Christina M. Spiker

Christina M. Spiker

Art Historian | Professor | Digital Humanist

St. Kate’s Scholar’s Retreat: The Virtues of Writing Socially

During the school year, I always bemoan a lack of time and yearn for summer days when I will be totally free to write that latest book proposal / article / essay / blog / conference abstract… And yet, every time the summer comes, I find it hard to find the focus and motivation to get work done. I know that I’m not alone in my struggles, as it seems to be one of the most common topics of commiseration among faculty both old and new. But I can never help feeling like I am struggling along in front of an empty Word .doc. And before I know it, the summer comes to a close as we turn our attention towards course preps and upcoming departmental meetings. The summer is fleeting.

I’m trying to psych myself out of these ruts by establishing a daily practice, but it is sometimes easier said than done. But this past week, I had a wonderful opportunity to unite with other faculty in disciplines across campus for the St. Catherine University Scholar’s Retreat. The image I had in my mind was “writing bootcamp,” but the actual experience was quite different. It really made me think about the process of writing socially. The two facilitators of our group encouraged us to mix writing and work with periods of dedicated play. We were encouraged not to lock ourselves in a conference room with nothing but coffee, computers, and a laser-jet printer, although that was how I imagined our entire week at the Oakridge Conference Center in Chaska, MN. We had a schedule that stressed balance and we were expected to keep to it to avoid writing binges, structured around “Sacred Writing Time,” or periods of uninterrupted work. This writing time could occur in company (I liked to work in one of the larger rooms with about 6 others), or alone in your room, in nature, or in any other nook. A typical day looked like the following:

7-9am: Continental Breakfast
9-11am: Sacred Writing Time
11:15am-12pm: Small Group Meeting (progress check in and the setting of daily goals)
12-1pm: Lunch
1-2pm: Individual Meeting (if needed)
2-4pm: Sacred Writing Time
4-6pm: Play
6-7pm: Dinner
7:15-9pm: Large Group Meeting (which consisted mostly of public readings of works in progress)

The fact that I got more work done in these dedicated two hour chunks than one of my 8-hour coffee-shop binge sessions was enlightening. I kept thinking, “I can get more work done in two 2-hour chunks than a solid 8 hours of effort?! What magic is this?!” But I really think the process was effective because of breaks and the cultivation of a writer’s community–with people who faced the same struggles and neuroses as the rest of us. This week, I felt like my work was part of something larger. And through the process, an 8-page conference paper blossomed into a 25-page draft (complete with references). More work needs to be done, but I’m going to try my hand at allotting my own Sacred Writing Time during the week, and see how that goes. It begins today.

And as an added bonus of the process? Learning about the scholarly work and ambitions of my other colleagues in fields as diverse as English, Nursing, Occupational Therapy, Biology, and Business. As I walk around campus this fall, I now have 13 newly familiar faces to greet me during Opening Workshops. I can even tell you what they are working on!

The more I reflect, the more I think that graduate programs should embrace similar retreats to teach their students and faculty how to establish a healthy writing practice. I try to think about when I learned all of the bad habits that I am trying desperately to unlearn. Was it when I was dissertating in coffee shops across the U.S. and Japan? How about cranking out seminar papers on the quarter system? Did it begin in my undergraduate education? Or in high school? I think that by the time we enter graduate school, everyone makes the assumption that not only can we write well, but that we can do so efficiently. But writing can be a struggle if it is not routine. And since there will never be enough time, we need to protect the time we allot in order to make writing a more mundane part of our schedule.

Because if I am telling the truth, my best work was never the result of divine inspiration. And I bet yours wasn’t either. It was the product of a daily toil and a special kind of perseverance to keep returning to that same draft no matter what frustrations I harbored. And the daily courage to sit down and double click on the document in order to begin.

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