Shifting my writing/thinking

I showed up to #thelakeshift writing retreat armed with a list of 37-odd things I could do or should do as a part of my doctoral research. I had a running list of chapters, articles, literature reviews, poems and personal essays to write, revise, rework, rethink, and eventually send off. I had ten or twenty works-in-progress calling my name. I had energy, enthusiasm and ambition, but I lacked a real plan of attack.

On the first night at the Lake Shift, our hosts Colette Steer and Marta Straznicky threw us each a Lake Shift t-shirt and welcomed us to camp. Colette peformed a comedy set, poking fun at herself, poking fun at the camp experience and encouraging us not to take ourselves or our work too seriously. From there, Marta introduced us to the “Slow Professor” movement, encouraging us to slow down, to breathe, and to be gentle on ourselves. She encouraged us not to force it, overdo it or put too much pressure on our work. Listening to them, I was motivated to shelve my running list of ‘could dos’ and ‘should dos,’ to stop jumping from one task to another, and to instead set a few meaningful goals for the week. Without overthinking it, I decided I would:

Show up. Stay present. Stay off the internet during the day. Chip away at a chapter in the morning and a journal article in the afternoon, without jumping from task to task to task.

On the first morning of work, I settled in at a table in the Main Lodge; a gorgeous lakeside dining room with bottomless coffee, birds chirping at the feeders and grad students plucking at their keyboards. I made a point to sit near a power outlet, and made a point to cover my ears when a fellow student blurted the WiFi password! Then, when the clock struck nine, I charged out of the gates! I wrote with a vengeance, writing a few quick vignettes and drawing energy from others. I was in the zone and in my glory … until 10am when I ran out of steam. An hour into the week-long writing retreat, I ran out of material, momentum and wherewithal. Shoot. I bottomed out, hit a lull, and wondered how I could hang in there for another five full days. Again, shoot.

Rather than jumping ahead to the next thing on my to do list, though, I held myself to my goals. I stayed put and stayed with the tension. I read things over, doodled, and thought about the project and my frustrations with it. I tried not to force it, and tried to be gentle on myself and on the work. Rather than switching to an easier task, I gave the project some breathing space. I gave myself space to be overwhelmed and space to struggle with what I was most wanted to say with my work.

I stayed put, stayed present, and stayed with the trouble. I took up Maggie Berg’s invitation to write as a way to think. I took time to puzzle and process, doodle and daydream. I drafted an outline and a mind-map, and I made connections between different parts of the project. Slowly but surely, I reconnected with the project and with myself. I also connected with others, chatting about our work, swimming, hiking, canoeing and eating cake. I stayed put and stayed present. I happily took the #thelakeshift, shifting my writing and shifting my thinking.

The above thought piece first appeared here (on Queen's University School of Graduate Studies 'Lakeshift' page). I was grateful to attend the writing retreat with the support of Carleton University's Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs.