The writing retreat: how will you finish your doctorate?

Time out but busy as a bee: photo by Justine Phillip, 2015
Time out but busy as a bee: photo by Justine Philip, 2015

I have a starling piece of news. I have actually never gone on a writing retreat. The reasons are entirely practical – for the past 17 years my presence has been required at home with my children.

The other reason is also practical. After a career in daily journalism, I find it easy enough to focus and write among people, noise and distractions. Sure, some people and distractions may be more annoying than others, but for me writing has always been a job and always been like breathing – second nature and essential.

So, I never felt the need to get away from it all. I have always had a room of my own, no matter where I lived. Yes, it is a luxury, but no matter how small, I have always claimed a space as my own study, a place where no one else is permitted. While some may see this an indulgent, I regard it as essential. Even once I had children, they were only allowed into my writing space with permission, and never on my computer.

I know women who easily give away their personal space and these women are by and large resentful and frustrated. I don’t give a damn about being thought selfish for carving out my own writing life and zone, and it means I am also a pretty content soul.

So, I never felt I had to pack everything up and get away to focus on my writing. That said, I totally understand women who do. What if you have no separate space to call your study? What if the boisterous interruptions of domestic life intrude as you are trying to write up your doctorate?

When I was in that final, crucial writing up stage of the PhD, I took my annual leave from my job and bunkered down in my study; over summer, the kids were preoccupied with their own interests and wonderful friends took them for outings with their own kids – I am ever grateful for this.

To have actually gone away to a retreat would have added a whole other level of complexity to my juggling that would only cause more stress than it was worth. Even now, with the kids with their father on the weekend, if I was to go away on retreat it would mean finding somewhere for the dog to go, and why leave an house I have all to myself to pack up my notes and go somewhere else?

That said, I can see the benefits of a retreat and fantasise about its glories. And I admit to feeling a pang of longing when a friend and doctoral student Justine Philip sent me a link to the blog post she had written about her recent eco retreat, when she took time off to focus on a critical chapter of her dissertation due for completion in 2016.

Remote: BREW eco-writers retreat. Photo by Justine Phillip, 2015
Remote: BREW eco-writers retreat. Photo by Justine Philip, 2015

Justine drove seven hours north of Melbourne to reach the retreat – something I would never do for a start. I loathe driving long distances, and into the country. I also fail miserably at lighting potbelly stoves and trekking to an outhouse…though 10 days solitude sits comfortably with me. I have always made a habit of travelling alone, and regard my overseas research and conference trips as a retreat of sorts, away from the demands of teenagers and pets.

What I have found is that I am not necessarily productive as a writer when I am away, but that I gather the experiences and images and emotions garnered and bring them into my work.

Justine’s thesis explores a shared human-dingo history. No prizes for guessing how we came to meet – a mutual interest in human-animal relations has seen us present at several conferences together and we shared a panel (with artist Debbie Symons) at the 2014 ASLEC-ANZ Affective Habitus conference in Canberra.

While Justine went to the BREW residency in NSW to sort through three years of data and write a chapter due, I recall a similar timeline of weekends holed up at home, bunkered down in my study and ignoring almost everything as I slogged it out to get my dissertation complete. I took my annual leave to finish, and spent the summer inside, blinds down, and wrote. When the kids felt in need of food or a cuddle, they’d charge in and our beloved dog was then a little teething puppy, and slept at my feet, surreptitiously gnawing at journals articles spread around me until they were a wet, pulpy mass.

Remington Holiday. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014
Remington Holiday. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014

Justine’s retreat is on trend with what is offered by universities around the globe. The University of Miami Graduate School offers a Dissertation Writing where for three intensive days, doctorate students from all disciplines meet in a quiet space for extended blocks of time dedicated to writing, sharing daily writing goals and getting feedback. Write Out, a week long retreat for doctoral students from all disciplines at the University of Illinois at Chicago who study race and ethnicity.

Kylie Budge researched the retreat fantasy in The Thesis Whisperer in 2013, and discovered that spatial distance plays a role in creative cognition.

While part of me wants to use this as a good excuse to bunker down in my family’s house in a very small village in northern Greece, where I can barely speak the language but everyone knows me and my relatives generations back, I fear I will not be as productive as in my own study, where I have all my books and notes on hand. For a start, travelling from Australia is time consuming and expensive, so while language and geographical isolation may focus the mind, mine wants to be out absorbing new images and ideas, rather than writing the task at hand.

Northern Greece - village life. Photo 2013 by Evelyn Tsitas
Northern Greece – village life. Photo 2013 by Evelyn Tsitas

Yet there is something to be said for having the respite of a retreat to focus constructively during the doctorate. I spoke to another mother and doctoral student who told me the benefit of retreats during her writing up stage, as she lived in a small house with her three children and had no place to spread out her work or have quiet time alone with her thoughts. “I think that the writers retreat is different from writing at home – it is an excuse to put the rest of life on hold and spend days not just hours at the keyboard for a short length of time. Now I am back writing at the visiting scholars room at the university I am finding it easier to balance home/writing life than before I went away.”

However, I find that my writing time when my children are at their father’s house is actually no more productive than when they are with me. There is no more efficient worker than a mother with limited time to write. Have all the time in the world, and you will squander it.

This probably ties in with ‘mother guilt’ – another factor for doctoral students who are mothers. One woman told me she desperately needed to get to a retreat so she could write up huge chunks of data, and spread the research papers out everywhere and concentrate – and not have to pack it away when the kids needed to use the room or wanted dinner. She was happy if she found a shack somewhere with a wood fire stove and outside dunny (Australian slang for toilet) but that when she was offered a friend’s retreat – and discovered it had a coffee machine, inside plumbing and a fabulous, lake-side view, she was overcome with mother guilt. Suffering for your study is fine – but solitude in salubrious circumstances? Cue mother guilt!

Outside dunny: we we feel less 'mother guilt' if we rough it at a retreat?Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014
Outside dunny: we feel less ‘mother guilt’ if we rough it at a retreat?Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014

I wondered if there was something wrong with me for not yearning for a writing retreat, until I interviewed successful author Graeme Simsion recently. His internationally best selling book The Rosie Project – currently being made into a Hollywood movie starring Jennifer Lawrence – was written without time at a retreat. His advice – if you need to go away on a retreat to write, that’s not sustainable. You have to be able to write anywhere, anytime.

That’s good advice but what if you are not writing for a living? Then maybe some quality time away with your research is what you need. Then again, if your domestic arrangements won’t stretch to accommodating your absence – as mine did not at the time – then all is not lost.

I particularly liked the advice from Nancy Whichard PhD, PCC, a dissertation and academic career coach. She wrote that when she needed to make a space for writing—a cottage, if you will—inside her house, she put a sign on her home office door that read “Mom’s in Maine.” Nancy, who has successfully coached to completion doctoral candidates from all over the world, acknowledges that it is really difficult for mothers to find quiet time to write. Where do you find quiet time and space? Yes, you need a room of your own, and firm rules about being distracted, but that’s not always possible with space issues, and parenting demands.

I grew up with a mother who was always engaged in academic study, so learned to respect her tiny work space and her time. Unlike many women I know, I refuse to let my children onto my computer or into my space, and they haven’t suffered. It is important for children, and sons in particular, to understand a woman’s thinking time is important, and to respect her work.

I think women, generally, are far less willing to be selfish with their writing time than men. In fact, one of the most common things I hear from women like myself who are divorced is the sweet luxury of having your own space and quiet time to write or think without anyone complaining you are not giving them attention.

My ultimate fantasy retreat? Having an architecturally designed writing studio in some glorious location separate from the house and domestic chores, but in the same compound, so one can wander in on life after wrangling with the muse. And here, I swooned at writer Elizabeth Bishop’s glorious writing snug built by her Brazilian lover, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, in the wonderful movie ‘Reaching for the Moon’ (Flores Raras) which I just viewed as part of the Latin American Film Festival at RMIT. A bold, creative life and love might be as much a fantasy as a writing retreat perched up in the trees, with a glorious view and hand made desk. But we can all dream.

** Bush Retreats for Eco-Writers (BREW) is an emerging network of eco-writing centres initiated by leading Australian environmental philosopher Professor Freya Mathews. The centres are located on ecologically significant private properties in various parts of Australia. Eco-writers can apply for the BREW network retreats in NSW. Click here for more information. 

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