Think globally, write locally – and save the planet?

I started facilitating writing retreats partly out of flight shame. Every year, I go to meet colleagues at several conferences all over Europe, which means a lot of flying. At METM19, we felt this had to change: translators and editors need to take more environmental responsibility. In 2020, I decided to invest most of my conference energy into somewhere I could walk to, in my town.

Which led to the Writers’ House. It’s an old wooden building, with resident writers living upstairs. I have had a desk here since the new year, so welcoming my first retreatants in on 23 and 24 January already felt like inviting people into my home. We were researchers, PhD students, and translators, authors of short stories, a play, a novel, and a new website. We were first-timers and old-timers: one person was on their fourth retreat.

Luckily, the group soon seemed as at home as I was, gravitating inevitably towards the kitchen. We had a constant supply of fair trade organic tea and coffee, and our food was almost completely vegan, made by a small local enterprise. Just before this writing retreat, the sad news broke that The Local Culture Hostel and Café was closing, but some catering students stepped into the breach – thank you Oppipuoti.

Meeting locally, our writers were global. We had come down from Vaasa and up from Helsinki, but most of us lived in Jyväskylä. Group members had moved to the university from the UK, from India, and even from Eritrea with ELFA within the last two weeks. We learned a lot from each other: it was a real pleasure to facilitate such a multilingual, multitalented group.

Writers at the end of the retreat – photo by another member of the group.

We reduced our emissions by going offline. Getting away from the internet and your mobile phone makes you phenomenally productive. Writing for five and a half hours a day is about the average maximum anyone could expect. But if you work like this, do you always manage to spend all that time actually on your writing, without checking your email and social media, but still taking proper breaks to eat well, move, and clear your head? I know I do not. Which is why I – we – need retreats like this for a creativity boost. It makes space to get that global thinking done.

On the first afternoon it felt like we were already making an environmental impact. In the warmest Finnish winter in a century, it finally started snowing.

If you would like to join us next time, let me know what dates suit you. See what this group thought of the experience below.

Footprints in the snow outside the Writers’s House after day one of our retreat.

What did writers think of the retreat?

I understood something new in the writing process.

Saavutin tavoitteeni ja ylitinkin ne, en odottanut ehtiväni kirjoittaa uutta tekstiä lainkaan.

Yes, I met my goals!

Writing in a different space really helped me.

I liked the facilitator’s time keeping, strictness. Her encouragement to create a friendly atmosphere and collegiality.

I liked break time tea and chatting, walking before lunch… we need activities which make you relax before or after writing time.

Kiitos! Retriitti piristi sosiaalisuudellaan ja loi uskoa siihen, että saan kirjoitusprojektini joskus valmiiksikin. Oli myös mukava huomata, että pystyn työskentelemään sillä kurinalaisella tavalla, jota retriitissä edellytettiin. Yritän toteuttaa sitä yksinkin.

In 2 days, what did we write?

The beginning of an academic article. I had only a vague idea of the theme, but it crystallized quite soon when I got to work. I wrote about 8 pages. More than I have written in months.

Kirjoitin uudestaan romaanin alkua, jonka olin jättänyt kesken monta vuotta sitten.

A conference paper from my article-based PhD and re-organized my academic CV for the conference proposal.

Revisions based on supervisor feedback on the first complete draft of a PhD.

The conclusion chapter of a monograph.

75% of the content for a new website.

Olen hidas työskentelijä, joten kirjoitin uutta tekstiä vain muutaman sivun mutta parantelin melkein kahtakymmentä sivua.

The whole of a summer school application, an academic CV and 2-3 pages of the theoretical framework of the second article for my PhD.

Want to give it a try?

First you write a sentence

When I started editing, I really needed help with the US style guides. Brits (except Scots) don’t learn the rules of our common language like Americans do. We are much more likely to make style choices because “it just feels right” and don’t really know why. The Chicago Manual of Style offers “workouts” to test your knowledge – the New Oxford Style Manual would do nothing of the sort. While I relished reading US writers like Lynne Murphy and Benjamin Dryer, and learnt a lot from them, next I wanted something closer to home.

So I read a writer based in Britain – the land of queuing, the home of the English Bible, Orwell and Lewis Carroll.  Joe Moran’s “style guide by stealth” had rave reviews, so I wanted to see if it lived up to the hype.

It did.

First You Write a Sentence does not take long to read, but it will burrow its way into your brain. I managed to stay focused on it for significant chunks of a weekend with the in-laws. Of course I crowed with delight when I agreed with what Moran was saying. One of my mantras is “who is doing what to whom?” and he is also a fan of Billig’s Learn to Write Badly. But Moran makes its point more succinctly: nounification is deadening and verbs liven things up.

One thing he does extraordinarily well is talk in pictures. The images he uses to make his point stay with you. Here are a few.

First, a very British one: adjusting the thermostat. Different kinds of verb have different levels of heat. So you can change the level of heat to make things more interesting. If it’s all scorching, readers will wilt. If it’s all cool, they’ll be turned off.

Then there’s the Wizard of Oz paragraph. It opens with a topic sentence, closes with a tell-’em-what you-told-’em sentence and in between, the sentences start: because, because, because… This is not Moran’s phrase, he acknowledges George Gopen, but it was new to me. Once you’ve heard it called that, you really don’t want to be doing it all the time.

Writers are surfers, using every sinew in their bodies to balance and move. Nobody can see what they are doing, up close, but they make it look easy. It feels simple (see the US cover of this book), but is not. The UK cover of this book feels more honest about what writing is actually like.

A writer’s voice is like a bird’s jizz – that impression that lets a birdwatcher know what bird it is, even at a distance in the half-dark. The jizz is on the sentence level; one sentence can be enough to let you know who wrote it.

Carpenters true things – they make them exactly level enough for the job. And a plain style is just that, trueing things, writing about them plainly to make them look true, which makes them true.

Popular orange vegetables (povs, if you work for the Guardian) are not necessary. Sometimes it really is better to say carrots. Variation is good, but you can overdo it. Repetition can even work in your favour.

If you want to get to the point quickly, you can skip straight to the end of this book, to the twenty sentences that distil the entire argument. Yes, I did that too. (Did you do that, reading this?) But if you want to change your writing long term, go back and read the rest. Moran does give great practical tips: read some one-sentence poems to see how they join things up; press return after every full stop to see whether your sentence length varies enough; audit your own words by reading them aloud to see how they sound. All these suggestions are slipped in without being preachy, not in bullet points but in a story about how words work. There’s a lot more in the book, but it’s worth ending here as it ends:

A sentence is a gift from the writer to the reader, one that should never have to be bought – with boredom, confusion, the duty to admire the giver, or anything else.

Two-day retreat at the Writers’ House

Our first two-day retreat will be held at the Writers’ House (Kirjailijatalo) on Thursday-Friday 23-24 January, 2020. This is the view from the garden, overlooking the old buildings of the University of Jyväskylä.

The house has some residential writers living on the top floor, and a sauna in the basement which we can use on the first evening.

We will have the whole first floor to ourselves, including two connected rooms for writing, a big kitchen, an outdoor terrace, an indoor winter garden (shown below) for relaxing.

Places are limited to 12 participants, so book early to reserve your place. Or if you’re not sure, drop Kate a line to find out more.


First day retreat at the Local Culture Hostel

We had our first day retreat at The Local Culture Hostel on 15 November 2019. Thank you to everyone who came along to try this out for the first time! We were in the meeting room, but the cafe is a great place to write on your own and refuel with vegan cakes and snacks. The hostel also has very reasonable accommodation and serves breakfast early – it is the perfect place to stay for retreats at the Writers’ House, which is just down the road.