Thinking and Writing about Writing

Fayaz Alibhai  It’s a wet and gloomy morning as I walk across the Meadows in the general direction of Arthur’s Seat towards the Engine Shed.  A desperate Twitter plea for info on a writing retreat not far from Edinburgh some weeks earlier had drawn a swift and kindly response from the Institute for Academic Development about an upcoming retreat organised by the University itself but held off-campus.  I had been on a week-long one just under a year ago, organised by the fab folk at EdJoWriWe and it had been a turning point for me.  Would just a day-long format work the same magic?

Of course, this was preceded by the foolish thought, ‘could I afford to take the whole day off doing nothing else but writing?’  It seems faintly ridiculous seeing it in print like that but the thought of writing feels like a luxury, never mind the actual practice, which initially, at least, invariably makes me doubt my sanity and question the wisdom of attempting a career in academia.  Whereas, in fact, as Anne Lamott puts it so eloquently, ‘you sit staring at your blank page like a cadaver, feeling your mind congeal, feeling your talent run down your leg and into your sock’ (1995:176). There was work, the siren ping of emails, there was reading, there was parenting – so much to do, so little (chunks of) time to do it all in.

But here we all were, about 15 of us representing a cross-section of Colleges across the University, writing penattempting to retreat, quite physically from our usual desks, and from our mental preoccupations to focus on only one thing – writing.  Daphne Loads, our facilitator, smiled brightly and welcomed us into the spacious conference room at the top floor of the Engine Shed.  The wooden beams on the ceilings, the aroma of fresh coffee (and biscuits!), despite an email heads-up that a morning caffeine fix would not be available, and the gentle warmth of the room made it all a properly rustic, albeit temporary, withdrawal from the pressures of marking, tutoring, meetings and general administrating.  Things were looking up.[although not for the Engine Shed which, sadly, is facing closure; read more about this here].

Daphne set out the ground rules as we adjusted to the initially awkward intimacy of sitting across from a complete stranger, sharing a desk on castors without the safety of desk dividers that for all their flimsiness are extremely effective territorial markers.  Switch off phones, don’t use the internet, articulate a specific goal for each of the sessions.  And write.

Anticipating the question of what actually constitutes writing, Daphne cited Rowena Murray, whose article on the practice of structured writing retreats had been circulated to us beforehand: if you’re thinking or reading, you’re not writing.  Indeed, if we were doing anything other than writing longhand or bashing out keystrokes on the keyboard, there was a high chance that we were not writing.  Sage advice.  I added that nugget to my mental collection of quotes from a whole bunch of other books on writing. All I needed to do now was to stop reading all the books I have bought on how to write and JUST.  WRITE.  There’s a list of a few of my favourites below, covering rituals, structure, content, strategies, and blocks).

Daphne was a delightful enabler.  She kept us on track through our four writing chunks of between 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, which generally got shorter as the day progressed.  For each slot, we set ourselves a writing task that fitted into the larger goal we had set for the day and, this was the important bit, we shared it with our partners, so that we could discuss our progress at the end of the session.  I aimed for 500 words for a draft chapter I wanted to begin.  My partner pledged a killer opening sentence for a grant application for her first slot.  Another colleague committed to incorporating peer review feedback for a journal article.

Over lunch and tea-breaks and the all-too-brief reflective sessions, we discussed our progress with one another, talked about our work and interests, and mused aloud about how the consequences of NOT writing are well articulated in academia, but that the consequences of writing itself are never quite as well articulated or, indeed, explicitly rewarded.  Against the backdrop of the increasing corporatisation of the idea of the university, there were conversations about the irony of the worlds of commerce and business themselves recognising the value of email-free Fridays and the importance of not only carving out individual time for creativity, but institutionalising it so that it became best practice.

As it was only a day-long retreat, there was not enough time to create the kind of community Murray writes about or that I was fortunate to experience at EdJoWriWe. But it got us thinking about the process of writing. And revealed the possibility of doing it in smaller chunks than we thought possible.  Most importantly, of course, it got us writing.

I had 6,000 words at the end of the day, about half of which will probably make it into a clean draft of my chapter.  And my partner completed a draft of her grant application.  By any measure, I think that made the writing retreat a massive success.  Thank you, IAD!  When’s the next one?

About the author

fsa passport pic-rotatedFayaz S Alibhai is currently Outreach PhD Student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Alwaleed Centre, University of Edinburgh.  His research explores Islam and Muslims in Scotland, focussing on their representation and participation in the public sphere in the specific context of Edinburgh.  You can follow him on twitter @fayazalibhai



Becker, Howard. 2008. Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article. Second Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bolker, Joan. 1998. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc.

Dunleavy, Patrick. 2003. Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

King, Stephen. 2000. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Lamott, Anne. 1995. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books.

Murray, Rowena. & Newton, Mary, 2009. ‘Writing retreat as structured intervention: margin or mainstream?’ In Higher Education Research & Development, 28(5), pp.541-553.




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