‘Publish or Perish!’

Image: Riccardo Pelati

Monday 18th December, 2017

Fawzia Mazanderani

Any aspiring academic has heard, and possibly shuddered, at those words before. And for researchers within the social sciences and humanities, the call to ‘Shut up and Write’ booms all the louder, for writing is tantamount to academic survival and success. Yet the hallways and common rooms of universities worldwide are privy to the sighs of scholars who find themselves struggling to do just that – write. While there are numerous reasons as to why this may be the case (giant teaching loads and endless administrative duties to name but a few), there are generally few opportunities for academics to have the space, both mental and physical, from within which to write.

Given that the need to write is particularly pressing for early career researchers, the Sociological Review established an ECR Strictly Come Writing retreat, which has now been running for two years. This year, a group of us, all wearing different institutional hats, at various stages in our careers and nibbling at different projects, made the journey to the picturesque village of Gartmore, Scotland. Here we were met by Professor Rowena Murray, doyen of academic writing retreats, and welcomed inside the dining room of the Black Bull Hotel, where a rectangle of lamp-lit tables set the scene for how we would be spending the next few days.

One of the basic premises behind the retreat was simple, yet enormously effective: Plan. Plan again. Recognise you didn’t stick to the Plan and then rePlan again. Now while the recommendation to plan one’s writing agenda prior to getting down to doing it is hardly a novel approach, Murray’s suggestion that we set ourselves clear, achievable goals for each one of the eight writing slots provided in our timetable meant that large and lofty writing ideas were broken down into manageable compartments. We were encouraged to briefly discuss our goals with one another before each writing session began and then feedback on how the session had gone and our respective triumphs and challenges.

Another one of Murray’s golden rules was to keep a strict separation from work and play, with the understanding that focused sessions spent on writing (either 1 hour or 1.5 hours at a time) would be followed by walks in the woods, copious cups of tea and chatter. Looking back on the day’s activities, it seems astonishing that we actually managed to fit so much in (working, socialising, exercising and eating) and yet were all far more productive than we would have been if we’d spent the same day writing in our offices. What’s that you said? A balanced lifestyle? Surely not!

Now although I had heard glorious tales of the productivity that can arise from such retreats, I suspected myself far too attention deficient to reap the professed benefits. Instead I arrived with only the vaguest hope that I would have enough shame, in front of people I did not know, to cast aside the temptations of youtubing ‘cute kitten videos’ each time I hit a blank and actually make some ticks off my ever increasing writing ‘To Do’ list. While I suspected a ‘policed’ environment to be more effective than writing alone, I was suspicious of what a writing retreat could achieve, given that my murky ideas would be no less murky from having crossed the country with me. Yet there was undoubtedly something about being apart and distancing oneself from the responsibility and commitments associated with our home lives that made the writing retreat so effective.

More than that, we realised as a group just how helpful it was to be cooked for and waited upon (meal after meal of deliciousness) so that we could come up with no ‘I’m just popping out to the shops quick’ excuse to distract us from our tasks. Another realisation that took me by surprise was how enjoyable it was to write around strangers, people with whom we could all identify with to some degree and yet did not over-identify or attempt to compete with. This struck me as scholarly solidarity at its best and while our respective institutional homes should ideally provide such supportive environments, this is not always the case.

And so while I arrived at the retreat open-minded, yet harbouring slight suspicions, the proof really was in the pudding (an enormous chocolate cake, incidentally), as each one of us emerged having achieved far more than we had initially thought possible. Many of us had come to the retreat with the writing projects that we associated with dread, the half-baked folders on our laptops that we had been avoiding for months (some, for years!). While writing ‘bootcamps’ or retreats are often focused on enabling ‘free-writing’, many of us brought along pieces of work that we been loath to edit and ‘re-writing’ was in fact the challenge that we were facing. My own experience of the retreat was that it propelled me into action, providing a unique space within which I not only felt motivated to complete some of my incomplete projects, but also a space within which I felt more capable of writing than I had felt for months.

Much of this new-found self-belief came from being in an environment with others who were facing the same sorts of challenges; the blocks, distractions and fears of inadequacy. By writing alongside one another, and appreciating that each writing task, no matter our interest in the topic, constitutes hard work and dedication, I felt a shift in my own approach towards writing. I would thoroughly recommend a retreat of this kind to academics at any stage, as a refreshing reminder, of how a writing life can still be a balanced life and that writing is something we are all more capable of than we sometimes let ourselves believe.

Fawzia Haeri Mazanderani is in the third year of her PhD in Education at the University of Sussex. Her dissertation focuses on the development of aspirations of young people living in post-apartheid South Africa. She has a background in Social Anthropology from UCT (South Africa) and SOAS (London).

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