Writing in company at home

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a writing retreat at home with former colleagues and current co-authors Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks.

We are finalising a journal article on time pressures for PhD candidates and early career academics. The retreat immersed us in writing away from the interruptions of the office. Planning and writing was interspersed with conversation, food and laughter. (This off the shelf vegan cheesecake was a hit).

Much as I would love a lengthy writing retreat in an exotic locale—I dream of attending one of Helen Sword’s—writing from home appeals to the frugal hedonist in me.

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Collaborative writing was not the norm in my first discipline (Cultural Studies) but is common in Education. Indeed, many of my colleagues in Higher Education have few publications as a single author. The change of discipline and shift to co-authoring has proved fruitful for my research output.

My academic positions to date have been teaching and learning or administration focussed, so research has typically constituted 20% of my workload. Until this year, I was part-time (three days a week from 2010-2017 and four days a week in 2018). Twenty percent of a part-time job does not allow a lot of time for research!

I recently updated my count of co-authors. Since graduating from my PhD in 2010, I have published 25 book chapters, journal articles and conference papers. I was sole author on just 6 of these, and have written with a grand total of 28 different people (often more than once). I am not including chapters and articles currently in press (one of which has seven authors!)

The benefits of writing in company go far beyond increased publication outputs.

I have learned a lot from co-authors—working with theory, research methodologies, the craft of writing and academic publication processes. Colleagues and I have written about the friendship and intimacy that develops through writing together. Above all, collaborative writing has been a lot of fun!

The experience is captured in Laurel Johnson, Sonia Roitman, Ann Morgan and Jason MacLeod’s (2017) article ‘Challenging the productivity mantra: academic writing with spirit in place’. The location of their writing group in members’ homes in a particular suburb of Brisbane is noteworthy:

Most members live in the area. They have chosen to live in this community due to its affordability but also its diversity and difference compared to the balance of the city. The suburb provides cultural safety for some members. The suburb is not the usual residential address for the city’s academics. The site is stigmatised and it is distant from the city’s universities. The choice to reside and meet here illustrates a point of difference for the writing group membership compared to other academic writing groups …

The move away from the place of work to home for meetings changed the quality and function of the group. The writing group members began to share more of themselves and their lives. The group membership expanded to include local residents (such as creative writers and community and ethnic leaders). The membership diversified … As well as challenging typical academic writing styles, group members came to know each other as friendships formed, bonded around place, interests, identity and shared concerns and values.

The emphasis on place and home has added a spiritual dimension:

The value of a diverse and mixed academic and non-academic membership, a shared commitment to social justice, the relational and democratic processes of the group and the importance of place (off campus in a socially disadvantaged suburb in the city) work together to engender a humanistic spirituality in the group. The value … to its members transcends the expected material benefits of increased writing production, a regular writing habit and consistent writing review. The non-material benefits of a shared community of practice, the renewal of ideas and affirmation of shared humanistic values, connection and empathy with others and permission to flourish as writers and people, bring spirit to the group.

I can only aspire to writing with spirit in place. But Lilia, Vanessa and I have made a start—reading Derrida, eating soup, looking at trees out the window and writing together.

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135 words

An alarming flu season is underway here and, like many, I have been sick, looking after others and trying to keep up with work. A colleague and I are writing an abstract, and I have promised 100-150 words by the end of today. This seems achievable, so I am blogging the same number.

I have recommended this article to several colleagues and PhD candidates this week: Ways of constructing research questions: gap-spotting or problematization?

In brief, Sandberg and Alvesson (2010) argue that identifying a gap in the literature dominates, but is lazy scholarship. Gap-spotting is relatively easy, we’re taught to do it and it lacks criticality. Alternatively, ‘problematization’ challenges assumptions and enables the development of new and creative theories.

Once seen, gap-spotting can’t be unseen, including in your own, already published, writing. Consider yourself warned.

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This week

In a week with little time to write, a list is appealing. This structure is inspired by the weekly slow living email from Brooke McAlary at Slow Your Home. She ends each newsletter with a list of what she has been thinking about, doing, experiencing and enjoying over the past week. I am also inspired by Kate W from Books are my favourite and my best who posts regular ‘Bookish and not so bookish thoughts’ lists. I love the glimpse into quotidian lives offered by these bloggers.

This week I am:

Pondering feedback on a draft paper from my new writing group. The paper, co-authored with Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks, explores doctoral candidates and early career academics experiences of temporal anxiety in academic work and identity development. Having five people read your work in its early stages is invaluable.

Wearing layers. I have a newfound appreciation for scarves (including the treasure below, a gift Louise Kaktiņš picked up during her PhD travels). There’s something about ageing that increases sensitivity to a cold neck. The weather is cooling down in Sydney, with mornings as low as 10°. Don’t laugh, those of you in colder climes; we keep cold houses and offices here. The days are still sunny and in the mid 20s, so layers are crucial.

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Listening to the podcast By the Book on the recommendation of a colleague. I don’t read self-help books but listening to these two American women living by their rules is funny and insightful. An episode on the silly sounding Past Lives, Future Healing had reflections on the privilege of being conceived in a loving way. And Bored and Brilliant has an exercise on watching water boil.

Sitting in meetings, and wondering what a love letter to university committees might look like. I thought McSweeneys might have one, but most were too real to be funny. (Note I was thinking of ‘I am the woman who does all the committee work‘ not the assessment committee erotica).

Recommending this post-war street photography exhibition at the Museum of Sydney. The images are captivating and the stories haunting.

Anticipating The Cure Disintegration 30th anniversary performance at the Opera House. Probably my favourite album of all time. The performance will be livestreamed on YouTube. I will be near the front.

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Watching Killing Eve. And Doctor Who, and loving their complex and fun performances by women.

Realising uncomfortable truths about how and when I work. I am tracking my hours using the Timing app. I want to be slower.

Cooking cakes for the school fete. I use a recipe my mum has been making since the 60s. Once you’ve mastered the basic five ingredient recipe (to get a feel for the texture and cooking time) the variations are endless. It can be enjoyed with butter or yogurt as a topping. It freezes perfectly. Here’s the original recipe:

  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup mixed dried fruit
  • ½ to 1 cup raw sugar
  • 1 cup skim milk
  • 1 cup self-raising flour

Mix first four ingredients, stirring well and allow milk to soak in for about 10 minutes. Add flour and mix well. Place in a greased or lined loaf tin and cook in moderate oven for 45 minutes.

And here is what my mum says about it:

The idea of this recipe is to use leftovers, and to this basic mixture you can add a range of items. Many different dried or fresh fruits or other ingredients can be used to add to the mix. Use your imagination and see what you have left over in the fridge or cupboard: for example, dried or fresh berries, yogurt, glace fruit, banana, light sour cream, ricotta, mascarpone, spices (e.g. cinnamon), peeled and sliced Granny Smith apples, currants, chopped dates, walnuts, chopped dried apple, caraway seed, fruit medley, lemon and orange peel, grated carrot, sultanas, cooking chocolate, nuts – any combination you can think of. You can decorate the top of the cake with crystallised ginger if you wish. You will need to judge for yourself the consistency of the mix, and if it is too dry, add more milk. If it is too wet, add more flour. If it is too sweet, use less sugar.

Playing board games with the kids. Last week, in deference to an emerging reader, was Junior Scrabble. This week might be Junior Monopoly. Coming weeks will include Bird Bingo, Trouble, Sorry, or Cathedral.

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Intending to notice in my suburb and at the university more after reading this article from The Guardian: “What’s going on here that nobody particularly wants me to notice?” Find a neglected spot, walk down a new street, eat different food, talk to strangers, read a plaque. Head in the direction that seems quietest.

Reading several books at once. To my daughter, Bren MacDibble’s dystopia for young readers How to Bee. To my son, Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk. On my Kindle late at night: Martha Wells’ The Murderbot Diaries (something about an android that hates all humans and thinks scornful thoughts while helping them appeals to me).

In the evening, I’m reading Too Much Lip. Shortlisted for the Stella Prize (for Australian women writers), this novel by Goorie writer Melissa Lucashenko has sucked me in. Here’s a sentence from the blurb: “The avalanche of bullshit in the world would drown her if she let it; the least she could do was raise her voice in anger.”

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Learning  about Aboriginal history as part of cultural safety training at my university. The 1965 freedom ride is an inspiring example of academic activism.

Remembering the last thirteen years. It’s my daughter’s birthday this week.