Finding time to write is one of the key challenges of balancing academic study with everything else (work, home, family…).
Whilst thinking, reading and talking about research may fit into the small chunks of time available on the journey to work or over coffee, writing appears to demand a longer period of concentrated focus.
Before Easter we were lucky enough to join the SEPD writing retreat at Gladstone’s Library in North Wales (offered to SEPD staff since 2010, see stop moaning … start writing). To have 3-4 days of concentrated time in an environment that encourages writing (a choice of desks to settle at and all meals provided) is a privilege that feels all the more precious given the increasing pressures of the academic role. This blog is an initial reflection on this experience and the role it appeared to play, particularly for those (often women) with caring responsibilities.
Preparation for the retreat was marked on the one hand by excitement at the opportunity to devote ourselves solely to writing for a few days yet also anxiety about the pressure this placed on us to achieve something.
Writing involves preparation and there was an element of concern that we had not completed all the reading and planning we had intended to do before coming away. There were also questions about the type of writing we were going to engage in. We had some experience of generative writing approaches, as advocated by Boice (Professors as writers: a self-help guide to productive writing) and used to underpin interventions such as the writing boot camp and Shut up and Write! These often focus on overcoming ‘writer’s block’ by initially aiming for quantity rather than quality, turning off the ‘inner censor’. The thought of comparing numbers of words produced with others at the end of the day, however, just added to the pressure! This also points to the many psychological factors implicated in the act of writing, which Boice identifies (Writing blocks and tacit knowledge).
In practice, the retreat prompted many useful realisations about the writing process.
First, it highlighted the ways in which writing is a social process. There is always an intended audience, and engaging in conversations with colleagues about their writing or sharing thoughts about your own over breakfast helped to keep the writing connected to its primary purpose. It also involves personal exposure: using your voice publicly, indeed, putting a piece of yourself ‘out there’ is made easier when you are interacting socially with others who value and respect that.
Secondly, it was striking how much talking there was to do about the writing process itself. Perhaps many of us were seeking reassurance or commonality around something which is normally a private experience, but we found ourselves airing issues around where and when we would normally write, and the other family members (including dogs) who were touched by this.
There was clearly no ‘right’ way to write, although some of the strategies shared were useful. Rowena Murray distinguishes between ‘binge’ writing and ‘snack’ writing (Snack and binge writing); the danger is that we wait for the opportunity to arise for a binge (such as a writing retreat) but miss the many daily opportunities for small snacks.
A strong theme in these discussions, among a mostly female cohort, was the gendered aspects of writing. Finding and protecting time to write involves putting yourself and your study first, above the needs of children, partners, parents and students who want your time and support. As Virginia Woolf makes clear through the metaphor of A room of one’s own, writing requires autonomy and space, both of which were offered, for a short time at least, by the writing retreat. But a significant realisation was that space and time are not everything when it comes to writing: being granted a room and an allotted period of time doesn’t necessarily mean that the thesis will get written or the article produced. These factors are undercut by the personal and by the complexities of the writing process.
This led us to consider the distinction between writing as a product, and as a process. When thinking about writing as a product, it should be easy, the thinking and research has been done, you can just write it up! This idea is reinforced through the medium with which we generally engage with the scholarly community – the published journal article, yet what we only see is product. Some at the writing retreat were there with this product in mind, and they achieved it, they produced ‘the thing’. For some, the process of writing raised more questions than answers, made us rethink some of our ideas, and actually rethink what we wanted to say with our work, which is equally productive writing.
“In one sense I know what I have to write… and sometimes in quite specific terms, what is required. And yet it is only by engaging in the process of writing itself that writers ultimately discover what it is they want to say. Indeed, the final product may be a surprise” (White, Academic writing: Process and product)