This is a review of the writing retreat for the curious who were not able to come. Perhaps I am not the best person to review the writing retreat, since I technically flunked it.
The retreat, sponsored by the Language Arts & Media Program (some new configuration funded by some big donation) and organized by a post-doc in women’s studies was really just about perfect. I showed up at 10am and there were breakfast sandwiches and fruit and coffee and tea. Around 10 people gathered–a mix of grad students in all phases of their program and some undergrads. We went around the room in the typical way introducing ourselves and our work, and some side notes about what we hoped to get out of the session. We got started about 10:40am and just worked until 1pm. People got up and took breaks as they liked, but it was pretty quiet and most people seemed focused. Lunch was the good catered stuff from FHI, and people just sat in groups and chatted for an hour and ate. Then we sat down again, chatted about out work strategies, then started the next block of work time. It was great, I would recommend it highly, especially to people who are able to get a little more motivation and focus by working with other people around who also won’t distract you.
I couldn’t hack it, though. It just didn’t work for me. I cleared the whole day for it. Josh was going to take care of Piper all day, and I was planning on taking Sunday off since Saturday was supposed to be such a full work day. I get up really early, so by the time 10am had rolled around, I had done a lot of puttering around, mostly assembling a huge amount of STUFF I needed to take to the retreat. I showed up with outwear since I walked (coat, scarf, umbrella), a bag of 4 books, and a backpack full of computer, computer charger, folders, a notebook, pens, ear plugs, chocolate, hand lotion, gum, highlighters. It was quite a scene. I don’t work outside of my office much, and certainly not for 8 hours. I got increasingly antsy and frustrated waiting around to actually get started working. I tend to hit an energy slump by 10:30 or 11am, and I couldn’t help feeling like my best hours were going down the drain. Then, the introductions–where we had to hear about everyone’s work … that just about sent me over the edge. It just gets to me. Having to process all that information people are spewing, and the internal process it kicks off with me is one of comparison–is their project more interesting or sophisticated than mine? Are they further along? They are working on an article–do they have publications? The kind of crap that it is best to keep as far away from the writing process as possible.
In spite of all of that, I was able to focus and get some really good work done in the first session. I really got a lot of my intro together and thought through the whole intervention. It was nice to have a quiet room and no interruptions. Lunch came at just about the right time.
But sitting back down, I had really reached the limit of how far I could get with the introduction without my shelf of books (I chose the wrong 4 books, apparently). And I wasn’t fresh enough to start a revision plan for chapter 3, which was kind of an entire new can of worms. And I needed a printer. I pretty much felt stuck. Once I had the idea that if I left now (3pm), I could still salvage a weekend family day and save some work time for when I was fresh the next morning, I was totally checked out. Josh and Piper came and got me (you can imagine the elaborate packing up that had to happen with all that stuff, in a silent room of people working) and I apologized profusely to the organizer. I spent the rest of the day watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, reading books with Piper, having dinner (which I had actually assembled the day before in anticipation of being gone all day), and then putting Piper to bed. I even read for half an hour that evening. The next morning I got a miraculously early start, worked about 3 hours, took the whole day off, then pushed really hard for an hour after Piper went to bed in order to send a piece of the intro to my adviser.
I felt pretty guilty about leaving the retreat. Because I felt like I was backing out, or letting other people down, or that I just simply couldn’t work for very long, unlike all the other people there who stayed. But one of the (or the only?) nice things about being in this stage is being able to use the pressure of the dissertation to just not compromise about my time at all. Who would I let down, really? Were other people really going to judge me? Did it really mean that I failed? No, actually it just meant I know what works for me and that wasn’t working and I was going to waste 3 hours of my time and throw off my work flow if I stayed. And that’s the moral of the story: Retreats and writing groups and advice–and even my own techniques and schedules and productivity apps–are great if they are working, but I’m the only one who knows if they are working for me, and if they’re not, then I’ll move along tout suite, thanks.