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For the last five years or so I've been taking myself on solitary writing retreats at the beginning of every summer. Usually, I have some kind of conceptual problem that I have to solve and that requires both direct contemplation and general rumination while I'm doing other things, but not interrupted by household obligations or interactions even with my beloved spouse. It requires being in a new environment to generate inspiration and new thoughts, especially when I’m still thinking about the previous academic year.

It turns out I've developed quite a system over these years, and I thought it might be useful for some of you to hear something about this.

The first year I had only two nights, but they were in a yurt. I’d picked a place on the way to see my daughter on the east coast and this was in upstate New York…I had a nice long drive to begin my thinking. I bought supplies at a local food co-op and didn't leave the yurt for two days, except to take long daily walks, and periodic short strolls outside.

The second one was in Traverse City, Michigan, in a bed-and-breakfast. The little cabin was heavenly, on a running creek, with a swing in the screened-in porch where I could sit and listen to the birds and the water. The only problem that year was that the wooden ceiling was filled with bees, and I'm allergic to bee stings. The owners moved me to a regular room in the main house, which was fine, but not quite as magical.

Year three: I had a very busy summer and couldn't decide if I was going at all, until I suddenly made the decision to go after all, and had to find something quick. I could fit in only two nights between other obligations, and went to Brown County in Southern Indiana. I spent most of my time driving, it seemed. The cabin--really a house--was dark and overly decorated and on a narrow lot off a scary state highway.

Last summer, I found a wonderful place outside Traverse City where I had a little cabin, one of several on a former farm. The bathroom and pole barn with fridge, microwave, and tea kettle were each 100 steps away. The bonus was the fascinating couple who owned the place and a newly built yoga/meditation shelter. I was there four nights.

This year, I debated whether to squeeze my retreat between the end of finals and the graduation ceremony, where I got to co-hood our department’s first doctoral student, or to delay until after a post-graduation conference and two weddings. I squeezed, but for six nights, outside Louisville. It worked; I figured out my problem.

This may seem indulgent, but for me--grown kids, book writer, senior academic with lots of obligations--this has become something I need to do annually.

So here's what I've learned and done:

  • I essentially set an intention. I formulate questions for myself. Often, I need to figure out the solution to a problem in something I'm writing: Okay, I've got 400 pages written but what's the real central point? Or: Which of these three projects should I focus on? What am I truly committed to?
  • I prepare as well as possible. It works best if I can read everything I want to think about in advance so my subconscious can help. This year I couldn’t, but unlike in the past, I had enough time.
  • I drive, a maximum of about four hours, and I use the drive to think. This year it took more than an hour just to get all the swirling in my thoughts to stop. I’d had a very busy end-of-semester, and had to process much of that.
  • I take certain things that really help: not only my laptop but an external monitor and keyboard. I never know what the lighting is like, so I bring a small, portable lamp.
  • I take notebooks. I write insights, problems, plans, questions, tasks, so I can look back to my insights when I’ve returned to the land of distraction.
  • When I arrive at each new location, I have to figure out the arrangement for the work space. If there’s a dining-room table, that’s ideal (though often too dark). Sometimes, I create a jury-rigged table, with the computer and monitor elevated on books. This year I propped the laptop on a cooking pot and three books, on top of a low coffee table. In a quick two-day work-cation my spouse and I once had between a family trip and a wedding, I rolled the kitchen island into a second bedroom and created a standing desk.
  • There’s also the arrangement of time: In the mornings I stay in, and then have various excursions in the afternoon. Ideally there are woods. Most years, hikes are the key memory I bring home to savor.
  • Sometimes I eat out, and if possible, I bring back leftovers, but I always prepare breakfast and lunch.
  • I visit local libraries. I began that last year and it’s become a true joy. In many towns, there’s been a burst of library renovation and some have delightful light-filled spots for concentration. I once had to give an unexpected Skype interview with a reporter and found a quiet room in a library, with strong WiFi. The librarian was enthusiastic.
  • I get my fill of solitude and thinking, and I am always ready to come back
  • When I search for accommodations, I try to remember to look for these requirements:​
    • WiFi
    • Safety (I'm not brave enough to go camp in the middle of the woods. Mostly the owners have lived alongside the rental property.)
    • Kitchen
    • Quiet
    • Woods nearby

This may seem like a lot of arranging, but it has been my summer touchstone. I carry what feels like the weight of the world, professionally and in terms of my household (my two kids are grown and my spouse is a feminist academic, but still there's a lot in my head) and in my community.

I have learned that I have to go away to be comfortable missing events. This year, I missed a colleague’s retirement celebration, a dissertation prospectus presentation in my department, a bar- and bat mitzvah of twins at our synagogue, and even an impromptu Mother's Day celebration four hours away (in the opposite direction) with my family of origin. Had I not been so far away, I would surely have attended all.

The advantage for me of retreating is that I can collect my thoughts and not worry about other people's needs. I’m in electronic range, connected to the world, but at my own pace. I return with clarity, and a plan for the summer writing.

This is probably a model that many academics would enjoy. It could be two nights, or even one. I know of some colleagues with young children who arrange writing trips with other people, sharing expenses. They meet for dinner after a good day of focusing. Though I drive several hours, for some people a retreat could be a half hour away, with just sandwiches…. Everyone has different needs. I've toyed with going to a city and trying an urban retreat, but I’m too attached to the quiet and dark.

I’m not sure where I’m going next year. I’m just sure I’m going.

Susan D Blum is a professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author or editor of 9 books, including “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College (Cornell 2019), My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Cornell 2009), Lies that Bind: Chinese Truth, Other Truths (Rowman and Littlefield 2007), and the forthcoming edited volume Ungrading: Rewarded by Learning.



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