My first writing retreat (during a pandemic nonetheless!)

By Laura

Dec 2, 2020 · 5 min read
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Before November, I had never attended a writing retreat before, so I had a vague and slightly mythical idea of what a writing retreat actually was. I’ve heard grad friends mention them in passing, but no one ever elaborated on what writing retreats are or what they are like. Since I am now working on my master’s thesis (check out my tips for starting to write a thesis), I thought it was time to try one out. I was very happy when FGSR announced that they were still going to hold a fall writing retreat, even though there is currently a global pandemic! Due to COVID, the retreat was held over Zoom to remain safe. Now, I know that since it was online, my experience in a writing retreat isn’t standard. But I wanted to share my experiences in case anyone, like me, is curious about writing retreats (especially virtual ones) and wants to know more!

First, I wasn’t really sure what to expect and was a bit nervous leading up to the retreat. Was I going to be the only person who had no idea what was happening? Was everyone else going to be much farther through their thesis and I the only one just starting? Was I going to have to tell everyone about my research? What if my research isn’t as advanced as theirs? Was a writing retreat just for people finishing their thesis? Was I too far behind? I was hoping that the retreat was going to be a space where I could focus, where I could just dedicate myself to writing (and you know, the bit of research I still have left to do…).

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All of my worries and nerves went away as soon as the retreat started. Sitting at my desk in my own home, with my laptop set up in front of me and a glass of water waiting at the ready, the FGSR staff were smiley and sweet and welcomed us all to the first virtual writing retreat through FGSR. The retreat started off with a 20 minute presentation on constructing paragraphs by an advisor from the Academic Success Centre. This was an incredibly useful presentation, and the tips and tricks I learned from the presentation are things I will absolutely apply to my thesis!

The rest of the day after the presentation was dedicated to working on our thesis projects independently. We all turned off our cameras and muted our mics and worked until the last 30 minutes of the retreat. Some people left the Zoom call at that point but others, including myself, stayed. I found it really nice to have the accountability of knowing that others were on my screen working on their projects to keep me working on mine. At the end we had a 30 minute debrief where we broke into breakout rooms on Zoom and chatted about whether we found the day productive or not. It was really nice to chat with other grad students in various different stages of writing. I realized that writing retreats are for everyone in any stage of writing. There were people in my group finishing off their theses and there were people who, like me, were just starting their writing journey.

The rest of the retreat followed a very similar layout, with the presentation at the beginning of each day all pertaining to grad student life and thesis writing. Each presentation was very helpful and I thoroughly enjoyed all of them. On the final day we were led through office yoga, which I really enjoyed because I usually end up hunched over my desk like a shrimp for eighteen hours a day and forget to actually move my body….

Part of this retreat also included a personalized one hour session with an advisor from the Academic Success Centre. My session was super helpful. The advisor gave me lots of tips and advice for how to stop procrastinating, start writing, get a draft out, and more. I felt much more confident after my session, which really helped with the rest of the week’s writing. It was so helpful that I’m sure I’ll be making another appointment once I’m further along in my writing process!

[Editor’s note: Read about Alex’s experience with the Academic Success Centre for more information.]

In the end, I didn’t end up being as productive as I had hoped. Day two was especially hard for me which was a bit frustrating as I had had a wonderful day one! Overall, while I was able to work on the bit of research I had left, I didn’t get much writing done. But that was my own fault! I struggle to stay focused at home (I really miss my office on campus…) and I was hoping this retreat would help. The next steps for me is to create a dedicated space and time to work every day. Hopefully that will help me focus and not get distracted by things like my fridge and couch.

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While this event was wonderful and FGSR did everything they could to make this a successful retreat, it was still online and I think I would have benefited more from an in-person retreat. The feeling of having a physical space that is dedicated solely to writing would be really beneficial for me as I have a tendency to get distracted sitting at my desk in my apartment. Screen fatigue is also a big issue with in-person retreats and, while FGSR tried to mitigate that (like letting us keep our cameras off if we wanted to), it was still hard to deal with (check out my article on screen fatigue for advice). I definitely think I’ll try an in-person retreat once it is safe again to do so!

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