Happy New Year! We are glad to be back to start the year by rounding off our successful series on Writing Events. If you are planning your year ahead, consider reviewing earlier posts – and stay tuned for our final set of stories on all manner of writing groups, retreats and boot camps. We are sure you will be inspired anew.
This beautiful contribution comes from Robert B. Desjardins, PhD, a graduate writing advisor with the Student Success Centre at the University of Alberta.
Early last year, I appealed to members of the Consortium on Graduate Communication for advice on an event that others had refined and we hadn’t yet attempted: a midterm, mid-winter writing retreat for writers who are struggling through their theses.
The request wasn’t unusual; these days, colleges large and small are experimenting with boot camps. However, it carried a special urgency for our graduate students. Living in the most northerly major city in North America – at 53.5 degrees latitude,
Edmonton endures 4:30 p.m. sunsets and freezing temperatures through the first months of the year – they face a midwinter climate that saps their creative energy.
Colleagues from around the world were generous with their answers. They told stories – some encouraging, some cautionary – and shared articles, event diaries and scholarly bibliographies. Armed with their insights, and supported by our Graduate Students’ Association, we set out to organize a weekend retreat for nearly 30 graduate researchers in a range of disciplines.
We ran the event this February, on the weekend before Valentine’s Day. Our staff members did all of the groundwork, from copying resource guides to leading workshops, ordering pizza and offering one-on-one advice. We were encouraged by the results; we also learned some important lessons. In hopes of repaying our colleagues’ generosity, we share them here.
- Expectations Vary
Promoting a major writing event as we did – by appealing directly to student writers via e-mail – is a complicated business. Because thesis writing evokes so much anxiety, students are quick to respond to offers of help. We expected our first announcement, sent to the university’s graduate advisors a few days before Christmas, to generate a trickle of inquiries. Instead it produced a torrent: 100 applicants within 24 hours, and nearly 200 by the time we resumed classes in January.
We were able to accept fewer than 30 of those applicants – a limit imposed by resources rather than a desire to exclude anyone. The selection criteria, in fact, were simple: participants had to (a) confirm that they were working on a chapter of their thesis and (b) explain in a short essay why focused writing in a supportive environment would help them to gain (or regain) their momentum. Looking to enhance accessibility, we also ruled out writers who had participated in other writing groups in the past year. Those who met these conditions were accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.
We tried to make our plans clear in our promotional letters and application form. Registrants, however, interpreted our words in various ways. Some arrived expecting classes that would help them contend with aspects of the writing process. We had something different in mind: a quiet retreat offering a chance to write in a friendly and collegial environment. The schedule was light on workshops and discussions – just one of each at the beginning and end of each full day. We also punctuated the event with short “mental resets”: a five-minute video on writing strategies at the end of each lunch hour and a river valley walk at the height of each afternoon.
Many students appreciated this. Some, however, felt that the time was too unfocused: they would have preferred more workshops and instruction. After reviewing their comments, we decided to restructure future events to account for both requests: beginning with a motivational thesis-writer’s conference that includes several classes on writing strategy, then offering a quiet retreat where students can convert that potential energy into creative momentum (by writing real words on real paper).
- Relationships Matter
“Quiet retreats” are easy to imagine, but hard to plan. The biggest challenge involves structure: creating a sense of shared purpose without distracting writers from their individual tasks. As I noted, we planned periodic activities – valley walks, inspirational videos and group debriefs – that gave our students milestones to anticipate and experiences to share. More important, we worked hard to build good writing relationships.
Hence our schedule was heavy on community-building and individual work time; we made ourselves available throughout the weekend to help students with individual questions. The Friday-night community-building session was essential: we discussed the challenges of writing. Four of us – writers and editors with dozens of years of teaching experience – stepped up to share our struggles with the pain of navigating major projects. Our dean impressed the participants with his own stories, as did one of their peers (a representative from the Graduate Students’ Association). Then we invited them to talk with each other.
These conversations, intended in part to reduce anxiety about the writing process, were the best part of the retreat. We soon felt an esprit de corps building in the room. It buoyed our personal consultations and contributed to an atmosphere of collaboration and sharing all weekend. “I enjoyed the chance to work at my own pace, but also to be a part of a community,” wrote one participant at the end. “Not only did it help me to stay on track and feel accountable, but I also enjoyed the opportunity to share with other students.”
- Spaces and Moods Interact
Unfortunately for our participants, we could not afford to fund a retreat in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Fortunately for our accountant, the Students’ Union offered us a low-cost option: the recently renovated basement of their building, which features a sunlit atrium and several seminar and meeting spaces. We did our best to make these rooms warm and hospitable, setting up dedicated spaces for socializing, teaching and consulting and designating a large common area as a “writing workshop.” We gave the participants books, writing implements, paper, and candies.
They appreciated these gestures, and for the most part our spaces worked well. Many students, however, migrated out of the fluorescent-lit writing studio and into the overstuffed chairs in the atrium. The studio’s heating system buzzed and popped; the lights flickered; and over time, several participants in the space said they felt distracted and lethargic. “Whew!” breathed one writer as we took a brisk afternoon walk on Saturday. “That’s more like it.”
This all reminded us of a principle we drive home in our anti-procrastination seminar: the deceptively important role of environment in the writing process. Writing is an extension of thinking, and thinking succeeds only in places it is allowed to flourish. Hospital-like environments are not among those places. Lesson learned.
All things considered, our midwinter retreat was successful. “This weekend helped me to ‘get out of my head’ and connect with others in a similar situation,” wrote one participant. “It gave me the boost I needed to overcome my anxiety about my project and get unstuck.” Another writer stopped us in the hallway three months later to tell us the event had been transformative. “I’m moving forward with my project now,” she said. “That weekend made all the difference.”
For us, the biggest revelation is that this success stemmed not so much from the big pieces of the event – the novel content of our workshops, for instance, or the range and depth of our one-on-one advice – as from the little things that built community and made people feel listened to. While leading ten writers on a Sunday afternoon walk near the site where Leonard Cohen composed “Sisters of Mercy,” I leaned back to hear their reactions. But the students, walking in pairs, weren’t talking about folk music. They were sharing concerns and ideas about their thesis projects – and they sounded hopeful.
It’s like that for us too. The midwinter retreat itself is a work in progress, and we have much to think about, and much to restructure, before we’re satisfied with it. But we have no doubt that that it’s a project worth pursuing.
Attribution: Winter at the Muttart Conservatory
Image from: photos.edmonton.ca The City of Edmonton http://photos.edmonton.ca/City-Scenes/City-of-Edmonton-photos/i-fHN6tMW/A