Overcoming Writer’s Block through Writing Groups

In this blog post Dr Anna Pilz, new Academic Developer & Trainer at the IAD, shares her experience and thoughts on writing retreats and how they can be really powerful for breaking a writing block.

I first experienced the benefits of writing groups during a short-term research fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh in 2018. At the time, I was months past a deadline for a commissioned chapter and with the weight of guilt around my neck.

It’s not like I wasn’t able to write at all. In fact, all my words had been flowing into out-going fellowship, grant, and job applications that I couldn’t produce fast enough to mitigate the in-coming rejections. I had become well attuned to the format of boxes and the targeted language of ‘grant speak’ or departmental research strategies, but my real writing projects stalled. Somehow, my usual appetite for diving into the analysis of my archival finds was muted and my curiosity for finding the right structure for a chapter seemed to have gone extinct. I didn’t even want to open the document. (The draft file was strategically placed in the blind spot of my desktop, in the lower left-hand corner next to the tedious ‘Life Admin’ folder’.)

When you’re on a fellowship, it’s inevitable that your peers and colleagues ask you at regular intervals how your work is coming along. During one of these conversations with my fellow fellow, Rachel Delman, I owed up to the fact that the work wasn’t coming along at all and that I was afraid of even opening my inbox because of the dreaded arrival of an email from the editor. Rachel suggested to try joining a writing group, and she swiftly set one up. All fellows were invited to join her for a morning’s writing session. I put it in my calendar. I never attended a writing group before, and I was suspicious whether this would solve my writer’s block. But I had nothing to lose.

We were a small gathering in a spacious room; there was tea and biscuits. Alongside three or four others, I picked my writing seat around a big oval table. After a quick round of introductions, Rachel asked for our writing goal for the session. Opening the messy file was my starting point, along with some words (or even sentences) about my crucial archival find. An attempt, in other words, to reconnect with the excitement for this particular writing project. As I listened to the other’s writing goals, my initial suspicion quickly turned into inspiration and admiration. There were some sharp goals in the room, and I loved listening to what people were working on and what writing challenges they faced. And then the magic happened – I just wrote!

It’s hard to pin down what exactly made it so effective; whether it’s the sound of typing, or the imaginative ‘energy’ of thoughts and ideas in the room, or the ‘pressure’ to report back on progress once the writing time came to an end. But I was hooked from that very first moment and went along to all sessions in the following weeks. Not only did my chapter grow and gain in confidence to the point of submission, but I even looked forward to the writing sessions and became invested in my fellow writers’ projects and their progress. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with writing. But the writing group taught me that writing doesn’t have to be an activity that happens in isolation. It can be social, and the writing gets all the better for it.

What I learned through the writing group is to set realistic goals; to break the at times overwhelming task of ‘writing’ into smaller, manageable tasks (such as writing 1 paragraph; revising all topic sentences of a chapter; addressing 4 comments from a peer reviewer; cutting 500 words; writing to the prompt of a research question to tease out a train of thought etc). What I also learned through listening to other writers’ goals is that I wasn’t the only one struggling with structure or voice. Writing is hard. But attending a writing group regularly reconnected me with the process rather than an output.

As my three months at IASH drew to a close, I wondered whether I’d be able to sustain the momentum without Rachel’s writing group. When I relocated from Edinburgh to Munich for a Carson Writing (!) Fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center I was keen to keep up the practice. I set up a writing group for both doctoral candidates and visiting research fellows within the first week of my arrival. Initially, the group met once a week. But as the benefits became apparent to many attendees, the demand grew and we met twice a week, and – in the end – almost daily. The RCC writing group had the additional bonus that all participants worked in the field of Environmental Humanities, so that conversations about the theoretical concepts, situated knowledges, and questions of voice and narrative continued well into lunch breaks at times.

Leading the RCC writing group made me realise the extent to which such research process-oriented activities assist in improving local research cultures through a shared learning and support network. Regardless of career stage, writing group participants engaged in inspiring conversations, reflected regularly on writing practices and challenges, nurtured a curiosity about the writing process, and – not infrequently – formed new friendships or developed mentoring relationships. And, needless to say, completed their writing projects in form of journal articles, book chapters, or PhD theses.

If you’re finding yourself in a rut with a writing project, come along to one of our online writing hours or in-person writing retreats. If you’ve already experienced the benefits of writing groups or writing retreats, why not consider setting up your own group? You can check out our ‘Guide for Writing Retreat Facilitation’ here.

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