Becoming a writer

Last week I took part in my first structured writing retreat, which was sponsored by my Department and facilitated by wonderful colleagues. Although I was initially unsure about some aspects of the approach – in particular having to name specific goals before each writing session and writing for set periods of time in a room with eleven other people – it ended up being a wonderful experience. The weather and setting were beautiful, and it was incredibly nice to have time dedicated to discussing the writing process, given the fact that most of my interactions with departmental colleagues tend to focus around teaching or administration.

The three days reminded me of the occasions when I have felt most like a writer – like someone who prioritizes writing, schedules a day around it, and feels regularly energized by it. While writers have very different patterns of productivity (and sleep), I seem to find the most focus when I write first thing in the morning, before checking my email. It was the unexpected discovery of this routine (after having long thought of myself as a night owl) during the last months of my PhD that gave me renewed energy and to this day makes me miss the attic room where that writing took place. Rediscovering the pleasure of this routine has been lovely, and I look forward to using it to ground me as the chaos of term time begins.

On the topic of writing, I thought I would post a few other resources that I’ve come across and plan to use in my teaching. While we didn’t speak about teaching writing at all during the retreat, thinking about the writing challenges that still exist for my colleagues and I reinforces my interest in discussing writing with students. One thing I came across is a nice post by Rachael Cayley about how to use reverse outlines to edit a piece of writing. In addition, Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings often provides me with interesting ideas to muse over, and part of David Foster Wallace’s discussions of writing struck me as potentially helpful for students:

In my experience with students—talented students of writing — the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this. In order to write effectively, you don’t pretend it’s a letter to some individual you know, but you never forget that what you’re engaged in is a communication to another human being. The bromide associated with this is that the reader cannot read your mind. The reader cannot read your mind. That would be the biggest one.

– David Foster Wallace

And to finish, another thought from David Foster Wallace that is useful for writers at any stage of their careers:

Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.