A Room with a View / Writing with Others

The Lake Mendota shoreline and UW-Madison campus looking toward the downtown Madison skyline. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

The Lake Mendota shoreline and UW-Madison campus looking toward the downtown Madison skyline. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

Unfortunately, the photograph with which I would have preferred to begin this post doesn’t exist. Instead I’ll have to help you reach the right place to recreate the picture for yourself mentally. I’m John Bradley, interim associate director of the Writing Center; thanks for following my lead. I’ll get to the point along the way, I promise.

Start with the photograph to the left here. This is the Campus Lakeshore Area and downtown Madison. Find the fairly squat concrete building with the long rows of black windows near the water line. It’s the one adjacent to the three piers closest to us. That’s Helen C. White Hall. Pick out the window in the middle of the uppermost story of Helen C. Then glance to the window just below that, one floor down. That’s the window of room 6191. It’s got quite a view. To get the right mental image, then, we’ll move from the serene vantage point of this aerial photograph and put ourselves at that window looking out. It’s a crisp spring morning outside with a bright blue sky and a gentle breeze moving across the water.

Picture something like this, but from a window, not a helicopter. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

Picture something like this, but from a window, not a helicopter. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

Back up with me across the room to stand at the door. Keep that view in focus, but add six figures spaced out along two tables just in front of that window, black silhouettes against the bright sky and sun struck water. That, folks, is the photograph I don’t have. It’s the one I’ve been romanticizing more and more (can’t you tell?) since I passed the doorway to room 6191 one recent Saturday morning to check on the group that had chosen the room with the lake view to do their writing during the Writing Center’s second Writers’ Retreat this spring.

The author and his son check out other views of Lake Mendota.

The author and his son Paul check out other views of Lake Mendota.

Those six didn’t need any checking on at the moment, any more than the retreat writers in our three other rooms that morning did. With their headphones in, their cups of coffee steaming by their sides, and the soft clack-clack-clack of their laptop keyboards filling the air, they seemed completely absorbed in their writing and completely oblivious to me and, well, everything else. I couldn’t have stumbled upon a more striking visual encapsulation of what has made our Writer’s Retreats a wonderful new addition to the Writing Center’s workshop roster this spring and a resounding success with a very promising future. We provided space and time and quiet, and, committed to making the most of those, they were busy writing–on projects big and small and in disciplines ranging from Microbiology and Theater to Journalism and Geology–in the motivating company of others.

Building on the success of our dissertation boot camps last summer, we planned our Writers’ Retreats around a very simple premise. Here’s the blurb we used to publicize them:

“It’s time to make substantial progress with your major writing project. And time is exactly what our writer’s retreats offer. Ditch the distractions and join a group of others all motivated to do one thing: putting hands on the keyboard and words on the page. Build your writing momentum with our February retreat. End the semester strong with our April retreat.

Retreat participants will engage in brief goal-setting exercises followed by time to write in various spaces provided by the Writing Center, with Writing Center staff on hand for consultation.”

In the vast majority of our workshops as a writing center, we have something to teach. We bring writers around a common or a tricky genre and help them see their way through it, offering guiding principles, dissecting models, and otherwise building up a base of knowledge and comfort that helps participants start a draft or take the next step with one. The Writers’ Retreat is different. In many ways, the more we stay out of the way and the less we say, the better. At most, we prompt participants to articulate some goals for themselves in the opening minutes of the retreat and then encourage accountability by having them share those goals in small groups. Writers can choose to have a quick 15-20 minute conversation with one of the Writing Center staff on hand to talk through a block, think through an idea, or get a fresh pair of eyes on something they’ve just written. Otherwise, though, our remaining interaction is to gather everyone together at the end of four hours for a chance to report and reflect on what they achieved.

Nancy leading the goal setting exercise during the February retreat.

Nancy leading the goal setting exercise during the February retreat.

But while every single participant in the retreat could have done the same thing in a quiet corner of the library (minus the consultations) without the opening and closing group circle-up, they chose to attend our retreat instead. And to sign up for the next one. And to ask for more of these to be held on a regular basis. And to form their own spin-off writing groups (I’m aware of at least three) that meet elsewhere on a regular basis in the meantime.

In Writing Groups: History, Theory, and Implications (1987), Anne Ruggles Gere articulates the powerful draw of opportunities to write in a group like this. On the one hand, Gere writes, “forces, ranging from aspects of intellectual history to social institutions such as copyright law, have contributed to the dominance of a solo-performer view of writing.” And as all of us know who have ever kept writing while the rest of the world slept or have drudged away on a draft in a dark corner library of the stacks only to emerge desperate for social interaction, the reality of the writer as “solo-performer” extends far beyond our by-lines. On the other hand, as Gere explains so effectively, writing groups “contribute to our understanding of what it means to write. Specifically, writing groups highlight the social dimension of writing. They provide tangible evidence that writing involves human interaction as well as solitary inscription” (my emphasis, p. 3).

During the February retreat, the view looked a little more like this. (©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Bryce Richter)

During the February retreat, the view looked a little more like this picture of the frozen lake. (©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Bryce Richter)

Gere’s true focus is on groups that write together and then offer each other feedback on drafts. Our Writers’ Retreats don’t go even that far, but they don’t seem to need to. Simply bringing that act of “solitary inscription” into the company of others seems to help alleviate some of difficulties that come from the “solitary” part. If the retreats “teach” anything, it’s that they help normalize that social dimension to the most isolated and isolating part of the writing process, which can only be a benefit in a campus environment with such potentially high pressure on writing. I won’t lie; there’s a bit of accountability and shame involved: “If my neighbor isn’t on facebook right now, maybe I shouldn’t be either.” But, in general, the group lends more a sense of purpose and determination than anything else: “If others are sticking to writing for one more hour, so can I.”

And with so many commitments competing for undergrads’ and graduate students’ attentions alike, it’s also hard for some not to gravitate to an event that requires that they make a firm commitment of time and energy and which allows them to mark their calendars as “busy” in a way many of us find hard to do with our solitary writing time. I’m convinced these elements all play a role in the near unanimous requests we have received after both retreats so far for more retreat opportunities more frequently. In some way shape or form, we hope to make that happen. As you begin to formulate a comment for this post, I welcome your thoughts on the retreat format and experience as well as sustainable models for meeting the apparently high demand for these events in the future.

Writers by the window during the February retreat. Not quite the photo I described at the beginning of the post, but not bad either.

Writers by the window during the February retreat. Not quite the photo I described at the beginning of the post, but still good solid writing taking place.

11 thoughts on “A Room with a View / Writing with Others

  1. I’m hoping to attend one of these retreats next semester. I love the idea of time set aside to write, as well as the shame and encouragement needed to keep writing! Thanks for the post, John.

  2. What a fantastic idea – I wish my university had a similar program. (Maybe we could…) Thanks for sharing this, John!

  3. Harry,
    I was able to attend the first retreat in February. Though I couldn’t make it to subsequent meetings this semester, I can tell you that the one process of goal-making, sharing, and reporting in which I participated in February has fundamentally changed my writing process and the way I conceive of and act upon goals.

    Part of the appeal of the retreat, I think, is that it gives writers a concrete start time for their projects. It is so easy to put off our own work (for various reasons, including the ones John notes here), but what contributes most to my own delay is a sense that “doing writing” requires finishing or making significant progress on a major project. The goal sheets that Nancy and John provided during the first retreat reminded me that sometimes, just beginning work on a piece or achieving a small breakthrough “counts” as working. This has made it easier to set and meet concrete starting times for work, because it has removed some of the pressure from making the decision to write.

    Moreover, it can often be difficult to imagine an audience for writing I produce, which gets in the way of writing-motivation, not to mention clarity. Having to explain my work and my goals to others during the February meeting made it much easier to imagine an audience (and remember that I have one in the first place!), which is a useful tool whenever I get stuck on a particular difficult sentence, paragraph, conference paper abstract, etc.

    So: Even though I hope to make a more regular habit of attending retreats in the future, I might go so far as to say that these gatherings function as more than singular, discrete events that offer deadlines or a chance to make academic work seem less solitary. I don’t know if this reply addresses your question at all, but for me, the retreat has instead become something of a mindset that contributes to ongoing processes goal-setting and meeting.

  4. I don’t think I had ever thought about why writing is so difficult and lonely. I was struck by your idea that although writing is a solitary process if we were writing with others and able to include society of writers to bounce ideas off of that the process would go so much smoother. Given that ideas are never truly real unless they are shared – your analysis made a lot of sense. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Great post! A retreat filled with coffee, headphones, and writing sounds fantastic. Would love to do one of these retreats!

  6. Great post about what really sound like great events, John. Your questions about format and sustainable models to meet high demand captured my interest. I would wonder about embracing this model even more fully as a response to these concerns. I’m sure one draw of the current format is that it’s -an event- that you mark off on your calendar, giving it high importance and really making you feel like you don’t want to waste this time. Maybe one downside of that model though is that it just replicates the kind of writing under time pressure that it so often takes for many of us to make progress (definitely including me!). But the emergence of ongoing writers’ groups from these sessions (not the first formed out of the writing center) suggests one way to make the model sustainable: move from single or multiple retreats to ongoing group meetings. (I think I’m echoing Leigh here.) Reserve spaces near the writing center for, say, every other week meetings, schedule a tutor already working at that time to hold goal-setting sessions and to check in with writers periodically. (That tutor might even end up having ongoing sessions with some group members.) Eventually, couldn’t facilitating these writing groups be one of the writing center’s major charges, along with tutoring, holding classes, and offering outreaches? Am I dreaming too big?

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