I’m sitting in rooms at the Royal Society of Victoria, which according to their website has been part of Melbourne’s “intellectual life since 1854”. I’m here with 23 other people made up of colleagues and HDR students who are undertaking a writer’s retreat for 2 days. I’d had this idea that a writing retreat might be a way to bring together academic staff and HDRs to focus on writing in a time and space removed from the day-to-day bustle of normal life. I’ve done a couple of DIY writing retreats and I was interested in seeing how it would work with a group of people in a different location – and we were lucky enough to have some funding available to make it happen. With a colleague helping by doing most of the heavy lifting of the organization of the 2 days, the time was here and we were all arriving.
Part of the attraction of writing retreats for me is the ability to suspend real life. I always think of Bruce Dawe’s poem ‘Katrina’ when I think about writing retreats and his line about Katrina’s life being suspended between earth and sky. While a vastly different context, there is something about this notion of being suspended that comes to mind when I think about taking the time out to write. To do that in a place surrounded with history and surrounded by others who are also here for the same purpose seems like both a gift and a luxury.
The interesting thing is that when I left home, I didn’t want to be here, I was keen to stay home and continue with real life, I felt too busy to take the time out, wondering why it was that I had come up with this crazy idea and then committed myself and others to it. Yet, when I dragged my overnight case up the steps and into the library with 23 other people, a colleague came up and said ‘are we starting soon? I’m itching to begin’, and it seemed like a lock loosened in my brain. People who are here have been driven here by the need to write, the need to sequester some time away, the need to sit with the process, with the good, the bad and the challenging of writing.
We began by sharing what it was that we wanted to achieve while we were here and it was obvious that despite the fact that we were a mix of Education and Arts, academics and HDR students, we had connections and synergies in writing, topic, focus or stage. People filtered out into various rooms, setting up stations and beginning to work. We broke for lunch and people talked about what they had been writing, about life, they strolled in the sunshine, they came back in and started again. Some people wandered out early, heading back to hotel rooms, where as someone put it ‘I could pretend I was overseas’ and they sat down at their hotel desk and kept writing. It was that sense of the physical journey providing a gateway into another headspace, that in moving away from one town to another, you make a physical and mental shift into another way of thinking and of being.
Others talked about the freedom that comes from not having to fit writing into a scheduled block of time, but instead of being able to relish in it, to think of nothing else but that for 2 days. Our HDR students talked about the fact that they could meet and talk with others from our different campuses, that they, as beginning researchers and writers, could get a window into the process of what more experienced academics do, they could watch them at work and see the writing process in action. One spoke about seeing her own shitty first draft and comparing that with the polished work she read in journals and books, and about the realisation that this process of moving from the shittty first draft to the polished version is largely hidden, but here in this retreat, they could see and live the process with others. Another spoke of how the time was reminding her of the need to ‘prioritise the essence of who we are’ and of what drove us to academia in the first place. When she spoke, her words clanged loudly in the corners of my brain.
It was in the moments of sharing that I began to see what the benefits of taking this time might be. People talked about having the permission to write, the permission to ignore the incessant email, the marking, the teaching prep, the need to hang out a load of washing and, instead…
to just write.
To play with voice.
To play with style.
To take a break and walk.
To return to the desk,
to the work,
to the words.