Bodies, writing

We’ve been online and on screen too long.

We need to get off, and get out.

We know this, but we don’t do this.

We need other people to help us do it, together.

It’s three years since Covid-19 hit. I wrote about how it affected our writing then. Now, many things are back to normal. But our bodies remember.

I’m writing this on a structured writing retreat. In person, in the room with a dozen others. (Mostly women, I’ll come back to that.)

After all this time on Zoom, writing in the same room can feel strange. It’s handy to be a click away, but it’s easy to click yourself out of an online meeting. And some days, I have a physical adverse reaction to that screen of little squares of faces. We are not talking (or muted) heads, after all. We have bodies.

And ignore it or not, our bodies are writing with us.

So far, this body has had breakfast at home, tea before writing as people arrive, coffee and a Danish pastry at the first break. Soon it will stop writing and walk for fifteen minutes to a hot cooked lunch by the lake where they do weddings. Then this body will walk back again, with the same dozen or so women (only one man for one day, I’ll get to that), and write a bit more. And decide to have tea instead of yet more coffee, and eat some fruit, and then go for a longer walk and pizza and beer and bed.

And do it all again tomorrow, with a dozen women. Who haven’t cooked or thought about immediate logistics at all for two days. Because they aren’t at home, and someone else is taking care of it for them. Tomorrow too, someone else will lead yoga. All we have to do is write, and look after ourselves and our bodies to do it.

One of us is very pregnant – an immovable physical deadline. One of us has teenagers with complicated lives. Several of us have been teaching for decades and are usually running any group they’re in. We’ve already had at least one conversation about supporting older parents. And others about moving countries, visas and racism and academic funding cuts. But we’re creating space to leave all that at the door. All we have to do is write.

What we leave at the door to the writing retreat can be a reason that push more women, non-binary and other people through it. And fewer men, because, still, men are less affected by those things.

Another reason is the structure. A structured writing retreat means set start and finish times. Someone else tells you when to write, and when to stop. You aren’t as free to do things your way. You’ve told everyone else to go away – for every retreat, I put an out-of-office email on. But this structure is a load-bearing wall with a door in it keeping all that other stuff out. The stuff can huff and puff but it won’t blow our house down. We need that.

I do online writing retreats still, too. Doctoral students in particular need them and they are more accessible. Whenever someone joins us for the first time, I’m struck by how hard they find it to concentrate. We get so distracted online that some people find an hour of writing too long. Ninety minutes, even with a stretch break half-way, is impossible. Even a Pomodoro (25 min plus 5 min break) is a challenge. If 90 minutes is three Pomodoros, it’s imaginable, but it can be terrifying. At home alone, distractions are myriad, especially when the internet sucks you in. Some days when I have too many Zoom meetings it’s like I’m back in lockdown. All those little squares keeping me from getting outside in the fresh air, to breathe, to move, to think. It’s easier to get off your laptop or phone when you have other bodies right beside you.

Bodies in the same space find it easier to write. You can hear the typers tapping, see the pencils scribbling, smell the breaktime coffee wafting down the corridor. And taste the cake without which no retreat is complete. You can get into the rhythm with others. And in the breaks, there are other writers to talk to. How is it going? What are you stuck on? You might have other people in your office or house, but they quite likely want something from you, even if it is to do with what you’re writing. In your office or house, it’s easier not to go away from your screen or eat properly or move enough. On a retreat, other writers help you take proper breaks, so it’s easier to start writing again.

On a retreat, the other bodies are writing in different directions. Where I’m writing this, we have philosophers, film students, linguists and policy analysts. Bodies based in different institutions and none. Bodies that walked here because they live around the corner. Bodies that flew here – on a plane, not wings, but next time, who knows?

On a writing retreat, our bodies are different. They might not fit into a gender binary or a sexuality script or the clothes they wore a few months ago. But we can all be, gently. It is different facilitating writing retreats five minutes from home – my body knows the space – and hours away by train. I write well in both kinds of space.

But in both cases, I write well because of that load-bearing wall that’s holding everything else out and up. The structure makes it happen. And other people make it happen, too. With me are other bodies, writing.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

2 thoughts on “Bodies, writing

  1. One of these days I’ll get to one of your retreats (IRL, not yet more online stuff!). That focusing and simply being in the writing space feels so appealing.

    At the moment my body is still in high stress mode from the events of last week, but it has also had a lovely walk in the snow and sun today, made only slightly worrying by the large number of wolf prints around my village!


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