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  • Kathleen Bortolin

The writing retreat: Fusing academic productivity with a little bit of self-care

Updated: Apr 26, 2018



I can remember the first time I learned about “self care.” I was gloriously bleary-eyed, lying in a hospital room having just delivered my first-born after a marathon labour session. While baby was being monitored for jaundice, I was visited by a variety of well-intentioned medical professionals all bearing different messages scrolled across many, many pamphlets. It was dizzying and I disregarded most of them. We’ve been having babies since forever. I got this. But one pamphlet stood out. Self-care. What was this, this invitation to take care of myself? Exactly how hard was this going to be?


Turns out life with a baby is actually quite hard. And then, over the next few years, life ramped up even more for me with a PhD, two more babies, a new career in higher education and the death of not one, but two parents. For me, self-care is no longer a novelty phrase on some pamphlet. It’s a mantra. An ideology. A way of being. It has kept me centered and on top of things (at times barely) throughout the madness of life.


I’ve always considered working in higher education a privilege. The ideas and the people. Oh lordy, the people. Higher education is a giant ecosystem of creativity, ambition, and intelligence. But at the same time there is ego, power imbalances, and at times, trickery. Gasp. There can be damage. Self-care isn’t just for pregnant ladies, it has become a well-sanctioned rationale to take a break amidst a world that pushes us hard and far. Often with more expectations and less support than ever before. We have to take care of ourselves, monitoring our minds, our souls, and hearts, and taking steps to ensure that we are not drowning in it all, but breathing, staying on top, and maybe even enjoying it.


Recently, in the world of higher education, concerns about our mental health are becoming more pronounced. Or perhaps less taboo. Books like Berg and Seeber’s The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy remind us that perhaps some of us are dangerously close to the edge, and taking a step (or two or three) back is not only okay, but necessary. Not to generalize, but (okay, I’m going to generalize) we’re a slightly mad group to begin with, driven by intense curiosity or ambition or both. This drive is sustainable, for a while, heck, maybe even years, but for many of us there comes a point where we need to consider slowing down to peer over the edge of oblivion before plummeting into it.


Enter the writing retreat. At a recent conference in Victoria, I sat next to one of my favourite colleagues, Isabeau Iqbal. An educational developer from UBC, Isabeau has the biggest, most welcoming smile I’ve ever seen, a tremendous spirit, and mad street cred in the world of educational development. Somehow our conversation led us to professional development and how we use our time and funding most effectively. I mentioned how challenging it was for me to carve out time to do what I need most, to reflect and to write. Isabeau suggested the writing retreat, and just like that my mind was blown. How could I not have thought of this before? Another example of how the in-between conversations at conferences and with kindred spirits illuminate and transform, perhaps even more so than the workshops and plenaries that we tell ourselves we’re there for.


A week later it was booked. A tiny self-contained cottage on Salt Spring Island, not far from where I live but far enough to be away from distractions of both the professional and domestic nature. My goal was hard-core writing. Productivity. Four manageable blog-type posts, a good start on the academic article, and one more thingy that would sit somewhere in between a blog post and a research article. But another goal that emerged while I was there? A break. Some solitude. A chance to leave behind the politics, the odd-ball decisions, the emails, the meetings. Oh lordy, the meetings. But also a break from laundry, homework, tween drama, and my endless to-do list that literally goes back two and half years. It’s hard to write in that space. It’s hard to think. But on the deck of my cabin, I could breath. I could let go a little. I went for a cold water dip and started up the wood stove all by myself. I was alive! I read. More than 10 pages. And I wrote. And wrote. And organized and brainstormed and wrote some more. I figured some stuff out—stuff about work, and stuff about life. It was only two days, but it felt good and long. I came back to the office and my house refreshed, revived and counting down the days until the next one. For me the writing retreat has become a PD staple, and one way that can creatively and efficiently fuse professional development with self-care. Why did it take me so long to figure out this glorious union?


A note on retreats:


  • My university, and perhaps yours too, offers semi-structured writing retreats both on campus and off. These writing retreats offer time and space for writers to come together. There is something about being in a room or at resort, away from our offices and our homes, that ties us down and motivates to get ‘er done. These writing retreats sometimes offer optional collaborations with other members or writing coaches that can provide feedback or perspective on writing. The benefit to this type of retreat is that it is most likely academic in nature (if that’s your thing) and you are surrounded by other scholarly writers which could be inspiring.


  • Outside universities, writing retreats are offered at various places, structured in a variety of formats, and priced differently. Not usually “academic” in nature, these retreats are often facilitated by leaders or coaches with writing prompts, feedback and accountability measures. Others are a little looser. These retreats are usually pricey, but depending our your needs and interests might be worthwhile.


  • Finally, you can also just find a delicious little place that suits your needs, with or without a coach, and write away. This is what I did because it fit my timelines and my needs. At my retreat, I had access to a writing coach but didn’t really need to connect with her. I am interested in taking a more structured approach in the future, for the feedback and the built-in accountability. You could also start a writing group in your department or on campus, with your chosen few, and go on your own custom-designed writing retreat in the faculty lounge or library (or Greece if you have the means).

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© 2015 by Kathleen Bortolin.