Residential writing retreats: three wishes for academic output


If academia was a Disney film and I was a street rat (early career researcher) living on the sandy backstreets of Agrabah, who happened to summon a genie, my three top-of-my-head wishes would be: publications, grant money, and a pipeline of non-traditional research outputs.

But after the wishes were granted and I was flying away on my magic carpet, I’d realise my error (besides the fact that I’d forgotten to wish for world peace).

I should have asked for ‘time’ and ‘space’ and ‘someone to cook my meals’ so I could get on with what I actually love: reading, asking questions, collaborating with other academics, discovering answers, writing, editing prose, and disseminating my findings.

Outputs are by-products. If they were instantly granted through genie magic, then the joy of the journey would evaporate quicker than you can say “How’s your research going?”

Yet when you are under pressure to publish (just to keep, let alone advance, your career), have demanding teaching loads, a never-ending cycle of meetings, and deadlines, what you need is time. Time away from distractions. Time that you can dedicate to research. Mostly, that means time for writing.

Which is why, as the kind of person who walks through a weekend craft market thinking “I could make that!”, I decided to start running residential writing retreats.

Here’s how it happened, and some tips for designing your own.

Sources of inspiration

I’d attended writing retreats during my PhD candidature. The first was a 2-day workshop at Swinburne University, where Professor Rowena Murray opened my eyes to writing in social spaces. The second was Victoria University’s Performing the Word, which was attended by PhD students from across Australia.

I was hooked.

After reading Kylie Budge’s Thesis Whisperer blog post about solo writing retreats abroad, I took myself and my laptop to France for a month (twice!) and pounded the cobblestones in the morning and the keyboard each afternoon and evening. At the end of each trip, I flew home with a finished thesis chapter.

For a less expensive and more regular option (for those in Melbourne, Australia), Jason Murphy’s #MelbWriteUp gives the weekly free gift of a day of social writing divided into 25-minute pomodoros.

Armed with good intentions, I borrowed a copy of Barbara Grant’s ‘Academic Writing Retreats: A Facilitators Guide’  from the library to learn how others were designing their retreats, and started sketching out a program.

Tweaking the design

Through researching others’ retreats, there was one thing about them that didn’t overly appeal: structure. Although I acknowledge this could be great for some, diverting time away from individual writing practice in order to participate in writing instruction or mentoring sessions lacked appeal.

I decided to offer a program that was as loose as possible: unstructured retreat. In other words, providing what I would have requested from my fictional genie, should he appear: time, space, and food.

During the retreat, participants were welcome to work on whatever they wanted, and there was no formal accountability to the group for what was achieved.

Choosing a venue

There was one non-negotiable in choosing a venue: separate rooms. The appeal of sharing a room and sleeping in a bunk bed has long passed.

The home of the retreat – found through an Airbnb search with search options set to the maximum number of rooms available – was Seaview Guest House, a grandly designed throwback to days past.

The beauty of Seaview is that it offers a large dining room for communal writing, a cosy lounge room to write or read in front of the fire, and an upstairs study nook and balcony. You have options for where you want to work depending on your mood, and can easily move spots throughout the day. The venue is located within a 5-minute walk of the beach, and the front door opens onto the main street. That makes for an easy trip into town for a spot of vintage shopping.

Overcoming resistance

“But that just sounds like a holiday” is a typical comment from peers who are unfamiliar with the benefits of residential writing retreats. My counter argument is that holidays don’t typically involve producing book chapters, submitting academic papers, writing grant proposals, analysing data, or writing 15,000 words! These are just some of the tangible outputs achieved by the group over the four days we spent together. Luckily, my university was extremely supportive.

In their Research Whisperer blog post, Yolande Strengers and Cecily Maller highlight the scholarly necessity of making time for writing, and how retreats are not an ‘indulgence’ but instead provide a much needed break from that ‘constantly busy’ feeling which hits you each morning, sometimes even before you arrive at the university.

A four-day residential writing retreat is the equivalent of a mere two weeks of the research time I’m currently allocated in my academic workload. Yet the outputs I achieved on retreat would take months to accomplish if I was on campus.

The secret sauce

The secret sauce of writing retreats is the people who attend. Which, unless you design an ‘invite only’ retreat, will largely be an unknown. This was a little daunting, as most of us didn’t know each other, or only minimally, before we arrived. However, the common bond of having a membership to the academy quickly led to conversations, collegiality, and potential collaborations.

If you’re thinking of attending an unstructured writing retreat, but have never written in social spaces before, it might be good to first attend a ‘shut up and write’ style session (such as #MelbWriteUp) and see if the format of social writing works for you. If it does, find a writing retreat near you, or create your own. It’s like finding your own genie.

I can’t seem to stop talking about writing retreats, so if you ever want to chat, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Author Bio: Dr Bronwyn Eager works as a Lecturer, Entrepreneurship at Swinburne Business School, Swinburne University of Technology.