If you are exhausted at this moment, you have a lot of company. It’s been a rough few years. For academics, graduate students and faculty, the semester is over, or at least winding down and now is the time to rest and rejuvenate. And in this overly competitive individualist world we live in, it is easy to forget to take the time to plan and execute self-care, however corny that sounds. Remember that your moral worth is not measured by your productivity! We all need down time or we burn out.
And when it is time to think about your summer writing plan, be realistic. You are not going to do two years of writing in the next two months. But then again, without a plan and a writing practice, you won’t get much at all done. So plan and then execute that plan faithfully.
So how to kick off that summer writing? Change up where you write. I have been totally failing at writing a talk for a keynote address I’m doing at the 11th Annual European Feminist Research Conference in Milan later this month. Every time I sat down to do write the talk, the screen stayed blank. No inspiration, no words sprang forth from my fingertips. I was still speechless three weeks before the event.
But whether or not my writing was done, I had to pack up. I have taken Risman’s Writing Retreats to Europe this summer. Currently I am in the Netherlands teaching a two week workshop at the Vrije University in Amsterdam.I immediately move on to Genoa to do a workshop on writing at the university there, and then that feared keynote address in Milan. So without finishing the writing I promised myself would be done before my departure, off I went. And it turns out this was very lucky for me, and my writing.
I had forgotten writer’s block, or just simple inability to write because of exhaustion, could disappear with a change of scenery. About a week ago, we arrived here, a little cottage, in the small town of Hilversum in the Netherlands. It’s a place I originally found on Airbnb five years ago and now it feels like my (rented) summer home. We came twice before the pandemic interrupted us. This year we are back for the month of June. While we choose to come to the Netherlands because we have kids and grandkids here, like every other academic, my work doesn’t stop because I change my location. In fact, anything, it gets more intense because I fund our summer travels with writing workshops and speaking gigs.
The first afternoon after my mind finally cleared from jet lag, I sat down on this table in front of the cottage, overlooking the garden, and started to write. Within two hours, that talk I’d been struggling with for weeks, was done, at least the first draft. And the first draft is always the hardest draft. Just like that.
There is a lesson here: if you want to re-energize your writing, go work somewhere new and beautiful. Now, I do realize that most people, especially with caretaking responsibilities, and financial limitations, cannot pick up and fly to another country to do a solo writing retreat. But if you can do that, go for it. And one day, you might even consider coming to a post-pandemic in person Risman’s Writing Retreat. But right now, even for those of you who might be able to fly off to another country for a solo writing retreat, the planning that takes makes it unrealistic for this summer. So although I strongly support the fly across the world option, I want to provide some other, more realistic, ideas. I will lead with the more doable but still dramatic, to the most simple of options to re-charge your writing by changing where you do it.
Take a long weekend. Maybe exchange child care with another writer, and each of you get a weekend away. Or give your children’s grandparents a thrill, and ask them to come visit while you escape (believe me, as a grandparent, nothing would give me a greater thrill!). And then book yourself an Airbnb in a location where you have access to an outdoor writing surface. Go find yourself a beautiful spot in nature, within a few hours drive. Bring your own nourishment, and even a novel. Take a deep breathe when you arrive. Take time to do some yoga or meditation. Take a long walk or bike ride. Sit outside, breathe deeply again. Remind yourself why you care about what you are writing. Come back from your excursion outdoors, bring a snack and some coffee, and sit down to write. If I were a betting person, I’d bet you won’t have very much trouble putting words into your document.
What if you simply cannot find a way to get out of town? You can’t find a caretaker, or you just don’t have the rent or gas money for a weekend trip. Don’t despair, you can still mix it up. Make a list of the places you usually write. For most of us, that list is short- our desk at home. Some of us may have a favorite coffee shop too, or even, like in the before times, you might go into an office. Cross all of those places off your list for now. They may be convenient, but the routine places simply can’t give you the re-charge you need. Make sure your computer is fully charged, so you can widen your possibilities of local possible writing spaces that bring you into the natural environment. Is there a local park with a picnic table? Somewhere you can take a brisk walk before you take the computer out of the car? That might be just the writing retreat you need. Why not make a date with yourself to go there for three afternoons one long weekend? Is there a terrace restaurant overlooking a lake, or a river, that will let you stay for hours if you buy coffee and a pastry? That might work for you. The criterion is simple: a new place with some natural beauty. And go by yourself. This is for a re-charge and while I’m a big fan of writing groups, I think we all need some solitude to re-charge when the semester is over, and summer spans months lay ahead. Even if your summer is busy with teaching, or traveling, or child-care, you deserve a quiet moment of self-care. A moment to help you get back into the writing state of mind.
If you write, whether articles or books, or curriculum materials, you are a writer. And writers need time and space to jump start their creative juices. Give yourself the gift of changing your location, a solo writing retreat with nature for inspiration, to re-charge.
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Barbara J. Risman