up to take part in my first ever structured writing retreat. The venue was a small room in a converted house on the university campus. There were eight of us on this ‘retreat’, which started at 9 and finished at 4. The premise was very simple. The day was divided into four 75 minute blocks during which we would write with no distractions. Lunch was provided (another feature of academic life, the sandwich and crisp ‘working’ lunch). At 9.30 we all started ‘writing’.
The first session felt like a race. The frantic sound of multiple computer keyboards is not particularly relaxing and stimulates pressure to keep up with other ‘retreaters’. By the afternoon the pace was noticeably quieter and I found the experience of being surrounded, but separated, from colleagues is a room more comfortable. There was no expectation that we should share the content of our writing, though we did talk about the experience of writing itself. At the end we were asked to evaluate the day. One of the key questions was how many words we had written. Some of my fellow retreaters had been ‘productive’ writing over 2000 words, and the retreat was deemed to be a success.
The retreat simultaneously endorses the expectation that writing is an individual endeavour with a shared responsibility for productivity. Yet should be cautious about embracing this ‘fix’ to the demands of academic productivity? Writing is a craft that is cultivated through persistence. Dedicating one day to write suggests that this persistence can be instilled in a time-limited period. A day free of distraction is helpful to get a project started or think through a difficult problem. But these activities have to be carried forward and finding the time to carry on writing remains the challenge that retreaters will have to overcome.
Academic productivity is collective. We rely on colleagues to discuss and share ideas, to read drafts but also to facilitate time free of distractions. This latter collective process is not one that we necessarily give much thought to. We are more likely to turn to colleagues to do something for us rather than do nothing.
Rather than making November academic writing month, a longer term solution might be to collectively reflect on how the practices of retreat – to provide a temporary fix between the opposing poles of autonomy and responsibility – can be integrated all year round.