Writing retreats…

…it turns out they’re my jam. Over lockdown (which this family unit is still doing due to my wife’s health vulnerabilities), I have been missing my normal work processes. I am a weird hybrid because I love planning and I love spontaneity so I was surprised to find that I’ve been missing my routine. Or that it was even a routine in the first place.

Essentially, I would drop the younger dog at a daycare facility twice a week and I would use the man-child’s time off from college / work as a third puppy-free day. Then, I would leave the house. That’s the sum total of the habitual part of the routine. The spontaneity came from choosing where I would work and how long I would stick at it, which varied day to day, thus it didn’t feel very regimented.

Favourite locations:
* University of Chichester library – Bognor Campus
* Chichester College – Brinsbury, also where I worked
* Tesco in Chichester or Havant – for the free parking!
* Costa, Harris and Hoole, Boston Tea Party – for the coffee-on-tap
* Public libraries
* The pub

I had favourite places to sit within each location (and would have a private, internalised strop if they weren’t available when I got there), knew the shortest route from the nearest carpark so I could lug books, had auto-connections to the WiFi in each place and could source an available wall socket in under 6 seconds. In the academic and public library settings, I’d even take in my laptop riser, proper keyboard and mouse, and be amused at the looks I’d get. I like a long stretch of work to really immerse myself and get things done. Sometimes, I’d go early (to get my favourite seat) and just do a traditional working day. Other times, I’d work until bedtime in the venues where that was possible. The routine was very flexible.

Then Covid-19 came along*.

Pop. The routine and all its flexibility was gone. After our initial panic about the pandemic, my wife’s health, money concerns and so on, we began to look at ways to create sustainable work conditions – discussed in previous posts here and here – to improve my productivity. I basically tackled the things I thought I was missing by not being able to access my normal routine.

Somewhere comfy to work: I am on the third iteration of a work-from-home space. I now have a decent desk, very impressive chair, foot rest, good lighting, reasonable internet connection. It is all lovely and I’m grateful to the man-child for the use of his room by day (it’s the biggest, nicest looking space and he’s leaving for university in a few days). But this hasn’t increased my productivity.

Space and time alone: I know that the places I used to work in weren’t solitary but they weren’t full of my people. People who talk at you, ask you questions all day, interrupt you and so on… For a while, I commandeered the lounge: my wife and man-child were forbidden from entering unless I initiated contact. Or there was a fire. Or chocolate. Also, it meant I could avoid the general chaos of the house (mess, washing, dishes) which I thought was also a benefit of escaping to study in other places. It was all calm and quiet but it still didn’t improve my productivity.

Coffee on tap: we’ve long had a good coffee machine at home but the cafetière had broken and sometimes all I want is decent, strong, black coffee. I replaced this, topped up my flavoured syrups for fun lattes and even purchased some frappe making powders to enjoy iced coffee. Again, all good but it didn’t improve my productivity.

It transpired that emulating these features of my previous flexible routine did nothing to help with my motivation and efficacy. Honestly, it was confusing and frustrating. Then, in August, as I was limping towards my first year PhD deadline, I attended an online session called Thesis Writing Workshop led by Dr Esther Allen – Research Development Manager for the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield. I was hoping to pick up some tips and tricks for academic writing at this level. Esther’s content was excellent; she provided a lot of help and guidance for those of us who procrastinate, including exploring the reasons behind it. She also talked about writing retreats… I’d previously seen them advertised at the University earlier in the year but as a distance learner with nothing to write (back then), I’d assumed they weren’t relevant to me. Esther described virtual equivalents which were popping up in lieu of in-person retreats and provided some links. With a nothing-ventured-nothing-gained level of desperation, I signed up for a retreat with Virtual Writing Retreat.

The premise is simple. You sign up and pay a £3 charge which helps them to run the events. They send you a link using Slack and you turn up in a secure, moderated chat room. Here you join a mini group for the session of 4 – 6 other writers. Everyone using this service is writing academically. In your mini groups, you announce your goals for the day: a word count, a chapter, a sub-section, specific edits, a rewrite, responding to notes. Then, at particular times, you check in to report back on progress made towards your targets. If you want, you can use a pomodoro timer so you’re working in sprints and they definitely recommend regular breaks – I tend to use the check-ins for this purpose. Sometimes others offer advice but they always offer encouragement.

My first retreat was the 5th August, from 8.45 a.m. – 3.15 p.m. and I wrote 1300 words. It worked. I immediately booked all the sessions they were running up until my 22nd August deadline: Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and the occasional Sunday. It had been so effective, I hunted around for another option for the other days of the week and stumbled upon The Writers’ HQ.

Naturally, I really enjoyed their slogan. For the most part, they are a community of creative writers but there have been academic writers in all the sessions I’ve attended. Added bonus: free! They use Crowdcast to start and end the day; you set your goals in the comments box. Then, you check in at various points of the day on their forums or via Twitter if you prefer. The moderators respond to your comments and make sure everyone has been supported. Peers also comment and offer help.

Each of the two organisations offer something different. Virtual Writing Retreat is academic so the others attending understand what I am doing and why. Writers’ HQ is gloriously funny and sweary. The personality types of the organisers and the writers really suits me.

Why did it work? Which part of my pre-Covid-19 routine was it imitating? I think it’s the small-c-catholicism I carry. My pre-pandemic way of working and the new virtual writing retreats tap into my innate sense of I-need-to-do-this-and-do-it-well-and-efficiently-or-I’ll-let-someone-down. Dropping the puppy off at daycare meant arriving by a certain time; I hate being late (something my wife doesn’t care about, much to my frustration) and I’ll do everything I can to be prompt. The virtual retreat taps into this. No one would scold me for being late but I don’t want to miss the beginning and the goal setting… so I’m up, caffeinated (grumpy) and ready to start on time. Without the retreat or the puppy daycare schedule, I’d start sometime just before lunch as I am a nocturnal creature. Equally, the public but private setting meant I felt compelled to get on for fear others would see I wasn’t working or was mucking about on my phone. I know this is ridiculous as no one else in a library, coffee shop or pub gives two cookies about what I am doing… nor is anyone in a writing retreat going to pass judgement. It’s a self-inflicted compunction. I also feel compelled to get things done in the writing retreats so I have something honest to report back during the check-ins.

Virtual writing retreats are my jam because they enable me to healthily take advantage of my completer-finisher-guilt-ridden personality traits. I will continue to use them as I progress with my research and would pay more for the service (don’t mention that to either organisation!). My only regret is that it took me until August to discover them.

*I am more than well aware that this is a less-than-minor impact of the pandemic and I am just contextualising my experience.

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