Why Virtual Writing Retreats Make You Happier and More Productive

Writing in groups battles loneliness, even on Zoom

Janz Is Writing
Nov 5, 2020 · 5 min read
Photo: Nicole Janz

During the early weeks of Covid-19 lockdown, I stopped writing. I was squashed on my table that was too narrow to lay out my notes, in a home office that was too small to think big. The minutes ticked by. I found myself staring at the blank page, paralysed for lack of words. Instead of writing, I checked emails and social media.

Until I found virtual writing groups.

For example, the London Writers’ Salon invites writers three times a day to write alone, but together. Once logged into their Writer’s Hour Zoom meeting, everyone shares their goals in the chat, mutes their microphone, and writes for exactly 50 minutes. I’ve been joining their early morning slot for months now — together with hundreds of other writers.

Slowly, I started writing again. And not just that, I started to enjoy writing.

But why does that work so well?

What does the research say?

“Writing together creates a sense of community” ― Rowena Murray

Education Professor Rowena Murray researches the phenomenon of writing together. She has interviewed countless academics about their experiences in writing retreats for her book Writing in Social Spaces. “Writing together creates a sense of community”, explains Murray. “A writing retreat is not a comfort blanket, but everyone fights the same fight of getting their words out,” she adds.

Participants build relationships with each other and feel connected. “There’s often a relief that you’re not alone,” says Murray.

This is even more important during isolated times of global lockdowns.

Helen Sword, Professor of Humanities at the University of Auckland, confirms that in her book Air & Light & Time & Space: “when we write among others, we create a community.” Her research shows that writing retreats combine productivity and pleasure, and writers often develop informal alliances to support each other.

More recently, research by Dr Nancy Stevenson in the Journal of Further and Higher Education shows that writing together has a direct and positive impact on confidence and wellbeing. Especially the informal interactions in writing retreats — chats, lunches, walks during breaks — boost writers’ happiness.

All this research refers to in-person retreats as the default mode before covid-19 lockdown.

Now, we might see similar effects online.

Can you feel ‘belonging’ in the virtual space?

“Why don’t we forget the world outside, shut up the noise, and be together for an hour.” ― Parul Bavishi

In a virtual writing group on Zoom, we cannot chat privately over a hot coffee during the break. We cannot take a lunch walk in between writing sessions to share our thoughts. Everything is virtual.

I wanted to understand the phenomenon and talked to Matt Trinetti and Parul Bavishi who run the Writer’s Hour on Zoom. They started their virtual writing group in March 2020 to battle loneliness during the pandemic. “All I could think was that we need something stable in our lives. So why don’t we just write together”, remembers Bavishi, “Why don’t we forget the world outside, shut up the noise, and be together for an hour.”

Writers’ Hour started with ten people — now over 100 writers show up at every session.

“We can absolutely feel that there’s a community, connections, and collaborations”, adds Trinetti, “You see the same people over six months and you become familiar with them.” Some have started emailing each other outside of the scheduled writing slots; others have even met in person.

Bavishi and Trinetti recently did a short survey among their participants to learn why it helps them so much, and many mentioned their mental health. “Writers Hour has given me the motivation to get up in the mornings,” writes one participant. Another notes, “It was one of the main things that kept me sane during lockdown because if it’s regularity, community, gentleness, inclusivity, it was my most favourite part of the day.” One even wrote, “It’s made me feel as if I’m worth something; those familiar faces each day are starting to feel like friends.”

Bavishi and Trinetti have felt the community as well. “We’re trying to create that space of belonging, helping people to connect”, says Trinetti.

And it’s not just the London Writer’s Salon where this works.

Writing groups around the world feel the benefits

“There’s a collective energy in the virtual setting” ― Kate Sotejeff-Wilson

Other organisers of virtual writing groups have seen similar positive effects.

Lisa Munro runs Inspired Online Writing Retreats from Mexico. “There’s something really exciting about being a part of something that’s bigger than you are. We are all really hungry right now for a sense of community,” she says. By now, she knows her participants’ cats’ names and everyone’s favourite snack. “People just feel better about themselves when they write in a group,” she adds.

Kate Sotejeff-Wilson, who runs virtual writing retreats from Finland, says that she keeps her groups deliberately small to encourage them to chat and connect. “There’s a collective energy in the virtual setting, a common sense of purpose,” she says.

Jess Kelley, who runs virtual “Write with me” sessions from Scotland, has found that she enjoys the breaks the most. Her participants stay on the computer when the writing sessions end. “The conversations can be a bit like therapy”, she says. “Sometimes one of us has a break-through, and everyone leaves the online writing meeting elated that day,” Kelley remembers. “We get invested and involved in each other’s writing projects and situations. Challenges and successes are felt by the whole group, even through the computer screen.”

Now we just need more research to support these anecdotes.

Where education research goes next

Education professor Rowena Murray is certain that these examples have opened up a whole new research field to analyse social processes in the virtual world, and especially how virtual retreats help writers to overcome loneliness. “We’re still in the early stages of understanding online writing,” she says. “but I suspect there are strong effects on wellbeing.”

Murray has now organised a group of writing group organisers, many of whom are researchers , to explore what we’ve learned during Covid-19 and beyond with a book proposal.

For me, writing online helped me to find a place where I belong, even if only for 50 minutes at a time. It feels good not to be the only one who needs a herd of people to retreat into myself, focus, and write.

Instead of dreading to open my laptop, I can’t wait to log into Zoom and see friendly faces.

I’m part of the quiet collective.

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