Sunday 18 February 2024

Reflections from an (Academic) Writing Retreat

I wrote this piece in April 2023

That there are truths to be found in stories is inarguable. Similarly, there is always an element of interpretation in research, and every written text is a product or particular social, political, technical, economic and personal events’ (Katherine Frank, 2000: 484).  

As I begin this piece I’m in the middle of doing one of my favourite things; facilitating an academic writing retreat. We’re in an interesting location at the top end of a small Devon market town known for its alternativeness. The building was once a fish and chip shop. Now it belongs to the adjacent hotel that we ate and slept in last night. It’s an unusual space, the one we’ve working in that is, with an old shop size fryer in the corner and wooden tables with comfy enough oddly matched chairs. There’s an old, enamel sink too and an open wall cupboard containing water jugs, metal cups and a pretty bowl or two.  Everyone is busy writing, the keyboard tappings accompanied by the hum from the two big fridges in the corner. The chaps in the shop next door are clearly up to some renovation that’s causing them not a little bother. The walls are thinnish and now and then we hear a swear word or three. The windows are large and we attract quite a few curious glances from passers-by. Occasionally we are interrupted by someone who has not read the sign on the door informing shoppers that the usual Thursday am bakery sale is being held in the hotel bar this week. We’re on the second morning of our two full days, the 12 other writers and me. There is a mixture of intensive writing time and exercises including free writing, writing to prompts and editing. The focus of everyone’s work is scholarly but the group is multi-disciplinary and the methods and methodologies embrace arts-based approaches as well as more traditional social scientific ones.

As academics you think we’d all have lots of time for writing, but what with ever-growing teaching, admin and pastoral roles and tasks even grabbing an hour or two to work on something creative is often hard going. When working at the weekend my mum always used to ask ‘are you doing your work, or work, work?’ ‘Your/my’ work being working on my PhD or later an article or a book chapter and ‘work, work’ being lecture or seminar preparation. I came to higher education late, as a non-standard entrant at 28, having spent eight years training and working as a nursery nurse and two years drifting in and out of a few administrative jobs. It was a miscarriage at 16 weeks of my, to my knowledge, one and only pregnancy, one and only baby, that ended my nursery nursing career. Spending so much time with other people’s children was too painful for me whilst I waited (in vain) to get pregnant again. But it was during those two distressing years that I discovered, what was to be a lifetime love. To fill an evening, and in an attempt to find something else, other than my reproductive failures, to occupy my mind, I began an evening class in sociology and the rest, well the rest is the rest… Right from the beginning I was interested and, more often than not, captivated by the research and reflections, the concepts and theories. The political focus of the discipline, the concern with trying to make the world a better place, also drew me in. Probably not surprisingly I have spent a considerable amount of my own research and academic writing time over the last 30 plus years focusing on those who do and do not mother (parent) and the associated differences and similarities in these identities. Non/motherhood (parenthood) is a status and an experience that I, and many others, believe to often be misunderstood and misrepresented. I feel most privileged to have been able to spend so much (paid) time researching, reflecting and writing about something so important to so many.  Alongside this (and a host of other substantive interests including working and learning in higher education, travel and transport, loss and bereavement, food and other poverties, solitude, and more) I have always been interested in the process as well as the product of research, that is the relationship between what we do and what we get. So when teaching and supervising I always emphasis the essential relationship between clear and articulate methodological discussion and accountable knowledge (Letherby 2003). For me, and indeed, I argue, for all researchers, part of the process is, or should be, acknowledging the significance of my own/one’s own auto/biographical presence. The / in auto/biography indicating that when we write about the self, echoes of others are always present and when we represent the lives of others our beliefs, values and experiences are at the very least implicitly extant also.

As a nursery nurse one of my main tasks was encouraging children to learn through play, often (very) messy play. In an interesting parallel I have always thought of the research process as wonderfully messy, never tidy and hygienic as many methodological texts in the past insisted. Thus, I always encourage those I teach to ‘play with’ their data in order to get the best out of it. Because of this I find it somewhat ironic that it was two decades into my academic career before I began to think more creatively about how to present – play with - sociological ideas (including research data). Of course it’s essential (not least for credibility and promotion) to impress one’s peers in the academic world. So research reports, articles, monographs and the like are all important within the day job. But, there are different ways to tell sociological stories and just as social scientists have begun to engage more with arts-based methods with reference to the collection of data, so too have we in terms of presentation. I first began writing fiction and memoir following the death of my husband John in 2010, and even more so after my mum, Dorothy, died in 2012. At the beginning the activity was purely therapeutic, part of my early grieving process. A way of working out my thoughts and feelings. I shared some of my writings with friends and was supported and encouraged to write more. Soon I began to include such writings within my academic work, moving back and forth from the personal to the methodological and the theoretical (see Letherby 2015 for an example), and I began to reflect on how my sociologically informed story-telling might extend beyond the academy.

When I think about my motivation to write (and to research) I’m reminded of my favourite ‘Mummy, Mummy’ joke:

     ‘Mummy, mummy, there’s a man at the door with a bill.’

     ‘Don’t be silly darling, it’s a duck with a hat on.’

Basically, things are not always what they seem, and it is important to highlight this, whenever, however and wherever we can. Working creatively with sociological ideas and research findings, including auto/biographical ones, both within and outside of the academy, is, for me at least, in part an attempt to make an impact; however small. In 2017 I posted a short piece of fiction on called ‘Poppy’  Poppy | ABCtales It’s a story about poverty and homelessness and a critique of traditional views of patriotism, told from the perspective of a child. To date 14,204 people have read it on the ABCtales site; my most read piece here. I’ve also included the story in an academic publication (Letherby 2022) and in a number of presentations and lectures. The positive comments I continue to receive about ‘Poppy’ reassures me of the significance of this kind of writing.

Back to where I started; the writing retreat. I am very fortunate to have now been asked a number of times to run (on my own or with others) both creative writing for academics and activists events’ and academic writing retreats (which always include a creative exercise or two, three…). I’ve also attended a number of retreats as a participant and enjoyed them all. How wonderful to work with other people on something oneself finds so enriching and emotionally fulfilling. At all the events that I’ve facilitated at least a few people have spoken about their anxiety, about their ‘lack of creativity’, but invariably by the end of the session they are pleased, if sometimes still a little shy, about what they have written. Tham Khai Meng (2016) feels relevant here:

‘Everyone is born creative, but… it is educated out of us at school… Sure, there are classes called writing and art, but what’s really being taught is conformity.

Young children fizz with ideas. But the moment they go to school, they begin to lose the freedom to explore, take risks and experiment. 

             We spend our childhoods being taught the artificial skill of passing exams…

We spend our days in meetings and talk about “thinking outside the box”. But rarely do we step outside it.’

My dad, Ron, was a writer of stories, both fiction and memoir. A blue-collar worker (industrial diamond polisher, hotel porter, toilet-roll factory worker, bank-messenger, fish-fryer) all his life, he wrote, and had published several short stories in the 1960s and early 1970s. Re-reading them now I can pick out the connections to our own family life and see the blurring of fact and fiction in his writings. As a younger adult I enjoyed my dad’s stories and admired this way of working. Until relatively recently though I believed it was not something that I could do. Now I know different, for we can all do it, if we wish to. We are all, can all be, creative if given the time and the space and support and encouragement. What we produce may not meet the approval, satisfy the taste of all, but whether we write (paint, sculpt, sing, act…) for ourselves or for others, it is all, I believe, of great value and significance, emotionally, socially, politically.

During my nursery nurse training I remember one session where we were being given instruction on how to encourage creativity in children.

 ‘When talking to a child about a painting or a drawing’, the tutor said, ‘don’t ask “what is it?”, rather say “tell me about it”.’

I’ve never forgotten this advice and with respect to my own, and others, attempts at telling stories in different ways ‘tell me about it’, feels an ideal starter to opening up discussion and encouraging more creative possibilities.



Frank K. (2000) ‘”The Management of Hunger”: Using Fiction in Writing Anthropology’ Qualitative Inquiry 6(4)

Letherby, G. (2003) Feminist Research in Theory and Practice Buckingham: Open University

Letherby, G. (2015) ‘Bathwater, Babies and Other Losses: A Personal and Academic Story’ MortalityPromoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 20:2

Letherby, G. (2022) ‘Thirty Years and Counting: An-other auto/biographical story; Auto/Biography Review Thirty Years and Counting | Auto/Biography Review ( is external)

Meng, T. K. ‘Everyone is born creative, but it is educated out of us at school’  Everyone is born creative, but it is educated out of us at school | (link is external)Tham(link is external) Khai(link is external) Meng | The Guardian

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