People writing in a room

Writing retreats and containment

Photograph: Douglas Robertson Photography

It can be refreshing when someone calls a spade a spade. Paul Silvia does when he sums up in three words that ‘Writing is hard’ (How to Write a Lot. A Practical Guide to Academic Writing). He elaborates that writing about research is ‘frustrating, complicated, and un-fun’. I expect many researchers would agree with that.

Writing is hard but it has to be done, even when many other commitments and competing tasks vie for attention (as they do, for almost all academics). Writing outcomes matter more in academia than in almost any other environment, especially when another REF looms on the horizon.

I work with researchers on writing because I know just how hard it is. And every so often someone asks, with a mixture of hope and defiance in their voice, what my top piece of advice would be to someone who struggles with (academic) writing. I used to indulge in long answers, but these days I keep it short: ‘Sign up for a writing retreat’. When it comes to writing, different things work for different people but writing retreats seem to work for (almost) everyone.

There’s a fair amount of research on what makes writing retreats work: they offer a dedicated block of time with an exclusive focus on writing, without the usual distractions, in an atmosphere of collegiality and trust. These things can be in short supply in the day-to-day life of academics. And that’s why short simple formats like the ‘Just Write” sessions offered by the IAD are so valuable: writing alongside others is usually more productive than writing in isolation.

But a (longer) writing retreat has added value, and according to Rowena Murray, whose retreat model has been adopted by the IAD, some of that value lies in ‘containment’. ‘Containment’ is provided by two key aspects of Murray’s retreat model: the role of the facilitator and the structure of the retreat.

What does ‘containment’ mean in the context of writing retreats? What is contained, and how does that make a difference?

Murray couches her retreat model in ‘Containment Theory’, which was coined in the context of child psychology and psychoanalysis by Wilfred Bion (1897 – 1979), a British psychoanalyst. Bion used the term ‘containment’ to describe a key aspect of the interaction between a mother and her infant, or a psychoanalyst and their patient.

In Bion’s work, what is contained for the infant (or patient) are feelings that are experienced as frustrating, overwhelming or even intolerable. Containment occurs when the mother (or analyst) receives and understands what the child (or patient) experiences, and reflects back, or models, how something experienced as overwhelming can be managed.

We seem to have moved a long way from academic writing! Murray is careful to emphasise that retreats are not a form of therapy. But she does draw a parallel between Bion’s containment and the role of facilitative leadership at a writing retreat.

Why is that important? It comes back to Paul Silvia’s statement: Writing is hard. Writing about research involves a complex process based on complex material, and that process is poorly defined, particularly when it comes to questions like ‘Where (and when) do I start?’ (tomorrow), ‘How long will it take?’ (forever), ‘Can I actually do this?’ (no).  When academic writers talk openly about the process of writing a PhD, or writing for publication, they often mention feelings like bewilderment, overwhelm, frustration, self-doubt and inadequacy.

Part of the retreat leader’s role lies in recognising the complexity of the process that participants are involved in, and modelling how to engage with that complexity. That takes us to the second added value of the retreat: the structure that is introduced and upheld by the facilitator. That structure makes complexity manageable by breaking it down. Writing at a retreat does not happen ‘out of the blue’; instead, it emerges from interactive reflection. Each morning and afternoon at a retreat contain two writing sessions. Before each session, participants need to articulate their envisaged writing outcome for that session to a fellow writer; and after the session, they review what they have achieved, in conversation with the same person.

In other words, an amorphous process (‘writing’) is shaped into manageable units, punctuated by reflective planning and mutual engagement. This organisational containment removes some decisions (When do I start? How long do I write for?) and compels authors to makes others (What will I do? What, specifically, will be a realistic outcome?).

In short, the combination of facilitative leadership and structure allows authors to make progress on specified writing tasks (‘doing’) and move more comfortably through the emotions that accompany it (‘feeling’). Organisational (or outer) containment is complemented by the emotional (or inner) containment of affective and attitudinal responses to writing.

Interestingly, the terms ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ containment are also used in another Containment Theory, proposed in the work of American criminologist Walter Reckless (1899 – 1988), a contemporary of Bion. Reckless put containment in a sociological context, to model what potential juvenile delinquents need: both the outer containment of social control, and the inner containment of managing feelings of frustration, overwhelm or inadequacy.

Academic writers are neither infants nor delinquents! But containment theory (whether Bion’s, Reckless’ or Murray’s) acknowledges that achieving growth by moving through complex processes and strong feelings requires recognition, modelling and social support.

That’s what writing retreats offer.

And that’s why participants often leave a retreat with a spring in their step, and the glow of satisfaction that comes with time well spent.

Mimo Caenepeel
November 2018

Mimo runs Research Communication Scotland ( where she works closely with academics on honing the skills that are vital to communicating research clearly, concisely and effectively.  Mimo runs a number of writing workshops for the IAD.

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