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Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Thoughts on attending an academic writing retreat for the first time

By Virginia Wilson

I recently returned home from a week-long academic women's writing retreat in Banff, Alberta, Canada. Academic women from the University of Saskatchewan (U of S; my home institution) and elsewhere in Canada came together for 6 days (arrived Monday; returned Saturday) to write/work/think. Our days were unstructured although we did have a permanent writing room that was ours for the week, open daily from 7am to 11pm. With it being at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, smack dab in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, there were fitness facilities, good food, and amazing views/walks. I had never attended a writing retreat before and I found it to be an amazingly productive experience. Not only did I get a ton of work done, I was actually able to slow my brain down enough to do some revelatory thinking. I feel calm, focused, and energized. I’ve got some confidence back. The retreat occurred at the perfect time in my work life. I would go again in a minute. In fact at this point, I would spend my professional development funds on this kind of activity rather than a conference.


Town of Banff
I was inspired to attend the writing retreat because I had been unhappy with my progress during the first months of my 6-month sabbatical. It was difficult to motivate myself, and with the lack of motivation and lack of productivity, I became lackluster! I wasn’t happy with myself or where I was at. The Academic Women’s Writing Retreat was organized by a U of S faculty member and she spread the word to other female academics. Space was limited to about 16 people. I registered and awaited the time when I could fly west and start to regroup. 

When I first arrived, I was somewhat discombobulated. I had been to Banff before, many times, but not to the Banff Centre. There was the inevitable finding-my-way-around time, getting settled in my room, finding out where to eat, and generally developing a sense of direction in a new place. The first evening, 6 of us made our way down the mountain to the town of Banff and got acquainted over dinner. The trip back up the mountain (okay, it was only partially down and up a mountain, but it was steep in places!) made me know that I was out of my usual space (flat prairies) and that there was potential here for a different perspective. 

During the week, I wrote in the Banff Centre library, the shared writing retreat room, and my hotel room. I found great inspiration to silently work with other people. I had known about this possibility from attending the bi-weekly writing circle that the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice runs at our Library. It was maybe even more intense because I was with women faculty members from different disciplines. During off times, I talked about research and writing with women from the English Department, the College of Education, the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, and the Department of Sociology. We shared with great interest our different perspectives and our goals for the week. And at the end of the week, we compared notes and celebrated accomplishments. I went away with a feeling of determination. I would recreate this feeling again! I would be as productive in my usual environment as I had been at the writing retreat! 

I’ve come back home all jazzed up about my experience. I looked around for some articles on writing retreats and found that this is not an uncommon part of academic writing and that it’s conducive to getting results. Writing retreats come in many shapes and colours: unstructured retreats that provide space and time (like the one I attended), retreats with structure/workshops/mentorship (Murray & Newton 2009), in-house writing retreats (Casey, Barron, & Gordon 2013), and retreats anywhere from a weekend to two-three weeks or more. The gist of it all seems to be that time away for writing is time well spent. I can see this approach working for all types of writing or other creative endeavors. A change in location can manifest in a change of perspective, a change in thought patterns, and even a change in self-identity. When I was at the writing retreat with other academic women, in addition to getting actual writing done, I felt like a researcher and writer, I felt like an academic, and I felt productive and confident. And for a practicing librarian with a research mandate to feel all these things…well, this was an unanticipated result and one that I hope to pass along to others who are struggling with writing or contemplating a writing retreat. If you get the chance, do it!

References
Casey, B., Barron, C.M., & Gordon, E. (2009). Reflections on an in-house academic writing retreat. AISHE-J: The All Ireland Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 5(1). 1041-1054.

Murray, R. & Newton, M. (2013). Writing retreat as structured intervention: margin or mainstream? Higher Education Research & Development, 28(5). 541–553

Virginia Wilson is Director, Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice (C-EBLIP), University Library, University of Saskatchewan, Canada
Twitter: @VirginiaPrimary

Image Town of Banff https://www.banffcentre.ca/destination

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