Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 11, 2009

Writing in Good Company

Working at public university that has long coped with budget restrictions, we at UMass are more about grit than graciousness, so I’m grateful (and oozing alliteration) for the lovely tradition of the Annual Faculty Writing Retreat offered by the Office of Faculty Development. Earlier this week at nine a.m., about sixty people met at the Willits-Hallowell Center at Mount Holyoke College, where coffee was ready, bagels were offered, and we set up laptops three to a big round table.

Peter Elbow, professor emeritus, has been beginning the day he described as “all day study hall with free bathroom passes,” for I think eighteen years. He spoke briefly of one of his favorite themes of freewriting, or what he now calls “talking onto the page,” as he thinks about writing that feels good in the mouth and sounds right in the ear as a standard. He advocates beginning with uncareful, low stakes writing that replicates the energy of talking.

People from all departments brought old dissertations to look at, or drafts of new papers, or in my case, a novel in process. Whatever. I had a productive day – looking at a different view of green, enjoying the quiet company of word-adorers and word-wrestlers, with the barely audible chrr-clic of computer keys, the slightly louder sounds of spoons clicking on coffee mugs, splash of water being poured, or hands ruffling through folders.

At 12:30 we took a break for lunch – and what a treat it had been not to be distracted by thoughts of what I should make, and has the lettuce gone by, and should I check, etc? I sat with a few old friends and met some new ones, including a fiction writer (who I immediately liked as she described spending the past three hours moving things around in a paragraph) and a poet. We talked about how we’d spent the morning, and the small friendly pressure of writing in company. We agreed pressure is good, as long as it doesn’t push into the realm of scaring yourself. For instance, many thought the word “goal” sounds better than “deadline.” Peter felt talking about a piece can bring energy, while Elizabeth, who, like me, was not working on a paper but a creative project, found that talking is more apt to make the work disappear. I suppose it’s different for everybody.

Since most of us at the table teach writing in some form, we discussed how to balance that with writing. Spending time fixing other people’s sentences and paragraphs can drain energy from fixing your own. Peter Elbow said that when he asks students to write, he writes with them instead of checking up on them, as he used to do. “Cause, you know, if some want to fool around with a game or something instead, well…” Yeah. That’s their life. And ours is ours. When I was leaving at 3:30, someone told me about making a weekly date with a colleague to go to the Faculty Writing Place, a room in the library dedicated just for that. He said he usually doesn’t even know what he’ll be working on until he’s walking there, but then — it’s a big campus – once he’s made the effort to get there, he’ll pursue whatever came to him on the walk over.

Telling this to my friend Mary, she said, “Yeah, but you’re pretty disciplined about writing. So why did you need the retreat?”

Even before the day, I was inspired to force unruly words into sentences, having set a goal of what I wanted to be working on that day. Then there was coffee I didn’t make myself, and a waterfall, ducks, and flowers, though I had to walk in the rain afterward to see these. And there is a peace about sitting in the midst of creative people at computers that’s stayed with me in the days since.



  1. I can’t do it all the time; often, I need my nest, but there is a power to writing with others. Letting yourself distracted can be not only a problem for yourself, but can be “rude” to the others who are trying to focus. And good manners is one of the best motivators for staying with the writing!
    Plus, sometimes, we just need to get out of our usual chairs. 🙂 Sounds like a wonderful day.

  2. It sounds like a lovely day indeed. I am trying to stretch myself, to learn to write with others, at least on occasion because not being able to do so I miss out on a lot. I can revise with other people around but creating something new is tough.
    Still I intend to try it as soon as I can find a few locals to hook up with.

  3. I like how you set a goal for your writing day–I haven’t done that for a long time. Hmm, a summertime goal for me perhaps? 🙂
    Looks like you had a productive day in a beautiful spot with like-minded colleagues.

  4. Loved this post. Sounds like a wonderful, productive day — and THE Peter Elbow? I think I used Writing Without Teachers in a freshman comp class.

  5. Hmmm, I like your good manners as motivation. It’s true, I didn’t see anyone put their feet on the tables or tear out hair, and that may have been inspired by good manners.
    I think like going on vacation — then being thrilled to get back home — a day like this can be a good oasis.

  6. Well really I’m with you here. To do original writing, I’m better off starting at my own lawn. Or into my own space, wherever that is. I was doing revising, but that’s writing, too, yes?
    Whatever works…. have a great weekend!

  7. I think goals are good, especially if you’re not going to worry if you don’t meet them. I like mine to be very stretchy — but there.
    I thought of you looking at the water lilies!
    Good luck with that summer goal!

  8. Yes it was THE Peter Elbow! I have that book, too, all underlined and stuff, and it helped me get through blocks years ago. He has influenced so many. One of my students who’s about to start teaching high school has been really helped by his work — some of it now focusing on helping teachers teach writing without losing their minds (spending every spare hour reading and “correcting.”
    Yes, lunch with a rock star!

  9. Sounds lovely.

  10. I started the first draft of Escaping Into the Night at that retreat, so it holds a very special place for me.
    And I so admire Peter Elbow.
    Glad it was productive.

  11. That’s so cool you started the first draft of Escaping there! I’m surprised you don’t come back?!
    Yes, Peter Elbow is wonderful. And it did feel like a productive time for me and i think many. See you next week!

  12. What a wonderful day! I admire Peter Elbow’s work very much, and some years ago I had a lovely conversation with him about using dictation software. He had read that I often used it and was curious about how it affected my writing. One way, of course, is that it makes it very hard to write in public! But sometimes I like to type or scribble, and that I can do anywhere. And like you, I find that working with others can be inspiring (though like you, I also like to come home again!).

  13. That’s cool about your conversation with Peter Elbow. It is interesting to me how it really does seem to matter, to some, though not others, whether the words come via hands to pencil, hands to computer, or via the mouth. Peter said he’s been working on this last book for five years, and I hope we don’t need to wait too much longer.
    More rain, and thunder. Dogs want me to stop it. I wish I could at least press pause. xo

  14. You are a busy woman! A professor and a writer! (just read your bio). We also share a love of historical fiction, too. My second book out in 2010 is historical fiction set 4,000 years ago in the Middle East about the roots of belly dance. My agent pitched it as the YA version of THE RED TENT. She’s awesome like that!
    Hey, did you ever read the YA ANGELMONSTER about the life/loves of Mary Shelley? FAB book and so well written. You’d probably like it.

  15. Your agent is brilliant. I totally wanted the YA The Red Tent. And now I have to wait a year. I will have to reread The Red Tent I suppose now.
    I have not read Angelmonster, but will now add it to the list I made from Heidi’s blog. Apparently I’ve been missing out on a lot of Mary Shelly action. It sounds great!

  16. What a wonderful/creative way to spend the day! I see we share a love for historical fiction (my novel The Red Umbrella is coming out through Knopf in May 2010) and that we are both friends with Kimberley Little (she’s a fellow debut author), so I’ve added you to my friends list.
    I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  17. I love the title The Red Umbrella and I’ll look forward to reading it. Yes, I love historical fiction, though I think Kimberly can make my love for the Victorian era seem a little too just-yesterday.
    I look forward to your blog and am heading over where I’ll friend you! Thanks for coming here!

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