On a bright and sunny spring morning a small group gathered from around the UK for the annual SEDA writing retreat. The sun was glinting off the Woodbrooke’s creamy magnolia and the grass was fresh and green. We had come from all directions to Birmingham. Woodbrooke is a beautiful old mansion build originally by one of the Quaker industrialists. In more recent times it was a Quaker college and now provides education, space and quiet for a range of courses both Quaker and otherwise. It is on the edge of Bourneville, in beautiful, extensive grounds. We shared the space with others taking courses on counselling the bereaved, acting ethically as solicitors and a refresher course for nurses.
In a time when demands are many, pressure high and time precious our writing retreat aims, above all else to give people a few days of space to think and write. We provide some structure in that writing times are clearly demarcated, there are activities designed to prompt, prod and inspire and there are the two facilitators, Frances and myself, who are there all the time to act as critical friends. However, it is our strong belief that what people need most of all is time away from meetings and emails, time to really focus on getting some writing done.
Before running our first collaborative writing retreat for SEDA in 2014, Frances and I discussed our aspirations for the writing retreat. Both of us really wanted it to be a place for calm, quiet reflection, for serious thinking about the content and process of writing, for people to have access to peers and critical friends. And for the freedom and flexibility for each person to work as they work best – and indeed for some people to work out how they work well and what approaches are successful for them. Our first writing retreat in Swarthmoor Hall confirmed this. It was tucked away in a very peaceful part of the Lake District. My first impressions were that it was a rather grim, forbidding place but the warm welcome from the Friends, and the lovely surroundings soon reassured me. The feedback from the participants was that they appreciated the ability to write both collectively and alone, with minimal distractions and few pressures.
Since then, Frances and I have discussed our approach and agree that it is the way we want to run an event such as this. Woodbrooke is a somewhat different place, being a little larger, in the heart of a big city, and we were sharing the place with others. But our central approach remains the same although we make changes to the programme each year as we learn.
At Woodbrooke, we started the day getting to know each other a little and finding out what each person wanted to achieve. Frances and I believe that each person writes in different ways, is at different stages and so needs different things and we try to make the retreat as flexible and open to each individual’s preferences as possible. There is a common writing room where people who prefer to work quietly in the company of others can go. One of us is usually there so anyone who needs someone for advice, suggestions or to read through sections of their work can find us easily. There is another place nearby where people can talk. But there is plenty of space. Some people teamed up and worked together, others went to their rooms and worked alone. Others got inspiration from a walk around the beautiful grounds or a cup of coffee in the sun on the terrace. We suggested to people that for the writing sections of the day they turned off their emails so that they minimised any distractions. All food is provided so there is nothing to distract us from writing.
Each day begins (after a hearty breakfast) by getting together for a brief activity to get the brain going. Then people chose how they wanted to work. The day is broken up by meals which we tried to have together so that we could encourage each other and enjoy the company of other interesting people.
At Woodbrooke there is peace, tranquility, solitude and company. In our view that is a good mix for writing. This is made even nicer by the gardens, ducks on the lake, a family of nuthatches in the tree, a walk to pretty Bourneville, chocolate. Above all, though, what the writing retreat offers is the satisfaction of tackling something that has been on one’s conscience for months.
About the authors
Anna Jones is Professor in Education at the Centre for Research in Lifelong Learning at Glasgow Caledonian University. Before that she worked at King’s College London and at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include graduate attributes, disciplinary cultures in higher education, theorising academic development, academic practice, medical education and the role of higher education in society. She has extensive experience in both teaching and academic development. She has published in a range of journals including Studies in Higher Education, Teaching in Higher Education, HERDSA, IJAD, IETI, London Review of Education, Journal of Further and Higher Education as well as chapters in edited books. While she often finds writing a struggle and spends many days just sitting at her desk kicking the wall, it is something she loves doing and that she finds greatly rewarding.
Frances Deepwell is Director of Leicester Learning Institute at the University of Leicester. Formerly Chair of the Scholarship, Research and Evaluation committee of SEDA, she has a deep interest in developing knowledge about what sustains enhancements in higher education practices, and how to evaluate and disseminate its effectiveness. She has published in a range of journals, and written chapters in edited books in the field of educational development and research, most recently co-editing a SEDA Special celebrating the achievements of small grant funding. As a developing coach, she loves to motivate others in building a narrative around their practice. As a researcher, she gets great pleasure from improving academic standards in our field.